Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Haka: New Zealand

Dear Helen, Dear John,

While I have to research some countries for a while to discover what I want to write about them, a few are no-brainers. New Zealand is one of the latter countries for me. Why? Haka.

I had several Polynesian friends growing up and a Samoan roommate in college so I attended a lot of Polynesian dance rehearsals and helped out with luaus. There are many fun dances from the various islands, but haka is something else entirely. Get guys in native dress with their faces painted doing this within a few feet of you and yes, even when you know what is coming, it can be intimidating. Rugby players are well aware of this because of the haka tradition of the All Blacks Rugby Team:

The guys I watched performing haka in person never did it halfway- they left handprints on their chests from slapping themselves so hard. These 6th,7th, and 8th year boys clearly demonstrate the intensity I'm talking about, especially about 3 minutes into the video:

There are several reasons I enjoy haka. One is there is a unity and an individuality to each one that is powerful. Haka aren't just war dances and they aren't just performed by men; they are used for many reasons and occasions. One chant I was taught in college is actually used to welcome people. I've not found a good video that matches my personal experience of it but an audio file and description of what is now commonly known as a haka pōwhiri can be found here

And here's a haka that is just for fun:


Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Admiration for Ancestors and Appliquéd Cloth: Benin

Dear Helen, Dear John,

I read an interesting article today about appliquéd cloth in the country of Benin. These cloths told stories and preserved the history of Danhomè kings in ways that have a striking similarity to the systems of Egyptian hieroglyphs and Chinese characters- images representing language and sounds. 
These cloths are still made in Benin today, though the styles of the cloths have evolved over time. 

Another interesting bit I found about Benin was that the red in the Benin flag represents the courage of the nation's ancestors.

Benin is located in West Africa and French is the official language though, like many African countries, many languages are spoken there.

Edabo (Bye in Fon),


Monday, July 9, 2012

I Am David: Bulgaria

Dear Helen, Dear John,

It's not easy to heal from traumatic experiences, especially if you feel that at some level you were part of the reason they happened in the first place. Knowing that the details in the death threats my family received while in the witness protection program came from conversations I had had with my best friend at thirteen was incredibly hard to live with for me. For four and a half years there was very little about my life that I could talk about. Once the trial was finally over and the murderer condemned to life in prison without parole, many people who had gossiped about and ostracized me and my loved ones during those years suddenly wanted to be close friends. My family was suddenly seen as brave and admirable instead of a bad influence. The thing was, we hadn't changed in that way during that time- only others' perceptions of us did. The reason my parents testified even when it came at a huge price for our family was because it was the right thing to do. I came away from those experiences with a huge distrust of people and their motives towards me. It is a horrible way to live.

I Am David is a movie about a young boy who has spent most of his life in a communist camp in Bulgaria after WWII. It follows his journey towards freedom and shows what the struggle to trust people and move forward can be like. The fractured flashbacks, how you think about yourself, how you relate to people- or don't- is all there. Watching that movie has been very healing for me. Like David, it took a succession of good people in my own life before I could start opening up and trusting again. Even now it is a terrific struggle for me.

The reality is that there are people who do horrible things, but there are plenty of examples of people who do not. There are many people who live good lives under normal conditions. There are also exceptional people who live kind and honorable lives in whatever circumstances they may be in. This may be harder to find, but it isn't impossible, and you don't always have to look as far for it as you might think.

In I Am David there is a time in the camp when David wishes he was dead. His friend chastises him telling him never to say that, never to think it. In response to David's "Why not? They are going to kill us anyway" line of reasoning his friend tells him to do what he can to stay alive because when you are alive, you can change things.

I don't know how many people wish they were dead at some point in their lives, but I imagine the feeling is pretty common. Life is hard. Efforts, even great ones, can feel futile. They're not. Something that helped save me in high school was a photo of an entire family who were hung by the Nazis for rescuing Jews in WWII. That image, especially because some of the children were so young, was haunting and emotionally devastating- but it was brave, heroic, and inspiring at the same time. These people failed in what they were originally attempting to do and suffered for it. But in other ways- perhaps even in more important ways- they succeeded. They left a legacy of decency and bravery that changed my life fifty years later even when I did not know their names. Of the people in the crowd, in uniform, and on the gallows, they were the ones I decided that day I wanted to be like. That image affected how I lived during and after the trial. I've made stronger, more principled decisions in my daily life because of them.

I Am David was filmed in Bulgaria, and as a man I met who came from there once told me, and as the film footage shows, it is a beautiful country with a great deal of history and geographic diversity. Good people and good choices are not limited to a few countries or ethnicities. Whether I succeed in completing my olympic challenge before the olympics end or not, I hope that I have shown that every country has helpers and something worth celebrating.

In this case Bulgaria's history inspired a writer to write a book that inspired the people who turned it into a movie. That movie helped me to trust more and to learn how to forgive myself for choices I had made at thirteen that ended up hurting my family. I live with the hope that by living even when it is hard and even when there is little that I can do, I can change things for the better by living the best that I can no matter the circumstances I am in. With time, I hope that means that I will gradually evolve into the person I hope one day to be.  

With love,