En coulisses

March 2013
Sugata Mitra has just won the 1 million dollar Ted Talk prize for his work.
A hugely worthy cause has won.  Please read below.

Sugata Mitra  The child-driven education


postscript for Benin, jan 2012
or a Valentine's Day essay, feb 14, 2013

Yesterday, I had surgery to reconstruct a collapsed wrist.  This piece is not about that.  It's about who was with me in the O.R. block.
the kids of Abomey.

A bright warm February sun is quite rare in Paris and in fact I hadn't seen the sun for quite some time.  Suddenly, there it was huge, bright and shining through the O.R. windows while my left arm was being anesthetized.  The sun cheered everyone in the room to a great extent and colleagues were laughing, joking and smiling at one another, and so tender with me, saying, "Do you see the sun?
It's all around you, isn't it beautiful?  Do you know anyone who doesn't love the sun?  It was true, the O.R lights are very bright anyway, but the sun's rays through the windows filled everyone with unusual warmth.

As I watched my arm leave me, it became a long grayish bone laying out to my side, the color evaporated as the blood was redirected elsewhere in the body.   I saw what prana really is and gratitude overwhelmed me.  The gratitude of the complexity of our life force.  It was a shock to see this, but also a realization, because I got to witness what I feel in the deepest moments of practice, that we are so much more than this physical body.  The sun shining down on all of us continued to keep us on task.

Mine was to be present and be with my go-to mantra, but, it didn't come to me, something else came in, a little song I sang with the kids in Abomey.

The lyrics come from a children's book and I made up a tune which we all repeated incessantly last year, the kids, staff, volunteers, all of us.  I hadn't thought about this song all year.

The sun is happy and beams with a thousand fires.
It turns the heads of all the flowers.
With the birds it hums their song.
When the rain tickles it, it makes a rainbow.
Then it goes to sleep in a bed of pink and violet.

it rhymes in French:

le soleil est heureux est brille de mille feux.
il fait tourner la tête de toutes les fleurs.
il fredonne une chanson avec les oiseaux.
quand la pluie la chatouille, il peint un arc-en-ciel.
puis il va se coucher dans son lit rose et violet.

While the prosthesis was being hammered into my wrist I saw Rachel on her clinic bed having her legs adjusted for the hundredth time.  Jean was there being fitted for his prosthesis below his knee. Eric was running around on his fitted leg helping everyone who was not as mobile as he.  Their quiet courage was my courage and with every breath I thought of them and the song was our soundtrack over and over and over again.  

I finally understood more about why I was there last year and our connection.  I could feel their suffering in a new and different way, and I could honor it.

Knowing that life contains suffering, it can feel a bit abstract when parsing through the teachings of the masters,  knowing that life contains suffering just doesn't want to make you get up and jump out of bed  in the morning.  But, a stronger force does, and when optimism and cheerfulness are in short supply, I found yesterday, honor is there.  I honor those children in Benin and what they taught me.  They held me.

When I take care of my husband, I honor those who have lost a spouse, a partner.  I don't have children of my own, but when I honor the children in my life and take care of my little dog, I honor those caretakers, moms, dads, teachers, guardians of a young life lost to them everywhere.  This gratitude for what we take care of, is a gift we offer in honor.

The Buddha said that in life there will be suffering, the suffering of suffering and even all pervasive suffering which can feel unbearable, but he also taught that out of this knowledge comes a power.
It must be honor, which I think is Love to the highest degree.  This Love makes me want to jump out of bed to feel the entire human experience in all its colors.  

In a text I never tire of reading, in the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna comforts Arjuna during a contingency of great human suffering.  He says,

know that I am always with you
know that I will never leave you.

To the children of Abomey, I want to say thank you for what you've taught me.  I honor you and hold you, too.  I am always with you, and thank you for helping me through.

Notes from friends:

Merci pour la promotion de mon pays à travers ton journal de voyage. C'est bien gentil. J'espère que ton acte poussera d'autres curieux à venir nous visiter et échanger la chaleur de leur coeur contre le notre comme tu as su bien le faire.
Ses photos avec les enfants,les prêtresses vodous ,la porte de non retour ect.......,je les ai trouvées vraiment cool.
Bien de choses,

je n’oublierai pas tes mantras qui me donnent assez de joie et m'apaisent profondément. je l'utilise beaucoup en traitant mes patients qui apprécient aussi beaucoup.  
mes amitiés à tout ceux qui font le yoga chez toi, ton chien aussi.  Arnaud


Since I wrote this journal, I have been following news in Africa on modernghana.com
Below is an excerpt from an article.  The conversation has begun and is growing.  Spread the word, we can do more.

1. Africa's booming population of 2.5 billion projected by 2050 with the youth making up over 60 percent will present a consumer market paradise that no other continent on earth can match.
2. The variety and quality of Africa's proven oil, gas and other precious resources like uranium, bauxite, copper, iron ore, gold, diamond and titanium cannot be matched by Arctic resources, which are largely unproven.

3. Take a good look at the world map and you will see that the strategic geographic location of Africa is almost unbeatable. Africa is in the very center of the world. Trade with Africa, either in natural resources or consumer products can be easily transacted by air or sea faster in real time and all year round, making it faster, easier, cost-effective and therefore more profitable than with the Arctic region.
4. The Arctic region is a virtual terra incognito. It still remains largely unknown and unproven. All the much trumpeted natural resource deposits may turn out to be a shadow of itself, at best. On the other hand, Africa's resources are proven and time tested. Even if it were true, the needed infrastructure does not exist so resource extraction in the Arctic will be extremely difficult. In Africa on the other hand, infrastructure is relatively available and ready to be used.
And there is more writing on the wall. If there is one unmistakable signal that Africa is gaining momentum as a geostrategic hotspot and that the region is about to boom, it is the creation of the United States Africa Command, popularly called AFRICOM. In the aftermath of its global war on terror, the then US President George Bush and Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced the creation of Africom on February 6, 2007. Besides the United States Northern Command which was established in 2002 after the September 11, 2001 attacks, European Command, Pacific Command, Central Command and Southern Command were all established decades ago. So why Africom? And why now? There must be a strategic reason behind it all. Africom is now under the command of a fully-fledged four star general, William E.Ward.
Among possible reasons, China's Sub-Saharan trade increased ten-fold to $107 billion in 2009, narrowly eclipsing the United States. For example, according to reports, China's Zonghui Mining Group signed a $3.6 billion copper agreement with Zambia in July 2009. Again, ICBC Bank China is also working on up to 60 deals with Africa's biggest bank by assets, Standard Bank, in which it bought a 20 percent stake for $5.6 billion in 2008. Across all spectrums, China is gunning for the top dog status in Africa, the next frontier. Africom is a key strategy to keep a close eye on the Chinese in Africa.

Also, due to recent geopolitical developments in the Middle East and Latin America which appear increasingly unfavorable to Washington's interests, the US views Africa, especially the Gulf of Guinea or West Africa area as a “soft target”, an easy game to win. It is from here that the US intends to strategically diversify and obtain 25 percent of its oil supply.
There is another reason why Africa is the next strategic hotspot the Super Powers will fight over. There is no doubt that by 2025, Africa will offer the most superior demographics and markets anywhere in the world. This is a fact that most experts from the UN to the World Bank agree on. Probably, the most beautiful picture of Africa's first class demographic and market edge is the one brilliantly painted by the U.S National Intelligence Council in its Global Trends 2025 report. According to the report, demographers project that Asia will account for most of the population growth out to 2025 while less than 3 percent of the growth will occur in the “West” – Europe, Japan, the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. In 2025, roughly 16 percent of humanity will live in the West, down from 18 percent in 2009 and 24 percent in 1980. India's population is projected to climb by around 240 million by 2025, reaching approximately 1.45 billion people. China is projected to add more than 100 million to its current population of over 1.3 billion. In aggregate, the countries of Sub-Saharan Africa are projected to add about 350 million people during the same period. This could bring total Africa population to nearly 2.5 billion by 2050 due to exceptionally high fertility rates among African women, one of the highest in the world, according to the UN.
By 2025, the already diverse array of national population age structures promises to be more varied than ever, and the gap between the youngest and oldest profiles will continue to widen. The “oldest” countries – those in which people under age 30 form less than one-third of the population – will mark a band across the northern edge of the world map. In contrast, the “youngest” countries, where the under-30 group represents 60 percent of the population or more, will nearly all be located in Sub-Saharan Africa. This is clearly the ultimate marketer's paradise. Imagine an Africa in which 1.5 billion young people or 60 percent of the population are working and starting families and demanding food, healthcare, housing, education, consumer electronics, banking, investments, clothing, cars and many many more. According to a recent Time Magazine analysis, there are between 50 million and 150 million economic elites in Africa with similar spending to middle classes in the West. Most importantly, there are 350 million to 500 million people in the African aspirational classes – from households with stable jobs- that resemble counterparts in China and India being courted by Western firms. These African aspirants drink Coca-Cola, want mobile phones and yearn to own a car or motor cycle.
With Africa's population growth booming to about a quarter of the world's population around the year 2050, the Time Magazine analysis is just the tip of the iceberg. As I have said before, this could well be a classic repeat of today's China and India boom, combined.
There are similarities between Africa's coming economic boom and the Asian economic miracle. According to available reports, in 1969, Asia's share of global GDP was only about 15 percent. Today, after decades of phenomenal growth, Asia's combined share of global GDP is almost equal to that of the EU and the US. In 2009, Asia's share of global GDP rocketed to about 26 percent, thanks to double-digit growth from China and other major Asian exporters like Japan, South Korea and India. Between 1969 and 2009, described as the Asian boom years, global GDP growth also exploded. World GDP (Real) doubled between 1969 and 1990, and has increased by another 60 percent since then, so that world output is more than three times greater than in 1969. Thus, the tripling of the global GDP in that period can be partly attributed to Asia's phenomenal growth. The stronger the Asians came, the bigger global GDP became.

In the same way, we can make informed generalizations about the likely effects of the coming Africa boom. As Super Powers race to control sources of natural resources especially oil, as the China effect sweeps Africa along, it will have a historic cascading effect on Africa, ushering the continent into an era of double-digit or at least near double-digit growth. Imagine a booming market of over 2.5 billion people, with nearly 1.5 billion youths, or 29 percent of the world's total, starting families, buying consumer products, cars, getting housing and education, and many more. It could well be like a double whammy of today's Chinese boom. And the world will be way better for it. As the coming Africa boom lifts up Africa and ushers in an era of unprecedented boom, it would no doubt have a multiplier effect on global GDP growth. In fact, global GDP will increase exponentially. Calculating from the Asian boom years of 1969 to 2009 in which Global GDP tripled, it can be projected that, Africa's mega boom could help triple global GDP.
It is now clear that Asia's rise is causing unprecedented dislocation of global resources, a disequilibrium that is shifting the global center of gravity from West to East. Collateral damages from this economic tsunami are clear for all to see: the global financial crisis, high unemployment in the US due to outsourcing, China surpassing Germany as the world's largest exporter, the emergence of uncompetitive, debt-ridden and potentially defaulting nations in the EU, the hollowing out of the US manufacturing base and many more. If this trend continues, and it is just beginning as respected economists like Robert Fogel projects, over 700 million Chinese are still living in rural areas and with India's exploding demographics coupled with high poverty levels, the potential for further Asian miraculous growth is still huge. In this scenario, there could be more serious economic dislocations that may make the Great Recession look like a picnic. Not that other regions will be eating grass or feeding off dead horses but if Asia led by China continues to solidify its growing global power, it will engender envy, wariness and sheer bitterness which if not controlled could spark large scale conflicts. Human history is full of examples like that. Most wars are triggered by economic issues.
To preserve a meaningful and acceptable economic and political equilibrium, and to preserve world peace, new sources of natural resources, markets and other growth drivers must be found. In our lifetime, it will not be the Arctic to the rescue. It will be Africa to the rescue. It will be Africa that helps to create a new global platform for massive wealth creation. With over 2.5 billion in estimated population by 2040, Africa will provide a welcome relief to the world. As a consumer paradise with hundreds of millions of able hands to work and hungry mouths to feed, plus abundant natural resources and fertile lands, the world would have no choice but to turn to Africa.
So after China and Asia's boom runs its full cycle, Africa's economic boom will be the next logical step in geopolitical evolution. It will sweep the world, bring great transformation and prosperity to the people of Africa and dramatically increase global prosperity. Truly, Africa's best days are coming. The massive light of transformation and prosperity that shines on the world and bring along more civilization, industrialization, technology and massive movement of people into the middle class is on its way to Africa. And the world will be better for it.
By Moses Asare, African Leader Media Group, New York City.

Below is a tribute to a dear friend and student from the Centre de Yoga du Marais back to its first year.  This is for you, Andrew Taber.  And below this, to your beautiful children.  It was an honor and delight to be your friend.  To read more in his heartfelt words,  please visit here, with the permission from his beautiful wife, Kim.

July 19, 2012
It's been a week since I heard of Andrew's passing or as the yogis prefer it, he left his body.    Every conversation we ever had is rattling in my brain and I see Andrew before me all the time,  his ease with words and full attention to you when you are with him, his warmth, caring and ironic smile when we start taking apart the vagaries of life, everything, just as it always was. 

Andrew's curious and open mind made him an easy conversationalist and simply put, I miss talking to my friend.  Even when many times the conversations were very far apart, Andrew remembered every detail of everything I had told him, inquiring about all the updates.  This quality made him a natural writer and this quality is just one of the many attributes I admired about him.  I put my chapters down, too and shared them with him and we shared how much we like to write.  When my story is finally finished I wanted his keen eye to read it.   I will miss that, too.  
As much as we can feel him and the beautiful energy that is Andrew, those close to him can't hold him and the rest of us can't banter with him.  But, what we have is a profile in courage and a glimpse at the steps he took toward greater awareness and consciousness.   Andrew achieved what we don't have the capacity to feel yet, and that is his acknowledgement of vulnerability, and the power and emotion and love that resides there.  Andrew really got it, he didn't push vulnerability away, he redefined it as a quality.  He listened to the conversation and asked if he was listening to the unknown. 

It is said that enlightenment has to do with understanding the constant and inescapable nature of our own vulnerability.  For the rest of us here we see where ours is, in the vulnerability of our sorrow.  But in that sorrow lies an opportunity to love more, to go deeper and grow.  I see Andrew's love in Kim and Aleyna and it grows and never stops and his light will always be there in those who loved him

July 26, 2012
Dear Aleyna, Mira and Mathew,
This is a letter for you about your dad that I would like to include among all the loving memories you either shared with him or through those who loved him.  I am writing this letter on the day you came into the world Mathew and Mira, and 2 weeks after your dad's spirit moved on to another place from where he can watch over you and watch you grow.  

There are countless reasons to admire your dad and that is what we all did a few days ago as your family and your mom and dad's friends assembled to cry and laugh together.  Aleyna, you have your daddy's smile and optimism and showed so much presence and independence as you romped around with your friends, greeted all of us and put a little show together for us.  Like your dad, you wanted to do things for us, unlike him, you like being in a show.

It was easy to form a bond with your mom and dad here in Paris where I met them more than 10 years ago.  Each of us moved here to Paris from the U.S. because we loved France.  We lived in NYC before then and Andrew and I also lived in California and Hawaii.  I went to a UC university like your parents and during all the years we got to know each other more and share our stories it was nice looking into a pair of eyes that knew the places the other one knew, the smells, the tastes, culture and music.  There was always lots to talk about.  Your dad and I used to get together during lunchtimes mostly, in the years he was working and then also when you were in school because that was a good time for us.

I have a yoga center in Paris and there is where I first met your mom who came in for a class in 2002 and then she brought in your dad, too.  Here is a picture of your dad, young and healthy and just 28 years old and happy to be living here with his love in a city he loves.  Your dad was a thoughtful gifted writer and story teller and he told me a lot about the apartment he found to start a family in, in the 20th arrondissement.  As time went on and you, Aleyna, were growing inside your mom, she came to prenatal yoga classes and by the next time we had an anniversary party for the yoga centre, she brought you swaddled in her arms.
As you know, your dad had by then been diagnosed with an illness that would at times go away and then reappear, but this is another story and I just want to share how fun your dad was.

He had a sporty side and a poetic side that he shared comfortably and with ease.  He was a good conversationalist because he was an active listener and remembered everything you said to him.  He also liked to steer the conversations away from himself and ask about the things the others cared about.  He was philosophical by nature and understandably more so as he was maturing with something unknown inside of him.  Since your dad is a private person, I sensed when he was uncomfortable in group classes at the centre and I understood that.  He was more of a meditate on your own kind of guy.  However, we did take a week long traditional yoga and healing workshop in the south of France in 2007 with Kausthub Desikachar.  Here he met another yoga teacher and guide he was very comfortable with, Marc, and your dad talked about taking his practice deeper and discovering more about the subtleties of life and why we are here; how we overcome difficulties, confront fears and how we grow and evolve.

We learned some about Ayurveda and balancing practices for our individual constitutions and how to diagnose by taking an Ayurvedic pulse.  Your dad was my partner and we took the information in with a desire to know how to heal and be healed but with a healthy objectivity as well.  I wasn't that keen on the concept that was taught that we all manifest our own diseases through our mind.  I feel there can be reasons and mysteries, too and that it can all be quite complicated, and looking back at my notes this troubles me a bit.  I feel it's important to allow a space to feel and learn whatever it is we are supposed to be listening to.   I know your dad felt the same way, too.  We talked about the books we love that support our journey and help answer our questions and the simple gifts of common sense.  Your dad found his own path, and, as his dad told me, would go out of his way not to be an imitator.  He learned and then found his own voice, found his own questions.  I admired this about him.   As your dad learned to know more about yoga and the importance of a home practice, he generously wrote up mine and it was published in an important American fitness magazine, https://www.womenshealthmag.com/about/a24170223/about-womens-health/

So, let me share a typical outing.  Mostly lunches as I mentioned, and we liked to sit in nature so it would be a park.  Your dad liked the Marais and that is where I live so we met there.   I introduced him to the Anne Frank park in the passage Berthaud in the gardens of the l'hôtel Sainte-Aignan  (near the Pompidou museum) right after it opened and as it turned out one day a very elegant lunch in the restaurant at the park.  The restaurant is The Hangar and after we spoiled ourselves with the good food and the atmosphere we wanted to definitely come back with your mom and my husband for a date night.  Other favorite times were lunch at Bob's on rue Gravilliers and then if the weather was nice, we would sit on the grass at the Arts et Métiers museum and catch up.  I like sitting on the earth and I went back recently to the museum to be alone with my memories of your dad and I sat in the grass where we used to sit.

It was very important to your dad that he be a good father and husband and did all he could and researched relentlessly to find out how he could be with you longer.  Watching how much he loved you all was very touching and I watched your dad do everything with such forethought and awareness of your needs for the future, and in the end he learned something very powerful.  That we are here all of us, all the time, in some way.

His words are imprinted in our hearts and the fingerprint he left behind will be in the history of the universe, always.  This is a philosophy I keep in my heart and I find it helps me stay connected to loved ones who have passed on.

Maybe you would like to read more some day too about the Vedic scholars, like your dad did and underlying intelligence, and the deep mysteries around us....there are many sources that help us feel connected and close to those we love.  I'll  end because I am sounding very teacherly again, but I want to say,

I wish you love, compassion, wonderful health and deep friendships at your side on your life's journey,
Michelle Jacobi
July 26, 2012

 Journal Benin
Africa is the 21st Century.

Cotonou, Benin  January 8,  2012

Cotonou lies down a straight line from Paris, a 6-hour easy flight and we stop short of the equator.  It's a first for me this close to the equator and the first time I step foot on the great continent of Africa.  The night sky is very dark, humid and heavy with dust which blocks the moon and stars.  My bags didn't make it from Paris and after the paperwork that needs to be filled out, I left the airport two hours later, close to midnight.  Modeste, from Double Sens was there for me, waiting a long time after my late flight.

Modeste a young reggae-loving, new dad with a smile that doesn't stop took me to a favorite restaurant of his where I timidly ordered french fries and beer as my first cautious meal here.  I wasn't very hungry, and nervous about drinking but the fries tasted every bit as good as we get in France.  There was a tree still lit for Christmas and along the main road that divides Cotonou, a few Christmas stars are still lit bleakly through the haze.  The hotel was not far down a red clay pot-holed road and in my silent room, after a cool shower I slipped into the deepest kind of sleep.

January 9
Ouidah is the historical center of voodoo.  The town is gearing up for tomorrow which is a national holiday and celebrates Benin's cultural heritage.

Double Sens convinced me to spend the day here rather than wait out the day in Cotonou for the bags which won't arrive until the night flight.  I'm so happy I did.  Ouidah is also on the Bay of Benin but a smaller less bustling and crowded place.  The villa which houses the Ouidah volunteers is modern and clean.  The bedrooms are very large with bunk-beds and mosquito netting, each room is ensuite with bathroom.  There are three volunteers here plus Céline who will be in Abomey with me once I collect my luggage.  The Beninois are so warm and welcoming and have the loveliest dress, vibrant with color and geometrical patterns.  There is much care in their personal appearance.  One of the local staff took us to the sacred Voodoo Forest where he told us all he knew of the symbolism of the voodoo statues.  No photos here are allowed.  The center-piece of the forest is a magnificent towering 600-year old baobab tree.  "Voodoo is not to do harm, or for evil, but is for the good" says our guide.  Most statues have 2-3 faces so they can view all sides at the same time.  The two main energies are the earth and sky and from here many sub-energies evolve having to do with thunder and catching fire.   It's the most I could grasp this day as my ear is getting used to this new tongue.  My French colleagues didn't understand everything, either.  The Benionois French accent is strong.  The statue with the protruding needles which we are most aware of, represents their practice of purging the body of sickness or bad energy.  Voodoo integrates into all the faiths even Catholicism which is widely practiced in Benin.  Fewer practice Islam, but a culture of acceptance and tolerance is tantamount.  Still there are many rules around voodoo which non pratiquants must be aware of.  During this heady time, we cannot look at a ceremony unless it is very public or you are invited.  There are pieces of land you cannot step on.  You cannot look at an initiate and never take a picture unless you ask.  Mostly you will hear no, because many still believe you are taking away some of their soul.

When I got back to the house it was time for my trip back to Cotonou, to the airport.  The roads were choked with diesel fumes and transport is expensive as fuel is in short supply here for all right now.  Yesterday, Nigeria suspended government subsidy of oil in its own country and in Benin for an indeterminate time.  Fuel prices just went up 700%.  I am surprised I can still get somewhere, another from our team arrives tonight and we need to get him.  At the side of the road you can see dirty fuel which has been siphoned into any kind of container imaginable for sale.  There is great concern right now.

Romaric's AF flight arrived early and I was happy not to be alone at the airport.  After the passengers had collected their bags, I had some company during the painful anticipation of another few days in my smelly sweat-soaked clothes and dirty teeth,  Romaric joined the passengers from my flight the night before who were already assembled in protest when our bags still did not appear.  It was a little tense until the belt re-started and the missing bags eventually came through.

Then, it was a happy night.  Modeste took us back his eating spot and this time I tried the local spicy fish in a peppery red sauce, monyo, and listened to Modeste's dream of opening a restaurant himself someday.  He loved a pair of sneakers I handed him from my collection of donations, for his little boy.  I had another deep sleep this time in a much bigger room and woke up refreshed for Benin's big holiday.

Jan 10
Our driver took us along the fishing route along the coast, Cotonou to Ouidah, 50 kilometers along a red-clay pocked road in a 4-door Opel from the 1980's held together by tape, rope and decades of grit and grime.  The beautiful rust red color of the earth here comes from iron and aluminum which is left after the minerals in the soil have been swept away by the rains.  The earth can be used effectively to build bricks of clay for their homes.  Those who can afford it have concrete.  The buildings, huts and stands for the most part have tin roofs.  The very fine silt from the ground covers everything, coating even the deepest green in the teak trees into a muddy brown.  This is the dry season and until the rains come the dust will be blocking out the sun's rays and blue skies. 

Segelbert, our driver is of Portuguese descent and his grandfather was a minister in the cabinet dating back to the early 70's.  The beach road called la rue des pêcheurs - significant because in French pêcheur, fisherman, also means sinner, ended at the large monument at the beach of Ouidah, named The Gate of No Return.  Here, hundreds of thousands of Africans were shipped as slaves to the West from these beaches.  One can imagine what the Beninois saw when on the horizon large sailing ships first appeared from Portugal and other ports to their continent, and then by the mid-19th century having to flee into the hills and away from the coasts as their king was selling his people into slavery.  Quaint little villages are interspersed along this picturesque route with vast forests of palm trees.  Here, I notice how much space there is and that I don't see people living on top of one another.  There are broad roads to walk and I feel though, the loneliness and heaviness of the past.  Towards the beginning of this stretch of historic road is a street named for Barack Obama.

At the Ouidah beach, under the Unesco monument which faces the sea is a huge festival honoring Benin's spiritual heritage, voodoo.  Drums are pounding and dignitaries are arriving.  After a fresh coconut milk and a little look around to see the throngs come and set up their crafts for sale, we are heading to the Ouidah villa to drop off luggage, rest and have lunch.  To return to the festival we have negotiated with a driver of a very small motorbike, to take me and Romaric who is 6'6'', to the beach and back.  Families up to 5 are traveling the same way and we see a couple with a small toddler slide off their motorcycle into the red thick sand of the road, laugh and get back on.

The dancing and drumming is now in full swing and the air is very hot, heavy and humid.  The heat adds to the drama of the event and I find myself gravitating towards a gathering in a front corner of the large square where I'm fascinated by the elders, women who are doing their personal ritual to voodoo.  The costumes are enormous with multi-layered headpieces that send beads flying.  They kiss the water poured into the ground in front of the drummer.  I feel privileged to just happen to be here in Ouidah on this very special day.  

I'm told by an American near me who has come to Africa to shoot footage with his film-making partner that many people come from distant points of the globe to see this festival.  He and his wife happen to be from Los Angeles and it is indeed a very small world.

The whirling dervishes start their dance and water sprinkles the crowd, a blessing.  I run over to the broad beach and dip my toes into the Bay of Benin.  The little girls playing in the waves hold my hand to keep me from falling into the current and we all laugh.  After a couple of hours the crowd breaks up to prepare for the festival in town.

After a cool drink at a maquis, what they call their local bars and restaurants, we all have dinner home together for the last evening, 3 volunteers for Ouidah, and the three of us Romaric, Céline and I for Abomey.  The moon is full, a bright orange now rising in the sky mirroring the orange of the earth below.

Abomey, Jan 11

The road to Abomey is much different, we are heading to the north inside the country through thicker vegetation, but bumping along on roads in the same condition, again with the same driver.  The three of us are attempting to keep the car-sickness down for 50 kilometers, we are not moving any where near as quickly as it feels.  We arrive close to dinner time in a village full of running smiling kids, dancing goats, skittery chickens, women taking care of their nail and hair shops, sweeping away debris from the front of their establishments while keeping an eye on the kids and/or prepping the evening's meal.  Men are zooming all over the place on their motor bikes, some have cars.  I see some women drive as well.  For the most part, the drivers keep to the right side of the road, which is good because we will be appointed bicycles to get to our job and will be negotiating this traffic on our own.

Arnaud, our local director is happy to see us.  The neighborhood children wave constantly, we're the only yofa, whites, around here.  We make a quick visit to the clinic on motor bikes and meet briefly some patients and staff.  We're all very excited to meet the kids tomorrow and have a short time this evening to plan our first day.  Arnaud shows us the road to our assignment which impresses me as quite long.  We have to do this trip 4 times a day.  Six kilometers each trip.  Arnaud smiles when he tells us that each trip back is a steady uphill grade.  So 12 kilometers a day, an uphill ride to go home for lunch, and then home at the end of the day.  It doesn't look easy.

Our villa is bigger with more amenities than I imagined.  The building is of concrete and clay and the floors are tiled.  There are 5 large bedrooms and two bathrooms with showers.  We have large armoires in our rooms to put away our things, and I have enough leftover space next to my huge bed to stretch out for my yoga practice.   Each of us brought a full suitcase of things for the kids.

But we're not resting tonight, Arnaud takes us out for a surprise through the neighborhood he grew up in to introduce us to everyone he knows.  The tiny paths between dwellings are completely dark and we navigate by flashlight, but most here have electricity.  In a charming square under a large leafy tree they are setting up for another voodoo ritual.  The drummers are assembling and the single light that illumines them looks theatrically perfect.   The red fat moon is out again and we sit on plastic chairs very close to the action.  The village elders dance first as the night before.  The little ones sitting on a sheet are all lined up with eyes wide.  There is a special connection between the elders and the tiny children.  After a while the adeptes, young tall muscular men arrive, also in full traditional dress and jump and whirl so quickly into the earth.  With bare feet they pound out rhythms with the drums, each rhythm having a special significance.  They perform physical stunts close to you for a gift and when they receive a bill or coin they whoop and dance with more energy.  The drummers laugh when I spontaneously applaud.   Despite the energy in the presentation, these practices are discreet and applauding is something they don't do or expect.  I laugh, too and when we get up to leave the drum master nods me over.  I try to go but the others scoot me out of the square because they're hungry and it's late.  I could stay and watch the dancing all night.  

A strange thing happened after I took the pictures at the voodoo festival in Ouidah, my camera completely shut down and wouldn't work at all.
I didn't think about it anymore and then the day after the final festival I checked on my camera before packing it away and it worked.  My pictures were all still there.

Jan 12

First day of our assignment.  We work 10-12 and 3-5.  In between we bike back and forth so we can be home for lunch which is included in our package, lunch and dinner every day from Colombe who takes care of our house.  The trouble with this is, once we eat and in the mid-day heat, all we want to do is sleep and not get back on those roads.   What gets you through are all the smiles from the kids who are so tickled to see us biking along.  Yofa!  Yofa!  We are laughing, too because we can't believe how tiring this is already.  It's only day one.  I'm the oldest in the group, followed by Romaric in his 40's, Celine in her 30's and Julien who will be here next week in his 20's.  The group is unusually young for this kind of work and that's good, you need energy!  

Our primary task, literacy.  Eighty percent of the population of Benin is illiterate.  And these kids due to their handicaps, casualties of genetics and polio, are already left behind in so many other ways.  The older ones who have had some schooling are being tutored to advance their reading and writing skills.  Math, too.  Their age can go up to 16.  The young ones, children who have never been to school or are mentally as well as physically handicapped have been given to me.  Their ages are up to 12.  They sit all day on the ground with their legs outstretched in front of them in casts.  Some only one leg in a cast, some missing a leg altogether.  A workshop on the site makes the prosthetics and the plaster.  "Little" Arnaud with the large soft eyes is clearly in pain and I tell him quietly, "I'm sorry."  They don't complain.  They get through and do the best they can.  It's our day to get to know each other.  It's too bad we already missed 3 days together.  Some moms are standing by keeping an eye on their kids, and us.  Some are there without parents.

The second order is to have fun and laugh.  This they do easily, even some moms will break into a smile.

After our improvisation day among the things we learned about each other, was that I was American and not French, I gave a spontaneous English lesson which all the kids got excited about.   I think they found the sounds absolutely funny.   So Arnaud, our director, decided I should teach English on Mondays and Thursdays.  Around this I'm teaching math, the alphabet and sounding out basic French words, but all my group wants to do is play with stuff and color.  Mostly we do just that and I sneak in some lessons and vocabulary in there.  The yoga mats helped ease their delicate bones stiff in the braces when they had to be moved on and off the concrete floor.  I had no idea this would be the use for the mats.  The moms have joined the English lessons and are teaching me basic expressions in Fon.  We laugh a lot.  Two of the little boys, Germain and Séjio, sons of the moms looking on have started snuggling into my lap.

It's our first weekend.  Lots of events are planned for us by our director, but I'm also happy to just rest at home on our terrace.  We had the historical tour today.  Benin's tribal history through French colonialism to it's current democracy with a symbolic king.  About 400 years or so, that's all.  I'm mentally tired from trying to pick out what I can from the Beninois French and am resting with my visual impressions of the day.  No infrastructure was left behind from the colonial past.  There is no national railroad and the roads are in severe disrepair.  A grouping of previously French administration buildings now holds a small hotel.  The Beninois are warm and affectionate to their white brothers and sisters, despite generations of foreign settlements colonizing their land. The population is majority women.  Polygamy is now prohibited but taking a mistress or two is natural and normal so that all the women can have children.   Women live on average to 60, men to 58.  The child mortality rate is 4.5 children per woman and still 45 percent of the population is under 15.  Since the 1960's the population has quadrupled to 9,000,000.  And yet, there is space and room for everyone everywhere, except for on the roads which are heavily congested simply because no new roads are being built.

It's Sunday now and I'm planning on not leaving the house, but Arnaud tells me of a "Prana Spiritual Center" just a road over and he organizes an introduction.  The others have visited an evangelical church today.  I meet Jacques in his nicely appointed 2-room centre and we talk about our various schools, lineages, our teachers  and our thoughts on our spiritual practices.  He follows a Philippine guru who works with energy acupressure points to open the vital pranic pathways preparing for meditation.  All the practices focus on meditation and I like it here.  His office has a large computer and the internet is up as of today.  For the past week due to a cable fire the country had no internet access;  I show him the yoga center's website and am able to send a message to the blog that I'm OK.  I was invited to Monday's meditation. It's uplifting finding people on all of kinds of spiritual paths tucked into the remotest places.  

I get up early around 6:30 for practice everyday, just before is the quietest moment of the night, the chanting and the drumming stops and songbirds come out.  The roosters have finally stopped crowing since about 4 am and there is a moment of stillness before the crazy day begins.  I practice sometimes up to 2 hrs, it's hot and the sweat rolls easily and I need to remember to save time to have my white bread and butter breakfast with tea with my roommates.  They are pretty curious about my practice by Saturday and have asked to join me so I started later today and led a brief class.  They both have practiced before, and as usual each teacher comes from a different place so they experienced some new things today. It was really nice, and our guard would peek in on us looking at us like we were kind of nuts.

Colombe our cook has the weekends off so while the others were out, I prepared a dinner. She is paid from our donations and we share grocery expenses.  The Beninois eat quite a bit of meat, nothing I recognize and very under-fed.   They also eat a lot of fish and make it in tasty sauces and deep fry it, too.  Since Colombe found out I don't eat meat she is subjecting the group to a lot of fried fish.  The group's not wild.  Me neither.  I didn't want to impose a diet on anyone.  I was just going to figure it out, but they don't eat a lot of fresh vegetables here, so it takes some creativity.  Colombe isn't wildly creative.  I pulled together something from the foodstuffs in the house and some shopping Céline did.  The kitchen is run-down, but it is a kitchen and that is a rare find here.  Goods are scant, but I had some fun creating a lunch in an African kitchen with local ingredients.  I made a couscous with butter, red onions and tomatoes and a cole slaw with avocado and local spices and deviled eggs.  The gang was thrilled.  There's a charming expression here,  "This is Africa.  There are only solutions."   We want fresh cole slaw every day, now.

Julien is a reporter for France 24, France's all news station and with his arrival our team is complete.  All of us are spending our vacation volunteering.  And we all get along great together, we haven't seen each other since we first got together to meet in a little restaurant near the Bastille in December.  Now we're sharing a house and explaining the quirks of the water and how to time getting a shower or accepting the African bucket bath.  We prep him for the kids tomorrow.

Week 2

The children are all in their stations in their appropriate groups, eyes wide open and it feels like we have a routine already.  It's Monday so I get to teach some English today to some kids with a little curiosity and then I have my usual routine with my little ones.  For some of them there is not much more I can do than sit next to them and hold their hand.  A couple of sweet girls can make eye contact and smile.  For some of the others, in the group of 9, they have surprisingly good math skills but can't spell their name.  This really does not make the day fly by, but as a group of teachers we are having a good time seeing their personalities come through.

I made up a tune to a French story book about the sun.  My little group memorized it as opposed to learning how to read it and I made up some movements they could do with their arms, hands and head.  They sing it all the time led by the little ring leader, Germain, who knows it tickles me whenever he starts singing.  The moms joined in and then the older kids wanted to get in on the game, too and now it's become our theme song.

Each day I gain a bit more of their confidence and willingness to try new things.  I work a lot with mudra because children like to explore and create with their hands and it develops coordination.  Remember, they have extremely limited us of their lower limbs.  Even Cathérine, whose middle finger is bent and pressed firmly into her palm in a permanent mudra, can still write.  She loves to color and lights up when she can use her hands.  Since our work area is very small and we need to sit in front of the bathroom, I put some lavender oil in their palms before each class which we heat and we palm any part of the body we would like to heal.  We place our hands over our eyes and then the ears and make the bumble bee sound,  When they are feeling anxious we take deep breaths into our palms, when the 2 hours gets too long and tiring we return to bumble bee breath.  

Geneviève and Cathérine are left-handed and best friends and can never be found more than 4 inches away from each other.  There is such a complicity between them, one won't speak without the other.  They are happy in their world of coloring pictures.   Their basic math skills are very good and that makes them feel satisfied as well.  Each day we are refining them in the group and each day they speak a little more and shout out the answers.  Geneviève and Cathérine are 12 but look 7, like two little fawns.  I sit on the floor like them with my legs stretched out imagining what it must feel like bound up in plaster.  They will all walk some day on their own with or without support, but for some of them in severe traction, it's hard to tell what their future holds.   Most stay for a treatment of 4-6 months and then they are on their own.

Jean, Germain and Séjio

Jean received his prosthetic today, a right leg. It's rubbing his stump just below the knee and his eyes are wet.  Jean had a very long evaluation today and he stood statue still crying on the inside.  I missed that happy go lucky guy leaping around the center courtyard on his left leg and cane playing basketball with me, tossing inflatable balls into wash basins. Germain, Séjio and Jean, these are my three fellas.  Jean, 10 or 11, has had schooling and attends the higher group but he can be found suddenly next to me checking up on what's going on with us.  Germain is 10 and is the clever one in the bunch.  He is always at my left and squirms with delight whenever he gets an answer right.  He moves back and forth between a radiant smile and stillness deep into his thoughts.  Séjio is here through his sister. He's 4 and his older sister Ernestine is brain-damaged and can only sit up against a wall or lie down.  She responds to her name, but this is all we can see.  Perhaps she had new braces fitted in this period, but Séjio is optimizing this time at the Centre with a social life.  I have him since he's only 4 and looks amazingly only a couple years younger than Germain, this is the toll these treatments take on their little bodies. 

Brave Rachelle

Rachelle is also 10, had schooling but likes to slide over to my group from time to time.  They are repositioning one of her legs and she always looks like she's in pain. Never complaining, the playing distracts her and she likes to help guide the little ones.  Today she had a particularly painful adjustment in the therapy room which is also the room where all the school supplies are kept and is also the director's office.  She cried crocodile tears and kept the sound in as long as she could.  I was in the room by chance and gave her a hand to squeeze and some lavender oil.  Her mom sat off to the side not touching her.  I guess in this way the kids learn how to be strong.   When she finished she walked around on her cane catching up on anything she missed in the groups.

Eric is 16, a young man and a boy.  He leans slightly on his cane, but stands tall.  At 37 kilos, less than 80 pounds, he is the leader in the group.  He can be found always in motion using wheel chairs, walkers or bicycles to zip himself around from one place to another quickly because one leg is stiff.  He helps everyone, from moms to babies and all his peers.  He simply likes to be there to help and learning something new is his reward.  He has the brightest spark of all the children I've met here.    I appreciate his curiosity so much and would love to do something special for him.  He greets us when we pull up with our bicycles and then sets them up for us when we leave, standing there waving us off, his eyes soft waiting for tomorrow.

The home front.

My three colleagues are excellent teachers and put so much creativity into their lessons.  We use whatever materials we can find to pull something out of the kids.  For the afternoon creative periods we've taught puppet making, origami, finger painting and pastels, bead work.

We're exhausted basically all the time, and laugh easily.  The kind of laughter that comes from the awkwardness of watching ourselves move in this world.  We're picking up the customs, clapping palms with the older kids when we bike by and participating in the local "hand jive", sliding the palms away from each other and then popping our fingers in a snap when we shake hands.  This is a sign of friendship sincerely offered or long-time sustained.  

Julien gave an hour-long interview on radio Afrique today where he was asked his impressions of Abomey, Benin, world affairs, French elections, U.S. elections, terrorism, amnesty.  Poor guy, he repeated, that his comments were expressed by him only and did not represent the views of his employer.  Free speech is a right here and a very healthy sign for Benin.

People drop in at the house constantly and we seem to be on all the time for brothers, cousins, friends of colleagues.  Everyone is very kind to us.  Two babies have been born this week among the staff and it's been fun distributing just the right gifts for everyone.  We visited Arnaud's one-day old son and paid respects to his wife.

Since I won't be taking the trip up to the north after our mission is complete, Double Sens arranged for a day-trip for me and Julien to see Dessa.

Watching the landscape open up after leaving the comparative congested sprawl of Abomey and city life is a welcome relief.  That is until our taxi blows a tire and we get transferred to another driver passing by with passengers of his own.  Our driver pays the second driver off and we are on our way, now 7 in a sedan.  He stops for another passenger and then yet another.  We are 9, one is a young boy on a lap.  At our transfer point to the farm we will visit today, the driver demands we pay insisting that he was not paid.  We don't and with much name-dropping we go to meet "Leo", the next driver who will take us to the farm.  I can't imagine figuring all this out on my own without the benefit of an organization who will watch your back.  Negotiating is done with names and phone numbers.  

Armand is the farmer who greets us and welcomes us to his table with his family to a lunch of fresh vegetables from his garden, gnam, the local root vegetable that is made often into pastes and they serve a rabbit stew.  Armand raises rabbits as his cash crop.  I focused on the landscape and pretty cottages they rent out as a B and B.  Arrnand and his wife met in school and attained upper degrees.  She speaks English and he was a history professor.  They built the farm from the ground up and are wonderful conversationalists. They arrange for two more motorbike drivers to take us up into les collines of Dessa.

Dessa is a destination for Catholic pilgrims and as recently as 2000, a giant basilica was built able to seat thousands of pilgrims coming to pray to the Virgin Mary.  A stone from Lourdes has been brought here.  Above this place are "the hills" which span an area several kilometers square.  Here is where native Beninois were forced to flee their king who had contracted to sell his people into slavery to the West.   They hid their deities and voodoo secrets here.  Our guide told us they rolled the boulders down the hills to defend themselves.  An older man who called himself a distant descendant from this time lives in the hills with his relatives who have created lean-to huts against the boulders and caves.  Our guide said it was perfectly alright to take pictures in the caves of the voodoo statuary and animal sacrifices.  I liked the hills we climbed covered with banana trees, teak and gnam and giant baobab.  I noticed the old man had set up a weave outside his hut weaving the bark of the baobab.

It was early evening and time to head back before the long road was dark.  Our scooters left us off at a busy market where we could negotiate our ride home.  Unfortunately there were no cars running and one van was left for multiple transport with freight.  I saw all the people inside and another story of baggage on top of the van and it didn't look good to me.  I said I would get very car sick and they gave me a second row seat so I could hang my head out the right side window and that was that, no choice. Julien was just behind me and we were 18 in the van.  We still had to call our director to pick us up one town over from Abomey.  It was a strange kind of convoluted day of finding solutions. 

I have a very short time left with the kids and this feels like it is more important now.  Our assignment ends this week, my last day is Wednesday.

Cathérine the fawn-like girl in my group wears something that looks like a heavily-used rag as an undergarment.  A t-shirt she wore today was hanging off her skinny shoulders in threads.  Almost all the clothing donated in Paris was for girls aged 6 downward to babies.  I found some T's for a girl aged 6 and they fit Catherine's 12-year old body perfectly.  Quietly when we had a discreet moment, I showed the tanks and panties to her.  Her soft eyes widened even bigger and after a huge smile she cried out to her mom to come and look and then her eyes got wet.  Then all the moms moved in on me and I was in trouble.  On hand I had enough for the little sizes in my group, each of them receiving something.  The moms are needier than the children, understandably because there are probably many more at home to clothe.  When the school supplies arrive at the table for our daily work, it's understood these supplies stay here, but there is still pushing and grabbing and a bit of mayhem.  Still every last bit of material is returned to the closet at the end of the day.  Nothing ever goes missing.  I teach them in a fun and ridiculous kind of way, aparigraha, the yogic concept of greedlessness.  That, it may not look this way right now but there will always be enough for everyone.  Il y a toujours assez pour tout le monde.  The kids love to say this aloud as they color, especially Germain who breaks into this spontaneously during our lessons like a puppy who knows he's pleasing me and having a great time, with it.  I'm hoping deep down that what they say will be true for them.

The older kids in the other two groups saw the clothing distribution and wanted to know about them.  Julien and Céline came with very large suitcases of clothing, but we were missing larger sizes and boys clothes in particular.  We managed to find something for everyone and leaving my personal clothing behind helped, too.

What you gave:
You donated many pairs of shoes.  These were hugely appreciated.  I gave most of them to the prosthetic workshop.  In general, more shoes and clothing for boys would be helpful, we had lots of things for girls.  The Centre has a very good assortment of books markers, art supplies, colored pencils.  Notebooks I think would be greatly appreciated by the kids to take home, something to call their own and which shows the progress they are making in their lessons through their tutors.

Under construction right now is a larger room for recreation which should be part of their recovery.  The children don't have enough space to move around in between being lifted from their mattresses to the straw mats at the school tables and then back again.  The larger room will give their little bodies some space and get some energy moving, lessening the stiffness from these long days of convalescence.  Some kind of physical activity needs to be done daily.

What I felt most deeply is that the youth, 45 percent of the population is not being engaged enough.  Here is where the future lies and we are ignoring them.  Instead of recycled books and school supplies, they could use a powerful computer to learn and browse on, to teach each other on.  They light up when they see our phones and cameras and want to know more about technology.  Centres and schools should have access to a computer.  We have Kindle now.  One notepad and they are up to date on the books they need for their future, with translation software.  I feel we could do better.

The last day
The little ones can play Bingo in English now.  They love numbers whatever the language and Bingo-Cadeau is our favorite.  The winner gets a special present.
It was my last day and after they were all chanting cadeau-cadeau, gift-gift, I asked where mine was.  Silence.  Then in mock sadness I said it was my last day and I would like to have something from them.  It's natural the teacher would like a gift, too.  Something from the heart. Silence.  Then Charlotte asked me what I would like.  I thought for a minute and said a song. The little ones giggled and went into their silly song about Papa Noël again and I said, that's not it.

     -Oh, one of our songs?


It was great, loud raucous with lots of clapping and laughter and it went on forever.  My turn for my eyes to become moist.

The Centre is called CAORF in Abomey

Creé en 1997 par l'initiative des pères Caméliens et le délégué Terre des Homees dès lors n'étant que seule Institution oeuvrant dans le domaine dans le départment Zou en particulier (chirurgie, orthopédique, appareillage et rééducation fonctinelle.)  le centre traite des enfants a malformation congénitale, des séquelles de polio et des cas d'ulcère de brûlis et aussi quelques cas d'adultes.


Work by others in this field inspiring me

Sugata Mitra  The child-driven education


Merci pour la promotion de mon pays à travers ton journal de voyage. C'est bien gentil. J'espère que ton acte poussera d'autres curieux à venir nous visiter et échanger la chaleur de leur coeur contre le notre comme tu as su bien le faire.
Ses photos avec les enfants,les prêtresses vodous ,la porte de non retour ect.......,je les ai trouvées vraiment cool.
Bien de choses,


Comment traduire mon ressenti 
février 2011

« Comment traduire mon ressenti » ? Voilà la question avec laquelle Michelle, une amie de longue date, m’accueille ce soir d’hiver. L’occasion, la situation et les références auxquelles elle fait allusion me rappellent une fois de plus sa capacité extraordinaire à toucher du doigt l’essentiel.

L’occasion : 
Nous ne nous étions pas vus depuis un certain temps. Je n’avais pu être avec elle le jour de son anniversaire la semaine d’avant. Nous nous sommes donnés rendez-vous devant un des cinémas du quartier de l’Opéra à Paris.

La situation 
Peu avant les fêtes de Noël et l’heureux ras de marée de travail à l’horizon. Sa fidèle compagne de 16 ans, Lucy, c’était éteinte 6 mois auparavant. 

Les références : le travail, les animaux et le deuil.

Le travail : J’ai rencontré Michelle pour la première fois lors d’une audition pour un spectacle que nous avions éventuellement fait ensemble.

Nous sommes très différents l’un de l’autre tout en étant sur la même longueur d’onde. Je me suis rendu compte à quel point lors d’une répétition où je n’arrivais pas à jouer la scène.

Le metteur en scène avait tout fait pour m’aider à renouer avec la justesse. Il ne lui restait plus qu’à s’arracher les cheveux. J’étais sur le point de céder à l’abattement et de rendre mon tablier. Michelle observa calmement.

C’est alors qu’elle s’avança et me montra comment elle s’y était prise pour aborder la scène et de façon annexe comment elle dégageait la vérité derrière le mot écrit en général : « Mets toi dans une position confortable et tends la main comme ça, plie ton bras en démarrant le mouvement depuis l’épaule… »

C’était du chinois pour moi. Elle est danseuse et je suis comédien.

Ma formation m’a appris que restituer la vérité d’un personnage tient à un travail partant de l’intérieur pour aller vers l’extérieur. La croyance sur laquelle est basée cette approche est qu’il faut retrouver l’impulsion initiale du mot et du geste. Voilà tout le travail. Sans celui-ci le résultat ne saurait-être que placage d’effets sur un jeu creux.

Michelle venait de me démontrer le contraire. Ses indications ne m’étaient d’aucune utilité au premier degré, cependant elle venait de me fournir une alternative indiscutable. Je venais de voir par moi-même comment elle s’y prenait pour composer un personnage et les résultats indéniables qu’elle produisait.

Elle venait de me révéler la force et la puissance d’une nouvelle grammaire et d’un nouveau vocabulaire dont je n’avais même pas soupçonner l’existence.

Je rencontrais la vérité étonnante qu’une « langue » étrangère me faisait voir les choses plus clairement que la mienne.

En l’espace de quelques minutes nous filions la scène comme dans un rêve. Le spectacle trouva une toute autre tournure à partir de cette répétition. 

Les animaux : Leur place dans nos vies. Michelle et moi ressentons le même besoin de présence d’animaux dans nos vies.

Ceux qui aiment les animaux, face à leurs paires dissemblables n’essayent même plus de leur expliquer ou de leur faire comprendre pourquoi les animaux leur importent. D’après mon expérience, toute tentative se heurte très vite à un mur.

Celui-ci est bâti sur le concept que les denrées sont limitées. S’ensuit l’amalgame qui associe l’amour et l’affection à des denrées plutôt rares. Logiquement les dispenser libéralement ne saurait être qu’extravagance dans le meilleur des cas, un sacrilège dans le pire. Autrement dit, donner son affection et son amour à un animal signifie autant d’amour et d’affection en moins à donner à ses semblables.

Vient se greffer à cette croyance une représentation de la nature sous forme de structure pyramidale où chaque être vivant aurait sa place dans la hiérarchie de la vie. Celle de l’homme étant le sommet de la vie sur terre. Toute transgression menaçant l’édifice d’effondrement et de chaos. Donc restez parmi les siens semble être le mot d’ordre sous-jacent - une des briques constituantes dans la logique de l’exclusion et du mythe de la pureté...

Le deuil : le chagrin m’a appris que je partageais quelque chose avec tous ceux qui l’avaient vécu avant moi. La chaleur des mots de sympathie suite à la perte d’un proche apaisent. J’ai aussi découvert que le manque de reconnaissance du sentiment de perte après la mort d’un compagnon quadrupède après 20 ans de vie commune, alimentait ce même sentiment de perte.

Donc quand Michelle m’adressa son « Comment traduire mon ressenti ? » je savais exactement où elle en était. La réponse et le sourire lumineux qu’elle me dirigea, en me retrouvant à l’entrée du cinéma boulevard des Capucines ce soir avant Noël, malgré ses quelques minutes de retard contraires à son habitude, furent une nouvelle manifestation du brillant de son cœur.

« Je vais m’offrir un sac à main avec l’argent que mon père m’a donné pour mon anniversaire, mais pas n'importe quel sac… »

Nous continuions notre discussion après le film devant la vitrine de Lancel. Et le voilà : Le Brigitte Bardot. C’était lui ! Il avait tout pour lui surtout le rose bonbon.

Pour Michelle qui avait besoin de rendre son hommage à Lucy, le choix d’un sac s’imposait. Grandes voyageuses, les sacs avaient accompagné leur parcours de vie commune.

Quand mon père est mort, j’ai recherché et acheté ma première paire de chaussures Church. Une fois en ma possession, j’ai compris pourquoi il me les fallait tant.

Peu de temps avant sa mort, j’avais appris qu’un des scénarios de mon père, portant à l’écran une des œuvres de Naguib Mafouz, était utilisé comme modèle d’adaptation d’un roman à l’écran. La question ici est alors comment traduire un chef-d’œuvre d’un genre dans un autre ? Et parfois la réponse, soit la traduction, devient à son tour chef-d’œuvre à part entière.

La fierté céda le pas à la tristesse : jamais je ne pourrai apprécier son travail. Je ne parle plus arabe depuis l’âge de cinq ans. Et quand même j’arriverai à le réapprendre, les subtilités où réside l’art m’échapperaient. Son métier ne sera transmis à sa progéniture...

Dans ma mémoire d’homme, mon père a toujours porté ces chaussures cousues main. Ce sont des objets issus d’une longue tradition de savoir-faire et d’excellence. Elles sont le reflet des valeurs et de l’exigence avec lesquelles mon père a été formé puis a exercé son métier de scénariste. Peut-être que la transmission passe par d’autres voies...

Pour en revenir à notre soirée de décembre, ce que je souhaite mettre en valeur ici est comment Michelle m’a ouvert les yeux et m’a fait comprendre quelque chose de si loin de mes préoccupations, en l'occurrence de tellement féminin, à m’être inaccessible - comme elle m’avait déjà ouvert les yeux sur l’existence d’un autre langage artistique. Grâce à nos différences, les ressentis de Michelle ont souligné des mécanismes qui, je pense, nous sont naturels et communs à tous.

En prenant la métaphore du voyage de Proust*, l’on pourrait dire que l’on comprend mieux son propre “ territoire ” en empruntant les yeux de l’étranger. En s’efforçant de voir avec l’œil de l’autre, on démultiplie ses horizons et ses possibilités.

En ne faisant aucun cas de ce qui ne me concerne pas - un sac à main - je passais à côté de quelques notions essentielles : la traduction d’un ressenti, la nature de la transmission et comment quelque chose apparemment frivole devient une célébration de la vie et son hommage - le « superflu nécessaire » de Voltaire.

À présent, je vois que ce sac saisit et évoque l’insouciance et l’élégance des courbes de la jeune actrice. Tout dans ce sac exprime une joie de vivre féminine irrépressible…

Je le perçois maintenant comme une œuvre d’art car il transcende sa fonction initiale pour évoquer et exprimer quelque chose bien au-delà de la somme de ses parties. Tout comme les chaussures qui me remettent physiquement en contact avec l’intelligence, le talent, les compétences, le savoir-faire et la minutie derrière le travail de mon père.

Si je n’ai pas hérité ses qualités, je sais les reconnaître et je tente de les défendre de mon mieux là où je les trouve.

Objet traduisant le mythe BB tout en maintenant les valeurs pour lesquelles la femme lutte toujours, à savoir le droit des animaux, le sac devient aussi un modèle économique, celui qui reflète la femme qui l’a inspiré : conçu en matières synthétiques et en tissu, aucun animal n’a souffert pour sa fabrication.

L’objet comme manifestation concrète d’une notion abstraite, celle d’intelligence, cette faculté de comprendre et de connaître, se fait pont et vecteur de transmission de savoir.

Avec sa remarque simple « Comment traduire mon ressenti », Michelle résume la simplicité et la complexité de notre notion d’intelligence et de nos relations avec le monde animal.

Daniel Goleman a élargit nos notions d’intelligence avec ses deux livres à grand tirage « Intelligence émotionnelle » et « Intelligence Sociale » dans lesquels il en explore d’autres facettes.

Mais pourquoi nous limiter à celles-ci ? Et si notre intelligence humaine n’atteignait son réel potentiel qu’une fois connectée à une intelligence collective qui inclurait celle de la vie qui nous entoure ? Autrement dit, en collaborant avec et en apprenant de celle des animaux qui nous entourent. Comment cela affecterait notre manière d’élaborer des modèles économiques, des systèmes politiques et sociaux ainsi que nos interrelations ? Devons-nous persister à nous mettre à part, à nous isoler de nos contextes au sens large du terme ? 

Voici quelques options que je souhaite explorer dans les pages qui suivent.

Chérif Ezzeldine

Lucy's adoption day
Feb 5, 1994
Essay contributed by my dear friend, Chérif Ezzeldine
Feb 5, 2011

«How can I translate my feelings»? The situation, the timing, the references…  

My friend Michelle has the uncanny ability of plucking at the heart of the matter like a virtuoso harpist. 

The situation: 
Just before Christmas. A lull before the storm of work on the horizon. Her beloved companion of 16 years, Lucy, had died of old age six months earlier. 

The timing: 
Michelle and I hadn’t seen each other for a while. I hadn’t been able to be with her on her birthday the week before. We decided to meet at a cinema in the Opéra district of Paris. 

The references: work, animals and grief.

Work: I first met Michelle years ago auditioning for a show we ended up doing together. 
We’re two very different animals living on the same page. I realised just how different rehearsing a scene I just could not get right. 

The director had tried everything short of pulling his hair out to help me get back on track. Nothing doing. Michelle sat silently and patiently observing. I was teetering over losing heart and throwing in the towel. 
She stepped in and demonstrated how she approached the scene and got to the truth behind text in general: «All you need to do is get yourself in a comfortable position, then put out your hand like so, bend your arm from the shoulder…» 

Of course, this was double Dutch to me. She is a dancer and I’m an actor. 
My training taught me the way to the truth of a character is to work outward from the inside. And the belief I held was that movement is a result. The inner impulse is what initiates it. So the job is to get to that initial impulse. Any other way just pastes effect over a hollow performance. 
Michelle was demonstrating the exact opposite. Her direct instructions were of no use to me as such, however she provided me with an indisputable alternative. I saw how she set about building her character and the undeniable result it produced. She revealed to me the strength and potency of a new grammar and vocabulary, a language I had never even considered. 
It was a case of realising a foreign «language» can make you see things better than your own. 
Within minutes we went through the scene like in a dream and the whole show took on a different turn from that rehearsal on. 

Their place in our lives. Michelle and I share a need for the presence of an animal or 
animals in our lives. Animal lovers and pet owners, facing their unlike-hearted 
peers, generally don’t even try to explain or show why animals are so important to them. I have found that very early on in such attempts, I come up against a barrier, a great divide. 
Its grounding is the belief that commodities are rationed. The non-sequitur attached, is that affection and love are commodities and are therefore rationed, too. In other words giving your love and affection to an animal means you have that much less to give to your fellow 

Also linked to that belief is the idea that nature is structured like a pyramid with all living creatures appointed to a specific position in the hierarchy of life. Man’s being the pinnacle of life forms on Earth. Any transgression will bring the edifice down and chaos will ensue. So stay with your own kind is the underlying motto - a building block in the logic of exclusion, the myth of purity... 

Grief: I found I shared something with all those who had experienced it before me: the warmth 
from the words of sympathy following the death of someone close to you does soothe. I also found the lack of recognition of the sense of loss, following the death of a four legged creature after 20 years of companionship, helps compound that very feeling. 
So when Michelle said to me: «How can I translate my feelings?» I knew exactly where 
she was at. The answer and the beaming smile she greeted me with at the cinema Boulevard des Capucines that evening before Christmas when she uncharacteristically arrived a few minutes late were yet another display of the brilliance of her heart. 
«I’m getting myself a bag with the money my father has given me for my birthday, but not just any bag…» 
We resumed our discussion after the film in front of the Lancel window. There it was: the new 
Brigitte Bardot Bag. Everything was right about it especially the «girlie» pink one. 
For Michelle who needed to express her tribute to Lucy, a bag was the most fitting symbol. Bags had marked their journey through life together with all the globe trotting they had done.
When my father died, I hunted down and bought my first pair of Church shoes. Once I had them, I understood why they meant so much to me.  Shortly before his death I learned that one of my father’s screen adaptations of a Naguib Mafouz novel is used at film school in Cairo as a model of how to transcribe a novel to the screen.  Translating a masterpiece, from one medium to another. 
Pride gave way to sadness: I would never be able to appreciate his work. I lost my Arabic at 5. Even if I were to learn the language again, the finer points where the art lies would always escape me. I would not be able to learn from his craft. It would not be transmitted to his flesh and blood... 
My father always wore those handmade shoes as far as I can remember. These objects are the fruit of a long heritage of craftsmanship and excellence. They reflect the very same exacting standards he had been raised in and applied himself when it came to crafting his scripts. 
What I would like to highlight here is how Michelle, just as she had once opened my eyes beyond my own language and references by sharing hers during rehearsals, showed me and made me understand something so utterly feminine as to be off my radar and pinpointed a mechanism natural to all of us I believe. 
By dismissing what is of no concern to me - a handbag - I would have overlooked a few essential notions: how to translate a feeling, something about the nature of transmission and how the apparently trivial is turned into a celebration of life. 

Looking at that bag now, I see it captures and communicates the young icon’s carefree and happy energy, the graceful elegance of her curves. Everything about it expresses irrepressible, feminine joy... 
As I see it now, this bag is a work of art. It transcends its primary function to express something greater than the sum of its parts. Just as the shoes put me physically back in touch with the intelligence, talent, skills, hard work and workmanship that lie behind my father’s work. 
I may not have inherited them but I recognise them as values to uphold as best I can. 
An object as a translation of the BB myth and the values the woman continues to stand for, the bag is also an economic model. One that reflects the woman who inspired it: no leather is used so no animal suffered to produce it.
With her simple remark « How can I translate my feelings» Michelle summed up the simplicity and  the complexity of the notion of intelligence as well as our ties to the animal kingdom.
Daniel Goleman stretched our notions of intelligence. His best-sellers Emotional Intelligence and Social Intelligence recognize and explore some of its other expressions. 
Now, what if our human intelligence really only achieved its full potential once connected to a 
broader collective one? In other words, working in collaboration with other forms of intelligence:  with the animals around us. How would that affect the way we build our economic models, organize our political and social systems? 

When you open it you can read the celebration: Enjoy Life. Respect Nature. Love Bags.


June 25, 2010

Saying Good bye

Lucy and my yoga practice are and forever will be inextricably linked.  It was 16 years ago that I took up a regular yoga practice and adopted a puppy, all in the same month.  I needed to change my life.  Little did I know that I adopted a tiny witness to all the big life changes to come since that cold February day in New York.

I was blue, yoga helped me witness and accept that and having a puppy to take care of cheered me.  My intent that February was to take her to visit a friend who had been severely depressed for quite some time to show her the transformation a puppy brings.  Unfortunately, I was too late and Maria decided to take her life that cold February alone in her apartment.  I had Lucy to comfort me.  This was the beginning of how much a comfort she has been, by my side for long walks, well mostly pulling at the leash as far in front as she could race me, and at the side of my yoga mat waiting for the next move.  Dogs love yoga because you are on the floor with them and at eye level, too.  They don't need to learn yoga.  They are yoga.  Puppies somehow know your mat is not a boobie pad but a sacred time put aside to go inside and feel.  When I was on my back for reclining poses Lucy laid across my belly, even when she got bigger and her legs just splayed in all directions.  When I was on my belly for supine poses she tucked herself into the small of my back and kept rolling off when I deepened my breath. She liked that.  Down dog is a favorite because puppies and dogs slobber your face.  Thus, started a 16 year love affair of yoga for the both of us.

What Lucy taught me.  There is no difficulty that can't be put into perspective with the help of a good long walk.  When someone comes in the room, run over and be happy to see them.  When you feel from them they are not keen to be with you, sit patiently by their side and wait for them to get over it.  Lucy was quite insistent with this.  She didn't have a mean bone in her body and therefore couldn't understand anyone not liking her.  She came on a little strong for my husband-to-be's taste but she made him warm up to her.  Michele became one her biggest champions.  People were charmed by her, in fact she is responsible for so many dogs getting adopted.  When my friends met her, several adopted dogs of their own, several who never thought they would own a dog.  My dad went ahead and adopted two.  Among my already dog-friends, our ties just grew deeper.  Lucy cemented my people friendships and drew our community close.  Just a few months after my mother-in-law met her after our move to Europe, she rescued a fox terrier, Spike.  Lucy and her friend enjoyed a number of summers running through forests and countryside in Italy and Germany.  Lucy romped through summer vacations on beaches on the Adriatic and all over a remote island in Croatia.  My husband and I were her pack.

Dogs inhabit the principles of yoga philosophy presented by Patanjali millennia ago.  They are friendly to the happy, patient and even long-suffering to the unkind and compassionate to those troubled.  There is a practice in our yoga, pratipaksha bhavana, replacing a negative thought with a positive one.  Dogs do this instantaneously even if they've been punished.  Lucy would look at me with those eyes that said OK, that's over with, when do we get to eat?  No grudges.  It's all about the present moment and present moment with a cocker spaniel is usually, I am hungry, everything's good.

We shared a spirit of adventure.  She had to be a traveler because right after I picked her up from the pet store she went into my dance bag into rehearsal.  For 16 years, her biggest joy was seeing her travel bag.  Second biggest joy, jumping really high.  Her favorite part of dance class, which she was allowed to attend, were the big leaps across the floor when she would start to sing with the piano and try to leap with us.  At home when I was not there she practiced her leaps onto the kitchen counter to see where I hid the loaf of bread.  She could also get to the fruit bowl and peel bananas.  Her New York vet doubted she was a cocker and leaned more toward springer until she was fully grown.  I bought her a frisbee that smelled like dog treats and she learned how to jump and fly and catch it very quickly.

Having a dog is being reminded that life is joyful, all the time.  Joy is always there, sometimes it is covered up a bit and sometimes a lot, but it's still there.  Perhaps in some way she is reminding my friend Maria of this now, as the great teacher Lucy was.
As I write this I am traveling to London, she is not at my feet.  She is in my heart.
I love you, Lucy.

I Love Lucy the Murphy Dog
October 23,1993 -
June 25, 2010