After talking about what the students see/feel – what about what I’ve seen/felt? I’ve returned home now, and am trying to process what I’ve learned. I took this down as a post and made it a page so that the blog functions as a technical resource.
The hills around Phonsavan are still littered with UXO. I heard a story of someone sweeping a schoolyard and having an accident.
I came into the art workshops not really thinking about how tough it would be to hang out with these kids who have been through so much, and whose lives are connected to mine through the webs of war, nations and harm. During the workshops they were so shy with me, partly because I’m a foreigner, and also because I was asking them difficult questions. I think that they hadn’t been pushed creatively and were unsure how to get the right answer, and bewildered when I told them I loved everything they did. I felt confused about how to support them – I know very little about trauma/therapy/healing. The best I could do was look at their drawings and continue being friendly, smiling, but serious when they were talking about their accidents. It was all going through translators, which is difficult – I guess I just felt very far away from the students and hoped that they could connect with each other. By the end of the workshops, kids were actually waving goodbye to me and saying they were having fun (muan baw? muan!), which I think was a big step. I just truly hope that the workshops didn’t harm them more than help – bring up things that I was unable to deal with.
I was rendered breathless by their sweet natures and the tremendous harm they have felt. They are so calm, self-composed, quiet – I think it extends the lessons I’ve been learning about the Lao style of dealing with the world, in slow and long-term processes where you keep your head cool. It maddens me because I feel so overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problem(s) and their gnarled intersections and I want to act! Change! Do! And what I see in both these kids natures’ and the organizing I’ve seen done around development and self-determination has been so quiet compared to what I’m used to in the US/Bay Area. I feel full of respect and impatience, and sadness and a tenuous hope.
I feel confused about how to best do these artworks/kids justice. I’m not involved in any long-term projects here, and it feels odd to exploit the kids stories/art without a clear goal or place to put them. I hope that they felt like they learned something, felt something, and created something important to them. And that I can do their work justice in the future. If you have any ideas about places to show these drawings (I have their sketchbooks with me here in the US), please let me know.
I hope that the art the kids are making can teach people about Laos, war, and peace. War is not an incident – war isn’t just over. Laos is an extreme example of the long and connected nature of this extreme and extroverted version of state harm/violence/force – the webs of harm that show how much war so severely affects people without political power or foreign aggression.
It also reflects on peace. This is Laos in peacetime. Peace has to mean much more than just the absence of war (and war is continually re-defined – when it’s secret/illegal, is it war? how can we fight it when it’s economic?) – because the land/air/water grabs and war-deaths that continue long after the war are not peaceful. Just as war was redefined during the war in Laos, we have to start to redefine peace as well. Listen to these creative kids visions of an ideal Laos. I’m trying my best to figure out other tools that we can use to listen to each other and act on it. Anyone else have other ideas?
Note: The UXO Education mural on the wall of the US Embassy has been canceled, due to (according to my contact there) the Ambassador and Deputy Chief of Mission (the front office) being unable to match what proper UXO education with what would “be good for the embassy.” They want to focus less on the “legacy of war” – which they are currently addressing through MIA/UXO clearance/drug issues – and instead focus on “moving to the future” (despite asking me to do this in the first place). I find this very sad, but I knew what I was getting into. This year on a Fulbright grant has been amazing, but I am looking forward to being off the state dole and be able to commit better to holistic, transformative, and reflexive work. I understand now what it means to be silenced by a funder – and I don’t just mean this mural project, I mean what being on a federal grant means – your opinion becomes a web of other people’s/organizations/state/nations needs, and not in a way that benefits the people those institutions are supposed to “take care of.” I felt accountable to staff within organizations as well, which made it harder to speak up or re-politicize situations that were expressly de-politicized.
Below is a sample of one of the mural sketches (using the images from the mural workshop) of the mural that won’t happen.