Saturday, May 5, 2012

Musical Memory

Near the end of last month, Max and I took a trip to eastern Uganda, to a town called Bugiri.  We went to visit the project site of an Irish NGO called Goal, where the organization builds houses for vulnerable members of the surrounding communities.  When Marc, Positive Planet’s executive director, was in Uganda in March, we had a meeting at Goal’s office in Kampala to talk about this project.  A few years ago, they had done a pilot study using the same kind of interlocking bricks that we use (Interlocking Stabilized Soil Bricks ISSBs) and comparing the costs with those using traditional burned clay bricks.  They found that, in the end, their construction with traditional bricks was significantly less expensive and required much less cement than construction with ISSBs.  So, this result caused some concern for our organization.  Goal agreed to let Max and me visit the site where they’re currently building houses, so we could get a better idea of their process and try to figure out why traditional bricks turned out to be so much cheaper.

So, we went and visited a bunch of their housing sites, some of which were still under construction, and some of which had been completed.  The quality of the work seemed to be good, and they really do a good job of getting the cost of each house as low as possible, while maintaining quality.  But, it didn’t take long to figure out why the traditional bricks were so much less expensive.  Normally, when someone lays a brick wall, the standard mortar that would be used is a mixture of cement and sand.  Water is added, which reacts with the cement, and the cement basically glues all of the little particles together.  Goal used to do that, but, because cement is expensive and because their contractors often tried to use less cement than they should have to save money, the organization decided to change to a mortar that is a mixture of sand and clay…basically mud.  Clay also has certain properties that help to hold things together, so it still works…maybe not quite as well as cement, but it serves the purpose here.  Obviously, clay and sand are pretty readily available in the country, so using clay in the mortar reduces costs quite a bit.  One of the big selling points of ISSBs is that the interlocking structure of the bricks creates a more stable connection between bricks, both horizontally and vertically, so you don’t need to use as much mortar to hold everything together.  The production of ISSBs does call for a small percentage (5-10%) of cement in the brick mixture, but this amount of cement would normally be outweighed by the cement savings that you would see when using less mortar during construction.  With no cement in the mortar, the cement in the ISSBs would just be extra, and the overall cost basically has to go up.  The walls have a heck of a lot of mortar, but there’s no cement in there, so it doesn’t really matter when compared to an ISSB wall.

After realizing this, I suggested the idea of trying to find other materials that we could substitute for some or all of the cement in the ISSBs, in an effort to lower the cost of a brick and further reduce our cement usage.  It’s going to take a while to figure out what kind of materials to try, and then to actually test them out…and there’s a reason cement is the material currently recommended (nothing has been found that’s better and cheaper).  So, this might end up being much ado about nothing, but I think it’s at least worth a try.

Now, the reason I started talking about this whole experience was not to drone on about the technical details of brick-making and brick-laying.  I want to go back to when Max and I were in Bugiri.  Goal had these nice Land Cruisers that we got to ride in when we were out visiting all of the sites.  It was quite a change from the cars and minibuses that play the “stuff one more person into the vehicle until it’s almost ready to pop like a balloon” game.  It was certainly nice and comfortable, but I have to admit that it was also a little strange.  Riding through the countryside in this thing, I sort of felt like I was riding in to “save Africa” on some white horse or something.  Maybe I’ve just lost the ability to appreciate a comfortable car ride, but I’m pretty sure I felt a bit of that “savior mentality.”  It kind of made me realize the value of the “Peace Corps experience,” in which we don’t get to ride around in nice, spacious vehicles and work in offices with generators, desktop computers, and break rooms (Goal’s office had all of this stuff…it was kind of nice to just sit in there and marvel).  We actually walk or take public transportation.  When the power goes out in town, the lights go out in our office and at my home.  The only running water is the one tap in my compound, which is on sometimes and is only used to fill up my storage tank.  There’s actually something refreshing about living like this, facing many of the same issues as the people with whom I try to work.  Let’s be honest…I don’t have to deal with everything.  Quite a bit separates me from the average Ugandan (for example, I’m typing on a laptop computer right now), but I’m certainly more aware of certain things than I would be if I got to drive around in a Land Cruiser all the time, and there’s something to be said for that.

My main point here is that I think I’m pretty much completely over this whole idea of coming in to save people.  Don’t get me wrong…I hope the work that I do makes a positive impact on people’s lives, but the whole idea of being some kind of “savior” or “bringer of life and hope” or something sort of leaves a bad taste in my mouth now.  I think at least part of me used to believe that I could be these things to everyone around me, but, now, I think I’m starting to realize that I don’t want to be that, and that I shouldn’t try to be that…

Through some combination of my faith, my perfectionism, and my occasional idealism, I have sometimes fallen into the trap of thinking that I can be everything that everyone needs…essentially, in Christian terms, that I could “be Jesus” – the perpetual suffering servant who never thinks of himself, only of the needs of others – to all those around me.  I can’t…why?  Because I’m not Jesus, or God, or a person with any more potential than anyone else around me.  As much as some people here might think that this white person can solve any problem (I recently got a call from someone who dialed the wrong number…after convincing him that it really was a wrong number and that I didn’t know anyone named “Flo,” he asked me to help him find Flo…how the heck was I supposed to accomplish that?), this white person cannot do everything (even if he does vaguely resemble the long-haired guy in the westernized Jesus pictures that hang in quite a few houses around here).

Nope, I’m just John, trying to live my life as best as I can and making mistakes in the process.  But isn’t that what makes our lives and our world so interesting and charming?  The fact that we are not perfect, that we cannot do everything ourselves, that we don’t have all the answers…No one’s pure light or pure darkness.  We’re all some shade of gray, and we don’t really know exactly what shade (as we look “through a mirror darkly”).  The imperfections, the inconsistencies, the mental battles with ourselves, the uncertainties…these are what make us human, and these are what make those brief glimpses of the divine, when the whole universe seems to be working together in harmony, all the more beautiful.

Over the past few months, I’ve realized that these things I sometimes see as weaknesses or imperfections – my mind occasionally placing greater importance on my own personal needs than on the needs of others, my frustrations with certain aspects of Uganda, my (relatively frequent) desire to have some time to myself (I recently referred to my house as the “fortress of solitude” as I was thinking about things in my head…in addition to not being Jesus, maybe I also need to remind myself that I’m not Superman) – these things are really just parts of me…that I shouldn’t necessarily try to deny them whenever they creep up.  The fact that I find certain things about Uganda and the culture of this place a bit frustrating just shows that I have a somewhat different set of cultural values, that I was brought up in a slightly different way, and I can’t deny that this is the case.  I like to talk about how we’re all so similar, how very little separates me from a Ugandan, but there are certain things that do separate, and it’s not right to try to deny that or to refuse to acknowledge that.  While I have to have respect for the culture in which I find myself, I also have to have respect for my own culture and for my own needs.  And that’s why I, personally, can’t be this ideal “suffering servant.”  There’s a reason the “body of Christ” is made up of many parts.  Having the faith to move mountains is a lot easier when lots of people believe that it can happen, and then we all pick up shovels to get things started (I think that might be a slightly altered Indian proverb…).

So, with these thoughts in mind, while I still spend lots of days working crazy hours and not really taking time for myself at all, I have started (or, more appropriately, resumed) doing a few things that help me decompress, de-stress, and relax (if I have the time).  Aside from trying to spend time with friends (which has become easier now that another PC volunteer is living in town J), these things almost all involve music (and now the blog title finally makes sense).  I’ve been listening to music a lot more recently, spending entire evenings working, cooking, or doing whatever to the sounds of the Beatles, Billy Joel, the Rolling Stones, Tom Petty, Queen, the Who, and a whole bunch of others in the classic rock category (including right now…John Lennon – post-Beatles – is currently cued up).  It’s really interesting to me how much some of my memories are tied to music…I’ll hear a certain song, and remember that it was the song playing as I was driving to visit a friend, or that it is another friend’s favorite song, or something like that.  So, I think about people back in the states a lot when listening to music.  I’ve also put a music writing program on my computer a few weeks ago, and apparently I had a lot of pent up musical creativity waiting to find some sort of expression…I’ve already written a fairly big piece for cello and piano.  Now, if I could just play it…  I mean, the computer plays it back for me, but it’s got that mechanical perfection that just so boring.  Here’s another example of how our humanity, our “imperfections” and “inconsistencies” make things more interesting.  The little idiosyncrasies of a real person playing an instrument (sliding from one note to the next when making a big jump, starting out a hair sharp and then relaxing into exactly the pitch, tiny changes to the tempo to make things more intense and then to sit back and take a deep breath) make each performance unique and a personal experience that can connect the people performing and the people listening unlike almost anything else.

Anyway, that’s probably enough of my “music is amazing” rambling for today.  The important thing is that I’m trying to make sure I give myself what I need, and to be better at accepting it when others give me what I need, while I also try to give others what they need, when I am able.  Sometimes it’s a tough balancing act, but, other times (maybe during those times when everything in the universe is working together in harmony), it all happens at the same time.  I am fulfilled, others are fulfilled, and everybody helps everybody else…no hierarchy, arrogance, or egotism.  Just selfless love that nourishes the self as it nourishes others…