A Letter to My Sons, Part 4: The Trouble Tree

Dear Alexandre, Dear Sam,

It’s Friday night and the rain is coming down in sheets. We had the last day of our workshop yesterday, and worked as hard as we could in order to finish before lunch. The main thing the participants were supposed to do was to write a list of things we call “good practices.” They used to be called “best practices,” but I guess that put too much pressure on people making them up, so they went from best to good.

At any rate, a good practice in human rights – the stuff participants do – should essentially be a good example of things people do so that other people can learn from them. For example, if you wanted to share with other kids some “good practices” on making your parents happy, you can read through the examples that Alexandre started in his new book, like:
  • Making your bed every morning to make your parents happy.
  • Doing your homework to make your parents happy.
  • Eating your food to make your parents happy.
  • Going to bed when you’re told in order to make your parents happy.
You get the point. Examples of bad practices are like the ones you have in the book you’re writing, Sam, “How to Annoy Your Parents.” I won’t go into details, but you get the point.
“Good Practices.” artwork by Lucille, Bernat, and Madan.
At any rate, the participants had to write up good practices related to their work. Specifically, good ideas for planning, doing, and evaluating their human rights education activities. As a head start, we gave them the notes from another region around the world that did the same exercise.

Something didn’t rest well with me. I felt like I was asking them to add on to someone else’s work and that it would be boring. So they did something different: instead of writing down things in a computer, they split up into four different groups and all came up with different ways of showing their good practices. Aruna and Khan made a PowerPoint presentation; Father George, Maria, and Lal (the guy with the umbrella) pretended to do television interviews; Samson, Hameed, Saru and Banasree wrote a nice story about friends who meet in a magical place called Dhulikhel; and Bernat, Lucille and Madan created a tree out of paper and cardboard to show their good practices. You would have liked helping them out with their tree. To me, it was one of my happier moments in any workshop, because each group came up with something fantastic and creative in the space of one hour. It was a great way to end the workshop.

There are a number of things my friends said over the past few days that have stayed in my mind. One is a story from Sam in Pakistan. His organization’s website has a news item of a woman named Asiya Bibi who might die because of something she said. There’s a law in Sam’s country called a “blasphemy law.” Blasphemy is when a person says something bad about a god. This woman, a mother to five children, said something against the Holy Prophet Muhammad (the things he said a long time ago helped form the basis of Islam, a religion). She was jailed for saying those words, and under Pakistani law, she has to be sentenced to death. Writing this to you makes me realize even more than before how utterly ridiculous something like this is. You may be wondering how such a thing could possibly happen in this world, and yet unfortunately it is happening. At least there are some organizations like Sam’s which are trying to tell people that the woman deserves the chance to live.

The story of this woman is still in my mind, and it will likely linger there for a while. To be honest with you, it sometimes gets to the point when listening to bad story after bad story brings me down. I try to find hope in the stories from friends like Sam and the others at this workshop, but it’s hard. I basically have a job because this world is not a happy place for the thousands of children who have to act as soldiers, the millions of women who are hurt by their boyfriends or husbands, the hundreds of millions of people who live in poverty or who have never been to school. It weighs a person down; well it weighs me down, anyway. There are times – lots of times – when I come home from work and all I want to do is to forget about the world outside. I want you to show me the goofy pictures you drew, or show me your latest LEGO creation, or see the homework you’ve done or just read a story. Someone, I can’t remember if it was your mother or not, told me the story of a man who was not happy with his job. His work depressed him a lot. However, every evening before walking through the front door of his house, he hung up his troubles on his trouble tree and left them hanging. He walked into his house and greeted his family with a smile, having forgotten about his troubles. More than once I’ve had to remind myself to hang up my troubles on my tree and walk into the house knowing that what matters to me the most is waiting to hug me before I take off my coat.

Je t’aime, Alexandre, je t’aime Sam, bonsoir.




July 29, 9:30 PM
A cold Carlsberg rests next to my computer, a reward I indulge in after a long day. When I lived in Malawi, Carlsberg cautiously labelled itself as “Probably the best beer in the world.”

The day was packed. In our “graffiti wall’ evaluation at the end of the day, some of the participants scribbled, “Long but good” and “Heavy but innovative,” whereas a couple made reference to Paulo Freire’s notion of “unfinishedness” which we referred to at the start of the training.

The day started with a simple group-building exercise that reveals how well (or how poorly) we work together in groups. The task was simple: given some newspaper, tape, and a few paper clips, create with others a structure that will be judged on its strength, height, and beauty. (the marshmallow test at www.ted.com is a variation on this.) Everyone had a good laugh trying to keep their structures up, some with success, others….well, not quite.

Before delving into human rights content for specific training sessions (for youth groups, NGOs, human rights club coordinators, and religious leaders), we discussed gender issues facing facilitators. We (atypically) divided participants along gender lines before bringing them back together for a large group discussion. As seems to be the case with many of our discussions, the issues raised become as complex as they are wide-ranging. Questions shifted from gender-sensitive practices in the facilitation environment to sexual harassment and whether or not it’s sometimes perceived as intentional or unintentional harassment. What I thought would take about 15 minutes ended up taking the full hour before the break. And this more than anything shows what I sometimes find my main weakness: if a discussion appears to be meaningful for participants but takes up more time than planned, I typically say to hell with the schedule and let the discussion continue for a while. Adjustments to the schedule are then made later at the end of the day with my colleague. I usually end up cutting stuff which doesn’t present itself as relevant as other topics (I also cheat by leaving an extra 3 hours spread out over several activities at the end of each schedule, but don’t tell anyone this).

Participants did a lot of sit-down thinking on human rights content and matching techniques, and by the afternoon you could tell that the energy level was dropping (we graphed their energy level and sure enough, it was according to them the lowest in the past 5 days). One group of participants kicked up the energy by having us play a crocodile and frog game that got us moving, and then we discussed through a “dinamica” some of our characteristics and perceptions as facilitators. Once again, a certain number of issues elicited lengthy discussions: should facilitators bring their own values to a training (most said yes), whether or not a facilitator should admit their weaknesses to a group (again, yes), and whether or not male and female facilitators face the same challenges (for the most part, no and somewhat).

To round off the afternoon prior to the break, I somewhat successfully divided them along latitudinal coordinates (it was a little harder than expected), and three groups took one minute each to write a facilitator dilemma on a piece of paper. Next step: pass your dilemma to the group on your left and solve the dilemma from the group on your right. What they came up with, among others:
  • A participant gets emotional and starts to cry
  • Difficult level of understanding and life experiences
  • Dealing with a diverse cultural group
  • A question comes from a participant: I need food, I am hungry; how can you ensure my food rights?

A “BIG” question ended the day. We’d answered two a couple of days ago, and for the 6 remaining questions, we each cast our vote for the question we wanted to answer most. The winner was number 4: What are my values and beliefs? This time my colleague and I got into the group (and happen to end up facing each other for the discussion). The “feeling” I got by gauging the looks on participants’ faces after 15 minutes was that it was a good discussion, although the day was long and people were feeling tired.

Now that the Carlsberg’s history, so am I.

July 30, 11 PM, Kathmandu Guest House
The workshop’s over, and I’m sitting here at the KGH sipping a “Limited Edition” Everest beer (it was limited four years ago when I came here). A bunch of German tourists next to me are being louder than I’d like them to be.

Apart from a horrendously bumpy ride through the city of Bhaktapur, the day has been enjoyable. The participants responsible for this morning’s recap did a wonderful job of getting everyone energized and ready for the day (the photo shows them trying to shoot balls in an “HRE basket”; if they miss, they have to answer a question). We coasted through today’s activities, bringing the day to a close this afternoon by having a group reflection on what we’d learned. 

After our heartfelt goodbyes (at least until we meet again in Sri Lanka) I ended the day in what could only be described as ideal: Pratik, a friend from our host organization, invited my colleague Bing and I to his home for tea (which inevitably turned into dinner). We met his family and sat on the floor of his home during a power outage in Kathmandu. Children – some his own, others his nephews and nieces – bounced around us and eagerly practised their English as we took copious photos. It was a pleasure to walk the streets of Kathmandu to his home and to meet his mother, his wife, and the assortment of children only too happy to be frightened by me. 

Everyone’s now left the restaurant, the lights are turned off, and the amount of time left for me to access the Internet is dwindling. I end this workshop alone in my thoughts, content with what’s taken place, aware that there is always room for improvement in what I do as a facilitator, and convinced even more than before that the work human rights educators undertake is indispensable. 

To all of the participants of the South Asia training of trainers, I wish you safe journeys, and may your actions to protect and promote human rights be filled with the passion and conviction you so ably demonstrated over the last few days.

Good night.