Kigali and Kabuga, Rwanda

It is impossible for me to be frustrated with a Rwandan for long. The softness of their eyes, the calmness of their demeanors and dispositions, the gentleness of their voices, disarms me utterly.

I had trouble sleeping this morning, in spite of having organized my time to allow for a ‘long lie in,’ as Dario calls it. When someone knocked on the door while I fast asleep, I pretended it didn’t happen. The knock repeated, and I stumbled to the door to find Dan, a young yet wise looking presence, holding my breakfast room service order card. To counter his move, I showed him the do not disturb card hanging on my doorknob.

He proceeded to tell me what seemed like a very long story about how my order was indicated for after the breakfast that comes with the room charge closes, and how there would be a charge for my meal if I wanted my omelet that late.

I couldn’t keep up. I just heard his lilting, kind voice. I interrupted. “Dan, please stop talking!”, I squeaked, as tried to rouse myself. I really wanted to talk about the DND on the door. I was stuck on that. He told me Mr. James in management had deemed the possibility of charging me for my meal grave enough that it merited over riding my DND and knocking on my door. I sighed. Dan smiled how I think God smiles, with infinite patience, loving detachment, like he had all the time in the world for me to straighten myself out.

When he later brought my meal in, I studied his face, his posture. Beautiful. The grace and dignity that quietly emanated from him moved me.

I began remembering my staggering visit to the genocide memorial here, and decided I couldn’t go today. It’s too much. I will visit it again some time, but I have visited the Jewish Quarter in Prague three times since May, and am going to the Terezin concentration camp soon. I can only handle so much in the way of massacres. (Feeling dizzy as I write this….)

I can’t even visit the genocide museum. How can Dan and his family live through it, and then tolerate with such elegance sleepy hotel guests who feel perturbed when their breakfast is not delivered at their specified time?

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Dushishoze, roughly translated, means “stay vigilant.” It is an invitation. It is an admonition. Through a safe place with plenty of interior and exterior room to play, as well as provisions such as a basketball hoop, volleyball net, and a stereo, Dushishoze attracts thousands of vulnerable youth. Kids are provided a full basket of holistic services that range from age and context appropriate reproductive health education, to voluntary counseling and testing for HIV, to literacy, to financial literacy, to vocational training and career counseling. Additionally, Dushishoze is a place where high risk groups, such as girls and women in economically forced prostitution (EFP) and men who have sex with men (MSM) are reached with life saving behavior change communication. Many of them become peer educators, thus earning a small income that helps reduce the number of sex partners they must have for their survival, as well as empowering them to reach other prostituted people with critical public health messages and behavior change. (Dushishoze is funded by the Center for Disease Control and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria.)

I am dead tired and strangely in no mood to capture the full day, which typically is mandatory, almost a compulsion. Instead, for now I just want to share facts. Maybe latter I will put narrative meat on the bones.

Little things say a lot about Rwanda. Every kid with whom I spent time, whom I saw (about 300+) was clean. Even those wearing white, their white garment was unsullied. I did not see a shoeless kid all day, except for two very small toddlers at sunset (they were also the only dirty ones). Oh, how that will change tomorrow, when I cross into DRC.

It was a joy to see so many kids streaming about, playing running, engaging in their different games. There was music playing in parts of the center, up beat education sessions (condom demonstration was one), and obvious friendships and alliances being shared. That is one of the things I like about Dushishoze. It is a safe place, kids can drop it. It’s not obligatory to partake in the services. There is no pressure. Life is hard enough for these kids….

But some of the young people were very focused, and eager to share their life stories with me, and the ways in PSI is helping them. In particular, women in EFP and MSM had gathered.

The young women with whom I sat on shaded grass were direct and plainspoken about their plight. Every single one had “taken the decision” to engage in “commercial sex” (NGO and supranational body speak for economically forced or coerced sexual exploitation). They described their choiceless-choice matter of factly:

“I am an orphan. At 14, I decided this is what I had to do, in order to survive.”

“I was in my second year bac (baccalaureate), but I had no money, no one ot support me, and no job, to continue to pay for my studies. I decided to do this to earn money, so I can eventually continue my schooling. I heard about doing this from a friend.”

“A man was always following me, harassing me, begging me to have sex with him. He offered me money and things I needed to survive. Finally, I just said yes.”

I spoke in total with 17 young women. As they had been identified by PSI as capable of becoming peer educators entrusted with the urgent task of sharing HIV prevention and other health messages with others caught in sexual exploitation, all were literate. Shockingly, their average schooling was almost year 6 of secondary. That is so very high, compared to most women in EFP. It speaks to the critical need for economic and employment empowerment of girls and women….formalization of work, too….

They need to have paid sex with about 9 men per week in order to eek out a subsistence life. Each is supporting other vulnerable youth, mostly little brothers and sisters. They tend to “work” on weekends, and the location is general public places and road sides, although forced prostitution does happen in night clubs and hotels.

They earn about $8 US per man. They are often asked to have sex without a condom, even though knowledge that proper use of a condom helps reduce the risk of spreading HIV. Typically, a man offers double for sex without a condom. (10,000 R Fr, versus 5,000 R Fr).

(HIV prevalence amongst women in economically forced prostitution is 50%. The national sero prevalence is 2-3%.)

“What do you say?” I asked. How do you safely insist?

“If I am particularly desperate,” one replied, I take the 10,000 R Fr, but I know it is dangerous and I prefer not to. But sometimes, I do. I can’t help it. Look at me. I am so skinny. I need to eat.”

Another said, “I can tolerate being poor and hungry; I’d rather earn less, and live a longer life.”

And one, one with anger, said something that I want never to be taken out of context. In an expression of her disempowerment and powerlessness over her circumstances, frustration at being dependent upon men who exploit her in order for her subsistence survival, she said rhetorically, “If I am HIV negative, I take the lower price and use a condom. If I am HIV positive, I take the larger sum, and do not use a condom.” What other power does the child have, than to imagine those who hurt her, being hurt? May her pain and anger be transformed into social justice action on behalf of herself and her peers.

Our talk was very long. But I will leave you not with more harrowing details of their predicament and despair, but rather, their dreams.

Alice wants to finish university, and own a tourism business, to work with those who visit Rwanda, providing services.

Christine wants to resume her high school education, and go on to university, and become either a professor or doctor.

Giselle wants to be a “big businesswoman.”

And Beaute, yes, Beaute, one of the orphans, the one who would boldly wink at me, then in a fit of bashfulness turn her head aside, the one who when we were taking a picture was on her knees in front of me, and reached up to simply touch my skirt….then laughed off her shyness and grabbed my leg, said, “I want to finish school, and start a family. Then I want to help other girls who have been in my situation. I want to become a great mentor. I want to be like you.”

The MSM: The story of discrimination is really the same worldwide. One thing that stood out to me was that in their concerns, they expressed their lack of a safe space, their own area where they can go when they are rejected by their families and ostracized by society. I felt sad about that. A young man named Chris said recently, even women trapped in position were afraid of them, fearing MSM would take their paying clients away from them. They are truly on their own (I saw this in action on the streets of Antananarivo, Madagascar.)

They have benefited greatly from PSI’s interventions, have learnt life saving lessons about their sexual behavior and how to educate their peers. But there is so much more they need. I described to them my own painful education around the fact that PSI is a public health agency; that is our core competency. As they gain voice, self-confidence, and skills, they can organize themselves to address their other challenges, and align with other organizations, and even found their own. PSI can help them with health. I maintain PSI is a health and human rights agency. We offer the A’s (accessibility, affordability, and acceptability) and the Q (quality) that human decency and dignity demands. But we are not a human rights agency, per se, and if you don’t know the difference, don’t worry about. There is an entire class at the Harvard School of Public Health about it. I do trust that the health empowerment (which is the essential building block of development) they can gain via PSI is a valuable stepping-stone toward broadly advocating their best interests and rights here in Rwanda.

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The day was a good one. Today PSI hosted the Minister of Health as we launched a new pilot program, 12+, funded by the Nike Foundation (note to self, send Marie Eitel, chair, an e mail before bed). 112+ fills an important identified gap in social services: pre adolescents were grossly underserved. Thus 12+ brings 12 year old girls together one Saturday a month for intensive Thus 12+ mentoring from 15-22 year old girls, including health, life skills, etc. The goals are to nurture girls’ self-efficacy, self esteem, build healthy relationships and interdependence, and create future leaders. 600 12 year olds are participating in the pilot phase!

Other highlights include:

  • Behavior Change Communication Campaigns: “Don’t Wait” campaign, teaching parents how, and encouraging them, to talk to their children about reproductive health, sexual behavior, and how to avoid exploitation. Other campaigns include “Je ne suis pas pour vendre,” I am not for sale, raising awareness about Sugar Daddies/Sugar Mamas (cross generational and transactional sex).
  • Safe Drinking Water: Next week, PSI begins free distribution of 500,000 bottles of Sur Eau to the “nooks and crannies” of most rural Rwanda. Sur Eau is our point of use water purification solution (I am too tired to look up stats about access to improved water source; I know prevalence of piped water is a scant ~2% nation wide.
  • Malaria: 82% of all households posses a long lasting insecticide treated net; 72% of all children under 5 are sleeping under one. PSI has been pivotal in significantly reducing burden of Malaria in this country. Huge!
  • Family planning: Contraceptive coverage leapt from 27% in 2008 to 45%! PSI is a leader in offering women modern family planning choices. And choices are exactly what they are. Choice is emphasized. Generally, older women and women who already have children prefer longer lasting reversible methods; younger women prefer the shorter acting options. (If you believe, as I do, that modern family planning is absolutely core to poverty reduction and integral to development solutions, you probably like looking at data. Check out the Demographic Household Survey.)
  • Decentralization and Localization: PSI registering a partner local NGO, and opening 5 regional offices. All staff is local. This is increasing local capacity for technical expertise and service delivery, creating community self-efficacy and generating employment as well as stimulating local economies. Coordination, quality assurance and technical assistance will continue to come from PSI to support the transfer and implementation of all programs to the locally registered NGO, Association of Family Health (this is the future!!!!).

I love storing away all these facts, all this good news, in my mind. I review it, piece by piece as I sleep. But what will get me tonight? What will wake me at dawn, provoking tears, or anger? The faces, probably, the rows and rows of children and adolescents listening to intently to the lessons being taught. It was as if they knew their lives depend on it.

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These diaries are just that: diaries. They are written quickly at the end of long days, and are often raw, unfinished thoughts as I process the day’s colorful, painful, didactic, enraging, inspiring, moving events.

I proofread, but barely. Facts are usually accurate although I do my final fact checking later, as I prepare my written work for my personal archives, or for publication. Thus, if you catch an inconsistency, or errant number, please don’t use that as an excuse to dismiss the exercise wholesale. I promise I, and my mentors, will catch and vet it later.

I choose to share them in order to carry to you in something close to real time the visceral reality of experiences embedded in poverty, vulnerability, resilience, and hope.

If they are abused in any way, such as taken out of context or reprinted beyond fair use, I will no longer post them.

I hope you will read them for what really matters, the human stories they bring to you, and details about the creative, inexpensive grassroots solutions that empower and save lives.

Arrival

Congo is difficult to understand, hard to explain. I appreciate how organizations like Enough! boil the issue of conflict mineral mining down so succinctly, correctly linking violent mining practices, pernicious use of mass rape, the issues that inhere in a failed state and corrupt governance, armed militias and urgent need for security sector reform, poverty and de-development….and our computers. Enough! gives Americans very simple, concrete actions we can take to de-link our modern conveniences (cell phones, computers, iPods, MP3s, etc.) from the grievous suffering and human rights atrocities committed so routinely in pursuit of the minerals necessary for their manufacture. (For example, an American study just calculated every hour, 48 girls/woman are raped in eastern DRC. The conflict in DRC, you should know by now, is the deadliest since WWII; 5.4 million dead. 900,000 people are presently displaced in North and Sout Kivu. DRC languishes at the bottom of all development indices, as well as corruption evaluators.)

For a look at the mining areas, you have to explore this interactive map. It is amazing. For example, gold does not show up on the ledgers as a mineral mined in eastern Congo. Only two comptoirs in North Kivuo can measure gold yields. Yet the map shows at least 20,000 people work in gold mines. Such mismatches speak to the informal, corrupt, shadowy nature of mineral extraction here. (Gambino, 2011)

Anthony W. Gambino, an Africanist for many years, recently wrote: “Sorting and combining the relations across all these layers, issue by issue, place by place, across the massive Congo, into an intellectual coherent sense of Congolese reality is a humbling, daunting intellectual undertaking…various actors, even those most knowledgeable, regularly miscalculate, further tangling this already near-impenetrable analytical web. (Gambino, 2011).

But such capitulation from a bona fide expert is no invitation to complacency, no excuse for opting out of caring for and about the beleaguered people of a country burdened with the “resource curse.” Suffering, regardless of how long it has been going on, and how complex and seemingly intractable the root causes, must never be tolerated.

My Clinton Global Initiative Lead cohort and I are on a fact-finding, fact-facing mission. I am fortunate in that this is my third trip to eastern DRC. My first, with PSI focused on public health, which naturally included exposure to profound gender violence, which is militarized and related to mining, and appalling conditions for both locals and forcibly displaced persons. My second trip was with Enough! and focused directly on conflict minerals, and their connection to the same social consequences. My CGI group and I seek to enhance the work local and international organizations are doing, expanding how they fill critical gaps in a range of social services (such as health and education) by leveraging and expanding public-private partnerships.

Congo’s history since independence from Belgium shows a swinging of the pendulum from a dictator supported by the west (Mobutu) at one extreme to total non-participation in the government super structure and a complete focus instead on civil society and NGOs (even creating institutions to handle donor money that went around the government). Neither worked (although the latter did make notable improvements in public health, but without building local capacity or creating sustainable systems, Gambino, 2011). A core idea my CGI Lead will be fiddling this week is how to learn from these foreign policy and aid lessons, finding a workable model in the middle that, in the midst of the abject failure of the Congolese state, find levers to push (such as adequately paying police in key strategic areas, so they are motivated to stop being a part of the problem of harassing and extorting those they are meant to protect (Gambino, 2011), supporting and enhancing the work of the many outstanding organizations on the ground who fill critical gaps that government cannot and/or will not fill, building public-private partnerships, all of which can help reform instability and begin to build democratic institutions capable of good governance.

It will be a good week, one of hashing out ideas, expanding concepts, discussing the role of a Canadian mineral extraction company, Banro, in creating a local mining industry that contributes to communities well-being and growth, rather than terrorizing and de-stabilizing them.

As much as I look forward to these intellectual pursuits, and the dynamic energy of my colleagues who are dedicating their lives improving life short-, medium-, and long-term in one of the most cunning and baffling conflict zones on earth, the part to which I most look forward is spending time with affected Congolese. I am reminded, I have a lot of love to give. That, ultimately, is why I am here. However I slice the day—policy papers or holding victims of gang rape—it is about love.

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At the Brussels Air lounge this morning as I waited for my flight to Rwanda, where I will be a few days before Bukavu, DRC, I regarded the staff member closely. She was very familiar. She remembered me, too, from my trip to Congo last year, but especially from my return from Congo in 2008. I was incredibly sick, and she had left her post to exit the airport for a pharmacy that had a homeopathic remedy she vowed would help me. She brought it to me just as my plane to the US was leaving, and I had never forgotten her kindness. Christine is her name, and we had a long chat, catching up. I was happy to share with her that the 2008 re-entry phenomenon was the worst, and in 2010, it took me three days, instead of three weeks, to bounce back from my time visiting the worst place on the planet to be a woman.

My flight was easy—long, but easy. Ten hours total from Europe is less toll on a body than having the USA to Europe leg go along with it. I began to wonder if, when I conclude filming “Missing” in Prague in October, I could scoot back to Africa before returning to Tennessee. West Africa. No one pays attention to West Africa, including me. I should visit PSI programs there.

I read Tony Gambino’s extraordinary paper, slept, resumed reading, and only when I opened my window shade a short while before landing did I realize I wasn’t doing the giddy, dreamy “I am going to Africa” thing. I saw the sun setting over a vast swatch of this magnificent continent, and it took my breath away. My first trips rushed to mind, the constant sense of awe I felt. I wondered if it’s become normal for me, if i am conditioned to hop on planes and trot to lands of which as I kid I dreamt. But the plane soon landed, and I stepped into the Rwandan night air, and felt the magic wholesale. The air here has a particular fragrance and feel. The full July moon was luminously elegant and mysterious. The shapes of trees signalled “Africa.” My smile was enormous, my step buoyant. I was buzzing with the delight, honor, and appeal of setting foot on this continent once more.

As I queued for passport control, I remembered that when I left here last summer, President Kagame was actually at the airport, inspecting the facility, down to the toilets. I admired the partition between passport windows—planters of lovely green plants. Rwanda, in some important ways, a country of resilience, hope. From the small (plastic bags are illegal) to the huge (Rwanda is one of the only sub-Saharan countries on pace to meet some of the MDGs), Rwanda is a story of ambitious self-improvement and transparency (we will leave the rigid social controls and allegations of totalitarianism for another conversation). A sign in the airport announced even more recent measures to encourage investment, all steps that help businesses formalize, such access to legal contracts and protections, functioning judicial sysem, credit, etc. Lots of poverty still, yes. Tomorrow, in fact, I’ll be visiting with girls and women trapped in economically forced prostitution. But for now, for tonight, I am going to put on my night gown, slip out the back of the hotel where it is quiet, and admire our oldest grandmother, the moon, shining over the cradle of humanity.

Africa. It has a ring to it, doesn’t it?

Gambino, Anthony W. World Development Report, Background Case Study, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 2011;

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These diaries are just that: diaries. They are written quickly at the end of long days, and are often raw, unfinished thoughts as I process the day’s colorful, painful, didactic, enraging, inspiring, moving events.

I proofread, but barely. Facts are usually accurate although I do my final fact checking later, as I prepare my written work for my personal archives, or for publication. Thus, if you catch an inconsistency, or errant number, please don’t use that as an excuse to dismiss the exercise wholesale. I promise I, and my mentors, will catch and vet it later.

I choose to share them in order to carry to you in something close to real time the visceral reality of experiences embedded in poverty, vulnerability, resilience, and hope.

If they are abused in any way, such as taken out of context or reprinted beyond fair use, I will no longer post them. Your respect and consideration is appreciated.

I hope you will read them for what really matters, the human stories they bring to you, and the creative, inexpensive grassroots programmatic solutions that empower and save lives.

Travel Day

In the car on the way to the Prague airport, my dad asked if he could buy Czech crowns from me. He began explaining something that later, when I could listen, I apprehended was very simple: he would give me US dollars, I would give him Crowns. But before he had finished his question, my brain had completely flooded. I heard nothing but gibberish, or the “wah wah wah” spoken by grown ups on the Peanuts cartoons. I made the time out symbol with my hands. A frustrated look rumpled his face.

Where had I gone? My body was in transit to Rwanda and eastern Congo. My mind had preceded me there.

Africa, like all the trips I take, does this to me. One moment I am in my Prague apartment overlooking this old city’s iconic Vltava River and lovely edifices, and in the next what is in front of me has vanished, and I can only feel an a space inside of me, the space that knows what I will soon be confronting. The pulsing of emotion that infuses and animates the reality of high levels of poverty, concomitant low levels of economic development, relentless suffering, political and social instability (in eastern DRC. Rwanda is politically stable).

For my dad’s sake, I squeezed out a few words. “Congo, Dad. This happens before I go. It comes on unpredictably. Sorry. I’ll be present again before long.” I rode it out, my bag in my lap. Then, as promised, the emotional turbulence passed. I was back in the car, on the seat, in my body. “Alright. What were you saying?” Money changed hands, and I was excited to have more US dollars for any needs that may arise while I am there. It only took me twenty minutes to pack, which I did right before we walked out the door to the airport; I am something of an old hand at these journeys. I had ordered my anti-malaria medicine weeks ago, I remembered to have handy cans of tuna, and to grab a jar of peanut butter. But it hadn’t occurred to me that I was traveling with little American cash and all Crowns, as I have been living in Prague for two months. The fives and tens will be most welcome, both by me, and those with whom I share them.

Dad hugged and kissed me farewell curbside. I wandered around the airport talking to Dario, who is in Scotland washing one of his Ferraris (“I still love the old girl,” he said of his 355). He is preparing for his own trip, his annual sailing race up the west coast of his beloved Scotland. On board my flight, I have the “hot towel” moment, when the flight attendant hands me a clean, warm, damp wash cloth. Black faces blot out the white cloth. A mother, holding an infant, looks either dazed from malnutrition and illness, or perhaps satiated. I can’t tell. The image is from my briefing document, prepared by the International Rescue Committee for my Clinton Global Initiative Lead Cohort with whom I am taking this journey. I also see before me a smiling man, a public health worker with Population Services International, on whose board I serve, featured on our card that discusses local ownership of our grassroots programs.

The flight attendant is still holding out the hot towel. I smile.

Problems. Solutions. Vulnerability. Resilience. The very words that had come to me during my prayer time as I closed my yoga practice today.

I remember I dreamt about Little Black Baby and Percy last night. I consider those dreams — and remember, Percy as my personal Higher Power.

I am ready for my next adventure.

Returning to Congo with CGI

Dear Friends, July 15-21 I will be with my Clinton Global Initiative Lead cohort in Bukavu, Democratic Republic of Congo. As I do on all my trips, I will keep a diary (my diaries from 13 countries are the basis for my book, All That Is Bitter and Sweet). As service permits, I will post some entries on my web site.

Our trip will focus on the relationship between the mining of Congo’s vast loads of tin, tungsten, tantalum, gold, and other minerals, gender violence, and forcibly displaced persons. Our hosts will be the International Rescue Committee, which has strong humanitarian and community presence in Congo, and Banro, the canadian mining company, which is seeking to improve its mining practices and impact on communities. My CGI Lead cohort and I are developing a way to positively impact forcibly displaced persons on four specific points: economic empowerment, education, empowering girls and women, and energy.

This is my 3rd trip to Congo, the 2nd one that focuses on violence, minerals, poverty. I am especially interested in talking with Banro; my last trip, I only saw their company helicopters as they came and went from doing business!

More to come. For information about conflict minerals, see the Enough! project.
To support women in conflict areas such as eastern DRC, see Women for Women International.
To help improve public health in Congo, which has had a recent outbreak of cholera, has high maternal mortality, high child mortality, etc., see PSI.
For more about CGI, see their website.

Reflections: The Hip-Hop and Rap Remarks in All That Is Bitter & Sweet

The outcry regarding my remarks, 2 paragraphs of my 400+ page book, regarding hip hop and rap, has been as astounding as it is out of context. As reactions continue to rage on Twitter and blogs, I am addressing it where I have more than 140 characters. The general theme is to express my gratitude for a chance to learn, to be corrected where I was wrong, to make amends, and hold firm and strong on the original intention and context of the points I made, with a commitment to try to do so less clumsily and with more sensitivity in the future.

I am also aware that, no matter what I do, some will call me disingenuous and impute bad motives to me.

Original context: The paragraphs are about an introductory dialogue I had with YouthAIDS in 2002, the organization for whom I serve as Global Ambassador. They had collaborated with artists such as Snoop Dog to spread reproductive health and gender empowerment messages. I asked for more information about how the organization reconciled Snoops’ lyrics and gender posturing with its public health mission. YouthAIDS answered my questions satisfactorily and I have traveled the world with them since that time. I also serve on the board of directors for YouthAIDS’ parent organization, Population Services International.

The Outcry: As a thoughtful friend put it, “fans stand behind their artists,” and rightfully so. Hip-hop and rap—which are distinct from one another, although kin—stand for a lot more than a beat and vibe. They represent more than I, an outsider, has the right to articulate. This tweet capture’s the essence of what you have taught me: “Rap is something you do….Hip-Hop is a CULTURE you live! Don’t let a few bad apples’ lyrical message speak for a whole culture!

My equivalent genres, as an Appalachian, an oppressed and ridiculed people, would be mountain music and bluegrass. Those genres tell the history, struggles, grief, soul, faith, and culture of my people. In imagining how I would feel if someone made negative generalizations about that music, I am deeply remorseful that anything I may have said in All That Is Bitter & Sweet would hurt adherents of genres that represent their culture. This book is an act of love and service. Insulting people of goodwill is the antithesis of its raison d’etre.

I have looked closely at the feedback I have received about those two paragraphs, and absolutely see your points, and I fully capitulate to your rightness, and again humbly offer my heartfelt amends for not having been able to see the fault in my writing, and not having anticipated it would be painful for so many. Crucial words are missing that could have made a giant difference. It should have read: Some hip-hop, and some rap, is abusive. Some of it is part of the contemporary soundtrack misogyny (which, of course, is multi-sonic). Some of it promotes the rape culture so pervasive in our world…..Also, I, ideally, would have anticipated that some folks would see only representations of those two paragraphs, and not be familiar with the whole book, my work, and my message. I should have been clear in them that I include hip-hop and rap as part of a much larger problem. It is beyond unfortunate that I am talking about some, for example, of Snoop Dogs’ lyrics, an assumption has been spread I was talking about every single artist in both genres. That is false and distorted. Here, I am again aware that it would be impossible for me to get this “exactly right.” Some will find fault, no matter how careful I am, no matter what my intentions.

Easily the most ludicrous thing about the Twitter wars has been the perpetuation of the ridiculous accusation I am blaming two musical genres for poverty, AIDS, and the whole of rape culture. Please, people. Seriously? It’s beneath all of us that this even merits a comment. Gender inequality and rape culture were here a long before the birth of the genres and rage everywhere. Someone pointed out American history includes extensive white patriarchal rape. I’d add genocide, too, but that is another essay.

Regarding what is happening on Twitter:

Thumbs Up: In those 2 paragraphs, I was addressing gender and gender only. However, the outcry focused so much on race (and at times class) that it was naive of me to assume that everyone knew I was discussing only gender. My favorite feminist teachers, such as bell hooks and Gloria Steinem, would probably have admonished me, as they write that gender, class, and race are inextricably bound in the conversation about gender equality. My amends for thinking you could read my mind and know I was only talking about gender. I understand why you were offended.

Thumbs Up: Thank you to the fans of both genres who have introduced me to artists whose lyrics embody activism and progressive values. I know India.Arie is soul and R & B, but she gives you an idea about what I enjoy: positive, affirming, prayerful. I am glad to have more beats for my playlists. I celebrate the music, its meaning, and those who love it.

Thumbs Up: Thank you to the fans who have emphasized the two genres are historically and musically distinct. I know, but I could not have anticipated that by merely using “and” to link them in the same sentence would be hurtful. I apologize. To return to my analogy above, mountain music and bluegrass are totally different, but most “outsiders” don’t know that. I also am hearing you loud and clear that they represent much, much more than music.

Thumbs Up: To those willing to give me the benefit of the doubt, asking for a clarification. Your graciousness stood out. I hope I can extend the same mercy and patience to others who initially offend me. Thank you.

Thumbs Down: I take full responsibility for the book. It is my text. However, it was read by scores of people, none of whom gave me feedback that I might be inadvertently offensive. How was this missed? Why wasn’t it mentioned until it was too late? Thumbs down to all of us for not having the sensitivity and acuity to catch the paragraphs might be hurtful.

Thumbs Down: There are those tweeting who are not of goodwill. The extraordinary violence, venom, slander, and character defamation expressed by some toward me and my body is exactly what I was isolating and identifying. Some say I deserve to be sexually humiliated, dominated, hurt, and raped. There are death threats. You are making my precise point with a lucidity that is stunningly clear. Hatred of girls and women, I will oppose with spiritual and non-violent principles every day. Abuse and violence in any form, at any time, in any expression, are never okay. Period. I, and other girls and women, are not afraid of you. You can keep on hating, but I am going to keep on loving.

Because “no one is born hating another person because of the color of their skin, or their background, or their religion (or gender). People must be taught to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite” (Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom) And “hatred never ceases by hatred. Hatred ceases by love. This is an unalterable law” (Compassionate Buddha).

That’s it for now, but my guess is it’s hardly the end.

Peace,
Ashley Judd

Reflections On Why I Wrote the Book, Including Some of my Personal Story

In “Ruby In Paradise,” my Mom’s favorite line is when my character journals, “Where does caring come from?” Mom often reminds me of the tender poignancy of this musing. In my own life, caring pulses from many sources, such as deep reserves of family history (going back to my Pilgrim ancestors, who risked their lives to worship their God, for freedom of assembly, expression, and movement), my personal experiences growing up, and my faith in a loving Creator who cares for us all. When I eventually became willing to share in All That Is Bitter & Sweet some of those experiences growing up, the point was to give some context as to where indeed my deep caring comes from, and to celebrate what my recovery has taught me: In God’s hands, and through a simple and effective design for living based on certain steps, the dark past becomes my greatest asset. I am taught that with it, I can show others who still suffer and want to feel better (we have to choose the recovery every day!) how I have found relief, help, and hope. Bringing secrets (which keep us sick) out of their hiding places corrects distortions in our thinking and beliefs, such as that we are bad, wrong, worthless, that the abuse was our fault, and melts the lie that we cannot recover. We, too, just like the disempowered people worldwide whose stories I share in the book, can absolutely take the beautiful, difficult journey from victim to survivor, from voiceless to leader, from hurting to empowered wounded healer. But in order to start, we must first admit and acknowledge that we have been hurt.

In recovery, it is said that when we share our story, we describe what we used to be like, what happened, and what we are like now. It is very important to make that distinction: When I tell my story about growing up, it is a description ~ not an indictment. Also, It is abusive to point out a problem without highlighting a solution. I described the kind of loneliness in which I was raised to reach out to other lonely lost children (and adults) worldwide, so that if they identify with my journey, they can know they are not alone, and that change is possible for them, too. I am deeply grateful to my entire family for their implicit understanding and acceptance of this formula, for their participation in the healing process, and their graceful dignity in supporting me as I share my story so that it might help others who feel as I once did. It is my hope and prayer that media can now, after a crazy week including uncanny (and maybe even bizarre) media timing that only God could have orchestrated (my book, my mother and sister’s TV show, and Tennie McCarty’s TV show, the woman who introduced me to recovery, all debuting at the same time), place the focus where it belongs: feminist social justice, human rights, and public health. That is what All That Is Bitter & Sweet is about. The brief personal back-story was provided to help explain why I have dedicated so much of my life and soul, sometimes to my own detriment and at great emotional cost, to the welfare of others around the world. I wish I could take the word “memoir” off the cover, for it seems to have given a wildly false impression of the book, and replaced it with “travel diaries,” or something like that. Readers are discovering that, with each page. Hopefully, the media can, too.

About the book:

When Population Services International took a chance on me, inviting me to travel the world to explore their grassroots health programs that empower and protect the lives of the most vulnerable and poor, I was eager, earnest, and wholly unprepared. I wanted nothing more my whole life than both to learn and to make a difference. My first trip was in 2004, to Cambodia and Thailand. Sitting in the notorious brothels of Svay Pak holding recently raped children and adults who would again be raped as soon as I left, walking the slums holding hands of sex slaves, our heads held high as pimps and traffickers looked on, I clearly remember being immediately convicted that this is my life, this is what I was meant to do. During my first public forum representing PSI, at the American Ambassador to Cambodia’s residence, attended by high ranking Khmer government officials (and a few Peace Corps volunteers), in spite of being emotionally shattered and almost paralyzed with exhaustion, I cried out during my remarks, “1 country down, 64 to go!” I was hooked.

What hooked me? What happened that first day in 2004 that has since lead to trips to 13 countries, and the publication of a book based on 650 pages of diaries I have written while receiving the sacred narratives of our brothers and sisters living in slums, brothels, forcibly displaced persons camps, in make shift schools and clinics, or dying in hospices? What did I see in creative, cost-effective, and healing grassroots programs that disrupt cycles of violence and poverty that compelled me to change my life, largely retire from Hollywood, leave our idyllic farm, risk my own sanity, subject myself to ridicule?

Even I can’t quite explain it, except to say it felt as if my own life depended on advocating for those who are oppressed, disempowered, exploited. Who, for reasons that are unjust, infuriating, and tragic, are not allowed to advocate their own best interests on the household, community, national, and international level. They can’t book appointments with government ministers. They aren’t on news media describing first person what it’s like to eat only one meal a day, to lose even those nutrients due to chronic diarrheal disease because unsafe drinking water, to sell a daughter for sex to afford a cow, to have 3 children die from a mosquito bite, to live in constant terror of gang rape, to nearly die, over and over again, from unintended pregnancies, to be denied the right to school, land, work, because of gender.

I am only a surrogate. I am a place holder. I use my voice to carry to you the voices of those who are literally dying to be heard. Who have stories to share, broken hearts and bodies to mend, and, critically, community based solutions to advance that, if implemented with local people’s expertise, can change the world. Helping others, not through charity and pity, but through social justice and empathy, supports them to transform from victims to survivors. The once voiceless become local leaders. It is their resilience, self-efficacy, and empowerment we tap. They are the agents of transformation in their own countries.

My beloved grandmother of choice, Tennie McCarty, often says it is the birth right of every child to be heard. She says, “We all need a good ‘listening to.’” When anyone reads this book, they partake in the sacred act of allowing someone who has been neglected and abused to be heard. They allow themselves, as Bob Kegan puts it, “to be recruited to the welfare of another.” In allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, we take the risk of caring, or remembering there is no “other,” that the heart beats the same under the skin, that what happens to one, happens to all.

I’ll close with a story about my friend Kika. Kika is survivor of gang rape in eastern Congo. I met her at Panzi Clinic in Bukavu. She had crawled there, which took her a month, accompanied by her 11 year old son. She had been raped by armed militia who terrorize much of eastern Congo in order to extract its vast mineral wealth, the minerals in the very computer I am typing on right now. Her rapists bayonetted her brother to death because he would not rape her. Her village forced her to leave because she smelled so vile due to her severe internal injuries. She is an exquisite woman, fierce, broken, disturbed, resilient, tender, far away, determined, hopeful. Whenever she spoke about her brother and his orphaned children, although her face did not change, tears traced down her dark skin. She would imperceptibly bend at the waist, using a kitchen towel to sop them. I asked her, “Kika, how have you endured this?” She responded, in something like an incantation, “When I crawled to Panzi, and was nearly dead, they did not abandon me. When I did not improve after a long time, they did not abandon me. When I could not return home, due to the violence and my own trauma, they did not abandon me. When I was a little better, and they could have turned me out, they gave me work in the kitchen, and did not abandon me.”

I have made a sacred vow to Kika, and the thousands of people worldwide who, however improbably, have entrusted their stories to me. I have allowed myself to be vulnerable enough to be recruited to their welfare. I refuse to abandon them.

I invite you to join me in the bitterness and the sweetness of feminist social justice, human rights, and public health work. Tennie poetically calls it “joy filled pain filled joy filled pain….” and in my experience, that is exactly what it is. When we love, care, cry, rage, and pray together, though, it is the joy that carries us through the pain.

If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?

Rabbi Hillel

Russell & Me

Considering the best way to address some folks responding to viral spread of inaccurate information taken out of
context from my book, I phoned Russell Simmons, with whom I have been friends for 15 years. We chatted for a while about the situation, and within an hour, he sent me a typed transcript of our call, which he had recorded on his cell phone! He posted it on his web site, and here I also provide a copy.

***

So, I guess the shit storm started when I was on the plane heading to Miami where I will be speaking this weekend at The Summit Series on a boat somewhere between Miami and the Bahamas. Right when I got off the plane, I got a frantic call from a long time friend, Ashley Judd, who just released her book about her international social justice, human rights, and public health work and revelations about painful experiences growing up as a child. There is a paragraph in the book where she  briefly mentions the misogyny in some hip-hop and has caught a lot of heat because of it, in the past twenty-four hours.

As the United Nations Goodwill Ambassador to the Permanent Memorial On Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, I have worked closely with Ashley on her inspiring work to end modern day slavery and the abuse of  the poor, and women and girls, in particular, around the world. I wanted to give her the platform to express what she does, as she has been one of the great champions. While she’s in Africa or India or Central America Southeast Asia fighting to end poverty and exploitation, a lot of people are unfairly criticizing her. While we can debate her views on hip-hop, a debate we have had since the days of Def Jam, let us not lose perspective on her love for our people and all people.

Below is the transcript from our phone call:

Me: What brought you to a point that you wanted to write a book?

Ashley: I was trying to bring voice to the voiceless, bring attention to the exploited and disempowered and make a difference at both the grassroots and international level. I’ve spent the majority of my time in slums, brothels, refugee camps and hospitals, in make shift schools, and clinics that in this country would be condemned buildings, listening to the sacred narratives of the oppressed and then bringing those narratives to the public and trusting that once the truth is shared, the world can start to change. I have been to Kenya, South Africa, Madagascar, Rwanda, I’ve been to the Congo multiple times, I’ve been to Guatemala, El Salvador, India, Thailand, Cambodia. I addressed the General Assembly of the United Nations regarding the abolition of the modern slave trade, I was the keynote speaker in May of 2008. And I addressed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the urgent need to protect the health of African girls and women. I  recently visited for three hours President Kagame of Rwanda about strategies to stop mass rape in Congo.  I basically retired from Hollywood in 2004 and have been doing this full time, serving on multiple boards and advisory councils, but, most importantly, sitting and standing with people worldwide who need to be heard.

I do this work and I wrote the book because I know that there is no difference between me and another human being. The heart beats the same under the skin. I myself was neglected as a child, and I have fought hard to recover my personal dignity and self-esteem and I consider it my responsibility to fight on behalf of others who are still suffering.  I carry a message of resilience, hope, perseverance, and identification. Together we can accomplish what no one can do alone.

Me: What were intentions when you wrote that paragraph about hip-hop, Snoop and Puff?

Ashley: My intention was to support artists to know that they have so much power. That they make incredible life changing impressions, particularly on the young.  And we have choices everyday with our expressions, we either empower and celebrate unity or we re-enforce inequality and degradation. We are either part of the problem, or part of the solution. There is no in-between.

There are elements, and that is the part that has been so distorted – what I’m being accused of is condemning rap and hip-hop as a whole, and the whole community, which is understood to mean the fans, and African-Americans! It’s become so generalized and taken out of context! My intention was to take a stand: the elements that are misogynistic and treat girls and women in a hyper-sexualized way are inappropriate. The male dominance that is displayed, and the reinforcement of girls’ and women’s value and identify as primarily sexual, is not helpful in any artistic expression, in any cultural form, whether its country music or in television story lines.  And if they read amore than one paragraph in the book, they would see that all four hundred pages are about that!  We do live in a worldwide culture in which the sexual interests of boys and men are privileged over the bodily integrity and sexual autonomy of girls and women. What about this 11 year old child, gang raped multiple times in Texas over months? That is rape culture: a crowd of people, repeatedly, participating in and allowing sexual violence and humiliation. The images of her on the other kids’ cell phones are crime scene photos and child pornography. Rape culture isn’t always that extreme, or evident, but it is pervasive.  Men having constant sexual access to compliant females (or sometimes sassy, but in the end, she always wants it, and if not, hey, nothing wrong with a force, right?) is a theme everywhere:  sock commercials, shoe ads, hamburger advertisements. I so regret that my indictment of rape culture as a whole has been with that paragraph interpreted as me blaming rap and hip hop exclusively. That was absolutely not my intention, and I so regret it has had that effect on some people. The hip hope and rap community is incredibly important to me and to the cause of social justice. It is filled with bad ass and brave activists whom I admire, who work under duress fighting epic discrimination, who struggle to be heard for who and what they really are. As for the artists themselves who I mention, I write about being friendly with and enjoying Curtis Jackson’s company, then being confused when on stage his .50 personae comes out.  I know Sean as a lovely, gracious guy who always remembers my husband’s name, with whom I have had heartfelt talks about the role of pop culture in improving social norms and eliminating discrimination.

Me: Here’s where it gets a little tricky. People would argue, and it’s a fine argument to have, that the artistic expression is simply a mirror. And there are many people who are concerned with the reality that exists and when they hear it echoed in poetry, in art, on television and other places they sometimes can be as angry as the artist, the exploiter. However, this language, I do understand that it can be hurtful to people who are suffering and who understand the suffering and the plight of women. You are only guilty of saying what every preacher, every black preacher says and I know that your intentions are pure. You have the right to not like Snoop Dogg or elements of rap music, but that certainly doesn’t make you a racist .In fact, you, Ashley are the farthest thing from it, considering you have committed your life to uplifting people around the world, mostly people of color.

Ashley: You mentioned the black minister, and that brings to mine my favorite:  Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He is my spiritual director. He’s my dearest, most valued friend and my spiritual mentor. We’re in touch all the time, especially when I’m on my trips. He’s the one who keeps from losing my mind when I am going insane with grief because I’m sitting in a brothel.

Me: I love you for the work that you do and I will always support you.

Ashley: Thank you Russell, that means a lot.

International Women’s Day

In honor of International Women’s Day, I invoked the memory of a young Kenyan woman trapped in exploited prostition in the grim and seedy brothels of Nairobi. Take action on behalf of women victims of armed conflict and war! Visit Women for Women International and begin sponsoring a sister today. I have been sisters with a series of women in Nigeria, and witnessed the transforamtion in their lives as a result of my modest financial commitment. And, I have personally visited W4WI programs in Congo in Rwanda: They are incredbile.

In the Same Sentence as Demond Tutu

To hear my name said in the same sentence as Desmond Tutu’s last night at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco gave me an opportunity to reflect on the richness of my life’s arc. Having been asked to help host this special event to raise money for Grace, an American icon of inclusive and compassionate Christian love, I was enormously pleased when Father responded to my e mail last October that indeed, although he is retired, he would fry from RSA to attend our occasion, and speak. In April, I will post an audio file (I need to embargo it for a short while) of the remarks I made as I introduced this great man, in which I shared how he became known to me as the fiery, faith based conscience of the anti-Apartheid struggle when I was an 18-year-old undergrad at UK. (Of course, I revere Madiba, ands have a beautiful portrait of him in our home, like a venerated icon. But because of my interesting connection to Father from when I was such a young woman, he is my most special hero.) In the audio file, you will also he hear the very divinely timed ringing of Grace Cathedral’s bells, an unplanned occurrence that literally took the collective breathe of the large, elegant crowd away. In a room full of accomplished people who routinely enjoy the best of what the world has to offer, the moment was sublime and a reminder that God’s grace, which is free, is the most coveted and precious thing of all.

My Final Decision

It is official! I shall be starring in ABC TV’s new series, Missing! I came to my final decision with an intense amount of careful consideration. I have greatly enjoyed my semi-retirement from acting. The service work I do, the boards and leadership advisory councils on which I serve, and especially the international travel I undertake to see and love my brothers and sisters in our world’s slums, brothels, and forcibly displaced persons camps, is an integral pat of my soul, and the only kind of life I am interesting in living is one that comes from my soul. And what I have decided to boldly believe is that I can reconnect with the creative process on that sustained, full-time basis in ways that are congruent with how I construct meaning, that are in keeping with my values and principles. I have been taught that my recovery is portable, and that provided I am willing to do a few simple things every day, I will live on a difference basis. One of my favorite yoga teachers said to me yesterday, “you are rewriting the story of this part of your life.” I both loved and hated acting before recovery. In “Missing,” I am choosing to love every minute of it. Work can be, with the right attitude, fun, empowering, sacred, rewarding. It won’t always be easy, and hard times are inevitable. But as they saying goes, misery is optional! The process can even be an act of worship, and act of service. Shoot, that is what the Shakers believed, that every task, no matter how mundane, was a chance to connect with God as one understands God. I am on the board of Shaker Village, so I have no excuses!

~

One of my primary mentors said, as I was nearing my final decision, that his mentor long ago taught him that in life, we rarely know when we are making a decision, if it in fact is ultimately the right decision. What we have to do is make the best decision we can, with what we know in the moment, then immediately set about to living in such a way that we make it the right decision.