You’re not ignorant because you don’t know… it’s when you choose not to listen

A few weeks back I went to a committee hearing on the status of Sudan and Southern Sudan, and the problems still plaguing the region. It was my first hearing and I didn’t know what to expect. I arrived to a room already overcrowded and people lining the walls. Video cameras were set up in all corners to film the hearing, and members of the press were taking photos of people, who I had no idea as to who they were. There were no open seats left, but I spotted a deep windowsill against the far wall. I awkwardly shuffled my way through rows of people sitting down, bumping the backs of my legs into everyone’s knees. Every time I am forced to walk through a row of seats I never know if its polite to put my butt in their face as I squeeze through, or if I should face them, bumping knees with theirs and probably hitting the people in the row in front with my butt. I’m not even that big of a person. I can’t even imagine how uncomfortable the situation could be.

I digress….

I eventually made it to the other side of the room after many times of “excuses me” and “ sorry.” I took a seat in the windowsill, with a perfect view of the committee and witnesses. They opened an overfill room and began to ask everyone who didn’t have a seat to leave, and watch the hearing from the TVs provided in the extra room. Technically sitting on a ledge in the wall wasn’t a seat, so I tried to act invisible, hoping that no one would see me, as they simultaneously kicked out every intern who was taking up room. This was my first hearing and it was on a topic I was really interested in, and watching the events take place via TV wasn’t going to be the same. After about ten minutes of anxiously waiting I had made it through and they closed the heavy wooden doors to the room. A committee of about ten members of Congress sat at the front, and then about eight people testified over the next 2 ½ hours. There were ambassadors who spoke, members from the UN, John Prendergast from the Enough Project (undeniably the best speaker I have ever listened to), a journalist and host of a political radio show, and finally a testimony given by an 18 year old boy, who had recently been freed from slavery in Northern Sudan.

I went into this meeting with absolutely no idea of what was to come and what expectations to have. I hadn’t expected to cry. I hadn’t expected it to change my life. I hadn’t expected to feel utterly crushed afterwards. The hearing addressed the issues Southern Sudan is facing as the newest nation on earth, and the problem of famine, conflict and slavery. Maybe I’m incredibly naive, but I wasn’t even aware that slavery still existed, let alone the torturous conditions that slaves survive under. Ker Deng had won his freedom from slavery after an American nonprofit group which functions in Sudan bought him from the man who had acted as his master for over ten years. Deng sat before the members of Congress and through a translator, a survivor of the Lost Girls, asked for help for the people of his country, for the thousands who are still enslaved, for his mother and younger siblings who were not as fortunate as himself. He wore sunglasses to shield his eyes as he described the horrific treatment he received, the conditions he lived under since being a child, and the day that his master rubbed so much chili in his eyes he became blind.

 

Pictures from where I was sitting after a seat opened up.

From his testimony…

“He said that when he was a toddler, Arab raiders from the north came and invaded his village, burning their huts,  killing the men and tieing the women and children to camels and dragging them to a life of slavery in the north.
Ker said he was treated worse than the animals he tended.  He was beaten every single day, and was fed grain just like the horses. But he said the worst thing that his slave master did was, in a fit of rage, he tied Ker upside down to a  tree and rubbed hot chili peppers in his eyes, blinding him. “

http://www.voanews.com/english/news/africa/Freed-Sudanese-Slave-Testifies-to-US-Congressional-Panel-131110293.html

An uncomfortable lump rises in my throat and tears begin to fill the brims of my eyes just remembering. Memory is so incredibly powerful. I’d never heard such pain come from one person. No matter who I know in America and what they have experienced, it just— doesn’t even begin to compare. I will never come close to experiencing anything like what Deng spoke of. And he is just one. JUST ONE. It was so, shocking, for lack of a better word. I just couldn’t believe that I didn’t know about this. That no class I had ever taken had addressed this issue, that I hadn’t heard about it in the news. I wouldn’t call myself an uninformed person or someone who is blind to the problems of the world, but I had no idea.

I left the meeting feeling crushed under the weight of reality. How fucked the world is for so many. I felt the complete and total frustration of all those who spoke that day at the hearing, expressing their anger at the lack of progress in the area. The lack of participation by the American government. Sudan is the largest country in Africa and we are hardly involved. Humanitarian aid is not sufficient for the needs and demands of this area. So So So many people are dying. In America we continue to bitch about the injustices of the past, the horrors of our own country’s slavery. Well if we’re so upset by it why are we not stopping the slavery that current exists???!!! Why isn’t this talked about? How do we continue to turn a blind eye to this??

I left Mad. Upset. Guilty. Broken. Devastated. Frustrated. Defeated.

But a part of me left inspired. I felt moved. I felt passionate. I felt like I had found something that I could care about so incredibly that I could spend my life working on this issue.

Since that original meeting I have been to two more on foreign policy and Southern Sudan, and the Lord’s Resistant Army, who are just as awful as the government of Sudan. If you don’t know about the LRA please take 10 minutes out of your incredibly comfortable lives to inform yourself.

These issues may be taking place in Africa, but we are a global community, and therefore their problems are ours. Africa is incapable of solving its issues that have stemmed from colonialism and tribal warfare. This much is clear. They do not have the resources or coordination to combat terrorist groups that commit crimes against humanity, whether that be abduction of children and forcing them to act as soldiers against their own families and people, mutilation, torture and murder of other Africans, or preventing food aid from being delivered, so as to starve people into submission. Many of their governments are corrupt beyond repair and only a total revolution and overthrow could fix these. But a revolution has no energy when those who must act are being starved.

And we call Occupy Wall Street our own revolution. First World problems are hardly problems when placed on the global scale. We are spoiled and we demand when all our needs are not met. This is not our revolution. We need to refocus our efforts elsewhere.

Over the past two weeks I have done more research on Sudan and the issues that came up in the meeting. I have talked with many people who are familiar with these issues. There are so many problems it’s hard to know where to start. It’s overwhelming to even try to focusing on one point without realizing that something else is just as important and the two are tied so closely together.

I can’t choose what anyone does with their life, and I can’t tell everyone to go into aid work for Africa, nor can anyone one person or group attempt to save a continent plagued by decades upon decades of the world’s worst problems.

Just, be informed.

http://www.enoughproject.org/

http://www.enoughproject.org/LRA

http://www.enoughproject.org/conflict_areas/sudan_south_sudan

http://www.enoughproject.org/blogs/congress-seeks-way-forward-sudan-invites-enough-perspectives

(I made it that much easier for you.)

I want to work for him, he is incredible- http://www.enoughproject.org/staff/john-prendergast-co-founder

For something lighter after all this…Thank you Cobert

http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/392263/july-18-2011/john-prendergast

mach.I.ne

Its been a week and a day since I fully entered The Machine. When I say The Machine, I am referring  to the political force driving Washington DC. I am now a cog in this system. Another mechanical part spinning in circles, helping The Machine destroy everything in its path. The Machine is massive. It is made of thousands of people in suits with clean haircuts, nice shoes, and strong voices. I never really imagined myself as part of this world, but now here I am. I listen to dubstep on the metro first thing in the morning, I wear clothes that seem to mature and fancy for me, and my hair is always messy by the time I get to work. And yet I am the newest member in The Machine.

I must say it is truly empowering. The first time I stepped out of the metro and took the high reaching escalator to street level, South Capitol, I was instantly greeted by the looming presence of The Capitol. I had never even been that close to it before. Its breathtaking. My heart jumped in that way that makes your stomach feel like it just lifted within you. Deep exhale. This is where I work now. Excitement and nervousness were competing for who would fully consume me.

I spent a portion of the first day being shown around Capitol Hill. But not the Capitol Hill most are familiar with. I got the underground tour. The three buildings that sit on the hill, Longworth, Rayburn and Cannon, are all connected to one another by underground passages, which also lead to the Capitol. I felt like someone in the CIA, with my government badge on, wandering what seemed like secret shortcuts. There is even an underground train, like the type you would ride at Disneyland. A play toy for politicians.

Everything in the Machine is so big. SO Large. SO Massive. SO GRAND. I can’t even recall how many times this past week I realize while running an errand in one of the buildings that I am completely lost. Lost with no idea where I am or where the place I am going to is. I’m finding that just wandering, and asking the help of anyone who looks like an intern, is the best way to get around. Get aquainted. Its also really surprising how many people don’t know where the rooms are im looking for, or how many times I am going to need to ask for directions to the coffee shop until I remember the way. Its hard to describe how never ending these huge hallways are, and everything looks the same. Exactly the same. Capitol Hill is a political maze.

My internship is my first office job, and I have my own desk and my own computer and its my special little corner right next to the front door. I intern for ten hours a day when the House is in session, which means whenever the congress people are voting I am working ten hour days. On the days they don’t have to vote, I get to leave an hour early. And im doing this for free. Ten hour days for free. But in hopes that it will lead to something bigger and better for myself.

 (view from office)

My office is great. The people are fun and easy going and it’s a great work environment. There are a lot of Californians in the office, which creates the sense of home in a foreign place. I had heard so many horror stories of what people are like in politics and on the Hill, that one of my biggest fears was ending up in an office from Hell. My situation couldn’t be farther from it.      

Not only did I get really lucky when it comes to my co-workers, but also with my living situation. I live in a two bedroom apartment in a highrise in down town DC. To give you a sense of where I live, its on the same street as the White House, about three blocks away.        My apartment is shared between myself and three other girls. I honestly could not have asked for a cooler roommate. She is ridiculously funny, and after having my own room for the past year, its nice to have late night pillow chat time with someone again (instead of always forcing friends into it when I spend the night). Her fascination with China is the same as mine with Japan, and we are both from San Diego, Santa Cruz, and we both have freckles. She likes red wine and I like white, and we’re both interning on the Hill. We suspect that even our congressmen might be buddies. Yesterday she got a new workout video and it called for hand weights and she didn’t have any, so she used two bottles of wine instead (one being the gift I gave her for her 21st birthday). She is truly the best roommate I could have asked for, and I can only imagine how the next two months will go.

      

The other two girls I live with are also great. I’m getting the impression they are much mellower than myself and my roommate, which will be the perfect balance. They work for non-profits and think-tanks, so between the four of us we have got every base covered. Its nice having us all interested in different things, because it brings different elements into discussion and we are all able to share different stories and things we learned that day.

Everyone I am meeting in the UCDC program are here doing really different interesting things. Some people are working in politics, some with the UN, some with research orgs, some with non profits, some with the national museums, and some with the media. One of the girls I have been spending a lot of time with is working with National Geographic so I will get to spontaneously live through her experience and find out what interning with them could have been like, had I taken that route. When I first started UCSC I was blown away by how smart everyone was, and how knowledgeable they were about all different things. The biggest change with being in DC is that everyone is so incredibly driven. People are working really hard, and everyone has pretty big goals for the near future. It is very inspiring.

A few things have caught me off guard since I’ve been in DC. The first being no one really has an accent, and for some reason I was expecting people to talk differently. Two, people are always in a hurry. There is escalator etiquette at all of the metro stations, that being that those who want to ride the escalators stand to the right, those who run up them use the left. People are always running or speed walking faster than I am used to. You learn very quickly not to get in someone’s way. Another difference is that most people dress professionally here. About every third person is in a suit or dressed up very nice. You get a sense of everyone being a professional at something and they have very important jobs, whether or not that’s true, it looks as if it is.

Apart from interning everyday and getting settled into my place, I have been taking advantage of DC’s night life. Like I said, I live downtown and everything is close and there is so much going on, despite what night of the week it is. The happy hour culture is huge out here, and so you see most people at bars dressed in the same clothes they worked in. Example: most guys are in ties and most girls are in pencil skirts and blazers. Everyone is always dressed up, despite where you go. A group of us have already kind of found a place that is becoming our regular spot, and when I mentioned it to my mom she told me it was the same place she went to when she was younger. This place and its history.

My parents are also visiting the east Coast right now, and over the weekend we went to lunch and then drove by the house my mom lived in during a few years of college.

I knew I was going to like living in DC and while I was nervous to move here, I knew I would adjust. I never realized how much I was going to love it and how quickly it was going to happen. I have yet to feel even a tinge of homesickness, or longing for what I left. I can’t wait until the next time I see familiar faces, and am in the company of those I am truly comfortable with, but until then I’m settling here. This is my new life. This is where I’ve been waiting to be. Every day is better than the last.

I can’t believe this is my life.