‘These women are stubborn like nothing’. Last, eventful days in Gulu Women’s Prison.

I walked into Gulu Women’s Prison for the last time carrying the pleasing combination of several poetry books and one hacksaw. No one checked my bag. They never have.

The poetry books were for the library, which is now installed in the ‘office’ (corrugated iron shed).

Irene

Librarian Irene, who also shared her story in our book,  with the new library shelves. This is the one and only photograph I’ve been allowed to take inside the prison.

The hacksaw was to saw through the padlock on a large metal locked box which I’m told was left here by another mzungu (foreigner) a long time ago. She came once a week to have play sessions with the children who live in the prison and kept toys in the box. I have been asking for months where the key is. I wanted children to use the toys. And it didn’t feel like the box was full, so I also wanted it for stationery storage. The key had been left with a guard, who had either lost it or just wasn’t motivated enough to find it for us, or maybe feared being exposed for stealing some of the box’s contents.

This box had been a cautionary tale to me, and has fuelled efforts to pass the torch of the women’s education programme on to other individuals and organizations, leave detailed information about everything we have done, and leave keys with three different people, none of whom are guards.

We liberated the toys, and filled the box with exercise books, chalk, and pens.

The women are very happy about the library, and want to convey thanks to everyone who donated to the book project. While a large number of books are borrowed from the men’s library, the shelves, phonics readers, and a full set of curriculum books was purchased, along with a large supply of stationery, with funds raised by the women’s

book box

The arrival of a full set of curriculum books for the teachers, bought with funds raised by their stories.

stories and poems.

While moving things about in the office, I also discovered a disconcerting number of bras.

‘Who takes their bras off in the office?’ I joked. I was wondering if perhaps they had been donated and the guards needed a nudge to distribute them.

‘They are ours,’ Irene said, ‘We are not allowed to wear them.’

‘Why not?’

‘To discourage escape. It’s painful to run with no bra, you know?’

self help

Self-help books chosen by the women from the main library. A notable focus on starting small businesses.

Gah.

On a brighter note, the first books signed out of the library were: Things Fall Apart, Fix your self-esteem, Giraffes can’t dance (a children’s book), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, poems by Mary Oliver, and ‘Learn about Russia!’  Happy days.

But then, amid celebration over the library, and the fact that the education programme had run smoothly without my having to lobby the guards for over a week, something happened.

A woman had escaped two days ago, running away from her work gang and into the

novels

The novel selection. I’ve arranged for someone to swap these for new ones from the abundant men’s library every couple of months so women get a fresh supply.

bush when a guard’s back was turned. Her husband spotted her hiding near their village and called the police (almost certainly paying them a bribe to come and get her).

‘Why did her husband turn her in?’

‘He hates her. That is why she is here in the first place. He took her to court for charges of child neglect because she wanted to leave him but couldn’t look after the baby so she tried to leave it with his family.’

Other prisoners carried the woman into the prison, and I was shocked to see them slapping her, hard, about the head as they did so. She was left lying, crying, on the ground. I was sitting in a meeting with the welfare officer, teachers and students, and it was clear from everyone’s behaviour that while they would briefly turn to watch, they expected the meeting to continue like normal.

The Overall In-Charge of the women’s prison, a large guard with braids pulled back into a tight bun, walked over to the woman on the ground and started kicking her. Then, guards dragged her into the shed, and we could hear the sounds of her being beaten. She screamed and screamed.

easy

Children’s books are very handy for the new readers.

I froze up and didn’t do anything and the meeting continued. In all likelihood, my protest only would have delayed the beating. But I still think intervening was the right thing to do and I am ashamed that I didn’t do it.

It strikes me that this is why people pray, or meditate, or whatever, every day. Not because they struggle to remember in thought what is right and good but because doing what is right in an unexpected situation, against social expectation, is so hard (for most of us) that you must have your conviction wrapped around your very bones. You must have to train the pursuit of justice into yourself until it is an automatic reaction stronger than fear or

non

The non-fiction section. We were able to meet requests for ‘books with pictures of other countries’ and ‘a book about ghosts’.

social conformity.

The screaming stopped. I wished I was 1) not a coward 2) staying forever, and 3) some kind of lawyer, not a teacher. I went into the office/shed on some excuse and found the woman sitting upright, though limply, against the new bookshelves. She was bleeding in several places and her eyes looked blank. There were bits of broken sticks all over the floor. I was worried she had a concussion or other dangerous injury so I asked if they hit her head. She said no, they only slapped her face and the heavy beating was all on her limbs. She seemed exhausted, more than anything else.

There is one NGO I know of in Gulu which helps with a small number of court cases, trying to get justice for prisoners, though their size and presence is such that they’re not working on any of the wrongful convictions I know about, and I’ve never seen them in the women’s prison. I don’t know of any who advocate for the treatment of prisoners in prisons, and the idea that the government prison system itself might care and try to protect prisoners feels laughable.

shelves

This is the library shelf. Beside it is a second shelf full of teacher resources.

So it was a very mixed ending. I feel positive about the continuation of education and reading for women in the prison. But the sight of the beaten and bloodied woman, who had in all likelihood only done what she thought best for her child in a very desperate situation, leaning against the bookshelves, was a stark reminder of the reality of prison life here.

Pastor Florence was not there when the beating took place, but soon arrived to pray with the woman and comfort her with her own story, from the worst depths of prison violence and injustice, to the hope of a free and happy life.

 

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Olara’s 100 books

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Olara with his certificate celebrating 100 books, and the last 3 books he read

This is Olara. He is one of a group of seven neighbourhood kids I have had the joy of teaching in an intensive catch-up class. Seven months ago, he couldn’t read. Today, he started reading his 101st book. He is one of the most tenacious people I have ever met.

Olara lives next door in a situation that closely resembles squatting, with his mother, three sisters, and baby nephew. His mother is gone before light and returns after dark, selling greens in the market. Her husband died 2 years ago in an accident, and things are very hard since then. But she thinks carefully about her children’s futures, considers which of the dubious local schools is best, pays their school fees with what little money she has, determinedly avoids the patterns that lay waste to so many families like hers and, in the little time she has at home, is very loving to her children, smiling, singing, and hugging them. Olara couldn’t be called lucky, but if he has one thing going for him, apart from the incredible determination of his character, it is that his mother is awesome.

Tess and Nick have been running classes and a book exchange to accelerate their neighbours’ kids’ learning for many years now. This has been incredibly supported by Jody’s phonics resources, an incredible selection of kids’ books and educational games gifted by Nick’s parents Sharyn and Stuart, and even more books donated by friends in NZ and carried by various visitors (Innes in particular had one tramping pack stuffed with books which can’t have been fun to carry through Kampala -what a legend).

Olara is 11, his classmates 9-13. Tess and Nick arranged this class because they were scarily non-literate for their ages and needed a major boost. Now six of them can read pretty fluently, though none as well as Olara, who came to read and exchange his book every single day that he was allowed to. One girl has a severe learning disability and is still struggling to read very basic things. We worry about her future, as there is no support in schools for someone like her, and even with intensive one-on-one work, her progress is very, very, slow. But I was heartened to see how she is cared for in her extensive family, and how the other kids understand, and help her rather than leaving her behind.

Olara’s dream is to become a nurse and work at Lacor hospital. It won’t be easy; there are still many odds for him to overcome. They are systemic, and I hope Uganda won’t always face them. If corruption wasn’t there and primary education was free like it’s supposed to be, his mother would be saving for his secondary education, not struggling every term to pay for primary. If government teachers were reliably present and better trained (although Jody’s organization Read for Life is making stunning progress on that front!), he wouldn’t have been illiterate at age 11. In NZ, his mother would also be getting at least some much-deserved support. It’s a far from perfect situation, but I’m glad that despite the odds, Olara is on a trajectory to bring his dream within reach.

The dignity of dictionaries, red pens and wall clocks: What you have helped us achieve in Gulu Women’s Prison

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Our Head Teacher and newly published author, Alwoko Florence

Students sit proudly in class, equipped to learn. The writers of the advanced English class are overjoyed, sharing their copies of their book with their visitors, reading their stories in print over and over, and relishing the knowledge that they have the power to earn learning materials for themselves and their less fortunate peers, and that their stories are travelling the world, even if they themselves cannot move beyond the prison gate.

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Zines awaiting distribution in NZ

As I write, the wonderful Rosa in Auckland is printing and sending copies to their various NZ, US and UK destinations. I have emailed more electronic copies than I can count.

Sometimes, amid all the difficulties and chaos, of prison, Uganda, and maybe life in general, things go well. Very well.

Because of the amount we raised – because of your generosity – we have been able to do so much. In addition to the teaching and learning supplies, we are getting a full set of curriculum books (before, getting the course content relied on tenuous borrowing arrangements with the men’s prison), some bookshelves to keep more library books in the women’s prison, a wall clock (it took me a stupidly long time to realize why it was so hard for the programme to run on time and why the problem was worse on cloudy days – the sun was previously the main time-telling device), dictionaries, and a supply of student and teacher stationary that should last us until arrangements have been made for a locally based education NGO to take over the small ongoing costs.

zines cass

Cassandra reading the stories in Auckland

I asked the teachers if there was anything they needed that I had overlooked. They are a humble bunch and don’t like to ask for anything, even though they know they have raised these funds themselves.

Alwoko said shyly, ‘For me I would like to have a red pen to mark my students’ work.’

Susan agreed, ‘Yes, the red pen makes us feel very dignified, like serious teachers.’

Done.

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Florence in her previous prison

In a wonderful twist, through the book I got in contact with some great people who work in a prison in the next district, where one of our writers used to be held. They were able to send some photos of her time there, which she would like to share. This is Alwoko Florence, whose life story is included in the book. This prison looks a little more spacious than Gulu (where I can’t take any photos) but the uniforms are the same.

Even better, they were able to get a copy of the book the Florence’s son, who is in that prison, far from his mother. He was very happy to receive news that Florence is thriving, writing and teaching, and he himself is studying hard inside the prison.

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Florence’s son, Caesar

‘Never Lose Hope’ – the writers of Gulu Women’s Prison present their first publication

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The Writing Project: Never Lose Hope

It’s finally done.  The women in the advanced writers group have poured heart and soul into their pieces, finished in scraps of time between their heavy workloads. As I gathered exercise books for work to type up, one woman apologized that her writing was so messy; she had been scribbling in the dark, after lights out.

We are selling this booklet in exchange for donations, with which we will purchase everything needed to provide for the ongoing teaching of the Ugandan school curriculum in the Women’s Prison, and Phonics for Literacy in both prisons (men already have a wider education programme)

And these stories are jaw-dropping. Brave, sad, incredibly hopeful. And full of aspects of life here that still surprised and shocked me after all these months. However I do need to include the trigger warning that some of these stories feature accounts of horribly brutal crimes, including crimes against children.

We’ve included pictures of handwriting, and some women also included personal photos and drawings. They are very excited to share their stories and provide teaching materials for all their peers in doing so.

You can get a physical copy, or an online version. It’s pretty amazing how far your NZ dollar (or other Western curren20180723_125513cy) goes here… which is probably sad and problematic for global economy reasons I don’t understand… but it does mean it shouldn’t be too hard for us to set these teachers up with everything they need. You can get involved on the Givealittle page:

https://givealittle.co.nz/cause/never-lose-hope-education-in-gulu-womens-prison#

I’m including below a full list of the education provisions I plan to buy, and a full summary of the work we have been doing across both prisons, for those interested in the nitty-gritty.

I also want to acknowledge that TEAMS (The East African Mission Society) gave the 20180730_160108female prisoners 150 pens, which has helped get the classes started.

But because stories are always more fun, here first are my personal highlights and lowlights of prison work over the last few months.

 

The Best of Times

  1. One prisoner in the group of writers almost never joined in discussions, never smiled, stared into space a lot. Once she wrote her story I realized some of the likely reasons for her reclusive nature and depression. After sitting together and editing the story, I made the final touches: Underlining the title, putting her pseudonym in italics, arranging the photographs, and asked her if she thought it looked OK. This was the first time I saw her smile.

2) Seeing the pastors and inmate teachers realize how logical and empowering phonics can be made the trainings very rewarding. Even better was what they brought to it. I like to do ‘brain breaks’ when I’m teaching. One day the fabulous Pastor Florence asked me if she could run the breaks in the trainings. I said sure. The result was great, and hilarious. Where I would get people to stand up and stretch, maybe do a little physical brainteaser, Florence had them singing, jumping, and dancing. Which would not have worked with a group of NZ adults. But here, the enthusiasm for such things is off the charts. The best moment was when she initiated a conga line (not kidding). And the prisoners, pastors, and guards held each other’s waists and danced around the library. I was surprised even the guards joined in. One of them still had his rifle strapped on. I put it down to the magic of Florence.

Of course, after the trainings were completed, it was also great to see the teachers teaching groups of illiterate prisoners… with outrageous, fun break activities in between the learning.

 

The Worst of Times

The inmate-taught education programme for women had barely gotten off the ground before a grudge was exposed and a rift occurred between the teachers. We had a meeting, with the two teachers concerned, plus Florence and Myriam, to try and resolve it. The meeting made me realize another layer of prison misery: being stuck with difficult relationships, with no reprieve, no choice about whom you interact with. It turned out the grudge was over a man. It was resolved enough for the teaching programme to continue, but the meeting involved many tears.

Earlier that day I had learned more about the crimes and sentences of the writers, who because of the book project, we’ve grown particularly close with. Each story is its own tragedy, but the one that really got me was a 50 year sentence, orchestrated by influence and bribes over a family grudge, to be served by a woman who I believe is completely innocent of the murder she was accused of. She’s also over fifty years old. It’s a sentence to die in this bleak little prison. I was thinking about this during the meeting.

Meanwhile outside, a truckload of massive tree stumps was being delivered. One of them fell the wrong way and a woman’s arm was dislocated. Her screams (she was eventually taken to hospital) made everyone cry harder. In the commotion, a cow stole and ate a basket that another prisoner had spent the day weaving. On one level the thing with the cow was funny, but the scene altogether left us feeling in despair. Sometimes it feels so hard to make anything work against the landslide force of chaos and unnecessary misery that characterizes this prison system.

 

Summary of work:

  • Fully trained four male prisoners to teach Phonics
  • Currently training prison pastors and female prisoners to teach Phonics
  • Together with the advanced English class, and Andrew from the Welfare department, have worked out who is willing and able to teach each subject of the Ugandan primary school curriculum, plus adult courses in health, life skills and the legal system and retrieved curriculum documents from the library in the men’s prison
  • made a timetable of classes for the women’s prison, convinced the guards that registered students and teachers should not be taken out in work gangs. At time of writing, inmate-taught classes have been underway in the women’s prison for three days
  • Continuing to work on sustainable solutions to the problem of library access – though lovely guard Myriam is faithfully carrying books to and fro in the meantime, for women to exchange. Prisoners report that this is occurring often enough that they always have something to read
  • Working with the advanced English class on the completion, editing, and book-ifying of their stories and poems
  • Starting to reach out to local teachers, individuals and organizations who might assist in continuing this work past September (When Riaan and I will head south to Malawi). Nothing permanently locked in but have had some very promising and exciting first meetings.

 

Education materials I’m fundraising for:

  • Phonics flashcards – 2 sets for men’s prison, 1 for women’s prison
  • Phonics readers (sets 1-3) – 3 copies of each for women’s prison, 5 for men’s prison
  • Teachers supplies (planning books, chalk)
  • Students’ supplies – a stock of exercise books and pens
  • Phonics manuals – one for each prison
  • Other resources (card for flashcards, photocopying/ printing of other resources I want to provide to the new teachers)
  • A large metal lockable box which enables us to store women’s teaching materials within the women’s prison
  • Curriculum books for the teachers – English, Maths, Science

Notes – in case you’re wondering:

  • If we make less than the target, I will place these in order of priority, and we’ll get what we can.
  • The costs of student stationary and teaching materials for women up til now (Florence and my teaching over the last several months) has been covered by myself and one donation from TEAMS.
  • If we make more than the target, I will get a longer-lasting supply of the things that run out – chalk, books, pens. This will buy more time for Florence and other concerned parties to ensure a sustainable source of these.

 

 

Gulu Prison: Update and a Plan

Book Exchange

*This follows on from my previous post about the library – read that first 😊

We raided the library a second time. Books sat in piles on a table while we taught outside in the sun, waiting for the post-class book exchange opportunity. At some point Florence (prison pastor extraordinaire) nudged me and pointed, giggling. The guards do a lot of sitting around, and a lot of trying to knock mangos from trees with the butts of their guns. But today they had picked up books and were reading!

I later discovered one of these was Miriam, a gem among prison guards. She sees the value of books for female prisoners. She volunteered to house the books in her office and has requested shelves built. Best of all, she changes books for women on request between our visits, even carrying large stacks between locations so they can choose from a  selection.

Hooray for Miriam!

One day it rained. We usually teach outside, so they let us teach in one of the wards: a long room in which about 60 of the women sleep. Some have beds, others are on the concrete floor. Each bed is very neatly made, meagre possessions impeccably arranged, with anything vaguely decorative (a scrap of magazine, plastic rosary beads, even a shiny sweet wrapper) given pride of place.

And… on almost every bed is a book! I had a long conversation with one woman about Roald Dahl’s The Witches. Another told me all about Indonesia, from the travel guide she is reading.

The ward was cramped and noisy with Florence and me running two classes of different levels. Florence’s group wrote their first, very basic sentences. My group did reading comprehension exercises. Then we had the advanced English class, who wrote stories and had a lively debate about polygamy. It was a great day.

 

Training others to teach literacy in prison

 

A Little Backstory

At home I’m a secondary school teacher. All my knowledge and experience teaching literacy comes from Jody Unterrheiner and the organization she started in Uganda, Read For Life, which is all about getting phonics (the most effective way to teach literacy, especially to those of non-literate backgrounds) taught in schools. I attended one of their trainings recently and helped with testing in schools a couple of months ago. I don’t even have words for how wonderful and needed the work of Read for Life is in Gulu. I’m including their details, and Jody and Dan’s blog, below.

Phonics in Prison

I have been training Florence to teach phonics since we started at the women’s prison. Then I glimpsed, en route to the library, the lessons that were taking place in the men’s prison. Inmates who are teachers when they are not in prison organize themselves to teach a range of subjects. I thought they might benefit from phonics as well. A day after I mentioned this to the head of prison ministry at the NGO who originally hooked me up with the prisons, he organized a series of trainings for me to be run, attended by teaching prisoners, prison pastors and guards who had shown commitment, or at least interest, in teaching prisoners. Eighteen people in all, working across 3 different prisons, including Florence and her husband, who is also a prison pastor.

These trainings were held in the library inside the men’s prison. The group was enthusiastic, especially the prisoners. Plus, any room with Florence in it is a party. We covered a lot of ground: 2/3 of the phonics curriculum, along with lesson planning and a range of activities. We will continue after I return from a week away with Tess, Nick, and RIAAN at a lakeside camp full of monkeys (could that be any more exciting? No. No it couldn’t :D)

The inmate-teachers, and some of the prison pastors, are able and motivated to teach literacy really well. The guards, with the exception of Miriam, are not really literate enough to teach literacy. I think it’s probably still good that they are there; their involvement will make it more likely for classes to be given time and space. And maybe they can at least drill students on the super easy stuff, in spare moments.

The prisoners took great joy in helping the less-literate guards as we practiced. One guard did get angry about this and stormed out (whoops… possibly could have managed that dynamic better…) but she was back again the next day.

 

The Plan

Riaan and I will be heading Malawi-wards in August. It has become my hope and goal for book access and literacy teaching to continue in Gulu Women’s Prison.

This requires three things: teachers, teaching resources, and stationary. We’re on the way to having teachers sorted. I’d like to give them phonics teaching resources to use in their lessons (Read For Life has developed brilliant and affordable resources right here in Gulu). Also, if they are to learn to write as well as read, the women need exercise books and pens. Florence and I have been providing these, but with my departure on the horizon, and with class sizes growing rapidly, we need a new plan.

I did approach the NGO that currently gives books and pens to the men, (but not women) to see if they might help. It was a learning experience, and a tale for another time. Suffice to say, we had better do this ourselves.

I have often talked at home about the amazing stories that the advanced English class in the women’s prison write, which I mark each week. I give them a theme, and a choice: write fiction or non-fiction. Most of them choose to write non-fiction, most of the time. I know this because the stories usually end with THIS IS A TRUE STORY. And after having read a great many, I’m not surprised they choose non-fiction. Their stories are fascinating.

So, Nick had the beautiful idea: see if they would like to share their stories. If so, make a zine and sell it for a donation, to raise money for a one-off purchase of teaching resources (phonics flashcards and readers) and a year’s supply of books and pens for the women’s prison (giving Florence time to look for other sustainable funding options).

The women of the advanced English class are keen. In fact, they are taking it extremely seriously. We discussed what makes a good story. They said: dramatic scenes, courage, details, and love. Sounds great to me.

So that is what we are going to do. When I come back (around 30th June) I will make one of those crowd funding pages with all the specific info. When the women have written their stories, I will type them up, and also include photographs of the original handwriting, and possibly illustrations by the women. You can choose to get the electronic version or physical copy, which Rosa will assemble and post in NZ. Melissa will house the large quantities of books and pens; Florence will distribute them as needed. What a dream team.

If you want to help, wonderful! I will share the site here and on fb. However, I’m largely a social media novice. Borderline luddite. So, if you can help by spreading the word, that would also be grand.

Thanks for reading. I’ll say hi to the monkeys for you all.

 

Read for Life: https://www.readforlifeug.org/

Dan and Jody’s blog: https://danandjodes.com/2018/06/17/3372/

Picture: some of the training attendees (those who didn’t have to stay inside the prison, where cameras are not allowed). Florence and her husband are on the far right; followed by Miriam. And yes, the guy behind me is actually that tall.

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‘These women are coming for your books’ – The strange story of the Gulu Prison Library

I’ve been teaching basic reading, intermediate English, and Zumba in Gulu Women’s Prison for nearly three months.

A couple of weeks ago, I said to a guard who remarked on the women’s enthusiasm for learning, ‘I just wish they could have more things to read during the week, beyond what I can bring. Basic readers for the beginners’ class, novels and non-fiction for intermediate…’

Guard: ‘The prison has a library with many books.’

Me: (looking around wildly) What? Where?

Guard: In the Men’s Prison. Women are not allowed to enter there.

WTF.

This is where I have to mention that I’m incredibly lucky to know Pastor Florence. Florence was once in prison herself, and after being released she fought to get an education and became a pastor. She spends several days a week in the prison – some prayer and singing, but mostly just hanging out with the women, who absolutely adore her. Florence is one of those radiant people who seems to be made of love. She immediately recognized the value of having a literacy programme in the prison, and is enthusiastically meeting me each week to learn how to teach phonics, so that she can continue the programme when I’m not around. She’s so charming, she’s even chatty with the guards, who are not generally very friendly, especially when it comes to changing rules or doing anything out of the ordinary.

So, Florence is the reason that yesterday we were escorted into the men’s prison in search of books for the women to read. There are over 100 female prisoners, but over 1000 in the men’s prison. Both prisons are minimal on space for their numbers, and very basic. By the time we reached the library I was already feeling somewhat on edge from passing through the hundreds of unhappy men. The library is a small, iron roofed building, sweltering hot inside when the sun is out. Inside were more books than I have seen anywhere in Gulu. Thousands of books. Organized (pretty darn well actually) by an enthusiastic inmate who had appointed himself librarian.

‘Look around, choose what you think the women prisoners will like.’

Florence and I walked around the shelves. She pragmatically started immediately picking out kids’ books for the newly literate (there was even a set of phonics readers – perfect). But I was struck dumb for a while. About twenty men were squished onto benches in the hot dark, reading (they were not allowed to take the books outside). One older, bespectacled man was reading ‘String theory for beginners’. Next to him, a boy of maybe 19 was opening and closing a children’s pop-up book of jungle animals, looking incredulous but amused. I felt suddenly teary, because here were all the books we could ever want, a couple hundred meters and a razor wire topped wall from the women who need them. Also, simply because of the books that were there. All the penguin classics. Shakespeare. The ‘For Dummies’ series. I saw old favourites from my parents’ shelves, books I loved in university. Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, An Island to Oneself, Poisonwood Bible, even Tim Winton and Annie Dillard were there. If you had asked me if these books were to be found anywhere in Uganda I would have been unsure, and in Gulu certainly not. It was like turning a corner and seeing a bunch of friends I didn’t expect to see again for years, because they were thousands of miles away. It was a literary oasis where none was expected. It took someone saying ‘Is the mzungu sick?’ Before I realized I was being a bit useless. Florence and I grabbed a wide range, as many as we could carry. The librarian told me the books had all come in a single donation, from the UK. Someone put an entire second-hand bookshop in a shipping container and sent it here. Good on them.

After class in the Women’s Prison, we distributed the basic readers and set up some rules for exchanging them. We got about 100 and have permission to switch them for others in a couple of weeks. I have never seen the women that excited, including when we did Despacito for the first time in Zumba class. The intermediate class took their time looking at the selection we’d brought. One chose Jane Eyre, another a biography of Obama, others books on the human body, the history of malaria, theology. I was torn between feeling happy to see them happy, and distraught that such a simple thing was apparently… not thought of? Too freaking hard? The system’s apparent disregard for women, prisoners, literacy, or likely all of the above, was mind-boggling.

The women still can’t peruse the shelves of thousands that the men access. But now at least they each have a book, and the ability to swap it for further books, if Pastor Florence keeps working her magic. But I should mention that while lamentable, equitable access to literature is the least of this prison system’s worries.

Some facts about prison here:

  • Many of these women are imprisoned awaiting trial for months, even years. They have not even been proven guilty yet. The court system is unbelievably slow. Though apparently a bribe can oil its wheels. Florence, who tells her story openly, was imprisoned for 26 months, found innocent, and released.
  • You can bribe police to arrest someone, regardless of their guilt
  • You can bribe someone out of prison, regardless of their guilt
  • So those stuck in prison are likely to be very poor, vulnerable, and maybe also guilty. Maybe.
  • Women are beaten with sticks for misdemeanours or locked in their (very small) dormitories all day. Misdemeanours that have caused this while I’ve been here include failing to kneel when addressing a guard.
  • It took me a while to work out why they were distressed when I gave them homework. It’s because they are often taken out in gangs and worked hard all day, and the lights are shut off shortly after dark (7pm) – although they have power, paid for by the government. They often don’t get any time in the day to do things like homework.

Incredibly, despite these things, there is a lot of laughter in the Women’s Prison. Though I think the amazing vibe Florence brings might have much to do with that. Florence has set her ringtone to that song by the Rainmakers that references the Exodus story, so whenever I call her I hear this jubilant chorus: Let my people go! Go! Go!

Fair enough.

Picture: Florence outside the prison (phones or cameras not allowed anywhere closer)florence

A very questionable blog post

I used to use this blog for other purposes, and may do so again. But right now I want to talk about something else. I’m doing it here mainly because I don’t want to be that person who starts new blogs all the time. What I want to talk about is god. O dear. I know, right?

Why on earth are you thinking about this and/or putting your thoughts on the internet?

So, I am intellectually agnostic. Why the adverb? Because the rest of me is less than agnostic. I have a gut feeling / longing to believe that there is a moving spirit and a bigger story, and I want a spirituality that will make me a better person. But while this is a nice feeling, I value scientific thought, the idea of objective truth, logic (Riaan may tell you otherwise, but really I do). I will not claim to or try to believe something that doesn’t feel intellectually justifiable. And neither definite theism or definite atheism feel justifiable. This leaves me in a space of doublethink, and, if you like, hypocrisy. Which is not necessarily a problem. Binaries are tempting but not usually accurate or helpful. So I’ve started building a spiritual practice, despite feeling that it is intellectually dubious. I’ll talk a bit about that below, for those who are interested. But in an attempt to avoid lazy agnosticism, and because I wish it was easier to talk to people about this, I’m putting this out there in the hopes of further conversation.

To be clear, I’m very sure that I’m wrong about lots of things and would love it if you corrected me 🙂 I have no intention to offend, only to get honest and try to learn.

 

The Language of God

These thoughts spring from my recent reading of The Language of God: a scientist presents evidence for belief, by the guy who headed the Human Genome Project, Francis Collins. This book argues, quite convincingly I think, that scientists need not be at war with people of faith. This wasn’t news to me. I know the famous examples of scientists who have faith, and personally know several people of faith who are also massive science geeks. That debate  is not what these musings are about.

I read the book in order to re-engage with my own relationship to spirituality. After various (mis)adventures with faith, I’ve been reluctant to think about it in recent years. I’ve said I’m agnostic, but I agree that this is a cop-out if you haven’t seriously considered the evidence either way, and runs the risk of missing out on the possibility of having a more solid view on the world.

The book raised, along with it’s rollicking ride through the sequencing of the human genome, several of the familiar old arguments that people make about the possible existence of God. I used to talk about these with friends late into the night. My friends have mostly seemed either to settle into faith with more certainty than I felt capable of, or disengage. No one seemed to stay interested and in-between, possibly because it’s an exhausting place to be, if existential matters matter to you. But I’ve decided to think about these things again, and see if I can get any further at 27 than I did at 17. So here goes.

 

Disclaimers:

  • I’m using the word God to mean ‘bigger spiritual force(s) outside of our space-time that is/are conscious and active in some way that is beyond our understanding’ I’m really not fussy on names. ‘God’ has three letters, so I’m going with that.
  • When I contemplate faith, I’m not contemplating any faith that validates homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, or other hate, in any form. Those brands of religion have invalidated themselves completely in my view, and I’m not interested in engaging with them, whatever else they may claim to offer.
  • Yes, I am currently using female pronouns for God. This is not because I think God (if there is one) is female. It’s because I was for a long time put off the entire enterprise of belief by the patriarchal co-opting of the possible divine as male, and all that that implies. These pronouns are an attempt to right the wrong that patriarchal religion did to my brain. I anticipate I will move to gender-neutral pronouns, before too long. This is a personal untangling that feels necessary to me (although incidentally I would recommend it – jettison that patriarchal baggage. Go on).

 

 

The Arguments

Argument 1: The ‘longing for God’ is universal across cultures, and this indicates a that God is real and wants us to choose to connect with her (I like to think of this as the ‘Call me Maybe’ argument.)

I think this longing could be entirely socially created. Feelings of dissatisfaction are an incredibly normal part of the human experience, and cultures have has just decided that some of these itches are holy and some are not. Or it could be a spiritual imprint. Short of some confirming divine experience, how would we know?

Both seem plausible.

 

Argument 2: So much harm has been done in the name of God, it must be bullshit.

This seems an emotive argument that doesn’t hold up even if you start from a secular POV. People are screwy. People twist ideas. Their actions don’t necessarily have any bearing on the original worth of the ideas, or on ultimate truth. Read the gospels (and probably the texts of other faiths) and that much is obvious. ‘Clean water in rusty containers’ a good metaphor. It can of course be said that religion is dangerous because it gives people the strongest possible justification for doing shitty things (God wants me to). That is a reason for believers to check their agendas. But it doesn’t have any logical bearing on whether God exists in the first place or not – only on the unfortunate aspects of human nature – and I don’t think that’s news to anyone.

 

Argument 3: Humans have a basic universal sense of moral law and the only explanation for this is god.

A few people I’ve read give this as their strongest pointer to belief. This troubles me because it seems potentially very explicable without belief in God, as well as with. Human societies have developed in parallel fashion in many ways, explicable by evolution, sociology, the complex logistics of living together in groups. Why on earth should a familiar moral code (look after the vulnerable, seek justice, right to autonomy) not have emerged from this secular process? Why would such a code NOT be extrapolated from the gut feeling individuals inevitably have about how they would want to be treated, for their survival and well-being, and therefore how those in a group should treat each other? And as groups realized that their definition of their group was limited, and they could in fact be considered to be part of a bigger group (human, even all living beings) those practical rules that give one the rights that one, of course, wants, just get applied more widely.

Crazy, self-sacrificial altruism, and the deep feelings of awe and rightness that people (self-included) have about it, is more interesting. However, I can see an argument for this being a cultural extrapolation from the above. It feels right when we look after others in our group, the definition of our group grows, and it feels extra right when someone does this even though it costs them, because this is something we have culturally decided is good, done to an extreme. This is backed up by countless generations of stories, which serve great social and psychological purpose, and could of course affect our feelings to the point where we weep over the firefighters who run into burning buildings to save strangers. Beliefs formed by stories and culture and admiration of peers make people do all kinds of crazy things. Just because this one is nice rather than genocidal doesn’t make it necessarily proof of the guiding hand of a deity.

However, as with the other points, it COULD also be a sign post to a deeper force / divine blueprint for a harmonious world. I think I even prefer thinking of it that way. But I would compromise my intellectual integrity if I said that any of these things constituted proof. What they seem to constitute is grounds for reasonable doubt on both fronts.

 

 

Argument 4: Why would a loving god allow suffering? There is no god.

Whether it’s caused by other humans or by natural disaster, there seems no way around it: the rules of the universe, from free will to physics and biology, are geared so that suffering is inevitable. If there is a god, she is not into intervening to prevent anyone’s suffering (or if she does, she does it in a way that is unfair to a sick degree – I don’t need to walk far from my hut here in Gulu to see that). The argument of theists that we need suffering to build our characters feels limited (god would surely have designed the means by which character building occurs) and the argument that suffering allows us to relate to and help others who have been through the same suffering, is not invalid in terms of practical advice of how one should deal with suffering, but it is circuitous and stupid when related to the god argument (why does god need to make anyone go through that in the first place?).

IF there is a god, (suffering’s existence does not in itself rule that out), the very existence of this question just means that there is a common misconception about what suffering is, and is for, and what love is, and is for. Maybe our very Western binaries are at fault here, not to mention our expectation of comfort levels unprecedented in human history. IF there is a god, even a loving god, then suffering is an essential part of life and not in itself bad. And love doesn’t mean prevention of suffering, necessarily. A small step outside the binaries solves this problem, but again doesn’t in itself sway me one way or the other about the existence of god.

 

Argument 5: The extreme unlikelihood of our universe, our planet, and then our evolution as conscious beings means there must have been a creator

Sure, it’s enough to give anyone significant pause. It’s crazy. But it only needed to happen once, and sure the odds are infinitesimal, but the chances were also near infinite for all we know, so of course it could happen once. And we are here because of course no other chance panned out, so how could we be elsewhere? The formation of our situation from the big bang til now works without god, from my understanding. But what set off the big bang? Lots of people use that as a marker for faith in god. But is that not just another god of the gaps, even if it’s a gap science may never be able to fill? Deity is not the only answer to mystery. My students always have this initial reluctance to saying ‘I don’t know’. They would rather try and bluff it, and so would I. But I think it’s good to try to be honest about what we simply don’t know.

Having said that, it also feels possible (if somewhat outlandish) that some great conscious spirit set these things in motion with us, complex conscious life, as the end goal. I mean, we are pretty crazy-cool, and the history we are making does have this arc that bends towards justice and art does make me feel very strange and connected to everyone else and also a deeper purpose at times, and all of that somehow came out of atoms in space against all odds…

But it comes back, again, to a big fat ‘I dunno, could go either way.’

 

Argument 6: There might be life of other planets! How can your earth-centric god deal with that shit?

This old chestnut is so odd, but it always seems to crop us. If other conscious life is there, it doesn’t make a spiritual principle more or less likely, from what I can see. IF there is some kind of god and IF there is also other life elsewhere… this is so insanely hypothetical now…. then that god (or maybe a different spiritual force to ‘ours’, whatever) could also have relationship with that life. I don’t really understand why people use this argument, tbh. Seems far-fetched and also like it doesn’t push logical thinking one way or the other. As with any of my other points, please enlighten me 🙂

 

 

Argument 7: The way things like music move us universally shows that spirit moves where scientific theory cannot explain

I feel it, sure. But I think it probably could be explained by inter-disciplinary theories linking the physics of music to its effect on our psychology within the evolutions of our cultures. Sure, that explanation wouldn’t capture the ‘magic’. Nor does reading the pavlova recipe capture the deliciousness. This doesn’t mean that pavlovas are proof of a transcendent being seeking communion with us (though what a religion that would be). Art is the most meaningful thing to me in the world and my life’s work will be around how it impacts us, its powers to inspire empathy, change, and awareness of our oneness. But this wonder does not in itself, point to God. It could – sure. I like that idea. But again, it doesn’t feel conclusive.

 

Argument 8 (specific to Christianity): Jesus must have been either God incarnate or a madman or a fool – you can’t read what he said and say he was just a wonderful human teacher

Sorry C.S. Lewis. You’re stuck in binaries again. This only works if people are only capable of saying true things OR crazy things. But I think individuals can and do say a mixture of brilliant, inspired, deeply true things AND deluded egotistical things. I have no problem thinking that someone saying both doesn’t make the true things less true or the crazy things less crazy. It does make it potentially hard to determine the difference, though.

So, what do I think of Jesus?

  1. Do I think we can discount him entirely because he said crazy stuff? No. Saying bizarre, deluded stuff sometimes doesn’t make you discountable as a person or teacher, and other things he said feel deeply true, have a wonderful, subversive logic, providing ways to stand against power with integrity, and provide a blueprint for universal humanism, and radical priority to the poor as the way that those who profit from power can be redeemed to a place of common humanism and moral integrity. No way am I discounting that.
  2. Could he have been a wonderful, inspired human teacher who also had moments of madness, whose followers made up some stories about him having physics defying magic abilities? Yes.
  3. Could he have been inspired /possessed by the Great Spirit that moves through us all and breathed the universe into being? Sure, if there is one.
  4. Could he have been UNIQUELY possessed by this spirit, to a degree unlike anyone else in history? It does feel odd that that would happen. But potentially. If there is such a spirit, that moves with some degree of consciousness, sure.
  5. Could he have been the son of god? I mean, in a way this is only a small and mainly linguistic step up from 4. It does feel to me like, if 4 is true, this is likely a story told by humans that squeezes that spirit, which is surely of form inconceivable to us, into familiar human terms. If 4 is true and some people want to put it in those terms I don’t have a problem with that. If you insist on a less metaphorical, more pregnant virgin type argument, my thoughts would be similar to those in 6.
  6. Could he have risen from the dead? If 4/5 are true… I mean, I guess. Sure. If there is a god, she could have intervened and pulled some crazy miracle against physics and biology. But again, this seems like a really appealing story for humans to tell that doesn’t seem necessary to, or in keeping with, the general habits of the great spirit, if there is one. So my gut feeling is that it’s most likely that something else weird happened, if the historical accounts are right about the empty tomb, and then it made a great story. What about Jesus predicting it? Well, he did speak in metaphors a lot. In summary: possible, intellect-balking levels of unlikely, and I also don’t see how it matters very much for following his wise teachings. Why do people like to get dogmatic about this? I wonder if it’s just because people like to get dogmatic.

I know I have friends who have actual degrees in theology and have read about a million times what I have on Jesus. That’s one of the reasons sharing this is terrifying. I’d love to know all the reasons I’m wrong. Seriously.

 

 

 DIY spiritual practice

I’m not sharing this because I want to advocate that people leave their church or temple. If you’re finding connection and inspiration there, go you. I’m sharing this because I’d be stoked to have more conversations about it, and add other people’s wisdom to what I’m doing.

After reading The New Monasticism, I felt less alone in my feelings of unease about the trappings of traditional religion, and emboldened to seek spiritual connection in spite of them. I know some will immediately raise hackles at this, but I have started to form a spiritual practice that draws on Buddhist meditation, and the writings and prayers of both Christian and Muslim Sufi mystics (though I will note that the direct teachings of Jesus, particularly those subversive teachings of non-violence, social justice and selfless service remain the most compelling and most central ideas, to me). Those are the influences that have come across my path so far; I’m open to more. (and yes, I did enjoy Life of Pi and Eat, Pray, Love. Shameless, I know)

On cherry-picking

I know interfaith practices piss people off, so let’s talk about that. I understand the concern about the shallowness that cherry-picking can make of spirituality, but I would argue that it is possible to draw on a range of faiths with a determination to engage with them authentically. I’m not claiming that I do that, but I feel it is a worthy aim. I fully expect it will take a lifetime to even approach it. But that sounds like a fascinating lifetime, to me.

I also wonder whether giving oneself permission to move in an interfaith direction allows greater freedom to differentiate between the spirit-inspired, brilliant and compassionate wisdom held within each religion from the dogma created by human insecurity and failure, also to be found (I suspect) within all. I’m aware that some religions include passages to the tune of ‘this is the only way’ but I’m willing to call bullshit / hyperbole / human foible on that. The incentive for humans and their egos to think that way seems clear, but I have no idea why the spirit of the universe would operate so. To get really heretical, I sometimes wonder, when I hear the anxiety in people’s voices saying, essentially, ‘we must all do it this way or everything is lost’ – where is your faith? If this thing is real, surely if my only agenda is authentically seeking it, using my brain and friends and guts, why should God be threatened if I find her somewhere unexpected? And if I’m on some kind of scenic route and the Catholics (or whoever) were right all along then well… OK. Guess I’ll find out or die first. I’m still going to move in the direction that makes the most sense to me now. Partly because I find beauty and inspiration ringing common across faiths, and partly because I want contection, but want no part in ‘in clubs’.

What about community?

While I hope to experience spiritual community with different groups, I won’t partake at the cost of subscribing to an ego-feeding ‘us and them’ mentality.  At a guess, some religious/spiritual groups will feel good in this regard, others will not, and the process of finding out will at least be funny. And I hope to always live connected to the community around me, whether we share any theological beliefs or not.

Obviously, all of that is very personal, not intended to be prescriptive, and is still a work in progress. I think I’m done. If you got this far, I’m delighted and truly surprised. And I’d love to talk.

 

A League of Extraordinary Teachers

[Transmission received 14:05, 03/11/2014, from the foliage of an ant-infested mango tree. Newsreader probably of the Bugandan tribe]

Newsreader: That was fashion news with Akena Betsy, didn’t that male-cut mosquito net wedding dress sound fabulous? Malaria prevention, questioning of the bride price, homophobia, and westernization all in one. Very Uganda Now.

In our next story: Te Democratic Republic of Congo has been ground zero for many diseases that have ravaged our land over the years (this is your daily reminder: do not eat monkeys or bats, folks), but this new virus is full of surprises. We are live now with Odong Charles, in his village by the northern border, which was first to be affected. Charles, how does the virus spread?

Odong: Airborne spittle. Chalk dust also seems to act as a catalyzing agent.

Newsreader: I wouldn’t have thought that chalk dust was a common atmospheric component in Congo… or in Northern Uganda, for that matter.

Odong: It’s in the nature of the beast. They came across the border with red dust on their feet and chalk dust on their hands. They stormed schools and began to teach feverishly, to the confusion of many apathetic underpaid staff members, who shrugged and went home, only to discover that they had been infected and desperately wanted to be back at the blackboard.

Newsreader: Can you describe how the symptoms manifest?

Odong: Their frenzied hands dance in the air, demonstrating the spinning of electrons, democratic theory, correct placement of apostrophes, the orbits of the solar system, self defense and first-wave feminism. Children are mesmerized, and soon become infected themselves. They rush home to teach their younger siblings and those whose parents cannot afford school.

Newsreader: How have your people been coping?

Odong: Class numbers have dropped from 100 to around 20, to accommodate so many teachers. An irresistible revolution has been felt in teaching style. Rote learning has vanished, except for multiplication tables.

Newsreader: What?! Rote learning of obscure and non-useful information is the basis of the Ugandan curriculum!

Odong: Victims of the virus… stole the curriculum. Rumor has it that they use it as toilet paper.

Newsreader: Thank you Charles. The government is of course very concerned. President Musseveni has vowed to stamp out the virus by next month, citing public health and damage to the tourism sector. The Opposition has claimed that Mussevini in fact doesn’t want an educated public for obvious, dictatory reasons. We speak now to his Education Minister, Jane Buyayo, who happens to be on a publicity tour in the North at the moment, sporting a facemask to avoid infection from the children who throng about her while she bribes their parents for votes. Ms. Buyayo, some have said the virus may offer much needed improvements to the education system. What is your opinion?

Buyayo: Education in Uganda is free, universal and of excellent quality.

Newsreader: Sorry, what?

Children: You give me my sweet!

Buyayo: That has been our statement for years. It is the law.

Newsreader: One can’t help noticing that the law usually has little or nothing to do with-

Buyayo: Are you suggesting – Get off! Excuse me, these children are impossible – are you suggesting that a bunch of rabid victims can teach better than-

Newsreader: Perhaps.

Buyayo: The people love our president. If he says it is a threat to be extinguished, it is so. And the people will reward him in the next election. He did restore peace to Uganda, you know.

Children [getting louder]: Yes, please! Good morning!

Newsreader: Is that facemask quite secure, Ms. Buyayo?

[Buyayo tries to answer but is drowned out completely]

Children: HowareyouI’mfine! GOODMORNING!

[Chaos apparently ensues. Transmission ends 14:11]

Notes from the Arteries of the Empire

[Transmission received 19/07/2014 at 16:31 from St Paul’s Cathedral. Newsreader is a thick-voiced South Londoner]

Newsreader: The Edge of the World, created by the inexplicable geological events of the past decade, is currently found beyond the desert south of London. It is a place of legendary austere beauty: the yellow desert stretches up to rugged cliffs which drop vertically into the star-filled void below, from which the crazy warm wind rushes upwards. There have been various forecasts as to where it will migrate to next, but as with earthquakes, we can never be sure. Some see it as a threat to our Artery, but from where I sit the desert is wide and we are still pumping. Today I am broadcasting live from Speakers Corner, where a pilgrim from the Edge was attempting to ‘tell stories’ but is now being interrogated by heckling Londoners.

[Static, murmuring of a crowd, sounds of traffic and cicadas]

Heckler 1: You say there are others like you? You represent some kind of community? How did this form?

Pilgrim: Some of us set out for the Edge intentionally. Others were exiled from the Arteries for one reason or another. Still others had been lost for decades in the labyrinths of Arterial narratives, unable to understand why they still felt empty no matter how many of your Fulfillment Criteria they satisfied. We found each other at the Edge.

Heckler 1: Let me guess. Many of your Edge group came from privileged backgrounds?

Pilgrim: Not all, but yes, many.

Heckler 1: I know your type. Petulant, rebellious kids, demonizing society. Society is a collective responsibility. It’s all we have.

Pilgrim: Perhaps there are elements of this in the impulse. But I don’t think it necessarily negates the validity of our choice. Perhaps one must first experience privilege before one learns to be appalled by it. One must see the Empire before seeing through it.

Heckler 2: How in hell do you live out there? I thought it was a friggin’ desert.

Pilgrim: It is also the only place where honest conversation can occur. We sit naked in twos or threes, feet dangling into the void, tingling with vertigo, and we talk. Wires are attached to our chests, gathering the current of these conversations. Between this and the wind turbine, we have been able to power the settlement, despite being cut off the Arterial grid several years back.

Heckler 2: [sarcasm] Sounds great.

Pilgrim: We belong at the edge. We are concerned with the Truth.

Heckler 2: What’s truth got to do with anything?

Pilgrim: We are addicts. We all got a taste for the Truth somehow, through the gaps of Centralization and subsequent Crackdowns. And now we can’t live without it. The Artery is concerned primarily with security because it is terrified that it will not continue to pulse. And where there is so much security, truth will never go.

Heckler 2: What you doin here then?

Pilgrim: I am only passing through. It is a pilgrimage. I did not intend to stay in London, but tickets were cheaper on Friday. And I admit I was curious. But I should have known. What could an Artery of the Empire offer to one like me?

Various voices from the crowd: First world systems! Fine restaurants! Galleries! Museums of the histories of our Empire and every other of importance!

Pilgrim: I know. But I do not desire these things.

Crowd: A middle class! Condiments! Convenience! Choice!

Pilgrim: Nope.

Heckler 2: Fuck is wrong with you?

Heckler 1: What do you want?

Pilgrim: Familiar faces around a fire at night. Simple folk making fast music with whatever comes to hand. Games with children who have more time than plastic toys. The chance to do good for people who are not accustomed to having good done for them, in some way more immediate than the transferring of imaginary money on a screen. I pine for this. I thank you for your intelligent phones, your macaroons, your multiplex attractions, but I must be rude. I must reject your gifts. Forgive me, I made a mistake in coming. I now return to the desert.

Heckler 1: Perhaps you should ask what you can do for the Artery? It is your duty to shape this world too, you are alive-

Pilgrim: We try. We live apart, and then come to tell our stories. But we cannot spend too long in the Artery.

Heckler 2: Or what, you turn into a pumpkin?

Pilgrim: No. We begin to disappear. First we become weak. When our skin goes transparent, then the situation has become urgent. Our organs become visible, our swelling lungs, our beating hearts. And then these too will gradually cease to be. It is a fact. The city turns us into ghosts.

Heckler: I don’t believe you. [Shouts to someone else] Get the rope from my truck.

Pilgrim: You must let me return to the desert! I’m telling the truth!

[Crowd noise swells. Voices are angry]

Heckler 1: Close in! Don’t let her leave!

Pilgrim: You’re making a mistake!

Heckler 2: Let’s just see if there is any ‘truth’ in your bullshit.

[Scream of terror. Static dies]

Newsreader: We understand that the pilgrim in question is now securely tied to a tree at Speakers Corner, guarded by several Arterial citizens who wish to see if she will, in fact, cease to be. In one hour we bring you the scoop. Stay with us.

[Stopped receiving at 16:45. I ran to Speakers Corner, where there was no sign of a struggle. An elderly gentleman informed me that speakers only speak there on Sundays now. He had not heard of the Edge]

A Day in Paris is a Magic Trick

[Transmission received 27/6/2014 at 16:25 (local time) from the roof of Sacre Coeur. Newsreader is female, speaking French with a southern accent. I have translated to the best of my ability]

Newsreader: It has long been said that a day in Paris is a miracle. But recently, more light has been shed on the seemingly miraculous daily dance of people and phenomena. The EU has received contact from a group of individuals who call themselves the City Magicians, who claim each to personally orchestrate the daily miracles of a great European city. I’m joined now by Monsieur Minuit, the ‘magician’ of Paris.

[Minuit’s voice is of a genderless pitch, but sounds like a heavy smoker]

Minuit: Thank you. I must first correct you though, Mademoiselle. A day in Paris is not a miracle but a magic trick, which appears to be a miracle to all but the magician. How do you think the millions hurtle in all directions under the grey skin of the city in the bellies of underground dragons to appear in another location and perform their bizarre, harmonious tasks? It is a magic trick, and I am the Magician.

Newsreader: I think our listeners would all like to know two things, Monsieur. First, how exactly is it you claim to do this? And second, if it is true, why now do you choose to make contact with the EU?

Minuit: [makes a phlegm-filled noise of disgust] The contact was the idea of the Magician of London, also Vienna was concerned. They felt it was time, I suppose. The power structure s of the world are changing faster than ever. But don’t ask me about that shit. I don’t take bad wine with good cheese. I don’t take bad wine at all. Your first question is more interesting.

The great city magicians have always known: it is in the words, and in the detail. One must harness Emergence, put the elements in place with exquisite knowledge of how they will interact. If the beggar does not cough up blood in the Metro, the bells of Notre Dame will not function. If the fashionista does not wear purple lipstick in the African Quarter and the men in the elevator do not make lewd jokes, the alley will not smell correctly of piss. If we do not fear terrorist attack, every train in Gare d’Austerlitz will promptly derail.

Newsreader: Some believers have called you the Demigods of the Cities.

Minuit: An easy mistake to make. Our business is the Days, and, as Annie Dillard observed quite correctly, the Days are gods. I will add only this: the gods are gone, and words are their ghosts. We interact, transact, under an empty sky, but the words that pass between us were gods once, they are the living echo, the imprint, yes. A Magician knows this, and he or she conducts the flow of the words as one conducts a symphony.

Newsreader: There are… rather a lot of words.

Minuit: There were rather a lot of gods.

Newsreader: And now they’re dead?

Minuit: None can know. I suspect not. More likely hiding. They always did enjoy practical jokes.

Newsreader: And you? Might I ask, what is in all this for you?

Minuit: There is one moment of each night when everyone is asleep. A moment before the nodding security guard wakes, when even the clubbers don’t realize they sleep for a second on their feet on the pounding dance floor, a moment of stillness that contains all the stories, that throbs with the World to Come. In this moment love is possible, in this moment other people are heaven, not only hell [adds under his breath]: yes, fuck you Sartre, I mean this.

In the darkness before the cool grey dawn I illuminate the sky like new sun through ancient stained glass and the city is drunk and drenched with colour. I am a magician, and this is the prestige.

[Transmission ends as the bells begin to toll and nuns start singing below. Your friendly correspondent for the World Once Removed is signing off]