Three women of Africa

11 05 2012

The first woman is cocoa farmer, grasping a rare opportunity to learn.

On this overcast day she joins two dozen men of her community in an educational program that promises to help her grow more cocoa pods, and deliver higher-quality beans that will be used for exclusive foreign chocolate and enjoyed in sophisticated European capitals that she will never see. She hopes to apply the things she learns on her own farm, to generate a higher income, and build a better life. She squats on the ground in her flip-flops and mixes a pile of freshly shucked cocoa beans, up to her elbows in the white pulp that tastes a little like lychee juice.

She sings while she works.

Womens’ work.

The second woman is a villager, grinding manioc on the doorstep of her mud-and-wattle home, to feed her family.

Her settlement is in a clearing in the rainforest, a red dirt piste the only connection to the main road, several miles away. To get there, we drive slalom around potholes wide enough to easily throw out an axle, and deep enough to easily swallow an entire car. These homes have no running water or electricity, and the roofs are made of dried palm leaves.

She tastes some of the chocolate we bring from far-away Europe. It is soft and runny, from the heat, but she takes a handful anyway, and sucks it off her fingers.

Womens’ work.

The third woman is not a woman at all. She is a child of maybe 13 or 15 years old, who has, herself, just borne a child, a few hours earlier. He lies next to her on the plastic-covered bed, stretching his arms skyward, to hug his new world, while she rests. The doctor at the rural health center tells us that the birth took place without anesthesia. “Natural childbirth,” they call it here. To get to the clinic at the top of the hill she had to walk. Her own mother, barely 30, accompanied her. She is now a grandmother.

I did not photograph them.

**********

These are three of the women I met last week in Ivory Coast, a country of 21 million inhabitants nestled between Liberia and Ghana in Western Africa. “Met” is perhaps an exaggeration. I don’t know much more about these women than the basic facts I have written down here, hastily scribbled into my reporters’ notebook at the time. I don’t even know their names. We exchanged a handshake, a “Bonjour madame!”, a smile, and a laugh at something silly. Our worlds touched briefly, with that bond dispersing a short time later, just as quickly.

These are three of the strong women of Africa.

She is the backbone of her community, she is the keeper of her family. Here in the rural communities of the Ivory Coast, she learns from an early age that she must embrace hard physical work to survive. And that she must endure the constant machismo of a traditional male-dominated society, where polygamy is regularly practiced and inheritance usually only passes to her brothers. She bears these lifelong hardships with dignity.

Every day she has a million miles to go before she can sleep.

This was my first visit to Western Africa, and it will surely not be my last. My body returned to Europe this morning. My soul is having a hard time keeping up.

Womens’ work.

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Smart women, dumb circumstances

10 11 2011

During my recently-relaunched job search I have been confronted by an attitude that I had no idea was still a serious a problem in early 21st century corporate life. Women have had the right to vote in most countries for more than a generation, in some countries more than two generations, and have been an integral part of the workforce for much longer than that. That the glass ceiling still exists at all is a crime in itself.

But here is a little more food for thought.

Twice within a short period of time I have been rejected for jobs on a premise and for a reason that for me is quite simply unbelievable. I was always told to work hard, and that there will be rewards. “You can do whatever you want in life,” was the refrain I always heard from elders and teachers.

Well, apparently, if you are a woman, and you work too hard, and do too much, and want too much and you are tall and blonde and strong and intelligent and outspoken, all these factors will conspire to work against you because managers are downright scared of you.

And if you wear heels, by God, you are in for it.

My favorite heels of all time. These boots were made for walking, but not only.

Earlier this year, I interviewed at a company that has a record of treating smart women well. I saw a TV feature on the company’s CEO, a rare bird indeed in a tough, manipulative and mildly corrupt industry. I saw myself learning a great deal from this person. Especially tactical things like getting ahead in territory that is generally dominated by men.

The rejection surprised me because I had the feeling from my interviewer (the person who would be my direct superior) that I was just what he was looking for. He seemed confident that I could do the job well, fit into the team and could offer me a perspective to expand my abilities and skills to benefit both the company and myself.

I ran into this person in a completely different context months later. Somehow, the topic came up as to what the real reasons were for why I was not offered the job. He said flatly, “You were too strong for my CEO. You would have scared her to death.”

A second incident happened shortly thereafter. The feedback from my interview, passed on to me by HR: “The department head felt threatened by you. He felt like you could do his job, and not the one you applied for.”

Well of course I could do his job, but the question that nobody bothered to ask me is: would I even want to? (Uh… no.)

So how do I get my message across in a non-threatening way? I have no idea. I don’t want to be the boss, I don’t want to have to deal with personnel management, and I could care less about the perks and the big bucks that go along with it. (I just left a job to which I was lured by money and status, and it didn’t make me happy.)

I just want to be left alone to my own devices, work as a member of a team, deliver my deliverables, and go home. I have no desire to have to pick up my phone in the middle of the night on the weekend to solve a problem for some impatient person who can’t wait till Monday morning. Been there, done there, got the stupid T-shirt. And a burnout.

In the meantime I have the feeling that I have to dumb-down my CV and my story to make it look like I am less qualified than I really am.

For real? Isn’t that just so… wrong?





Of journalists and corporations

9 10 2011

Like many employees in these difficult economic times, I am disillusioned and disappointed in the place I have been lassooed to these past four years. While chained to my desk, I have become increasingly cynical and disgusted with the superficial nature of the corporate world as a whole. Of the relentless chase after the almighty buck and the daily soul-crushing acts of psychological torture.

A few months ago, I resolved to return to journalism, to my roots, somehow. I decided that I am probably far too critical of corporate hot air to really ever be able to breathe it with ease and spread it with pleasure. Or to drink the poison Kool-aid like I would need to in order to fully succeed as a media flak.

There is no way I will ever be as comfortable in stilettos and a suit as I was in hiking boots and cargo pants, with a reporter’s notebook in my back pocket.

Last week, I received a painful rejection for a journalism job that I felt like I had all sealed up. The hiring manager had (perhaps inadvertently) signaled this to me during my meeting with her.

After I spent weeks waiting for the final thumbs up (that was supposed to be just a formality), she called to tell me that she could not offer me the job covering the Swiss banking industry. Not because my qualifications or experience were insufficient, and not because I was too expensive either. The reason is much more banal and dogmatic: I was disqualified from a job for which I was the top candidate because… (drum roll)… I am married to someone who works at a large Swiss bank.

She told her own superiors that she really, really wanted me on her team, and that she would reshuffle the reporting assignments, allowing me to cover an entirely different industry and focus on entirely different topics. Her managers reiterated their “no way”.

When she told me this, I was stunned and speechless. I had never before been rejected for a job because of the company I keep or the man I am married to.

For those who don’t know Zurich well, it is a small town chock full of financial service companies. It would indeed be strange, I countered, if I did not have close friends (or relatives) in the industry which employs the most people and generates the most tax revenue and economic value in all of Switzerland.

And the fact that the top editors at a high-quality international news organization would not even consider a change of reporting beats to accommodate a very qualified candidate indicates to me that they are more concerned with doctrine and ideology than finding the best people for a particular position. To me, this reeks of discrimination and middle management that has been intimidated into spinelessness by some corporate policy that is not worth the paper it’s printed on. How ironic.

So after this unusual, unbelievable and stinging rejection, I continue my search to be relevant. My search to find a place that will value my skills and experience, long for my writing and appreciate my personality. A place that will not judge me by who I fell in love with and married.

Can’t wait to find out if that place exists out there.





Requiem for Pascale

18 07 2011

It was just another cold and rainy Sunday afternoon, one that passes for “summer” here in Zurich. I had gone out for a walk in the mud and some fresh air, and when I returned, the SMS message was waiting for me.

“Please call me,” from probably the last person on earth I expected to hear from on a Sunday. Something was up.

I called.

Gayle answered by saying my name: “Evelynn, Hi.”

“Hi, what’s going on?”

Silence.

“What happened?”

“Evelynn, I have to tell you…. I… something bad… ”

She couldn’t even say the words.

“What happened? Is it about Pascale? Did something happen to Pascale?” I had sent our mutual girlfriend several messages the days before and had received no response. That was not like her and I was starting to wonder.

“How do you know?”

“I DON’T know… Know WHAT? Tell me! What happened?”

“Evelynn… Pascale is… Pascale is dead.”

And then she told me about how she just found out that our friend went hiking alone in the southern Swiss canton of Ticino last Thursday, slipped, and fell off a mountain. How an emergency search & rescue helicopter later found her body among the rocks in a deep ravine.

She was 38 years old.

Full of life, with boundless energy, and ambitious plans. With a smile as wide as Montana.

Pascale was my nordic walking buddy. She lived in the next town over and we would often meet to gossip and stride through the rolling meadows and woods that straddle the two municipalities. In summer we enjoyed brilliant sunshine, in the company of cows, and savored the smell of the flowers and grasses in bloom. In winter we would meet after sunset, the short days making for frigid and sometimes treacherous going on icy paths.

That was our favorite time to walk and talk: in the dark, making tracks after a fresh, quiet snowfall.

Pascale was the co-snow-bunny I featured right here in my blog a few months ago. On skis she was mostly fearless, but she never let me take her flying.

Pascale and Gayle were colleagues at a previous employer, and the three of us remained friends even after she and I quit our jobs there. We all are just a few years apart, similar in physique and character: tall, with long, straight, dark blond hair, athletic, extroverted, loud and very demanding of ourselves and others. We always wanted so much more out of our lives and careers than the men we had to work with were willing to concede.

We got together for regular ladies’ lunches and dinners at swanky restaurants across this outrageously expensive city to have a fantastic meal, philosophize about life and celebrate ourselves.

Our last ladies’ lunch was just two weeks ago, also on a Thursday, at a hip Fusion-style restaurant just around the corner from the workplace where we first met almost exactly five years earlier. For dessert we ordered champagne, toasted each other and the great things that lay in all of our futures. We wondered how much fun it might be to start a business together.

I still see Pascale standing on Zurich’s busy main commercial avenue, Bahnhofstrasse, that afternoon. She was wearing a light blue blouse and slacks, and carried a large white handbag. The pearl bracelet on her wrist jingled as she checked her phone for messages. We said goodbye, kissed each other three times on alternating cheeks.

“Don’t be a stranger,” I said.

“I’ll call you,” she responded.

With a flick of her long blonde mane she turned away and melted into the crowd.

Pascale. March 4, 1973 - July 14, 2011.





Endeavor… to dream.

30 04 2011

Thirty years and two weeks ago, a not-quite-11-year-old girl sat in front of her family’s television set, in the basement of a house overlooking a city in Britain’s west. She was transfixed. And in her, a dream was born.

The space shuttle Columbia – an experimental aircraft – had lifted off, orbited the earth and landed safely 2 days, 6 hours, 20 minutes, and 53 seconds later. It was the dawn of a new era in space travel. And this eleven-year-old had plans.

Columbia airborne.

She documented those two days in a diary which she still has today. In a child’s loopy handwriting, she proclaimed the technological supremacy of the western world over the Soviet one. It was the height of the Cold War, and countless nuclear warheads were pointed in both directions across the Iron Curtain. The race for space was at full throttle.

And at that moment, she decided to become an astronaut – long before Sally Ride punched through the atmosphere and NASA’s glass ceiling.

Too young to remember Apollo, the girl matured with the modern U.S. space program through the 1980’s, as the shuttle missions grew longer and more complex. She studied every detail of the aircraft’s cockpit, its flight capabilities and its many uses in exploration. She kept a detailed notebook, its columns filled with critical information about every flight. She collected the mission patches, watched as much television news coverage as possible and celebrated the program’s successes. And she promised herself that someday she would go to Cape Canaveral to experience a launch live. Preferably as a participant, and not merely as an observer.

On January 28, 1986, something sad and awful and unthinkable happened. Challenger had exploded just after lift off, killing its seven crewmembers. The girl was a teenager now, and for her it was the first of those moments in history where, years later, you turn to your lover or husband or friend and say: “I know exactly where I was and what I was doing when I heard.”

The shuttle stopped flying for a while. And by the time the space program got back on track, she’d had to bury her childhood dream and build a new one. She took her ambition in a very different direction; far from Cape Canaveral, but close to its spirit of discovery.

Lightning struck the shuttle program a second time in February 2003. In the meantime the little girl was all grown up. She was a driven and moderately successful journalist, living a dream replaced.

It was evening as she sat on her bed on the top floor of a five-star hotel, in an island-nation on the other side of the world. She looked up at the television from the story she was writing, expecting to see Columbia’s landing. But the unthinkable had happened again. A surreal and sinking feeling gripped the young woman as the spacecraft – an old, close friend – disintegrated during re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere, taking all of her astronauts with her in flames.

So yesterday, a not-quite-41-year-old woman got into her car in South Florida, and started driving north. Cape Canaveral was just 160 miles (260 kilometers) away, and Endeavor was due to launch on its last mission at 3:47 p.m. It would be the next-to-last shuttle flight ever and probably her final chance to experience one live. She was so tantalizingly close, and could not possibly forgive herself if she didn’t try to get there.

It would be a pilgrimage, 30 years in the making; a kind of closure for the dream never realized.

Two hours and 120 miles later came the news no one wanted to hear: Endeavor’s launch was cancelled this day, due to a technical problem.

Endeavor, still here. (April 29, 2011)

In my sudden, crushing disappointment, I felt like the 11-year-old girl I was 30 years ago. I stopped the car and cried for something I wanted so much… but was just not meant to be.





On writing

18 04 2011

I took off three months from work to get cracking on a memoir. That was my declared goal. Before it started, I created an excel-spreadsheet timetable, like in school, with slots for everything from breakfast to yoga to food shopping to skating to flying and, of course, to writing. According to my timetable, I was due to write for something like 7-10 hours every day.

Unfortunately in my immense wisdom and unbridled ambition, I forgot to schedule slots for basic things like showering, phoning with my husband, reading, vacuuming, paying bills and paying attention to the world around me. There was no time to “veg”. And I discovered (and perfected) the fine art of getting in my own way.

Though I have been a writer of sorts for more than 20 years (journalism counts, doesn’t it?), I’m finding that the act of writing, the physical undertaking, is much more difficult and excruciating than I expected. Or maybe I have just forgotten how to do it. Wit, truth and insight are buried deep. Wherever they are lurking, they seem to like it there.

Lots of words on a page. Easy, huh? (Not really.)

In the past few years, I feel like creativity has bled out of me, replaced by ordinariness and tedium. Like my craft has abandoned me. I can’t put a finger on the time or the place – it was a process… it happened much like a stealth bomber approaches a target, creeping in under radar, with folks on the ground not noticing it’s there till it’s too late.

But perhaps I was never the fountain of ideas and the visionary of originality that I thought I was in the first place. Still, the (perceived) end likely came after I traded in my journalism combat boots for corporate 6-inch heels. Press releases, communications strategies and report launch plans do not inspire me. At least not in the industry in which I am currently caged.

This afternoon’s visit to the local bookstore was a sobering experience. Hundreds of biographies and memoirs, most of which are probably exquisitely written, lined the shelves, each story more compelling in its shock and tragedy than the next. And I only skimmed the back covers of maybe 30 of them.

I once read somewhere that a good story is one where the protagonist changes somehow. That through some event or encounter she matures, grows and becomes a different person. It’s this transformation, this emotional evolution that forms the core of a good story. And in many books I saw today, this transformation happens through one or more of the following: death, disease, drunkenness, denial and destruction.

So that’s another thing I’m wondering as I wade into this ocean of words. Must one have hit rock bottom in some way in order to write a convincing and gripping memoir? Must the road of personal growth always be paved with catastrophic and wretched experiences? Doesn’t that get old after a while? Is this the only formula that works? Or that publishers publish?

There are thousands of websites that offer tips and advice to hopeful writers, and the glut of information makes your head spin. If you read enough of them, you will find absolute contradictory information. One “expert” advises one thing on her blog, and the next advises the opposite on his. This wealth of data leaves the nascent yet increasingly insecure creative non-fiction writer to pick and choose to the best of her knowledge and belief. She’s left guessing what’s important and what’s not. This seems like no way to be successful.

Some famous writer in ages past once said something like: writing is one part inspiration and nine parts perspiration. If I was inspired, I would go on google right now to find out who it was. But I’m not. I’m already sweating and overwhelmed by the information I already posess. And with every passing day my discouragement grows. Do I just not have what it takes? What does it take? And why does every writer go through these toxic fits of paralyzing self-doubt and hesitation? And who wants to read about my lousy, insignificant life, anyway?

My writer friends tell me this is all quite normal. But honestly, it is truly crushing. And I’m not sure anymore that I am cut out for the job.





Go play with guns, kids.

14 02 2011

The Swiss never cease to underwhelm me. Yesterday’s national referendum on weapons control which I wrote about a month ago (here), went down in flames. More than 55 percent of the population voted to keep semi-automatic military weapons in homes, garages, sheds, stables, cottages and greenhouses across the country.

And they said loud and clear: Children, you can continue to have fun playing with firearms you find in the closet. Men, you can continue to threaten your families with your weapons. And suicide-endangered individuals, Hey – go for it!

The trench was clearly drawn between the country’s small urban, cosmopolitan population and the vast majority of (backward, insular, godforsaken mountain) folk that live the Alps and behind the moon. There is also a marked division along language lines – the French-speakers said mostly “yes”, the German-speakers said mostly “no”. The so-called Röstigraben, the ditch dividing the two language regions, just got that much deeper.

The French and the Zurichers got it right this time.

Some German-speaking cantons declined the measure with majorities of more than 72 percent. 72 percent! If this had happened in any other country on the planet, the OECD election observers would declare the vote unfair and corrupt and say ballot boxes had been stuffed. But because it’s Switzerland, nobody bats an eyelid.

Why does this make me so angry? Because the referendum’s opponents knew nothing better than to use propaganda and intimidation to get their point across to a willfully brainwashed public. There was no single logical, rational reason to decline the referendum, as there is no single rational reason to keep these lethal weapons (responsible for more than 300 deaths every year) at home and not locked up in an armory. But the opponents’ message rang loud and clear: “Take away our weapons and you take away our traditions.”

Well you know, I’m not sure that would be such a bad thing. Some ancient traditions, established in the dark ages, really need to be done away with. One such tradition is the annual Zurich holiday called “Knabenschiessen.” Literally translated that would mean: “Young Boys Shooting (Day)”.  (No, young boys are NOT lined up to be shot – as much as we might wish that to be the case sometimes.) It’s a day when a canton-wide shooting tournament is held for young people. A few years ago, the organizers graciously started to invite the girls too.

And simply questioning the status quo or any God-given rights regarding guns those oh-so-traditionalist Swiss claim for themselves instantly draws their (f)ire and an emotional overreaction. On Knabenschiessen day two years ago, I was filleted by a Facebook friend when I posted an anti-childrens’-shooting status note. Shortly thereafter she defriended me.

Yesterday’s vote is another prime example of where direct democracy just doesn’t work, and where a country’s population must be protected from its own supidity.

After more than six years in Switzerland, I think it is time for greener pastures. And the winters here are too damn cold, anyway.

Singapore is starting to look pretty good right about now.