Friday, November 02, 2012

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Post Natal


Birth

All my life I feared babies. I feared pregnancy – the loss of control over a body that grows monstrous. I feared delivery – an agony I knew would be beyond description, the tearing of an area that should never be subjected to such violence. I feared giving birth to a mini monster, to Rosemary’s baby, to a selfish, screaming creature I resented and felt no connection to.

But what happened the instant Ziev was born I could never have foreseen.

I felt him come out of me, a relief and release, painless thanks to The Blessed Epidural (the Holy Grail is a catheter overflowing with cool anaesthetic), and then he was put on my stomach with a splat, a wet and sprawling creature, a small Gollum, still attached to the inside of me. I placed my hands on his bloody skin, my blood, his skin, and as I did, the configurations of the room changed, time vacuumed right out, a moment of syrupy silent suspension, and then it sucked back in. The world ended and began again, and I knew, in the second before he was whisked away from me to be cleaned and wrapped, that everything between him and I would be ok. I knew I’d protect him forever.

Around me chaos, in the room the doctor stitched and counted cloths, stitched and stitched and counted cloths, the midwives and maternity nurses dashed about, busy in corners, and out in the hospital, more howling women in labour, more blood and more harried nurses, and outside the hospital people living and people dying, war and fighting, cars and confusion, and around the world the swirl of the pulsing chaos of the universe. And here at its centre, a tiny human, made of stars and flesh, lying still and calmly breathing.

By the time Ziev came out, forged with forceps, after 2 ½ hours of pushing, and more than 12 hours of labour, there were eleven people in the room, not counting Eran, and all of them were covered in my blood.

Labour

During the labour, while in the throes of convulsions, (and let’s not be coy about this – full-labour convulsions are an off-the-scale agony, an exorcist-level of violence against the body, your insides in mutiny, a beast bigger than any puny Ridley Scott alien is trying to exit your body any way it can – the victims in the Alien films get off lightly) I managed three coherent thoughts…

The first was this: given the choice, why would any woman in her right mind refuse painkillers during labour? There are a number of scenarios where it’s not possible to administer pain relief (poor, sorry buggers) but there are women out there who actively choose not to receive any. I usually take a pro-choice stance on most issues regarding women’s lives, but on this, I’m sorry, but I have no respect for women who martyr themselves to pain. Don’t be a hero, don’t be an idiot; have the bloody epidural! That’s what modern medicine is for!

The second thought was: this had better be a boy, because I don’t want to give birth to someone who may one day have to go through what I am currently going through.

And the third was this: I am never going to take any shit, from anyone, ever again about anything! A pretty generalised thought at the time, but on reflection, what I think my brain was trying to get at more specifically was something along these lines: that, if this is what women all over the world have to go through in order to sustain the human race, then fuck everyone who has anything negative to say against women as a sex. Seriously, I mean it. They can go to hell. And that includes other women, who can be every bit as anti-women as men can be. And somehow that same thought incorporated this too: that there is no god, or at least, no god that I want anything to do with, because if there is a god, then he is most definitely male, and more than that, he is a mother-fucking bastard.

And all the Mother Earth associations, the allusions of motherhood to goddesses and the sacred feminine, that’s bullshit too. There is nothing sacred, nothing mysterious, about having a baby, and if it is ‘earthly’ it is because it is animal, because it is primitive and brutal, it is because Nature treats women like dirt. We have been designed to do Man’s dirty work for him, because He is a coward. If I had gone through my delivery experience a few hundred years ago, I would be dead. That’s how much god loves women. Well I happen to love life, so fuck god. I worship the idols of modern medicine.

Pregnancy

The first sixteen weeks of the pregnancy were horrendous: days and nights of vomiting, perpetual nausea, nose bleeds, frequent crippling migraines that left me either bedridden, or vomiting in relentless spasms until I thought I’d bring up my internal organs. Days when four huge meals didn’t even come close to satiating the hunger, and days when the only thing I could keep down was jelly, spooned in weakly while I lay in a darkened room. To all the people who seemed to think it was helpful to remind me that ‘pregnancy is not an illness’: fuck you!

There was also a lesser-known symptom of ‘morning sickness’ that became the bane of my life, and which isn’t easy to describe. Information on the subject of the weird taste you can get in your mouth during pregnancy will usually describe it as ‘metallic’, or like the taste of pennies, which doesn’t really sound like a big deal. Let me try to do it justice: it’s like you swallowed the contents of a garage, it’s how you might imagine petrol, or car oil, or lead, or tar to taste. And in addition to its taste, its effect is to instantly acidize anything you eat, so that food – even heavy starchy foods and meat – just dissolves like rice paper the instant it hits the stomach. This, combined with the nausea and sickness, meant that I spent every day of that sixteen weeks eating and vomiting, eating and vomiting, like some kind of demented bulimic. This taste is to the tongue what tinnitus is to the ears. It turned food from a pleasure into a compulsion, a form of punishment against the body, lashing out in reaction to the way my body was punishing me. Inside me lurked the beast, The Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal, insatiably hungry, relentlessly demanding. ‘Burk. Feeeeed Meeeee,’ he’d bellow every hour of the day and night. I took no pleasure in the food I shovelled down my throat. All I wanted was to silence the beast.

If you want to know what really bad morning sickness is like, imagine the worst hangover you’ve ever had, and imagine having that every single day for sixteen weeks. Some women (again, poor buggers) suffer morning sickness throughout the duration of the pregnancy. At least mine was over – ceased almost overnight – as I hit the second trimester.

I won’t bore you with the details of the second and third trimesters, which were virus-addled, stressful, uncomfortable, unpleasant and eventually de-habilitating, but I’ll just surmise by saying your immune system faces an onslaught that it’s never before encountered, a battle you are in no shape to fight, because a vampiric foetus is devouring your reserves from the inside out. You become a virus magnet, just at a time when most medicines are off limits to you: most painkillers, antihistamines, ointments, and anti-biotics, suddenly disallowed. Even fighting the common cold becomes a minefield of illicit substances.

Then, after nine months of this shit, the delivery itself.

Post Natal

About three hours of calm followed the birth, as the three of us were left alone in the delivery suite and Ziev slept. Then we were transferred to the maternity ward, and that’s when it really began:

The immediate, heavy-handed and urgent, pressure to breastfeed, followed by the shock and dismay at finding it incredibly painful and difficult. Five days in hospital because of second (borderline third) degree tearing and failure to establish breast-feeding. The numb disbelief at the extent of the damage done to your body, a barrage of interference from medical professionals, followed by the same intrusion from the people closest to you, well-intended, kindly-meant, and deeply, unforgivably damaging.

Back at home I spent the first weeks of Ziev’s life on two types of anti-biotic, two types of anti-inflammatory, a cocktail of pain killers, as well as tablets that were meant to boost milk production. Instead of spending days at home with the baby doing as little as possible, I had a packed diary dedicated to the production and dispatch of milk: in less than a month I saw my GP three times, attended two different breast feeding support groups, attended health visitor and midwife appointments, saw an Infant Feeding Specialist, a Lactation Consultant, and attended three appointments with an osteopath. All with the aim of ‘establishing’ breast-feeding.

In a discussion about our respective deliveries, someone said to me that giving birth, regardless of whether you have a C-Section or ‘natural’ delivery, is as traumatic to the body as any operation. I agreed, but added that, unlike any regular operation, you are given no recovery time. On the contrary, you must get up and run. The exhaustion that hits you after a mere matter of days is not a tiredness that began at the birth, it is a tiredness that began nine months before. You begin parenthood with a major sleep deficit.

The Baby Bullies Part I: milk.

The period following the delivery that should be dedicated to recovering, mentally and physically, and getting to know this small human you’ve been put in charge of, is the time when you face the biggest bombardment of pressures and messages about how you should be caring for your baby. It’s very likely that you’ll be at your lowest physical ebb, and mentally at your most exposed and most exhausted, weakened, and therefore at your most susceptible: this is when they’ll get you. The various governing bodies that legislate on the lives of women know this is when to strike. Everyone means well. I had two of the loveliest, warmest midwives any woman could ask for. I hold nothing against them personally at all. Everything they told me was delivered with the sincerest kindness, but by the same token, everything they told me fucked with my head.

Under ‘normal’ conditions, back in your old life, when you would have been in your rational mind, if any messages conveyed to you seemed suspect or extreme, you’d have the capacity to dismiss them at will; to extract the useful information from the harmful, to know what’s best for you. But you are not in your right mind, you are probably the furthest you will ever be from your right mind, you are firmly, irrefutably, and terrifyingly imprisoned in your very, very wrong mind.

I like to think of myself as strong minded, but I gave way under the pressure: I didn’t just give in to it, I collapsed beneath its weight; crushed, defeated, flattened. Straight from the delivery suite you are wheeled into the maternity ward, AKA The Church of Breast, where the indoctrination begins. I was treated with a great deal of kindness by most of the staff there, but the friend I made, in the ward down the corridor was not, and even in my ward, even within the kind treatment, there was no mistaking the message, however it was delivered: if you do not breast feed you are failing your baby.

Consciously or unconsciously everyone from the midwives to the nurses to the various baby specialists that visit you during your stay fire their particular line at you, seeking out the places where you are susceptible to influence: if you have been conditioned to be competitive, conditioned to achieve, then that’s where it gets you, that’s where the impulse to succeed kicks in, and it becomes a matter of principal: how can it be that I can’t do this thing? I must be able to do it. It’s supposed to be ‘natural’. You hear it in the click of the nurses’ heels – breast feed, breast feed, breast feed – plastered over every wall are posters – BREAST IS BEST, BREAST IS BEST. The ward of mothers is regulated according to the doctrine of breast milk: if you think Alex’s obsession with milk in a Clockwork Orange is disturbing, he’s got nothing on your average maternity nurse. “How wicked, my sisters, innocent milk must always seem to me now.” ‘I breastfed mine until he was two years old,’ said the nurse who came to take my blood pressure every day. ‘It was the best thing I ever did.’

But it was no good, I couldn’t do it. Eventually I was introduced to expressing and we were already combining breast milk with formula by the time we left the hospital. I was, at the time, prepared to give up the breast feeding in favour of expressing and so began a punishing schedule of expressing as often as I possibly could, at least 6 times a day and night. As an example of some of the well-intentioned bad advice I was given, one of my midwives told me I should be expressing on each breast for as long as I would normally feed the baby, which was about 40 minutes a breast, which resulted in me sitting in my bedroom expressing for over an hour at a time. When I’d finished, Eran would take the milk and feed the baby. There were days when I hardly saw Ziev. I was a milk factory, I was a monstrous milking cow-woman locked away out of sight, unsightly because of this contraption strapped to her breasts, milking herself while it was left to other people to hold the baby.

Under pressure from someone close to me to breast-feed instead of expressing, I persisted with looking for help to re-establish breast-feeding. It was at one of the two breast-feeding support groups that I was again given poor advice, again delivered with the best of intentions. I was imbued with a sense of urgency: ‘time is of the essence’ were the words of the advisor, because I risked the baby getting too used to the bottle, ‘go home, shut yourself in the living room with the baby, put the TV on, and feed him constantly, on the slightest demand, and shut everyone else out.’ So that’s what I did, but all that happened is that each feed became more painful than the last, which led to an increase in stress, which led to a decrease in milk, which led to Ziev being inconsolable by evening and me being a wrung-out nervous wreck, distraught with disappointment. In the weeks that followed I reached an uneasy balance of alternating every feed between breast feeding, expressing and formula feeding: there were some meals where Ziev received food three-ways: an initial breast feed topped up with one bottle of breast milk, topped up again with one bottle of formula, just to stay abreast (PUN!) of his appetite. This particular schedule went on for more than two months.

Looking back on it now, all I can think is WHAT IN GOD’S NAME WAS I DOING?? Had I taken leave of my senses?? Yes, yes I had. But don’t for a minute make the mistake of thinking you’d fare any better under that kind of pressure, that you would be afforded greater clarity, or better judgement. I am not alone in this experience; not by a long shot.

The Baby Bullies Part II: sleep.

Breast feeding is not the only indoctrinating message you receive about baby care. Another is about how your baby should sleep. Unpacked, the message is this: ‘if you don’t put the baby to sleep on its back, and you allow it to sleep on its front, it will die of SIDS and it will be your fault.’ This message was so immediate and delivered with such ferocity that Ziev was never put on his stomach by me. It was done without my permission and against my instruction by someone close to me. But the moment it happened, that was it, the damage was done: Ziev never slept well on his back again.

From one side I faced the might of the medical institution and its insistence that babies must sleep on their back, and that putting them on their front is irresponsible and reckless. And from the other side, I faced the might of ‘experience’, the professional mother, whose authority over-ruled mine. At no point was I given control of either option. Once again, like with the breast-feeding, I was at the mercy of stronger, more convincing voices than mine. But unfortunately, the fact of the matter is, if you have a baby with colic or any kind of tummy trouble, which Ziev most certainly did, they are going to sleep better on their stomachs.

Do you know what’s going on? We are having woolly little bonnets pulled over our eyes. In the name of ‘information’ we are being delivered an ‘education.’ I’ll give you an example: in one doctor’s surgery I came across a children’s book that simply stated, ‘babies sleep on their back,’ claimed as a universal truth, casting tummy-sleepers into the deviant position, making no qualms about implying that any parent doing differently is doing something wrong. This isn’t informing us, this is educating us, this is programming us. There’s a difference. A perfect example of how ‘information’ is being hoodwinked by ‘education.’ A book aimed at children, educating children to police their parents. This is insidious. This is bullshit.

Meltdown

In hindsight, it looks inevitable that the fragile routine of feeding I had in place, and the stress surrounding Ziev’s sleeps would lead to collapse as soon as I was faced with performing it alone, which is exactly what happened when Eran had to return to work in Africa. The night everything came to a head was only mine and Ziev’s second on our own:

Ziev had been screaming inconsolably since 4pm, like an angel a friend had descended on me and stayed until 9pm, when Ziev was still screaming and writhing in agony, like I was killing him. I took his clothes off in the hope that it might release pressure on his gut. But he just kept on screaming. By then my arms had given way – he’s a big baby, 9lbs1 at birth – and I had to keep putting him down, which only made him scream harder. As darkness descended, I was on my own, on my knees on the floor in the bedroom, in hysterics, crying, ‘I don’t know how to help you, I don’t know how to help you,’ but the only answer was the cool silence of an endless night that stretched on forever like an abyss into which my 8-week-old was howling with agonising, heart-ripping, head-splitting screams. Without a bath, without a feed, without any clothes on, he collapsed asleep on my shoulder at around eleven. I put him in his cot, threw a blanket over him, and because he would only sleep on his tummy, wedged myself on the bed right up against his cot, in the hope that I would be able to hear him breathe through my own sleep. I woke regularly, even while he slept, so tense I could feel my teeth grinding, my jaw so locked it ached in the morning.

Post Natal Depression

After everything I’ve written, this might sound unconvincing, but I was genuinely shocked when I was diagnosed with postnatal depression. On paper it looks like a no-brainer, but at the time I could not believe it, not after surviving my own preconceived perception of the nature of postnatal depression. I loved Ziev. How could I have depression? I wanted him near me, the addictive softness of his skin, the smell of him. I wasn’t ‘depressed.’ What I was suffering was acute, crippling anxiety attacks. Anxiety was the problem, not depression. I did not realise that anxiety is all part of it, and can signify PND even in the absence of all other symptoms. The panic attacks were so severe I would stop breathing, I would stop being able to speak, I would need to hold onto something for fear of falling over a cliff edge that would materialise from out of the fabric of the world around me. But at the time I did not make the connection. I was so sure that I would know if I was suffering from depression that even after the health visitor’s prognosis, and the doctor’s diagnosis, it still came as a shock to read in the report sent to the hospital that, had I not told him my parents had agreed I could move in with them, my GP would have had me admitted to hospital then and there.

Support

I have been exceptionally well looked after: every person in the chain that was quickly set in motion has been fantastic. From the GP and midwives, to the Occupational Therapist to the Psychiatric Nurse to the health visitors themselves. I have been so lucky. It makes me fearful for the women experiencing problems who are not within the catchment of local authorities committed to these services. I couldn’t have asked for better support. It was my health visitor, in fact, who saved my sanity as I clung to its last thread with an uncannily well-timed phone-call that finally put to bed my insane expressing regime. Then there is the support of my friends. I am so privileged to have them.

In particular there was Csilla (and Leventer), who I met in the canteen of the hospital: we ate breakfast together, a basket of NHS toast and butter, the first properly ‘human’ encounter following the delivery, who’s son was born two days after Ziev, and who experienced remarkably similar problems with breast feeding. She and I texted throughout the first weeks and months of our boys’ lives and even though I was grateful for it at the time, it’s only in hindsight that I can see exactly how invaluable those texts were. They were a lifeline to me. There were times when it felt like she was the only person in the world who really knew what I was going through, who really ‘got it’, because she was going through it too, at exactly the same time.



And there was Eleanor (and Hamish) who, by some miraculous stroke of fate, happen to live next door to us and who went through a hellish ordeal with the birth of her son. As I unravelled, stage by stage, I ended up following her down a road she’d already travelled, involving the same team of professionals, like an echo of what happened to her. I took so much strength from seeing how she had coped. She’s a survivor. And the place she had reached was the place I knew I had to aim for. I can’t stress how vital that beacon of hope was to me.



I did not know either of these two women seven months ago, but giving birth seems to be one of those experiences where survivors seek out one another.

Then there was Katie, a shining star in my life who, between her and Rob, looked after Ziev when he was only 3 months old, so that Eran and I could go to the Olympics and feel like we were people again.



But there was one friend in particular who seemed to instinctively know when to text, and exactly what to say, and there were many occasions when his words alone got me through. He was quick to respond and pitch perfect and I cannot thank him enough. 



Or the old, old friends who I know are always, always there, Suzy, Saira, you all know who you are…

I wonder what people did before mobile phones because it was often the text messages that saved me; from Mark, from Csilla, from Ellie. With a newborn, your hands are tied: the pace of the baby’s schedule renders it impossible to make phone-calls or write emails, and any spare time you have is committed to getting everything else in the house done, and perhaps awarding yourself a cup of tea that isn’t cold, and only if you’re lucky. But text messages require just about the right amount of available time and energy, and provide life-saving sound-bites, tiny windows into reality and sanity.

I am aware that not everyone gets to benefit from so much support. So for what it’s worth, and at the risk of only adding to all the conflicting and conflating advice that’s out there, I am going to attempt to give my money’s worth to anyone who might need it, on the subjects of breast-feeding, colic and tummy-sleeping – with the bullshit surgically removed.

Colic

Colic exists in worried whispers, for some reason no one likes to talk about it, or in some cases, even admit to it, as if to do so would be to manifest a devil. As if it doesn’t exist until it is named. And so people go as long as possible before confessing to it. Again, there is the sense of ‘failure’ about it: oh, you got one of those babies, did you? It is the condition that shall not be named.

Perhaps it’s something in the name, the combination of the words ‘cholera’ and ‘relic’, it’s a stain that won’t shift, a body under the patio, it evokes something distasteful for its roach-like indestructibility when it should have long been buried with the Victorians, or exported to Africa – an old fashioned name for a vague, inexplicable series of afflictions: as if today’s babies are far too modern to suffer from something as backwards and archaic colic.

Well I’m going retro. I’m bringing colic back, because it’s useful. It’s an umbrella term for all manner of ills that, regardless of their root, cause parents the same grief for the time that their baby experiences it. Some babies don’t have it for very long or very often, some have it until a particular cause is identified and treated, some don’t have it at all (lucky, lucky buggers), some just have it regardless of everything.

The term is given to the state of prolonged inconsolable crying (of the baby, I should clarify!), which can occur for all number of reasons, often attributed, though not exclusively, to gastric-related problems – anything from trapped wind, to diarrhoea, to trouble breaking down lactose, to constipation, to the immaturity of the gut – but is also linked to over-stimulation and over-tiredness. For most people the hell is over by the time the baby reaches three months. That might not seem very long, but it’s a tortuous purgatory when you’re in the middle of it, and when it’s day after day, hour after hour, and when you’re having to deal with it alone.

I really wished someone had warned me about it. Everyone knows that babies cry, but babies with colic scream, howl, gasp, stop breathing, hyperventilate and writhe about in your arms. They fight you when you hold them and scream even louder if you put them down. Everyone knows that babies cry, but no one warns you how long they can keep it up; that they can scream from four in the afternoon until eleven at night, hardly abating, and that they can do this day after day, week after week. I’d quite like to know, statistically, how many mothers with babies displaying symptoms of colic get through the experience without a diagnosis of post natal depression. There is nothing you can do to prevent colic, and there is very little you can do to prepare for it, except brace yourself. We swapped to a formula that better assisted the breakdown of lactose, made sure we only dressed Ziev in loose clothing, and gave him regular tummy massages, but every baby will need its own colic management system! I would have benefited from knowing what can happen, for people not to shy from the word ‘colic’, so that at least I knew what to call it when it kicked in with shocking gusto a week into Ziev’s birth.

Incidentally, The Church of Breast doesn’t miss a beat on the topic of colic: their official line on the subject is that formula feeding causes colic. Bullshit. Breast fed babies are equally likely to experience colic. There is no confirmed link between colic and what babies drink, only the way babies drink, hence anti-colic feeding bottles. Once again, education crushes information.

Tummy Sleeping

So Ziev sleeps on his stomach and has done from his first month. Because no one tells you anything real, it took me ages to find out that this is common with colicky babies and that, if you ask around, everyone will know someone who is putting their baby to sleep on their tummies for that very reason. The way you are warned against it, you are made to feel that what you are doing is dangerous, and even when professionals don’t condemn it outright they make damn sure, probably for libel reasons, that they don’t condone it either. You only have to do a quick google search to discover how much hysteria there is online surrounding this subject.

It’s probably true that among the babies that die from cot death, most (but not all!) were asleep on their tummies at the time. But the percentage of babies dying from cot death (or SIDS) is tiny. Most of my generation were put down to sleep on their tummies: that was the ‘education’ at the time.

The guilt of favouring his sleep and ours over his assured safety ate away at me and became, like the breast-feeding, an obsession. I would lie awake at night listening to his breathing while he slept, I watched him sleep when I could. In public I made excuses for it all the time, before people could voice their disapproval or judgement. Six months on, Ziev is still sleeping on his front. He likes his sleep. He needs his sleep, and so do I. No one else will tell you this, but I will tell you: if your baby sleeps on its tummy, it will be alright. 

Breast Feeding:

By all means, give it a go. If you can do it, and enjoy it, fantastic, keep going. Breast-feeding is the right thing for you.

But if it’s not going well, or you don’t enjoy it, don’t be too quick to turn to expressing and don’t be afraid of formula. I warn you, expressing is awful. You become a cyborg of the most disempowered kind, a slave to a machine, which is even worse than being a slave to your baby’s appetite. It doesn’t make sense to put yourself through this ritualised, humiliating ordeal when you consider that there’s nothing wrong with formula, millions of babies do just fine on it, tons of research has gone into making it match breast milk for nutrients and sustenance. The negative attitude to formula feeding is disproportionate to the infinitesimal differences attributed to feeding this way compared with at the breast.

Much is made of the bond created when a baby suckles at the breast and in the spirit of brutal honesty, I won’t lie and say that this is also bullshit. There truly is something peculiarly, almost transcendentally, unique to the practice of breast feeding. I hated it during the day – it was messy, inconvenient, unwieldy, restrictive and hard work – but I loved the feeds I did at night, when both Ziev and I were calmer, out of any kind of public gaze, and quietly skin to skin in the privacy and enclosure of the bed and the quiet of the night. But you know what you can do, mothers who find they can’t breast feed at all? You can give your baby a bottle of formula so that s/he is fed, and then put your baby’s mouth to your breast to suckle, even if only for a few minutes. That’s right, you can cheat! Screw the worthy devotees of the Church of Breast and their sanctimonious Mother Earth smugness. You will be told that babies lose interest in breast feeding if they are given a bottle, because breast feeding is harder work for them. But if you are bottle feeding anyway, then that doesn’t matter because if you put something in a baby’s mouth, I can assure you, they will suck it, regardless of whether anything is coming out. If you have relieved yourself of the pressure of having to feed your child through your breast, thus alleviating the stress in the situation, then it’s unlikely it will be as painful, and then you can experience the same skin-to-skin nipple-to-mouth intimacy that a breast feeding mother experiences. And if it does start to hurt, you can stop without any fear that the baby hasn’t had enough milk. WIN!

However, I don’t want to become yet another person telling women, don’t do this and don’t do that, undermining their every decision. So if you are intent on persevering with the expressing (as I myself was… because I was lost in the throes of a particular kind of insanity), here’s another important thing to keep in mind: there is an unspoken idea that the baby should be on either breast milk or formula, that breast feeding needs to be fully ‘established’, as they call it: that the aim is to be doing it exclusively. This, again, surprise surprise, is bullshit. There is nothing wrong with feeding your baby both breast milk and formula. All it means is that you won’t be able to maintain the breast feeding part of the baby’s diet for as long as an exclusively breast-feeding mother, because the milk will dry up sooner. That’s all. That’s it. That’s the sum total of the objection to combined feeding. And you know what else? You’d be surprised just how long your milk supply can hold on. By Ziev’s third month we had a fragile but manageable routine going, whereby I had finally abandoned the expressing entirely and was simply doing alternate feeds of one breast feed followed by one formula feed. My milk supply kept going at this rate with no difficulty and the break between each breast feed meant I never suffered too much pain and never had to go through either the awfulness of mastitis or breast-thrush.

In fact, I think I could probably still be keeping to this schedule to this day if it wasn’t for a pivotal feed I did as Ziev was approaching the end of his third month. Out of the blue he began acting up again and not latching properly and something finally snapped. I thought, enough of this infernal misery: enough of not drinking coffee or alcohol, enough of not eating certain cheeses and limiting dairy (due to the colic) and avoiding seafood. In fact, enough of having a shit life. Within a week I was down to one single feed, which I did at night, and loved, and just to prove how enduring the milk supply can be, I was able to keep this one feed going every night for an entire month.

In the end, by hook or by crook, Ziev got breast milk for 4 months. So was it worth all of that? Well, I suppose so, if my aim was to get as much breast milk into him as possible. So yes, I did that much. Bravo. Go me! But in so doing I also succeeded in pushing myself to an extreme of abject misery, to having no life at all, to subjugating myself entirely to what I perceived to be my baby’s needs, and the expectations of what I should be delivering as a mother. So yes, bravo, go me! What Ziev gained in breast milk, I lost in sanity and sense. He milked me dry until I was an emptied dried-up husk of my former self.

Those are four of the shittiest months of my entire life. But I believe it could have made a big difference if someone had told me that I could aim to combination feed instead of aiming to exclusively breast-feed. If I’d known that it didn’t really matter, I don’t think I would have got myself into such a state. Combination feeding is perfectly acceptable and millions of women do it. In many ways, it is the best of both worlds. The professionals won’t tell you this, but thousands do it, because you only have to look at the way baby bottles are marketed – with teets that ‘won’t interfere with breast-feeding’ – to see that combining the two things is common practice.

Loss

I could not have written all this before now, I was in too deep, and besides, there wasn’t the time! Six months on I am still dealing with it, still on the anti-depressants, still haunted by the night when my life all but disintegrated before my eyes, but I have a clear enough head now to describe postnatal depression as I have experienced it. I don’t make claims to represent any woman’s views but my own. I know that it isn’t this shit for everyone.

When you become pregnant you know your life will never be the same again, you know you will have to make major compromises, you know the baby will demand all of your time, you know because you are told endlessly. But all this is words; words that have little meaning until it happens, because the way in which it will happen will confound you no matter how well prepared you think you are.

With me it wasn’t the big things that got me so much (apart from the inevitable lack of sleep, which is a killer) as the small things, the things you never even noticed you did, those are the things that are ripped away from you: the moments in the day when you switched off to daydream. GONE. The five minutes you took to drink a cup of tea in the morning-quiet before starting the day. GONE. The warm, melting sensation of drifting off at night into a sleep that spreads out in front of you like a sea. GONE. The occasional long phone conversations with a friend you don’t see often. GONE. The emails you wrote, the youtubes you watched, the vegging out on the sofa, the gym sessions, or pilates, or swimming, or whatever you did; the baking, the days when you finally sorted out your receipts, or tidied kitchen drawers, or stared blankly out of the window. GONE, GONE, GONE, GONE.

And that’s not all that’s gone. Gone is the independent life you led, the clothes you wore, gone is the way you walked, the way you held yourself, the things you thought about, gone is the feeling of possibility and freedom when you walked down the street on a dark autumnal day, gone is the “shall we grab a coffee?”, “shall we meet up for a drink,” “do you want to see a film?” “lets get tickets for that gig.” Gone is the body you’d learnt to identify with your sense of self. Gone is the self, and in its place is a stranger, a stranger who is the wrong shape and the wrong size, who cannot move the way she used to move, who cannot think about anything other than the baby, who cannot wear the clothes you loved and wouldn’t want to anyway because it would be like wearing the clothes of a dead person.

At the baby’s birth the mother is re-born, and the manifestation at that re-birth is different for everyone. Perhaps there are some who’ll claim they rose like a phoenix from the ashes. But for me, I was the bride of Frankenstein: stitched and patched up, oozing, leaking, gacky to touch. Even today, six months later, I still ache where the stitches were after walking a long distance, and my body still feels as if someone shoved a grenade inside my vagina, and then detonated it in my gut.

I had a privileged twenties: a twenties I lived out in a small athletic body, solid, defined. I had muscles. What I inhabit now feels like a collection of left-over parts, a dogs dinner, what was remaining in the lost property box after everyone had picked out the best limbs and the best organs: for anyone who’s read or seen ‘Never Let Me Go’, I feel like a donor after their third donation: I am always exhausted, my skin is always terrible, my hair is always lank, every step I take is heavy, every breath laboured. I mourn the loss of the youth who died on that delivery table. She lived a life she loved. Even if in time I can tighten the creaky screws of this body I’ve been dumped in, I know I’ll never see her again, or ever live the charmed life she led. She was the sacrifice I made, and the immense discomfort of pregnancy and the agony of delivery is the price I paid for my beautiful son. I don’t begrudge him that, because he is worth it, but it’s a price that I alone have had to pay – not my partner, the father of our baby – just me, and me alone, and I resent that, and it will take me a while to come to terms with this injustice.

Postnatal depression is sometimes described as a period of mourning, for the body, self, life and relationships that have been irrevocably and irreversibly altered. Postnatal depression is coming to terms with that loss and finding a way into an identity again, reconstructing the self, reconfiguring, transforming, reinventing. Oddly enough, it is something I have always done, something I am supposed to be used to, but it has never been so brutally or forcibly thrust upon me before. Well tough shit. Had I forgotten once again that life owes us fuck all? Suck it up and get on with it, Jenny.

Ziev

So far it’s as if all of this were only about me, but of course it’s not, because there is this baby, this little boy, who I am bound to – there he is in the midst of all these words – moody, warm, wilful, spectacular, and so alive. And inside him, and all around him – an invisible swaddle – is the indescribable love I feel for him, the love he has been created with. For as much as the post natal depression is about the conditions set into motion by Ziev’s entry into existence, it is, at least from my perspective, equally to do with the world around him, the world and lifestyle I lived in until he was born.

‘Ziev’ (pronounced Zeeve) is a Hebrew name meaning ‘brightness’ or ‘aura’. Every time I think of him I see again the image imprinted on my mind at the moment of his birth: a small, bright, strong creature, sleeping and still, surrounded by a galaxy in chaos, a dark, peppered furore. The postnatal depression is just another element of the chaos, a chaos in itself, contributing to the mass of disorder that surrounds a sleeping infant, frighteningly fragile, and all-powerful.

I am angry, and anxious, resentful, bitter, and jealous, but I would not change a thing about Ziev, and I would not trade in anything or take back a single thing if it meant trading him in. I want him; he’s mine. And besides, I have gone through too much to not love him, I have gone through too much to warrant giving him anything but the best; he is so very present; there is no turning back. I’ve felt like I was fading, like Marty McFly’s siblings in that photo in Back to the Future, and I have to remember that I am also present. I know what I have to do. I have to come to terms with what I have lost, with what we have done, and I have to reinvent my self again; that’s all. Some women have to deal with a lot worse than that.


There is far too much secrecy, far too much evasiveness, about what it really entails to have a baby. Not that I blame women who are vague, or allusive, I do understand: there is a need to cling to any remaining strands of the dignity afforded by coyness, having been through an experience that strips you of all privacy.

But by the time I was through with the pregnancy, birth and immediate post natal period, I’d lost count of the number of people who’d poked about my bits. There were times in hospital where it seemed like every passing member of staff wanted a gander. I don’t even know who half of them were or what half of them did. I was in such a daze, so spaced out, and so quickly conditioned to the position of surrender you adopt in hospital, by the time I was discharged, I’d have probably shown the postman my wounds if he’d asked. So sod dignity, I have so little of it left anyway, and sod coyness; it only serves to shroud in mystery what really goes on during pregnancy and birth. So here’s what happened to me laid out on the delivery table for all to see. Fuck it; I’ll take one for the team. 




Saturday, March 24, 2012

Teddy Bears for Africa

(Or: An Antidote to Sports Relief)
(Or: all the opinions I’m ever likely to express about Africa, all in one blog post.)
(Or: Africa, Aid, Gap Years & Kony 2012)

Why I don’t like writing about Africa:

Despite having lived and worked in Africa on and off throughout the past 8 years, I have rarely written or blogged about it. Or if I have, I’ve kept the writing largely observational. Even the book we wrote about the region of Angola we lived in avoided, where possible, strong politicised opinions (PLUG!). This was mainly due, I think, to discovering that when it came to Africa, no matter how much you have studied, or think you know, you quickly learn that, in fact, you know next to nothing. The most dangerous Westerners in Africa are the ones who think they understand the place.

The danger of this position, I realise, is the risk of adopting a kind of voluntary paralysis on any issue; a refusal to act in the face of apparently obvious injustice or wrongdoing. The way we dealt with this in Angola, and more recently in Uganda, was to assess every single situation in isolation, to adopt no ‘standard codes of practice’ (essentially the opposite to how we love to do things in the West – we love our standard codes of practice over here!) and to respond to every situation from as blank a canvas as possible. This enabled us to respond to local issues and conflicts and avoid being paralysed by them. It was not for us to tackle wider national, or cultural issues. I was very happy to leave those to the Angolans. And Angola is rather unique in having been (at least in relation to some of its neighbours) largely left alone to construct and organise itself, at least in recent years, at least since the end of its thirty-year civil war. There is very little European influence evident in the governance of Angola.

Not so Uganda.


Aid and Uganda:

Britain, Europe and America are obsessed with Uganda. Uganda is crawling in muzungus: NGOs, missionaries (often the same thing), backpackers, Gap Year kids, student researchers and tourists. Every main street in Kampala teems with the HQs of every imaginable charity: Norwegian, American, Canadian, French HQs for every possible charitable enterprise you can think of: you name it, Uganda’s got it: dance charities, animal charities, sanitation charities, water charities, music charities, art charities. I even came across a teddy bear charity



A well-meaning American charity dedicated to making teddy bears for children with no toys (and when they say ‘no toys’, they mean no plastic/commercially packaged toys like Western kids are used to – they don’t seem to count the intricate games and gadgets African kids make for themselves out of rubbish. But ANYWAY).

Taken in Angola in 2007 by Eran Gal-Or: 
kids making a tea party out of recycled packaging from the nearby milk factory

Taken in Angola in 2004 by Harel Menasse: 
kids playing with cars made out of recycled cans and other bits and pieces.

I’ll not pretend I understand entirely why this is; why Uganda. But I can make a few educated guesses: Uganda is a ‘soft’ country, compared with Congo, compared with Nigeria, compared with Burundi. General crime is less violent, there is reasonable infrastructure and access to (comparatively) good roads, internet, and medical facilities (a special concern for any Western inhabitants), and its government is malleable in Western hands. Its government is also very amenable to Western financial interference. Other ‘harder’ African countries, like Nigeria, have all the same problems Uganda has (if not more) but is a lot less friendly. (Well if they won’t smile nicely and say thank you when we try to give them our teddy bears, we’ll just send them to Uganda instead then. See how they like that!)

Charity is big business in Africa. Africa’s many perceived ‘problems’ provide employment opportunities for thousands of Westerners. In fact, it’s not only the Western workers who benefit career-wise from Africa’s apparent need for charity, plenty of Africans do too. As Western charities and NGOs have become much better at facilitating local skills and training local people to run their projects at grassroots level (rest assured, the people higher up, operating these ventures from the comfort of their offices and HQs, will be white), so nationals have also come to depend upon the employment provided by these Western institutions. Co-dependency is very quickly established. Projects that target malaria, HIV and sanitation can easily be very long-term, almost permanent features of the African employment landscape, providing full careers for Westerners and nationals alike. Food Aid is probably the best example of this: Food Aid has been dishing out grain to regions of Northern Uganda for something like 40 years. By doing this, they have secured themselves a permanent posting in the region. Their ‘aid’ has created a dependency so severe that the people who ‘benefit’ from it would starve if they stopped their operations, not because the region is still so seriously affected by drought, but because the people living there have lost their farming skills. The current generation of Northern Ugandans has not been taught which crops to grow or how to till the land. Food Aid has utterly disempowered them, robbing them of their tribal and ancestral knowledge and skills. They live now entirely on hand-outs: we are not the only society with a 'benefits class'!

But projects that target specific, smaller scale, transitory issues, are faced with a problem: eventually the issue they are targeting could well be solved! Some examples of this might include land-mine clearance, protection or re-establishment of certain endangered animal species into once native environments, and… the rescue and rehabilitation of child-soldiers. Western charities come to tackle these specific problems and, every now and again, they actually succeed! But what are they going to do then? Pack up and go home? For many, their livelihoods depend on the work. Its grassroots employees might find similar positions working for other NGOs, but the organisers and founders of these charities? What are they going to do?

On the whole, what they do is mutate: adapt or die. As is documented elsewhere, the general problem of child-soldiers in Uganda is considered to have been over by about 2006. By that point, no more children were being abducted by the LRA and those who had been abducted had either been killed, or had remained permanently with the LRA factions (now operating in Congo, CAR and Sudan), or had escaped from the bush and returned to Uganda. By 2006, these Ugandan ‘children’ captured during pubescence and pre-pubescence throughout the nineties were now young adults. ‘Schools’ were no longer what they needed. As is evident in a number of video interviews posted in response to Kony 2012, Uganda’s ‘child-soldiers’ have all grown up. Child-soldier charities in Uganda have had to find other causes to address in order to survive.

This is a problem when these child-soldier charities based in Uganda are reliant on Western financial aid. For we love to donate to child-centric charities, to reach out to the haunted, hollow-eyed African children. We are much less likely to part with cash for the benefit of adults, especially when those adults are mutilated or amputees, especially when those adults are, by the nature of what happened to them, murderers. Invisible Children concentrated on footage shot before 2006 because they needed the image of the violated child in order to sell their campaign. They knew rehabilitated adults were simply not going to have the same impact. They have been criticised for doing this, but the truth is, every charity does it! 





So, Kony 2012

Here lies the roots of my conflicted feelings about the Kony 2012 campaign: Invisible Children are being accused of all sorts of misdemeanours; misdemeanours they are far from alone in committing when it comes to Western aid in Africa. It seems unfair to condemn their campaign outright when charities committing the same crimes, and worse (mentioning no names… UNICEF!), have been operating in Uganda and elsewhere in Africa with impunity and without judgement. Invisible Children are accused of a lack of transparency regarding their funding – both where it comes from and where it goes. But many, many similar organisations in Africa operate behind such a veil. Invisible Children are accused of hiding a religious agenda, but if you were to remove every charity in Uganda that is linked with either a Christian or Muslim institution, you’d be left with one beleaguered and frightened Human Rights activist desperately doing what they can to stand up for gay rights without getting themselves killed. Religious money floods Uganda from every conceivable direction, and it all comes attached to agendas and with covert conditions.

Invisible Children are accused of misinformation and deliberate manipulation of the facts. Again, when it comes to NGOs trying to ‘save’ Africa, this is not news!

How Invisible Children has found itself being attacked so ferociously and publicly in this way is through the sheer boldness of its campaign strategy. Can it be that they were naïve enough not to see this coming? I would have imagined that in very deliberately and dynamically utilizing our modern tools of brutal exposure (namely youtube and the like) to unmask and shine a blistering light on their target, Joseph Kony, they would have realised that the same tool would shine the same light right back at them. As a direct result of the stunning impact of their initial campaign strategy, they have (it would seem, inadvertently) subjected themselves to the exact same blistering exposure.

Although this is not wholly what Invisible Children would want - for me, what I would like to see happen as a result of their Kony 2012 campaign is two-fold: I would like to see Kony caught. Secondly, I would like to see IC’s critics utilise the fallout of IC’s campaign to expose and so scrutinise the wider general NGO Culture in Uganda: specifically the effect Religiously-linked organisations are having on the government’s (and so its society’s) attitude towards its homosexual population and its disinterest in dealing with female-centric problems such as FGM (which, I can assure you, is rife in Uganda).

If Invisible Children are guilty of the deceptions of which they are accused, then they must be answerable for them, but so must every other charity and NGO purporting to do ‘good work’ in Africa.

Where I stand by Invisible Children is on the central cause they intended our attention to be focussed on in the first place: the arrest of Joseph Kony. Yes, there is a multitude of other bad people we could all go after in this way. We could fanny about, arguing over who is the worst baddy of them all. Those debates can roll on for years while nothing gets done. Lets be under no illusion, Kony is definitely, definitely bad enough to warrant a manhunt. He is the human embodiment of badness, the underside of humanity, so far gone into a dark psychosis of madness and badness that he does not, cannot, think and function the way most of us do. He’d eat most of the baddies of this world for breakfast. (In fact, documentation about his life would report that he has eaten other baddies for breakfast!) While he is free in this world, he is a danger to thousands and thousands of innocent civilians. While there may indeed be others, Kony is, nevertheless, a worthy subject to pursue in the way IC has suggested.

Their revulsion of Kony is something I share. I do feel sympathy towards their cause. I know what motivated them to start this campaign: that moment in the video where the young boy, Jacob, begins to tell his story about his abduction, and the horrifying impact it has on his audience, the Invisible Children interviewers – I know that moment; I’ve experienced that moment first hand. When I returned to Uganda in 2010, the first time I’d been back since 1998, on my first day there, quite by accident, I was presented with an ex-child-soldier called Busco, who wanted to tell me his story. He is in his early twenties now, just about to finish high school (he was in the bush for 7 years, putting him at least 7 years behind in his education). I won’t relay his entire story here. In brief, he was abducted from his village by the LRA when he was 10/11 years old. On the journey through the bush with the rebels, he was forced to beat his friend to death when his friend tried to escape. He was trained as a soldier, taken to Sudan, and forced to fight with the rebels until he was 17-years-old. During a battle with Ugandan government forces, he was shot in the leg and left for dead. His LRA unit abandoned him. But he wasn’t dead, and he dragged himself through the bush for two weeks. He could not appeal to the villages he came by for help, because he was wearing the rebel uniform and so the villagers would have killed him. Eventually he was picked up by a passing UN vehicle. By then his leg was a festering mess and he was close to death. He was taken to hospital and saved at the last minute, his leg amputated and, when he had recovered physically, he was schooled in the well-known Rachele Rehabilitation School in Lira.


I know what those IC guys felt like when they heard Jacob’s story, because I felt the same way while hearing Busco’s – a lurching, nauseating horror as your brain tries to digest the indigestible. When your brain finds its centre again, the abstract sickening horror is quickly pursued by a ‘something-has-got-to-be-done-about-this’ fury and drive: ‘people-have-to-be-told,’ ‘everyone-should-know-about-this,’ ‘this-cannot-be-allowed-to-go-on.’ While I did a lot of hand wringing and hair tearing and not sleeping, Invisible Children attempted to actually do something (though they are not, of course, by any means, the first or the only people to do so, I should point out). They may not be taking the right approach, but I feel they were owed some respect for trying. During my time in Uganda, I was fortunate enough to talk with other people who have also been doing something about the situation: I visited the school in Lira, spoke with its founder, and its Ugandan counsellors in the rehabilitation centre, and realised, with considerable relief, that there were people much better qualified than me doing something.

I have good reason to despise Kony – we all should feel we have good reason to despise Kony, to hunt him down and strip him of his freedom. Whatever is done to him can never counter or repair what he has done to 2 million Ugandans and other Africans. After meeting with Busco I read a book detailing the story of thirty Ugandan schoolgirls abducted from their private school in Northern Uganda by Kony in the mid 90s. It is outlined here in brief in an archived New Yorker article. The story of these girls and the elderly nun who pursued their abductors into the bush and fought relentlessly until her death for the rescue of her pupils resonated with me for a number of reasons. It had something to do with realising that this ordeal was in full-swing in 1998, the year I was doing my Gap Year in Uganda and me and my fellow 'gapees' were prancing about the country getting drunk, going white water rafting, and all the while thinking we really knew something about the world. It resonated also because the girls who were taken were the same age as the girls I was teaching. The school from which they were abducted was not all that different to the school I was teaching in: mine was also a private girls’ secondary school. It resonated also because I realised that the older girls taken in 1996 would, by 1998, be my own age. And yet, I was entirely oblivious to all of this at the time. I had no understanding of who the LRA was or what it was doing. I was astoundingly ignorant of the country I had come to try to “give” something to. Shameful.

In fact, as it happened, I very briefly saw a number of these girls, twelve years later, attending a meeting in the hotel owned by the founder of the rehabilitation school in Lira to which they had been taken when a number of them managed to escape and returned from the bush.

I had heard some horrific stories during my time in Angola. So recently at war – a war that lasted thirty years, only ending in 2002 – a generation of Angolans had grown up surrounded by murder and violence. I’d heard stories of villages burnt, brutal assassinations, grotesque rapes, and generations of tribes and families decimated. I thought I had heard the worst that Africa had to offer. But I had not. The ordeals of these Ugandan child abductees and the extent of the depraved acts committed by Kony against them and other innocent civilians, as depicted in the book about their ordeals, were in a league I did not know existed. No horror movie I’ve seen has come close to enacting the slow, stylised tortures Kony and his henchmen exacted on his victims: acts that reveal an extraordinary imagination dedicated entirely to the exploration and creation of pain, terror and graphic mutilation of the human body. No, I don’t have any problem with Invisible Children’s particular hatred of Kony.  

While Invisible Children’s good intentions might not equate to qualifications, there is something else in their proposed strategy that I do respect. They’re not talking about setting up this charity or that charity, dealing with rehabilitation in this place, or building schools for ex-soldiers in that place. They have declared no interest in faffing around the edges of the issue: they want to cut the bullshit and get Kony. I respect their boldness. Traditionally Western charities have loved to fluff about at the edge of issues, making teddy bears, afraid to take a stand against something (or someone) that has not only been accepted as wrong by the West, but accepted as wrong by Africa too. And as I have already speculated, the West make business out of faffing around at the edges: but there are limited career opportunities in pursuing one man across a continent, with the intention of arresting him and bringing him to trial: those involved will not be in a position to establish research centres, employ a couple of hundred ground staff, both foreign and national, or round up cute-but-damaged African children for art or dance therapy sessions. What IC propose is a cold, precise, direct manhunt that involves politicians giving the green light from one end, and from the other, the utilization of African forces on the ground. The mere proposal of it on such a bold scale is ballsy and cuts out all the usual NGO crap.

The first ‘yeah-but’ that was thrown at Invisible Children was the accusation that the Ugandan police and armies from Uganda, Sudan and Congo are all, themselves, accused of corruption and crimes not that dissimilar to the ones they’d be seeking to punish in Kony. I find this line of attack ever-so-slightly exasperating. Of course they are corrupt, of course they behave badly, but I am afraid they are all we’ve got in the circumstances and there isn’t going to be anyone else willing to get stuck in, not in Congo, not in Sudan. And are we really still pretending that any military outfit with guns, from any nation and any culture, behave any better? Give a group of people guns, train them how to use them, and it’s only ever a matter of time before they are misused: our own Western armies are guilty of misuse of their power, of turning on the very people they are supposed to be protecting, and our own Western police forces and governments are guilty of corruption. I don’t accept this line as a valid reason why not to pursue Kony. The inherent corruption and destructive drive for power embedded in the whole notion of ‘army’ or ‘police’ is perhaps better left for another blog another day, but yes, there we are; it never fails to surprise me how often this dead-duck of an argument is wheeled out in support of non-action. In the time it would take to wait for all armies and government agencies to cleanse themselves of corruption and malpractice, psychotic mass murderers like Kony will have wiped out most of the African continent. (However, for a less impassioned and clearer headed critique – I am only a writer, at the end of the day, and not a development specialist, and therefore have a tendency to be overly excitable and not very politically correct – it might be worth reading what War Child has to say about it all.)

One of the other criticisms aimed at IC, is that they relate their agenda to Uganda or Ugandans in only the vaguest of ways. I might suggest that this is because they have realised that Kony is no longer a Ugandan problem. IC’s campaign is not to set up charities or centres for the rescue and rehabilitation of Kony’s victims, their campaign is very specifically to capture Kony and bring him to justice. This campaign cannot have very much to do with Uganda in fact, because Kony is no longer in Uganda. Kony has fingers in Sudan, CAR and Congo: these are the countries currently affected by Kony’s activities, and it is in one of these places that Kony will be caught. IC does not give Ugandans much of a voice on the issue, but arguably, in a directed, specific campaign to catch Kony, it is not Uganda’s voice that needs to be heard.

So it would, then, be easier to support Invisible Children on this if they had in fact emphasised more strongly the presence these other African countries have in the Kony issue. It’s a shame that Invisible Children only half-heartedly leave Uganda behind. They might have been afforded more credibility if they had gone for an angle that almost completely severed any current connection with Uganda. Yet they have seemed unwilling to completely let it go. IC do operate in Congo and CAR, so I can only guess that this is probably to do with all that I previously said about the rather bewildering global acceptance of Uganda as a centre for African aid. It is a country we seem to be able to feel sympathy for, and feel warmly about, in a way that we are not able to with Congo and CAR (I would have been interested to know, for example, how many of the Africa-focussed charities featured in last night’s Sport Relief were based in Uganda, compared with how many, say, in Liberia). Invisible Children quite possibly felt that in retaining some kind of Ugandan root to their cause, they were more likely to garner public sympathy. It might also allow them to base themselves in Uganda which, as I’ve already stipulated, is a much more fun, safe place to live for a while than Congo or Sudan. The towns of Lira and Gulu, once the centres of the LRA’s hold on Northern Uganda, and the places to which many of its ex-child-soldiers returned for schooling and rehabilitation, have some lovely little internet cafes, serving cheeseburgers and smoothies, all of them hubs for muzungu communities. I know because I’ve eaten in them. And at weekends you can take yourself off for a nice safari in Murchison Falls, or go visit the nearby chimpanzee sanctuaries. All in all, a much more reasonable proposition for a place to base your Western charitable HQ than roughing it in deepest, darkest Congo. 

So, what exactly is my bugbear with Good Intentions?

Well, I’ll tell you…

My first trip to Uganda was when I was 18, straight out of school, taking a Gap Year with a Gap Year organisation before going to University the year after. I was stationed in a private secondary girls’ school on top of a massive hill with incredible views just outside the lovely old Indian town of Jinja, not all that far from the capital, Kampala. I was there for three months and I taught English and French to the first years (one class of 40 and another class of 50 girls, aged between 11 and 14) and helped in the school choir. I lived on site in a partitioned section of the home economics classroom. It had a concrete floor, army-issue beds, a lethal gas stove, a lizard in the bath, and a toilet without a seat that only flushed if you filled the cistern from a jerry can. All night colonies of bats, living inside the hut, flew over my head, showering me in bat shit, and during the day the ‘living room’ would fill up with chickens. Monkeys would sometimes thunder across the tin roof.

Me teaching in Wanyange Girls' Secondary School, Uganda, 1998

Some of the volunteers in other schools kept their living quarters quite private from their students, but we didn’t. My partner and I kept a fairly open house and so during break-times and weekends the girls would wander in, rummage through our magazines and photos, listen to our music, and talk with us. On one such weekend, when I was at the school on my own, some of the girls found our nail varnish supply and subsequently asked me to paint their nails. I couldn’t see the harm in it. I did it because they requested it, because they were fascinated by the things we’d brought from England, because it was the tiniest, smallest thing I could do for them to give them that little piece of our lives they were so fascinated by. Because it was just a bit of fun. The following day, a Monday, I found out later in the day from one of my pupils that the girls who had been found wearing nail varnish – about sixteen of them altogether – had been taken from their classroom in the morning by the Deputy Head, made to lie face down on the lawn outside, and then beaten with canes.

But I’d had such good intentions, such very good intentions. I never told anyone at the time. (I'm not even sure I've ever told anyone that story until now; I was so ashamed of it.)

In fact, I was there in Uganda at age 18 because of an industry based upon the exploitation of good intentions. The Gap Year organisation I went to Uganda with took several thousand pounds of my money. Some of that money went on my flights, a basic weekly food allowance, and a budget safari at the end of our designated three months at the school (a safari I never took, because when my obligations at the school were over, I went straight home in disgust). It also allowed for a financial donation to the school in which we were stationed. (In my case, this donation was pocketed by the headmistress.) The rest of the money went to lining the pockets of the obnoxious, self-satisfied expat fat-cats that “ran” the operation on the ground. When I say “ran”, the old ex-pat in charge of our group was present during our training week in Kenya, turned up once at our school for a half-hour visit, and then occasionally materialised in the capital to go out drinking with a bunch of energetic ‘young white things’ with whom he could get pissed and ogle the girls.

I had gone to Uganda at 18 because I’d fallen in love with Africa when I was lucky enough to go on a family holiday to Kenya at age 15. That holiday changed my life, and although I was not quite starry-eyed and naïve enough to believe I could change the world, I did genuinely want to give something back to a continent that had given me so much. But with a few exceptions – a few individuals in the group who would in time become good friends – everyone else taking that Gap Year with me seemed to be there for an exotic version of a club 18/30 holiday. My partner didn’t even see the term through at the school. She buggered off half way through to stay with her mate in Entebbe, never to return. The walls of our living quarters were plastered in photos of her enormous house, her swimming pools and tennis courts, her prom dress. She’d been a pupil of Rugby School and if I remember correctly, her father was the owner of Vodafone at the time. This is the face we showed Uganda, this is the face we showed these young teenage Ugandan girls, eagerly lapping up every little detail they could about our lives. I was embarrassed to be there. Our naivety and youth, our good intentions, had been exploited: we’d been shipped out to Uganda (at our own not-inconsiderable expense) to impose ourselves, and our poor qualifications, on pupils who took us seriously; we were thrust upon these impressionable young Ugandans, confronting them with our immense privilege and limited sense of responsibility. I felt sickened by it on a daily basis and furious that I had been duped into complicity with it. We should not have been there. We were doing more harm than good. I learnt then that not only are good intentions often not good enough, they can be damaging, destructive and dangerous to those on the receiving end.


(As it happens, there is an excellent blog and website by this very name, written by someone with far more knowledge than I - http://goodintents.org/ - one of the reasons why I'm so reluctant to write about Africa.)


So what to do: about Kony and Kony 2012:

Honest answer: I’ve no idea. At a push, do what Invisible Children say, but not as they do: don’t give IC any money, but do spread the word about Kony. I do believe in raising awareness, in informing ourselves about what really goes on in these countries we send aid to, and then spreading the word. And I do believe in the potential power that harnessing social media can unleash. Social media used for the purpose of spreading information can put pressure on the people that govern nations and control armies. Obama would not be president if he had not harnessed this power. The role of the internet these days ensures activities online massively affect the world offline. It shouldn’t be under-estimated as a tool to target criminals like Kony, against whom no conventional strategies for capture have ever worked.

So what to do: if you are thinking about a Gap Year:

Research! There are some good projects out there… probably. I would say, the more money the organisation wants out of you, the more suspicious you should be. Get a very small group of you together and do something on your own: it’s scarier than travelling under the protective canopy of a large organisation, but you retain greater control over your money and can access closer links with the community you enter. Volunteer in a project or charity in this country: we can identify and understand our own societal needs and vulnerabilities a lot more accurately than we can in Africa or India. The reward will be knowing you were of honest assistance to a project or cause that was in genuine need of you, and it will be just as great a challenge.

So what to do: generally: about charity:

If you believe donating money to charities in Africa is the best way to help Africa out of poverty*, then make sure you are very certain about who and where your money is going. I’m going to sound like a right humourless killjoy now, but as much as I, like the next person, enjoy its comic misadventures – for no one’s disputing that the heart of these endeavours is not in the right place – I would be careful about donating to umbrella organisations like Comic Relief. It’s a scheme that (exploits?) relies heavily on its participants’ and audience’s good intentions, but it’s very hard to know exactly where your money is going. Comic Relief works by supporting a vast array of on-the-ground charities and NGOs. I’m sure many of these partners are legitimate, trustworthy, sensible organisations, but I’m equally as sure that many of them are not. When you’re watching Comic Relief and its spin-offs and you see a specific cause you would like to support, go and investigate that specific cause and the charity that addresses it. Find out who they are, where their money comes from and how it gets spent. If this information seems veiled or difficult to extract, dig further. If you’re happy they have more to offer than good intentions, donate your money directly to them. These days, every organisation makes donating easy. You don’t need Comic Relief to do that for you. Don’t part with your cash until you know your money will be doing what you want it to. 

The last really narky thing I have to say about 'charity' is to point out that more children are killed in Africa in road accidents than by malaria, or aids, or by the LRA. Africa is the car-junk yard of the world - we send our knocked about, un-roadworthy vehicles there, where they are driven poorly, without servicing and at insane speeds. But roads are not cute or aesthetic and during all the time I spent in Angola and Uganda, I never saw a single charity dedicated to fixing roads or vehicles or providing driving lessons. Do you know who is dealing with the roads in Africa? China.

Finally: (no, really!) Even if you are Christian or Muslim, I would appeal to your consciences to think twice about funding charities connected with a religious movement or institution in Uganda: your money may well be funding a far-reaching campaign targeting gay people and anyone at all thought to be living any kind of deviant lifestyle. It is a devastating, hate-filled campaign that pays no attention to the poverty, hardship and vulnerability its victims are already living their lives in. The way these “crimes” are policed are brutal and terrifying. These are modern witch-hunts. I may not be religious anymore, but I was raised as a practicing Christian, and I am familiar enough with the bible to be able to say with confidence that Jesus’ teachings are only ever filled with compassion towards the poverty-stricken and marginalised groups in society. He would be appalled at the crimes against humanity being committed in his name. The same goes for Mohammed. The prevalence of homophobic sentiment in Uganda, and the disproportionate level of aid (compared with other African countries) feeding into the country, is no coincidence. They are directly related.

*

Africa is the West’s dumping ground. We need Africa and we need her to be poor: our wealth leans on her poverty, and our consciences need a recipient for our charity: onto Africa we throw our pity, our blindness, our shame and our guilt – guilt at our past crimes against the continent and guilt at the immense comparable wealth we still live with, guilt at knowing quite a lot of this wealth is ours through our continued poor treatment of African nations (which we try to make up for by flooding Uganda with aid money, digging wells that dry up and building schools that fall down, while we rape Congo of her minerals so we can watch Sport Relief on our ipads). It is self-pity as much as it is pity directed at Africa – we long to be forgiven. But in trying to make reparations to Africa through charity and aid, we are only digging a deeper grave.




*There is accumulating evidence that Chinese private investment in Africa, and other similar capitalist ventures, have done more in the last ten years to lift Africa out of poverty than decades of global aid. Indeed, there are those who believe Africa is not poor in spite of aid but because of it.


Friday, August 05, 2011

The Rogue's Salute

PiratedSea nymphs and their captorBubble makerOrbSea Nymphs at The Rogue's SaluteYo ho and a bottle of rum
Fire EaterLight JugglerKarina & JennyBubble Dancer

The Rogue's Salute, a set on Flickr.

The Invisible Circus event at the Bristol Harbourside Festival