Monday, April 28, 2014

the art of squatting

Although I read this last year, this section has stayed with me since then and I catch myself consciously thinking of its wisdom while I'm squatting somewhere, waiting. I've come no longer to use waiting time to check my FaceBook or email or even, as I used to do, to use the opportunity to catch up on some reading (although I do continue to carry a thick book in my car for such opportunities). Instead, I squat, watching, waiting, thinking a little. Being.
My workers come from many places in Mexico and live in small towns scattered throughout the valley. Del Rey, where many of them stay, is the nearest town to my farm. The estimated population is about 1,500, but during the summer harvest the town swells to twice that size. The workers live in rented rooms, small cramped boardinghouses, or hidden bungalows in converted garages and toolsheds.
I visit one of these apartments. The workers live in a small outbuildings behind my foreman's house. Some of the men are standing, others are crouching in a familiar squat.
My grandmother squatted that way, peasants I saw in South America squatted that way, old folks in rural Japanese villages did the same. It is a common-folk way of resting and a fine observation point from which to watch the world. It's the squat I use when I'm waiting, not for anything in particular but the waiting and resting that's part of farming.
Squatting evens out physical differences. Tall people and short ones become closer in height when squatting. You share with others a common point of view. Once you squat you have to think twice about getting up; you become conscious of choices and decisions. Squatting is a mark of country folk who have worked the land and whose legs are in excellent condition. You can't squat well if you are overweight, if your legs are used to sitting in chairs, or if you are lazy. I wonder if we've lost the art of squatting. In our fast-paced world today, we're too busy or think we're too good to squat.
--From Epitaph for a Peach: Four Seasons on My Family Farm by David Mas Masumoto

Saturday, April 19, 2014

our old friend

This is my buddy Papaya, also called Pappy. He's been with us nearly a year and a half. He was the dog of a couple renters the sister of a woman involved with our rescue was evicting. They said they couldn't take him along and intended to put him down so the rescue took him in. They didn't give anyone a clue how old he might be, so he could be anywhere from fourteen to eighteen.

He had a poor reputation for being snappy and easily angered by the time he came to us for fostering. We discovered after close watching he is nearly blind and deaf, and so long as he wasn't surprised or startled he was all right. We got in the habit of touching him as we passed to get him used to us and that's all it took. After a few days he bonded enough to me that I could lift him onto a vet's table and in and out of the car. He started sleeping on a dog bed beside us or sometimes on one in the living room. A few weeks later we came to the conclusion no one would ever want an old, crabby, snappy dog so we adopted him.

Monday, the day after Easter, our vet is coming here and if the weather is good we will take him outside on the grass and she'll inject him and he'll die.

Pappy isn't sick, at least not physically. He's got stomach issues and arthritic hips we've given him multiple medications for and the little walking he does has probably completely shred the ACL joint of his rear right leg so that it swings almost free when he takes more than a few steps. Beyond that, he could probably live another year or two. But his behavior, never really the best, has grown worse. Our largest dog, Beans, alpha of the house, took it on himself to teach Pappy where everything was, it seemed, as he'd either lead him or nudge him in directions for doors and up the deck stairs. But in the last seven months Pappy has taken to barking almost non-stop when he sees Beans and has attacked him several times. We don't know if Beans may have hurt him or if Pappy is only imagining he's a threat, but after a while of this Beans retaliated, going for the top of his head instead of his throat, and leaving a deep gash there. That was around Christmas and after that we secluded Pappy in the kitchen, calling it his "Greg Brady" apartment and referencing his groovy room divider beads.

His animosity toward Beans has only increased, to the point where he goes into a fit of barking whenever he sees him or, in the past month, imagines he is nearby. We put a towel and then a blanket over the baby gate that seperates the rooms, but Pappy would mark constantly on it--and sometimes in other places in his room--so we've folded a shower curtain over it because it's easier to clean off.  His attitude, never the best toward anyone beyond us, sometimes blooms into full-blown paranoia when he barks and snaps at things he seems only to imagine. Our greatest fear is that he will bite someone who's come to visit and who we can't warn to move slowly first, especially a child.

He's a Shiba Inu and we had never heard of that breed before he came to us. After a year and change the most we know about these dogs is they are independent, often unaffectionate dogs that act more like spoiled cats. They have a high pitched shriek often called a Shiba scream that can be ear-piercing. He's nipped at us occasionally, fortunately never breaking the skin. Dogs can't tell you what they're experiencing, of course, so we can only assume he's growing more senile and sensing imaginary threats.  He developed a dolphin-like grin in the past month that the vet explains is the mark of a stressed dog in panic mode.

Still, as I say, he could live another year. Maybe two. But what determined our course is what he enjoys rather than what he fears. He loves to go outdoors, sometimes putting a peppy step to our walk down our long driveway to the mailbox and back, after which he's exhausted and can sleep so soundly we think he might have solved the issue by dying in his sleep. He loves to go for rides and tonight we took both Kiwi, a dog we're considering adopting, and him on errands with us and then for a drive to Dairy Queen where the employees treated them to little cups of vanilla ice cream with a dog treat on top. He sometimes cries out at night and one of us will go in the kitchen and lie with him on the floor, petting him and talking soothingly, until he starts to drop off again.

Sometimes his life is full of joy. In this, his final week, we've bought expensive meaty canned food to mix with his usual fare and we give him fatty treats and sometimes even food we're eating. Dogs and cats should leave this life on a good note and we want Papaya to die knowing there are still moments of pleasure and exhultation in his day rather than it becoming a chore he--and we--must labor to get through.

Most of our other animals have been creamated but one, Rayzen, was buried out back. We've often wondered, if it's true animal souls remain where their bodies are, if that's a lonely spot, and decided Pappy should join him there. I dug the hole today. They never knew one another but I don't think that matters. Besides, we don't think his remains should be closed up in a can tucked on a shelf but allowed, like Rayzen's was, to give sustenance to the worms and grubs and other crawlies under the grass there.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

“We are assuring you, it will never happen again”

Yesterday was the twentieth anniversary of what is surely among the most important genocidal acts of my lifetime: the attempt to eradicate as many members of the Tutsi population in Rwanda (and sympathetic Hutus, it must be remembered). Below is an essay I wrote nearly a decade ago both as a commemoration of the anniversary and as an example of one kind of research essay for my classes. There are many posts reflecting the acts beginning April 7, 1994, on the internet this week; this one is about the attempt to bring a sense of justice in a particularly Rwandan way.

Abstract:  The Rwandan practice of Gacaca—a process of public confession done before a town’s residents—is helping to quicken the pace of judicial procedures instituted in response to the 1994 Rwandan genocidal massacres.           

“We will Never Do It Again!”:

Rwandan Gacaca

On February 19, 2003—just a few months shy of the ninth anniversary of the April 1994 airplane crash killing President Juvenal Habyaramana and setting into motion the infamous 100-day genocidal attack on Rwandan ethnic Tutsis—“Judges at the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda...unanimously pronounced former Seventh day Adventist pastor Elizaphan Ntakirutimana and his son[,] medical doctor Gerard Ntakirutimana[,] guilty of genocide” (Fondation Hirondelle, 2003) for their roles in specific killings at Mugonero and Busasero.   They are sentenced to ten years and twenty-five years, respectively.  The Ntakirutimanas are the highest-profile defendants of the ICTR trials, and their unanimous convictions provide testament to the difficult work done by ICTR prosecutors.

            The work has been difficult, but the eleven-month trial, the speediest of the ten decisions the ICTR has accomplished since its 1995 inception, and of which there remain another forty-five, leaves observers optimistic.  After all, the Ntakirutimana’s defense relied primarily on two easy-to-prove points:  that neither defendant was anywhere in the vicinity during the massacres in which they supposedly participated; and in any case, neither actually swung a machete, the preferred method of execution during the massacre.

            Neither fact, however, mattered.  Their guilt was moral rather than physical.  Pastor Ntaki (the familiar patronymic among Rwandans), a Hutu, had received this letter, dated April 15, 1994, from several Tutsi pastors under his leadership:

How are you!  We wish you to be strong in all these problems we are facing.  We wish to inform you that we have heard that tomorrow we will be killed with our families.  We therefore request you to intervene on our behalf and talk with the [mayor].  We believe that, with the help of God who entrusted you the leadership of this flock, which is going to be destroyed, your intervention will be highly appreciated…We give honor to you.  (Gourevitch, 1998, p. 42)


            Pastor Ntaki did indeed intervene with the mayor.  The result is described by Philip Gourevitch.

In Nyarubuye, when Tutsis asked the Hutu Power mayor how they might be spared [after the extermination had begun the previous week in Kigali], he suggested that they seek sanctuary at the church.  They did, and a few days later the mayor came to kill them.  He came at the head of a pack of soldiers, policemen, militiamen, and villagers; he gave out arms and orders to complete the job well.  No more was required of the mayor, but he also was said to have killed a few Tutsis himself.

The killers killed all day…At night they cut the Achilles tendons of survivors and went off to feast behind the church, roasting cattle looted from their victims in big fires, and drinking beer…And, in the morning, still drunk after whatever sleep they could find beneath the cries of their prey, the killers at Nyarubuye went back and killed again.  Day after day, minute to minute, Tutsi by Tutsi:  all across Rwanda, they worked like that.  “It was a process,” Sergeant Francis said.  (Gourevitch, pp 18-19)


            These victims were the neighbors and friends of their murderers.  Something very strange went on in Rwanda during those months.  And something no less strange occurs in its aftermath.

            One thing that must be understood about the Rwandan massacres is that they did not happen either in a vacuum or in secret.  The murderers, minority ethnic Hutus, members of the same tribe with which President Habyaramana, himself a Hutu, had stocked his government, were well-prepared, armed and trained for months prior to the genocide, and informed of the attack’s timing and pressed on by Radio Mille Collines, Rwanda’s nationally-owned radio station.  There were also a lot of them.  The fifty-five current cases before the ICTR are but a tiny fraction of the 2500 “Category One” killers, described by Samantha Powers (2003) as genocide planners, “well-known” murderers, or defendants who killed with “zeal” or “excessive wickedness”.  Another 120,000 Rwandans await conviction on lesser charges.  It is estimated there were 800,000 individual murders of ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus during that one hundred days, and there are many, many categories besides Category One.

            The ICTR obviously cannot try each case, nor is it designed to try, a la Nuremburg, a specific class of cases.  Eventually, each case is meant to arrive in Rwanda’s regular court.  Helping them get there is a specifically Rwandan process called gacaca.

            Gacaca (pronounced ga-CHA-CHA and so-named “for the leaves of grass on which traditional leaders sat while they resolved community disputes” [Powers, p 48]) is a once-a-week judicial procedure attended by the rescapĂ©s, or Tutsi and Hutu survivors of the massacres.  Inaugurated in 1999 by Rwandan president Paul Kagame in an attempt to lessen the strain on the country’s prisons into which suspects had been crammed since mid-1994, gacaca is “a public confessional process that recalls both the Salem witch trials and a Mississippi Christian revival” (Powers, p 48).  Powers describes one such gacaca she witnessed in Niyikazu, Butare:

            One group of prisoners arrived on foot, dressed like other villagers in worn blue jeans and smudged Nike T-shirts, African sarongs, and an assortment of flip-flops, loafers, and bedroom slippers…They were hauling stools and benches, on which their fellow townspeople sat during the day of exhausting testimony.  Although there was hardly any supervision, none of the prisoners tried to make a dash for the hills.  The local prison chief explained, “It is not in our culture for people to try to escape.”

            A second group of prisoners arrived dressed in pink prison uniforms…Some of the prisoners has starched their shirts for the big day.  All seemed giddy, enjoying the change of scenery and the first hope in seven years of eventual release.

            …[A] handful of prisoners in the jail’s musical troupe made their way into the center of the courtyard, which was by now ringed by more than a thousand onlookers.  One prisoner played the bongo drums and four strummed guitars, several of which had been painted pink to match their prison uniforms.  The musicians…were joined by prison singers, who danced to a rhythmic song about murder, confession, truth, liberation, and reconciliation.  The beat was catchy, combining reggae, polka, and gospel singing…When the song reached its final stanza—“We are assuring you, it will never happen again”—the three prison dancers twirled around and  swished their hips to the tune, all the while making a throat-slitting motion, and wagging their fingers to indicate admonition.  “We will never do it again!” (p 49)


            This seems the stuff of satire, ripe for mockery, but the truth lies in that phrase delivered by the unnamed prison chief:  “It is not in our culture for people to try to escape.”  These people had done terrible deeds and it has become in their best interests to confess them because they have nowhere else to go.  Those who, after the return and victory of the Rwandese Patriotic Front from Uganda, decamped to Tanzania or Congo or Zaire to escape vengeance, have, for the most part, returned.  The number of former murderers living in close proximity to their former victims is of course a sore point—Gourevitch ends his book with the story of Jean Girumuhatse, a returnee from Zaire who had run a roadblock and who admitted to killing at least six people, and his request of Laurencie Nyirabeza, a rescapĂ© whose family he killed and a woman who he himself struck with a machete, for her “pardon”—however, as President Kagame has said, “We have no alternative.” 

            Gourevitch’s tale ends as Girumuhatse describes the genocide as “like a dream.” 

“It came from the regime like a nightmare.”  Now, it seemed, he had not so much waked up as entered a new dream, in which his confession and his pat enthusiasm for Rwanda’s reform—“The new regime is quite good.  There are no dead…There is a new order”—did not require any fundamental change of politics or heart.  He remained a middleman, aspiring to be a model citizen and to reap the rewards.  When the authorities said kill, he killed, and when the authorities said confess, he confessed.  (Gourevitch, pp 310-11)


            This, it would seem, is the particular advantage of the gacaca:  that one who needs to confess will do so, and be sent further along the chain to ultimate responsibility,  while one who has nothing to confess will be absolved.  Of the 8000 prisoners presented at gacaca, nearly 2000 have been freed, not on technicalities but on the say-so of their neighbors.  Such a system is unlikely to work in the US—we are more a nation of Pastor Ntakis, who loudly declares, if not his innocence, then his lack of responsibility for the consequences of his actions—but gacaca seems a uniquely effective Rwandan solution to a uniquely Rwandan problem.



Works Cited in this Essay:


Fondation Hirondelle.  (2003, February 19.)  Elizaphan Ntakirutimana.  Retrieved March

1, 2003. cf00 4 f793d/b327fbfdb8707d83c12567cb003390c8?OpenDocument

Gourevitch, Philip.  (1998.)  We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We will be Killed

            With our Families.  New York:  Farrar Strauss Giroux.

Powers, Samantha.  (2003, January 16.)  Rwanda:  The Two Faces of Justice.  The New

            York Review of Books, pp 47-50.


Monday, April 7, 2014

no regrets

I had an interesting conversation the other day that has stayed in the back of my mind since then, sometimes intruding on other thoughts. I had seen a psychiatrist--my first time, suprisingly I think, given how many times I've sought counseling--and during the course of our interview she asked, "Do you have any regrets about your past? Your drinking, drugs, your homelessness?"

I said, confidently, "No. No, I don't."

A  while later, in relation to another matter, she brought the subject up again. "You're certain, nothing you would change? Not your drinking or being homeless?"

"No," I repeated. "I don't want to romanticize it but there were things about those times of my life that I really liked and I'm glad I did."

And later, again, she said, "I've seen hundreds of people and no one, ever, has said he has no regrets about any of his past, so you're a first for me."

That's what is stuck in my brainclot. This notion that everyone else regrets his or her past misdeeds or perceived misadventures, and the suggestion that maybe I ought to regret them. I'll admit there are some instances I wish had turned out differently--some people I wish I'd been kinder to, some I wish I hadn't been so forgiving with, and those situations might have led to changes in my life--but with the major issues of my life, my decision to drink, to take as many drugs (outside anything to speed me up, tho coffee is as much a drug as any other) as I was offered, to pack up my belongings and go on the road instead of finding a new home after a few months on the street, I don't regret a thing.

No mistake, those were often difficult things to go through, but I'm happier I went through them than if I'd avoided them. I like the sense of disconnect and lack of control I get when I drink; I never had a bad trip on acid or peyote and weed was a very good friend; my homelessness helps me to remember to keep slow and not to take things as seriously as I might otherwise.

But I can't be the only one. I've known many homeless people and there have been some who choose to continue the life because they're comfortable with it or because they like who they meet or they feel safer. I've known a lot of drinkers and druggies who partake because they genuinely like it. It may be that such people never go to see psychiatrists and so are underrespresented. But I don't believe for a second I'm the only one who has who will admit to it.