The Calamity of Coming Home

2008 YouthAIDS Gala Speech 

Good Evening, Esteemed guests. Ladies and gentlemen. Thank you so very much for joining us here tonight and thank you to all who, as ever, have worked hard all year to create a special evening that allows us to have some fun while also being of service to the greater good. Namaste. I’d like to say an especially kind hello to Ambassador and Mrs Garvelink, home for a short stay from the DRC. They were very welcoming to me during my trip and I am glad to reciprocate their hospitality! Welcome to your little party! We had some interesting experiences together, on the tennis court and drinking their dog’s bath water with their British and Canadian counterparts after treating it with our safe drinking water product, Pur!!! The Ambassador kindly keeps me up to date on happenings in the DRC and I like to think I get his state department report before Washington does.

The remarks I provide at our annual Gala are a highlight on my personal calendar. I urgently strive to do right by the people I have met visiting our life saving, grassroots programs in developing countries, both the phenomenal local staff who create and implement ingenious social marketing campaigns that make critical services, products, and behavior change communications smartly accessible, as well as, of course, the profoundly beautiful and vulnerable people these malaria, safe drinking water, reproductive health, child survival, maternal health, HIV/STI prevention, and other efforts empower. Ever since I met Ouk Srea Lea, an HIV/AIDS orphan in Phnom Pem, Cambodia, who rocked my soul and changed my life, I have made a sacred commitment to witness to the greatest extent my very soul will allow the realities with which my brothers and sisters live world wide, and then to come home the United States of America and speak truth to Power. It is my pact with them, it is my pact with myself, it is my pact with the God of my understanding: I will do whatever work on myself necessary to stay emotionally engaged and present in this fight for peace. This year in particular, I was very humbled and honored to testify before the General Assembly of the United Nations, describing the obscenity that is the modern slave trade as I have personally witnessed it. How I could be even remotely qualified to speak on such a darkly complex topic to such an esteemed body is a tribute to YouthAids, and it’s unflagging, principled determination to bring HIV/AIDS prevention to the most needy everywhere, without barrier, without discrimination, without delay. I have learned so viscerally in my 6 years with PSI that no challenge lives in isolation: water, reproductive health, HIV, nutrition, malaria, hygiene and sanitation, legal empowerment, trafficking, access to micro-financing, these issues cross cut poverty world wide. I am very grateful for PSI’s and other NGO’s balanced approached to the clarion call to eliminate poverty everywhere in our lifetime.

Recently a rather fancy someone was asking about my PSI work, and the subject of my speech to the UN came up. You know how when someone is incredulous, and they are so caught off guard they forget to modulate the vaguely insulting shock in their voice, and their voice goes up a zillion octaves? “You spoke, at, the UN? They have a UN in Tennessee?? Like, a real one?” “Um, no, sir,” I replied, neither offended nor surprised. 760 United Nations Plaza, New York, NY, 10017. “The” U.N.

And yet I had a harder time formulating my remarks for tonight, in this friendly room where I have the indulgent luxury of preaching to the choir. The social justice muse was apparently hanging out with Bono or Sir Bob Geldof all week and I could not until last night, in our kitchen in front of autumn’s first log fire, figure out where to even begin.

Then it clicked. Telling you about Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo is so impossible; the life and realities there so extremely difficult to describe effectively, I may really only begin by telling you what it was like to come home.

While on my PSI trips I write each day about the beautiful and heartbreaking people I meet, the ingenuity and resiliency of the poor, the fabulous programs that fire my imagination. I also write about my own inevitable spiritual bottom (I hit one each trip), and how somehow, in spite of it all, my hope, faith, and core belief that we can change the world and manifest peace is renewed. My last diary entry from Rwanda and DRC is called, “The Calamity of Coming Home.”

First, in the JFK airport, a bored, petty woman bit my head off for handing her my boarding card at an angle that was apparently uncomfortable for her back. She has never walked 20 kilometers a day with a 20 pound jerry can of water on her head that will give her and her family parasites or cholera or typhoid. She then appraised me with a cynical eye, and with a mocking tone asked if I was “the” Ashley Judd. Then she saw the pendant of Africa I wear around my neck, and she grunted that she liked it. I wondered if she knows child and maternal mortality rates in the countries I was returning from, or that 80% of all mothers give birth utterly alone. I was able to keep my mouth shut not because I always so graciously rise above the airport fray, but because I needed to get to a private spot where I would soon rest my forehead against a wall and sob. The transition is very hard, leaving people behind, knowing that as I ease back into my velvety world of abundance and first class problems, they stay in the brutal discomfort of poor people, preventable disease morbidity and mortality problems, poor country problems.

Arriving home, I slowly walked down our little side garden path where our many well fed, inoculated, adored pets were sitting under ferns and other shade loving plants, to the place where our garden splits wide open. Upon seeing the lush green, acres of pristine rolling Tennessee hills, an eco system and habitat well managed and untouched by genocide, civil war, and desperate over population, I literally staggered. I did a huge stutter step and thought I might fall down. My jaw actually dropped. My own home of 10 years, which I have cultivated and cared for with intense focus, literally shocked me. Immediately I wished someone had seen this reaction. How else can you know it’s true?

I was stunned once more as I crawled in bed with my fresh smelling husband ~ water is so scarce in these countries one would rarely wastes it on something so superfluous as bathing ~ and looked at the stately maples and walnuts, the tender dogwood and redbud, that are within reaching distance of our pillows. The softness of this world, I could not reconcile it with the hyper cultivation in Rwanda, Africa’s most densely populated country. In spite of growing food where ever they can, literally to their door steps and up the tops of the Mille Collines, food insecurity is wide spread. Rwandais live on less than .50 a day. I couldn’t match the softness of my world to Goma or Kinshasa, DRC, grey places strewn with rubbish and filth, and where a single tree left standing is so special I would take a picture of it.

Lying in this bed America has made for me, I proceeded to become very ill. In our cozy, perfect house, I counted the number of faucets that produce hot and cold drinking water in our home, 6, not including showers, baths, toilets, and outdoor irrigation. I thought about Rwanda, where only 2.5% of the population has piped water, and even then, it isn’t potable, how diahhreal disease is the leading killer of children under age 5. I stared in frozen disbelief at a plastic cereal dispenser with 2 sizes of openings for maximum convenience, which our housekeeper had picked up while I was away because we had those pesky pantry pests. Never mind I had just been where folks drop dead from mosquito bites, the treatment for which costs less than my Tupperware. I would stand in the kitchen with this dispenser on the counter and stare it, thinking about Astrid, a tiny starving toddler I met outside Kinshasa at a health clinic which in this country would be a condemned building. Abandoned by her mother, brought in by her grandmother, I watched Astrid clutch UNICEF provided re feeding formula with a rage and fury only the truly starving can ever understand.

After a week or so, I went to my family doctor. He looked me over very carefully, aware as he is of my peregrinations. In his pristine office outfitted with slick hand held computers for each staff person, I recalled Kinshasa General, where services are so inadequate children hospitalized for the 3rd, 4th, 5th time with life threatening malaria are not sleeping under bed nets, and may well contract more malaria whilst there. My doctor’s diagnosis? He sensitively and compassionately informed me that I had a very, very bad case of reverse culture shock, and that it was going to take time for me to heal.

Accepting my malaise was spiritual and centered in my mind, I went to see a psychologist trained in a trauma relief treatment called EMDR. I accessed this service gratefully and with awareness of the faintly ridiculous irony that I could have trauma from merely visiting a place for 3 weeks where tens of thousands of raped girls and women never receive any care, and are in fact stigmatized, abandoned, and left to die. They lucky ones crawl through the jungle to clinics like Panzi and Heal Africa to live on the streets hoping to have traumatic fistula repair and genital reconstruction.

I wondered if visiting the genocide memorials in Rwanda had scarred me in a way that was disabling my immune system’s ability to heal. With my Rwandais PSI friends, I had walked through tight, dark aisles stacked 10’ tall with femurs, tibias, and skulls, noting the little ones, the ones with chunks missing where .50 Chinese made machetes struck. I saw clothes suspended from nylon wires, mimicking the panicked flight of the fleeing. We were all scarred.

I sat with Dr Christensen and the most curious thing emerged. I had a little trauma, but mostly grief. Her validation of my grief touched me, and it provoked daily round of tears came. I asked for permission to sit in her office and weep. At one point, she said, “Ashley, you’re doing a good job.” I didn’t know if she meant in my work with PSI, or my commitment to keep my soul engaged in this work. I’d like to think she meant both.

We did do one session of EMDR that day. I described photographs from the 1930’s of Catholic priests lining up natives by the thousands to measure their skulls, the results of the measurements sealing a person’s fate as Hutu or Tutsi, which historically were vocational designations and not ethnic identities. However, this was perverted and distorted by the elite, by the government, by the powerful, and Hutu or Tutsi was noted on sinister identification cards which became death and rape certificates for a million + people in 1994. I was traumatized by these photographs because I know I am human, fallible, capable of greatness, capable of atrocity. In pictures like those, I could be on either side: The measured, or the measurer. The abuser or the abused. My mind’s eye went back to the white priest, the black woman. What side of history am I going to be on?

Gratefully, in countries like Rwanda and DRC, with challenges so shocking they sent me to bed for 3 weeks mad with grief, PSI puts me on the right side of history.

How an actor like I could be in a position to have the opportunity to make a difference with a serious, global NGO like PSI is due in large measure to the history making of our honoree. Sir Bob Geldof, an Irish poet pop star, pierced to his soul by the tragedy of the Ethiopian famines in the 1980’s, he leveraged his core competencies as a musical star to organize the global broadcast of culture changing, awareness raising concerts featuring the greatest talents of the times. Live Aid were unprecedented events at the time, and have created a bona fide genre that continues to raise hundreds of millions of dollars for poverty alleviation in sub Saharan Africa. Last month alone from Live Aid proceeds he approved the construction of 40 schools in sub Saharan Africa and 2 teaching institutes which will train 10,000 teachers each! I heard Sir Bob speak last week at the Clinton Global Initiative, and I was so humbled I verged on humiliated! He has been at his human rights work for 2 decades, radically transforming the consciousness of artists and the public they reach. He single handedly initiated the opportunity for me and other artists to use our status for global good. Ladies and gentlemen, the lovely Irishman who makes me feel like a useless twist, the good and great Sir Bob Geldof