Anne de Graaf's blog: International-Intrigue-Injustice

6 August 2014

Timelessness

Filed under: PhD!,Thin and Thick Places,Write on — annedegraaf @ 4:29 pm

time clocksWhen my big, fat, beautiful new 40-hour-a-week job at Amsterdam University College (AUC) became 60 hours a week this last year, time took on a different dimension. As I listened to my students, as I graded papers and exams, as I lectured on international relations, human rights, global identity, violence, and conflict, the best days were the ones when I was very present. I saw smiles. I watched eyes. I listened to the rain against the skylight above my desk. I tasted cool water. I heard questions and sought answers. I laughed. I have had the privilege of watching as students from all over the world expanded their borders, and with courage, learned to ask the questions that cannot be answered.

During the summer break I’m finishing my PhD. This last year trained me well: do the next thing and trust. All is well. Soon, soon, soon I submit.

It’s not that time is infinite, you see, but when the fear and anxiety of thinking about the past and future pass, all that is left is timeless present.

I see. I hear. I understand.

I live. I laugh. I love.

22 September 2013

Change of direction

_69699014_arrows_thinkstockSo is this up, or have I turned left? More than a year since my last post. Why is that? Look at the title of that entry, take away the first, second and fourth words, and you’ll have your answer.

And now…now I have a new job at the Free University and University of Amsterdam’s honours college: Amsterdam University College (AUC). Am in joy working with new colleagues from all over the world, and teaching my new students: so smart and engaged and multilingual and caring. They come from South America, all over Europe, Vietnam, and Pakistan.

We’re slogging our way through the theory now, but soon, soon they’ll be flying–choosing their own directions as we learn together how to better understand the world around us. Such a privilege to be part of that process. I threaten them with midnight phone calls, when I’ll ask them random questions about International Relations (IR):

  • 1648? (Westphalian Treaty)
  • The one sure rule in IR? (Don’t invade Russia in the winter.)
  • What is IR about? (Perspectives).

I’m a fulltime Lecturer at AUC–all IR classes, from the current IR Theory and Practice to next semester’s Human Rights and Human Security to Violence and Conflict, as well as Global Identity. Dream classes all–and with only 25 students per class. Started 1 August and feel very at home. So that’s good.

Direction is relative, right? One person’s up is another’s down. And left in the mirror looks like right. Yet, while all the gurus tell us change is good, it remains hugely threatening. BECAUSE WE’RE NOT IN CONTROL.

So my advice: Let go to lay hold.

And don’t look back.

2 August 2012

Peace and conflict studies

Filed under: Thin and Thick Places,Write on — annedegraaf @ 2:09 pm

Have been writing a slew of recommendation letters this week for students looking for jobs and internships, as well as ones moving on to graduate school. Thought to myself, does this deserve a blog entry? I’m always wanting to write about my students because they’re so extraordinary, but privacy issues keep me from saying too much. Still, I think I might manage to give you a few glimpses without giving too much away.

Two–count them–two former students have been accepted by the London School of Economics to do their graduate work. Another one is going to the University of Leiden to study Clinical Psychology. She may be followed by a second former student who comes from a country that everyone is afraid of these days. Both these women have degrees in psychology, yet they took my Human Rights classes last year because they wanted to understand. I’ve got one student who’s hoping to get into Stanford, and another who might land an internship at the International Criminal Court for the former Yugoslavia.

The absolute best part of teaching is watching young people find their way in this world. It’s such a minefield sometimes, that when one of them makes it to the next step, and if I can help in any way by putting words together so others see them as I do, then . . . well, it doesn’t get much better than that. I listen to young people and can create a space for them to realize the next step in fulfilling all they are meant to become, to really see themselves. And when they do, we’re all doing the happy dance!

Just a few weeks ago I sat in the pub with a group of friends, when one of the LSE-destined students (who hadn’t yet heard he was accepted) mumbled about how he couldn’t find a job, doors closing all around him. Now, he’s writing me of the magnificent opportunity awaiting him in London.

Peace and conflict studies is sort-of my thing these days. I write about it, research, and teach it. We read a lot about peace and conflict among nations, and among communities, but I see it in these young people’s very lives. The minefields they dance through often involve hardships: divorced parents, financial troubles, medication, disability. A few have confessed they went through rehab and now are picking up the pieces of their lives. Their stories resonate as I watch them engage and grow and redefine themselves in terms of their heart’s desires, rather than their parents’ or culture’s idea of what they should become. They find peace on the path, as conflict rages on behind them.

So what do I write in these magic letters that help them find favor? About their honesty, integrity, and courage. About their ability to use theory and analyze. About their hearts. How hardworking they are. And smart.

And then yesterday, I wrote a letter for a former student who probably has scored a job at Victoria Secrets. I just had too much fun avoiding every shape of double meaning. Of course, I mean shade. See, that’s what I mean! Peace and conflict studies can sometimes mean something very surprising.

21 July 2012

Pedagogical geek

Filed under: Thin and Thick Places,Words by Others — annedegraaf @ 12:52 pm

I’ve recently discovered a new facet to my personality. Although I draw the line at wearing four different colored pens in my shirt pocket, I do seem to have certain characteristics that place me into a geek category. I’ve found I actually enjoy the whole educational world of assessment, syllabi, curriculum design, and learning outcomes. I seem to be able to entertain myself for hours with talk of rubrics as a tool for grading.

In May I flew to the mother ship of our university, in St. Louis, Missouri (or misery as my husband likes to pronounce it), and spent several days happily discussing general education objectives. I totally lost myself bouncing around ideas about such things as best practices with a roomful of instructors from all over the world.

But it was in Scotland a year ago, when I took some education modules at St Andrews, that I learned about the (what I think is very) exciting concept called threshold learning. And this is (so far) the most intriguing educational idea I’ve stumbled upon along this latest path in an unknown garden. Threshold learning is when we bring students to the edge of what they know, or what they think they know, or what they think they should know, and inspire them, or give them the courage to explore further, learn something new, seek out the unknown, to jump off the edge and trust.

I liken it to the phrase supposedly written on the Old World maps that the explorers used: Beyond this place, there be dragons! I checked into this and it turns out dragons were out of fashion by the time the 17th century rolled around and mapmakers added text to their charts. So actually, the warning wasn’t printed on ancient maps. I did find one consolation though, the Ottoman Admiral Piri Re’is (1513) refers to the Atlantic depths on his map with the words: “Here are monsters – all harmless souls.”

Learning how to learn: welcome to the New World.

10 July 2012

With you

Filed under: PhD: South Africa!,Thin and Thick Places,Words by Others — annedegraaf @ 4:00 pm

March. April. May. June. Last week I sent 7 packages to friends in South Africa. I wrote letters. I remembered the warmth and sunshine in our own summer, and I was able to pick up the journals with notes from over 100 interviews. My field work has waited for me four months as I taught and did what needed to be done at the university where I work. But now, this summer, I’m back in PhD mode and that means reading articles and books, typing up interview notes, and watching the themes in the research emerge like images in a darkroom tray.

This painting is called “Women in Motion,” and it is by Lesley Charnock of Cape Town. I brought it home with me and after months of waiting, it is framed and ready to be hung in our home. A woman in motion, that’s me. I’ve already booked my next plane ticket to South Africa. Must go back. Must breathe.

Have had the student BBQ, when my home world and school world merged. Quote of the evening: “Vodka, Miss–kudos!” That after my sweet husband made blinis and served caviar and vodka for my Russian students.

If summer is overdosing in the U.S., it seems to have forgotten northern Europe. Still gray and raining here.

Feel in a holding pattern. Writing. Reading. Remembering. What’s a PhD? It’s just a PhD, my supervisor told me the last time I saw her. What you have here is a book. Write just the PhD first. Filters: youth, narrative, agency.

Taught human rights theories last term, all about agency. Searching. Listening. Listening still.

End of August I start teaching again: Critical thinking–so happy to have the privilege to stretch young minds. Why? How do you know that? What is not being said?

I hear the wind and smell lavender. Rondebosch. I taste honey. Free State. Do you remember my questions? Stellenbosch. The neighbor’s child cries. Fish Hoek. My fingers tapping on the keys. Cape Flats. Young eyes hoping.

because of you
this country no longer lies
between us but within

it breathes becalmed
after being wounded
in its wondrous throat

in the cradle of my skull
it sings, it ignites
my tongue, my inner ear, the cavity of heart
shudders towards the outline
new in soft intimate clicks and gutturals

of my soul the retina learns to expand
daily because by a thousand stories
I was scorched

a new skin.

I am changed for ever.  I want to say:
forgive me
forgive me
forgive me

You whom I have wronged, please
take me

with you.
-Antjie Krog, Country of my Skull

16 March 2012

Reflection

I’m home. I feel all mixed-up inside. I brought Cape Town back with me, it warms my heart as I stare at gray North European skies and put on yet another layer of clothes. No one knows my secret: I’m tan!! Well, my husband knows.

I hit the ground running, going into work for a week starting the day after I arrived, and working straight through the weekend. Then yesterday I heard myself telling our daughter that my emotions are all mixed up and bubbling. “My heart feels like a water balloon, rolling around and around, about to burst. I don’t know what to do.” She wisely asked (where does she get it from?), “What does your heart say?” And I suddenly knew what I had to do: geef het een plek (give it a place) and write down how I feel.

This blog came into being when I returned from another trip to Africa, much more battered than I am now. Putting down the truth and telling how I felt healed me then. The slow showing up to write every day for a half hour helped me breathe new life into a blocked writing habit. I don’t have that problem now. In fact, I’m all excited to be home and can’t wait to start teaching on Tuesday. I’m happy to see my colleagues and I love sleeping in my bed. The best part has been hanging out with my family and watching their eyes and memorizing their voices, now no longer skype distorted. No, I’m okay. But as a wise friend said to me on Wednesday, “You need to let it all settle.”

But it won’t. Memories lift me at the most surprising moments, like birds taking flight. Smiles on the street. The eyes of a 12-year-old I interviewed who said her dream is to get pregnant because then she will receive R200 (€20) per month. The smell of wood smoke and sewage inside a community. Air warm against my cheek while cool water caresses my ankles. Mountains rising across False Bay with a thousand shades of teal between the other side and me. The faces and voices of all those many interviews; their words still swirl though my heart.

It needs to be said that I have met children who have no hope. Struck down by poverty, orphaned, sexually abused–still they dared to tell me things like, “When I grow up I want to be a chartered accountant.” Where does that courage come from?

Oh, you want to know about my Thank-you Lunch! It was perfect. Three people didn’t show and one woman brought her two sons from the community, so we had just the right amount. We ate and laughed and at some point I moved my chair from one end of the table to the other. Then I asked the kids if they wanted milkshakes. Chocolate? Right. We ate some more. Beneath ancient trees sun dappled our long table full of roses and glasses. Who was there? Friends and family: a reverend, psychologist, student, anthropologist and her two little girls, a favorite little girl of mine who has the heart of a peacemaker, mentor and colleague, husbands, wives, think-tank program director, filmmaker, teacher-to-be and me. We did the usual de Graaf thing: ate and talked and laughed and told jokes and listened to stories. There was also a fair amount of exchanging phone numbers, so that was cool. I miss them, these friends and family.

I feel . . . mixed up. Sad and relieved. Sad that so many children seem left behind. “You can’t save them all.” No, but I can save one. And I’ll teach and write and use all the gifts I’ve received: listening and seeing, trying still to understand.

28 February 2012

Rainbow nation

I returned to Cape Town from the Free State a few weeks ago. Back to the mountain, the sea, the breathtaking beauty that is this city perched at the bottom of a continent where the next stop across the water is Antarctica. A poet friend told me that living in Cape Town gives you a whole new appreciation for gravity. Here we are dangling at the bottom of the world.

My days are full of words. I hear the most amazing things. Part of my research is about how to create listening spaces for young people. And this is one thing I have learned again and again…how to listen. How to listen to what is not being said: To hear the pain behind the small sigh, the despair when eyes don’t meet mine, the hope behind a blush. I meet with all sorts: teachers, youth politicians, wise old ANC lions, children, high school students, university students, poets, writers, artists, an imam, NGOs, and think tanks.

My first impression was that we are in mourning for the Mandela dream. People feel denial and anger about the betrayal of what they fought and hoped and voted for during the miracle in 1994, when the first free elections were held. So there is grief.

There is also terrible violence here: A rage like a volcano that erupts given the slightest provocation–murders, rapes, robberies, gangs, drugs.

What is terribly hard of course, are the disparities between rich and poor. The rich are fabulously wealthy, and the poor are truly hopeless. Sometimes only a highway separates communities (what used to be called townships) and a leafy gated suburb protected behind barbed wire. I have visited several communities and smelled the smells. No toilets, no running water, no electricity. Shacks. Some places are fairly clean; others had rats scuttling between the garbage on the streets in front of the shacks. People answer my questions in these places, trying not to stare at my hair, my shoes, my clothes, my camera, my tape recorder, my leather notebook, my pen, my sunglasses. All my possessions. My materials in this world where the losers have lost so very much.

“True wealth” is a term I heard during one of yesterday’s interviews. It is self-confidence, a sense of who you are, where you come from, where you are headed, and where you are. Being present. Interconnected with others and nature and the ancestors. A sense of community. This is what Africa can teach the rest of the world: An inherent dignity.

I am back where I was when I interviewed aids orphans in Kwa-Zulu Natal. I hear children talk of 11 people sleeping in 3 rooms. One student told me both her parents are seriously ill, so she must do the shopping and cooking for her siblings and nurse her parents and study for her exams. But even worse, there is an undercurrent of sexual abuse. One counsellor told me of a girl who is being raped by her father. These most vulnerable of the population know no protection.

Today I asked four 12-year olds what they liked most about school: “I feel safe here, Miss.” “At home the gangsters have guns and knives.” “I saw a man beaten in the head with a golf stick.” “We children can get in the way.”

So I am torn between heaven and hell. Words of courage and faith and trust swirl amongst the pain and fear. Walking along a pristine beach last week I realized I am standing in the gap between them all. In this deeply divided society where everyone has more thems than us, how to find the space in between, the place where an unexpected gift may be given at an unexpected time?

One answer is to do what you can do. Which is why I am throwing a party. Fourteen people are coming to a thank-you lunch on Saturday, my way of showing gratitude to new friends for the doors they have opened to me and my research. This could be the most diverse guest list this country has ever seen: all races and socio-economic backgrounds and ages. We will eat and drink and tell stories and laugh under the trees in the sunshine. And maybe a space for listening will open up and surprise us all with joy.

3 February 2012

Die Bittereinder

Filed under: PhD: South Africa!,The Children's Voices,Words by Others — annedegraaf @ 8:37 pm

I met an African-American today who told me for the first time in his life, in this place, he is no longer an African-American; he’s American.

I saw a sign along the Cape-Namibia highway that said: “No hooting! Ostriches being laid.” Of course my bent brain thought the words hooter and laid and it took another 10k before I understood what the sign meant.

I got on a plane and flew 90 minutes north to Bloemfontein, Free State, central South Africa. Came here for 10 days to listen to students and faculty at UFS, University of the Free State. It’s Afrikanerville here, Boer base. I speak Dutch and they tell me I’m talking funny. Baie dankie (thanks a lot). I feel like I’m walking around in a Dutch movie from the sixties. Men wear very short shorts. The shopping mall has two Christian bookstores, an embroidery shop and a fabric store.

UFS has done something unusual; they’ve created a space to wrestle with the messy issues of race and reconciliation. Incidents have happened, racial incidents, and the Vice-Chancellor and Rector, Jonathan Jansen, grabbed the opportunity and flipped it on its back to transform the university community into one that dares to ask the hard questions. Hostels (dormitories) are integrated and there’s an International Institute for Studies in Race, Reconciliation, and Social Justice. That’s why I’m here. And to listen.

What else do you want to know about Bloem? It’s hot—5 degrees hotter than Cape Town, which means 37 degrees. This is the birthplace of J.R.R. Tolkien and they’ve redone his home to look like the “Lord of the Rings” (sort of).

Ah yes, and the world’s first concentration camp originates here. My Intro to IR students know this one; it was on their final. During the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), the English could not defeat the Boers (farmers from Dutch ancestry), so introduced the “Scorched Earth” policy. They burned the homesteads and captured the farmers’ wives and children under 15 (boys aged 13 and 14 fought alongside their fathers and grandfathers=white African child soldiers—a new-old category) and put them into 39 concentration camps, where 29,000 women and children died. In addition, they put the black servants and farm workers into 65 concentration camps, where 24,000 people died.

“The English didn’t know how to battle the guerrilla warfare the Boers fought. The last time the English fought that kind of war was in Scotland.” Now I’m thinking “Braveheart,” and the old-new Scottish referendum for independence.

In the museum, my mind spinning, I asked out loud, “So, during the Boer war men shared the same race and religion as the women and children they incarcerated and starved and fed tins of food with chips of glass inside? But then this war was about. . . .” And the guide and I said the word at the same time: “Gold.”

In history we see it often; a society that is victimized, when it comes to power, then victimizes in turn. My class came up with the following examples: Israel, Liberia, America, South Africa. But we were thinking ANC. Now I wonder about the effect of losing all in a bitter, dirty war, then a generation later, coming into power. Were the seeds of apartheid sown by nations’ lust for gold and empire at any cost? Extrapolate that. Nations on this continent have learned that when oil or diamonds or gold are discovered, it almost certainly means war and famine.

Ignoring the Bosnian war has unleashed the Serb mafia (with many steps in between). Congo enjoys the involvement of seven nations in our generation’s own world war. Maybe there no longer is a “them” and “us.” We ignore others’ suffering at our own peril. We perpetrate human rights violations upon ourselves.

My new American friend shared a quote by Voltaire: “Because I am human, nothing human escapes me.” Maybe all the children really are our children.

31 January 2012

Passing

Filed under: Aids survival,PhD: South Africa!,The Children's Voices — annedegraaf @ 3:41 pm

Am thinking in terms of shared complicities and collective futures. No innocents involved. All share responsibility. Any society that buys into victimization forfeits its own power, handing its ability to reinvent itself to the perpetrators. So, (take a leap with me here), does the language of human rights equal victimhood, thereby disempowering the very people it’s meant to strengthen?

Am thinking critique is every society’s best friend.

Listened to a group of students a few days ago who talked about ignorance as the number-one problem in South Africa. Other songs on the Top Ten: lack of wise leadership, corruption, material disparity, and people not realizing how to reach their potential.

”What would it take?” I asked (you never know). They said, mentorship programs, more access to sports to level the playing field, a new identity to replace their parents’ broken record about colonialization and apartheid legacies, investment in civil society, community support. Oh yeah.

Then they told me stories of seeing people, really seeing them: seeing their pain and dreams and how sharing in fear or joy melted the divisions. “A friend of mine was raped by her uncle and gave birth as a result when she was 13. She went back to school and the community helped her keep her child. Now she runs a peer mentorship program and center for HIV and rape counseling.”

I already knew from previous trips that the shoulders of young people here must grow to bear adult-sized burdens. “Child-headed households” is the fancy name for kids who have no one but each other—an older brother or sister raising younger siblings, scraping together school fees, putting shoes on the little ones so they’ll still be allowed into school, worrying about where the one meal every day will come from, walking the tightrope between gang protection and drug markets. The aloneness is because my generation has more or less died out due to AIDS. So either the gogos, or grandmothers must raise their grandchildren, or worse, the orphans look after each other. During a previous trip here, Mbeki’s denials of the pandemic literally cost lives. Now some HIV patients have access to drugs, and there is more information about healthy diets, and children as young as 8 sometimes hear about the absolute necessity of using condoms. But it remains a taboo subject, and when I ask about a student’s family, they still look away and talk of fathers who died of TB or mothers who died of malaria. Never mind that this area is malaria-free.

So what would it mean to not see these young people as victims?

Life feels very close here because death treads so near.

29 January 2012

Hemayel Martina–In heaven for a year

Filed under: The Children's Voices,Thin and Thick Places,Words by Others,Write on — annedegraaf @ 11:32 am

It was a year ago.

Hemayel’s Words

If I go to Finder and type in hemayel a screen full of entries appears:

  • This photo
  • Various essays from his composition class with me
  • The different versions of his poetry book as we worked on the English translations of his poems
  • A Rwanda research proposal that looked more like PhD material than undergraduate work
  • Outlines of papers he was working on for other classes that I helped him with in the Writing Center.

Here is an excerpt from one of those papers, dated 17 September 2009:

Introduction: In post-armed conflict countries the active involvement of the youth in peace building from the ground up is a primary means of guaranteeing peace. This is based on the assumptions that: humans are creatures able to choose; disagreement is inevitable but resolvable through non-violent means; and that the youth have the potential to ensure transformation in the realm of resolving conflict. In this paper, the peace building process in Sierra Leone after the civil war will be used as an example, in addition to examples taken from conflicts in other geographical areas. The programs by and for the youth in Sierra Leone after the decades-long civil war, illustrate that the youth cannot only be used to perpetuate conflict, but to build peace as well. In partnership with the international community, (I)NGOs and UN, as facilitators. Besides that, the student uprising in Serbia shows that a non-violent approach to conflict is possible and that the young community does have a voice.

Conclusion: The youth should not only be seen as the victims or perpetuators of armed conflicts, rather, as one of the main means to ensure the absence of war. The challenge of the leaders today is to secure the absence of war, but the leaders of tomorrow face a greater challenge. The achievement of positive peace, where structural violence will be obliterated. Nevertheless, for that to happen tomorrow the seeds have to be planted today, if we do not want history to repeat itself.

So, as I read this in South Africa, where I’m conducting my own research for a PhD on the role of young people’s narratives in conflict and peacebuilding within a deeply divided society, goosebumps now cover my arms, despite the 34-degree heat. Hemayel’s words seem prophetic for my own research. The more I learn, the more I want to learn, and his words act as a lodestar, pointing me toward the true North of understanding. And yet, this is true of all my students; the more I listen, the more I learn.

During this past Fall semester, students wandered into WRiSC (the writing center) and talked about Hemayel with me. “I dreamed about him.” “I heard his laughter.” “I’m writing a paper about a conversation I had with Hemayel—about how we cannot write about poverty until we’ve experienced it.” Some days he seemed more present than others. A few times the first-year students overheard these conversations. “Who is Hemayel?” they asked. It was a hard question to answer.

In the year since his death many have made him into whatever they needed him to be: prophet, saint, martyr, mentor, angel, idol, friend. I wonder what he would have said about all the fuss. To be honest, I see Hemayel as a reminder. I stand by what I said at his memorial: he was special, but so is each and every young person, searing with white-hot potential. For Hemayel then, if not for ourselves, learn all you can, reach deep and develop your potential to its fullest, face the fear and do it—whatever it is—going back to school, getting that degree, becoming a politician who is not corrupt, make your dream come true. Create a space for listening, to others, to young people, but most of all, listen to your own heart. He lives on in our hearts—if we listen there . . . we hear him still. Maybe everyone is a Hemayel, in his words.

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