My Experience in Mozambique

My life has changed remarkably since my Mitchell year eight years ago. I am still living abroad, but serving in a much different capacity. In January 2015, I became a U.S. Navy Foreign Area Officer (FAO) with a focus on Africa. In other words, I am now an African cultural and linguistic specialist (I speak French and Portuguese) whose mission is to carry out U.S. military programs in partnership with foreign militaries. I have been stationed at the US Embassy in Mozambique for just over one and a half years, where I have gained a much better understanding of the nuances of security cooperation as well as of Mozambican culture and the Portuguese language. I learn new things every day, which keeps my brain engaged and reminds me of my Mitchell year.

I have had the opportunity to travel throughout Mozambique, making it to 9 of the 11 provinces in the country during my first year alone. Some of the highlights have been getting to visit Niassa National Reserve in Northern Mozambique on the Tanzanian border– a beautiful, remote, and (relatively) ungoverned park the size of Switzerland. Niassa is home to the largest concentration of elephants in Mozambique, whose population has decreased over 50% in the last five years due to poaching.  Currently, there are only about 150 park rangers with limited equipment and authorities to address the problem in the entire reserve. It is a daunting task to say the least.

USAID and the Department of State have partnered with the Mozambican government as well as Wildlife Conservation Society to address and prevent further poaching as well as the trafficking of precious minerals, illegal timber, and people. The US Department of Defense was given expanded authorities to counter illicit trafficking, so my office has been working in concert with our interagency colleagues to find potential opportunities for DoD to provide training support to the park rangers.  Additionally, the US Embassy has been working with various stakeholders (NGO’s and agencies within the Mozambican government) towards creating a solution to address this crisis. It has been fascinating to learn how poachers operate as well as how all of the stakeholders interact and are involved in trying to solve this major problem.

A significant part of my portfolio is working to counter the epidemic of HIV/AIDS in Mozambique, specifically within the military. The prevalence rate is 11% in the country and 20% in Maputo City, where I live. Our HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment program, part of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), is the second largest DoD PEPFAR program in the world with a budget of nearly $8 million. As such, I have had the opportunity to travel to several military bases around Maputo and in northern cities (Beira, Nampula, and Tete) to ensure that standards are being met for program implementation.

Interestingly, a large portion of our prevention program is dedicated to voluntary male medical circumcision, which reduces the likelihood of HIV infection by over 60%.  My knowledge of public health and HIV has grown tremendously. It is always incredibly enlightening to travel outside of the capital city of Maputo (a “bubble” of 2 million people in the southernmost part of the country) and see how the majority of the population (24 million) really lives and the challenges that they face.

As a Naval Officer, a lot of my work has also focused on building capacity within the Mozambican Navy. The US has donated equipment (small boats, equipment for maritime operations centers, trucks) to strengthen the Mozambican Navy’s ability to carry out operations along its coastline of 2,470km, literally the length of the east coast of the United States (!). My office implements training programs that promote both partnership and an exchange of ideas by both bringing U.S. trainers to Mozambique as well as sending Mozambican military officers to attend U.S. professional development courses. We also send Mozambican representatives to regional conferences focused on key security issues. I had the good fortune to accompany the Mozambican Admiral of the Navy to a seminar in Mauritius this past year to discuss maritime security policy issues with key military leaders in Southern Africa. What an incredible opportunity for me, a junior FAO, to interact with senior-level officers using both my French and Portuguese!

Also of note, a large portion of our program focuses on English-language training. Mozambique is a Portuguese-speaking “island” in Southern Africa; every one of its six neighbors’ primary language is English.  In order to increase interoperability with neighboring militaries and to potentially participate in peacekeeping operations, Mozambican military members must learn English.  As such, in line with Mozambican Armed Forces requests, the US has donated several language labs throughout the country as well as trained English-language instructors within the Mozambican Armed Forces every year. As other Embassies with a major presence in Mozambique do not speak English as their primary language, this is a real niche training need for the Mozambicans that the U.S. Embassy is able to fill.

My life is Mozambique has not been all work though. I have been fortunate to travel within the country for pleasure as well, which has been incredible. Visiting Gorongosa National Park in central Mozambique was a really special experience. PBS did a special two years ago about the re-birth of the park.  Mozambique suffered through a sixteen-year civil war after independence from Portugal in 1975; subsequently, the animal and human population in and around the park was devastated. Over the last decade, serious efforts by American entrepreneur Greg Carr’s foundation as well as USAID and other entities have made incredible progress in re-populating the park. More information is available here:  http://www.pbs.org/gorongosa/home/ .

The beaches in Mozambique are also of note as many are not over- commercialized. In some places, one feels like the only person to have ever been there. Thousands of South Africans cross the border to Mozambique during the holidays to visit the beach, and once one has visited any of these destinations, it is easy to understand why. I loved visiting Tofo, Vilankulos, Bilene, Lake Niassa, and Inhambane.  The Daily Mail recently published an article about how Mozambique has some of the best beaches in the world: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/travel/travelsupplement/article-4236990/Mozambique-Africa-s-new-Riviera.html

I feel very fortunate to have had such great experiences here in Maputo over the last year and a half. I’m looking forward to even more exciting adventures in 2017 and 2018.

Posted in Class of 2009 | Leave a comment

Nearing the End

As I write this third blog post of my Mitchell year – seven months into an experience which I still find unbelievable – I cannot help but get a little sentimental. I have one more month of classes until I finish the formal portion of my Master’s degree in International Development and then only a few arduous weeks of dissertation-writing after that. Before I know it, I’ll be passing the baton off to the next cohort of truly impressive minds and joining the reputable ranks of more than a decade’s worth of former Mitchell scholars. It is crazy to think that one year ago I was anxiously waiting to graduate from the Military Academy and move to Dublin, and since then I’ve seen so many places, met so many people, and challenged my perspectives and opinions in so many wonderful ways.

So as the days grow a little bit longer and the wet Dublin winter slowly disappears, I have decided to embrace the nostalgia and sentimentality and approach my remaining time with a sense of leisure and calm (this may sound surprising if you are well acquainted with my gung-ho personality). I have this intense, somewhat aching desire to sprint to the finish and leave no stone unturned (a reflection of all my military training I think), but I see now that the anxiety inevitably induced from trying to squeeze everything and anything into my last few months would be wholly counterproductive. Ireland has already done so much in helping me learn how to relax and just experience, and I genuinely intend to continue to apply this mentality even as the clock ticks.

Thus, I’ve decided that through continued reflection and introspection I am going to focus on gratitude and patience as I finish up my studies in Ireland. I know I will never abandon my belief in the value of discipline and hard work (and I don’t want to either), but the beauty of the Mitchell program is that I have been given the chance to develop my mind and talents in less formal ways. Therefore, focusing on gratitude will help me nest all my amazing experiences into my upcoming military service and the challenges I will surely face, while remaining patient will encourage me to appreciate the here and now with as little anxiety and worry as possible.

So when I walk away from provocative discussions after a class or in between pints, I am not going to limit the time I spend dissecting the various points. I will take the long route to my gym, making sure to pass through the park and over the pond – rain or shine. When my innate desire for efficiency and organization threatens to consume my daily activity, I am going to pull out my favorite articles from my Peace & Intervention class or sift through my favorite pictures of Irish sheep, farms, cliffs, and rainbows. I am going to walk slow, breathe deeply, and continue to work on that Irish accent which I don’t think I will ever actually perfect.

I give everyone permission to hold me accountable to these goals up through the very end.

 

IMG_20170309_111142 IMG_20170319_123619

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Tour, what is it good for?

I can trace my growing familiarity with Dublin as a function of how confident I feel as a tour guide. Over the past seven months, my routine for showing people around has transformed from a Google Maps-dependent free-for-all to a finely tuned program comprising all aspects of sightseeing from food to Fun Facts. If I were a touring company, the standard package for a weekend visitor would include the Little Museum of Dublin (to be ticked off ASAP, for historical context’s sake), scones at Keogh’s (brown scones, if they’re amenable), an unofficial walking tour spanning the Grand Canal Quays to the Guinness Storehouse (Northern and Southern boundaries to be determined by my guest’s taste in brunch), a photo-op on Ha’penny Bridge, one night at the theater (The Abbey for big names, The Gate for aesthetics, Project Arts Center for low-budget/high-concept) and another on the town (The Stag’s Head to feel like you’re really in Dublin, Vintage Cocktail Club to feel like you’ve somehow ended up in New York), either Dublin Castle or the National Gallery (for the medievalists and modernists respectively), and of course, the Book of Kells and the Trinity Longroom (no parenthetical needed). For the expanded package, throw in Kilmainham Gaol, The Winding Stair, and a more patient stroll down Grafton Street.

Hailey opts for Dublin Castle.

Hailey opts for Dublin Castle.

As someone who lived next to Boston for four years and couldn’t tell you what exactly Faneuil Hall is, I am enormously proud of my relative expertise re: what to do in Dublin. And as an erstwhile Boston-area-ite who still struggles with the Inbound/Outbound distinction (I know it switches at Downtown Crossing, but where else??), I am even more inordinately proud of my relative mastery re: Dublin geography. Yes, Google Maps is still one of the most used apps on my cell phone, but usually I am able to make it from one corner of the city to another without having to check my blue dot more than once. (When I’m making the rounds of the standard package, I can close out the app entirely.)

But as happy as being a competent tour guide makes me, what I love most about having visitors is how it causes me to uncover what I don’t know: things I still have yet to learn about Dublin, as well as opinions about the city I didn’t know I had. Just as questions about America from my Irish peers force me to articulate idea about my homeland I have never before had to explicitly articulate (recently: why were the Federalist Papers important?), questions from visiting friends and family force me to verbalize the often unconscious impressions I have formed about Dublin – and to reckon with my remaining areas of ignorance.

My most recent visitor was my friend Hailey, whom I’ve known since preschool. As we made our way from checkpoint to checkpoint, my own image of Dublin underwent gentle transformations through the influence of her questions. In telling her my thoughts on how Dublin’s literary scene has responded to the encroachment of the tech industry, I discover my view in the process of giving it. In struggling to answer her query as to what exactly distinguishes Fine Gael from Fianna Fáil, I am confronted with my embarrassing ignorance on this subject (though, thanks to Azza, I do know how each of the TDs feels about Beyoncé).

So, by the end of her visit, I have learned as much about myself as she has about Dublin. Yet another perk of the standard package!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Rethinking My America

I ventured up to Ireland’s functional capital—Dublin—from Ireland’s real capital—Cork—this past weekend to watch the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. My friends and I scoped out a great spot just in front of President Higgins and the GPO. It was a great time a fantastic opportunity to celebrate this country that I have grown to love—a day for the memory books.

As part of the St. Patrick’s Festival, Stephen James Smith wrote a poem entitled My Ireland. (It can be viewed on YouTube here.) Rather than offer my own reflection of these past few days and Ireland’s national holiday, I offer this work of art that has encouraged me to find pause and consider my time here from a different vantage point.

Smith’s poem is a rousing reflection on what it means to be Irish in Ireland. It is a journey through history, culture, memory, and ultimately, identity. I’m happy that my time in Ireland thus far has helped me begin to understand this place—it’s history, culture, memory, and identity—beyond the surface. For it is through this exploration of what many see as their My Ireland that I’m gaining new insight into how I define what My America is. And for that, I’m quite grateful.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Way to Wexford

Spontaneous is not a word I would use to describe myself, necessarily. Nor would I use it to describe my fellow Mitchells: we are planners, and often obsessively so. It is a quality that we share because it has helped us accomplish goals and “do” a lot at a young age. My time here has taught me not to be such a rational organizer all the time. To put it more positively, it’s taught me the utter joy of spontaneity. 

The beginning of this story takes place where many Friday nights end. I was sitting around a table in a pub with some couples-friends. (You know, those friends you have that are a couple). We were with a couple friendly to my friends who I didn’t know too well (“couples-friends-of-friends?”). The night ended up being a late one as we waited for the time in the evening when the band started covering Oasis songs. If you stay long enough at any pub here, you will get to hear some Oasis. As it turns out, the two couples were going to drive to Wexford, about an hour and a half away from Dublin in the “sunny southeast” of Ireland, the next morning. I was offered a spot on the trip, but turned it down, assuming it was simply a polite gesture. They insisted and insisted, and I told them I was flattered, but they should go on without me. I had articles to read, papers to write. The band finally played Oasis (“Roll With It” and “Don’t Look Back in Anger,” I think), we lost our minds banging our hands on the table and singing along, said our goodbyes and headed home for the evening.

The next morning, I woke up to a phone call from one of my couples-friends, protesting my decline of the invitation the previous night. At last, I relented. With a toothbrush and a pair of sunglasses, I squeezed into the middle seat and we headed to Wexford. The friends-of-friends (now, simply “friends”) demanded we stop in New Ross, the ancestral home of President Kennedy, so I could take photos with his statue. In Wexford, we took long walks on the beach and up to Hook Lighthouse, with me as the fifth wheel to this absolutely gorgeous couples retreat. I happily report that I did my duty of taking some flattering photography of them for their generosity of hosting me.

That night, we headed to a pub in the town of Fethard for a fundraiser. The local community was raising money to build a replica of the rescue boat Helen Blake, which had sunk in 1914 on a mission to rescue stranded sailors. Everyone, from the local councilor to descendants of those who died in the episode, was on hand to eat and talk about the project. I was moved by how much the past lives on in this tight-knit community, and it was one of the most memorable privileges of my time here to share in that evening. To think now that I nearly missed it seems criminal. The only thing that didn’t quite fit? At Neville’s Pub in Fethard, the night ends with a raffle, not Oasis.

We've decided to call this one, "Wexford's melted butter sky."

We’ve decided to call this one, “Wexford’s melted butter sky.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Exploration Indoors + Outdoors

As I gradually (and perhaps reluctantly) plan my return to the States this summer, and contemplate the start of my PhD program this autumn, I have spent some time reflecting on my academic experience in Ireland thus far. Currently, there’s a lot of anxiety concerning the fall of Irish universities in international rankings, but this temporary dip doesn’t change the fact that the island has a lot to offer. Known as the land of saints and scholars, Ireland has long been a significant center of learning despite its location on the periphery of Europe, and that legacy continues to this day. My time working with the Undergraduate Awards has strengthened this belief, as hundreds of international students continue to apply for the chance to visit Ireland, and a number of the program’s alumni returned to Dublin this year to earn graduate degrees. Inside Trinity, I’ve greatly benefitted from studying with my small MPhil program, looking beyond my own research in the Mediterranean to learn more about Northern Europe. The program effectively prepared me to work as a fledgling paleographer this semester, transcribing Old English manuscripts — an opportunity I certainly would not have had if I hadn’t come to Ireland!

The "indoor" portion of my explorations in Ireland looks something like this.

The “indoor” portion of my explorations in Ireland looks something like this.

Within the classroom and beyond, a recurring theme of the Mitchell year has been learning to take a step back and go with the flow. Whether it’s something as banal as surrendering to the ever-changing weather, or relaxing a bit when waiting to receive your exam schedule, a type-A American like myself has valuable lessons to learn from the Irish. I like to think I’ve made some progress in this area, as evidenced by a recent trip to Cork to visit Peter. On a whim, Chris and I boarded the train one Monday, which unbeknownst to us, happens to be the day that most of Cork’s attractions are closed. My pre-Mitchell self never would have been in that situation, as I would have done my research in advance (especially to ensure I could visit the Cork Butter Museum, which is high on my sightseeing to-do list). This small mishap helped me appreciate my increased spontaneity.

IMG_1343

Of course, there was still plenty to see in the Republic’s second-largest city, from Fin Barre’s Cathedral to UCC’s main quad. We also walked outside the city center to see Our Lady’s Hospital, or the Cork District Asylum, which is interestingly in the midst of being converted into apartments.

Screen Shot 2017-03-22 at 10.59.33 AM

I only have two more weeks of class, but I’m hardly getting to know Dublin – the year has flown by. Last month I finally went on the cliff walk between Bray and Greystones, and Chris, Byron, and I walked the path around Howth Head. The views were beautiful, but there’s still a lot more to see!

Screen Shot 2017-03-22 at 10.59.17 AM

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Time of Transition

My two previous posts have waxed philosophical and also carried the theme of settling in and finding a place, friends, and purpose in Ireland for the year. As the winter transitions to spring, the days grow longer, and the rain more frequent, I have begun to contemplate, plan, and turn towards the future.

I have the fortunate opportunity to travel with my classmates in the Biodiversity and Conservation Course to South Africa for Field Work; I have been surprised to learn how often Irish students upon collegiate graduation have gone to work in South Africa on humanitarian and conservation issues, and I hope to meet some while there.

Once I return, it will only be eight weeks until our end of year activities as a Mitchell cohort, and I look forward to making the most of these weeks with excursions to Killarney, Galway, Mayo, Donegal, and Waterford (with as many of this year’s talented Mitchell Scholars as possible!).

But where does the island and this great cohort fit into my future after these weeks? This is the question I have begun to grapple with; I arrived at a partial answer this weekend on a reading retreat to Galway, with my gracious host Azza: continued collaboration. I had the wonderful opportunity of helping Azza put together a pitch for her next film project Desert Laboratory, A Film on Life at Taliesin West while enjoying the tranquility of a misty weekend on the west coast. In preparing meals, discussing literature, and assisting in this film project, I learned just as much about Azza as I did about myself and where my immediate future will be.

Within our cohort, we have become mirrors for each other when we cannot see or find the answer ourselves immediately; we have become friends, companions, teachers, and students. Ireland will continue to follow me and shape my future through the connections I have formed formally through my program at Trinity, but more so through the fundamental connection I have forged with my fellow 2017 scholars. This is the vision of the program, and it is a successful one. For that reason, I know the future will take care of itself. For now, I am going to make the most of my remaining time on this wonder filled, storied Emerald Isle.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

An Appreciation for the Outside Perspective

What I have come to appreciate the most from my time here in Ireland is the outside perspective. I wrote about this a little bit in my last blog and hearing the phrase “That’s so American of you..” and since then I’ve reflected more on just how valuable those sort of experiences are.

Often times when I debate with my friends about foreign policy or international perspective it is with good intention but it is missing validation. We discuss what others think, but we can’t confirm it. This was mostly true in my life up until moving to Ireland. Dublin is a very international city and in just less than a year I’ve met and befriended people from all over the world. It’s been great for two reasons.

The first being that you can actually ask someone from the place you’re debating about what they think about your thoughts or the policy up for discussion. Now I understand that one person’s opinion cannot represent a whole nation, but just having that one voice is infinitely more valuable than making assumptions. In my engineering program there are students from Pakistan, India, Venezuela, Kuwait, among others. When I have questions or am learning something new about those countries it is such a privilege to go to class and ask them what they think. For example, I read a book on country borders in South America and as I was reading it I would pester my Venezuelan classmates about their own experiences or the cultural context of the book. This made the reading experience so much richer than it would have been if I read it alone and just pondered what it must be like to live in South America.

Secondly, the flip side of highlighting your differences is a disconnect when trying to explain things using only your cultural lens. There have been many times where either myself or someone else wants to use a metaphor to explain a concept and with comic frustration the whole point dissolves in front of your eyes. This is best explained through an example. In my statistics class my teacher was trying to cement the concept of Type I errors in statistics. A Type I error is a specific error in which the correct outcome is interpreted by humans as incorrect. The teacher explained this and then opened it to the class for an acceptable metaphorical example. An American student made a Supreme Court reference in which an innocent person is found guilty. An Irish student in the class made a hurling reference (a strictly Gaelic sport only played in Ireland).  An Indian student gave a cricket referee manual reference. A Spanish student talked about football (soccer for Americans) in which a goal is recalled after the fact. At first this discussion was frustrating, but in the end the whole class was laughing because we all knew what we wanted to say but everyone fumbled their answers. It was just a funny and true moment in which our cultural lenses showed themselves.

All these experiences have left me with a great appreciation for the international perspective I get here. One that I’m sure I will miss once I move back to America.

 

Walk from Greystones to Bray

Walk from Greystones to Bray

Giant's Causeway - Northern Ireland

Giant’s Causeway – Northern Ireland

The Dark Hedges - Northern Ireland

The Dark Hedges – Northern Ireland

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A visitor as a visitor.

The Smurfit School at University College Dublin takes an annual study trip.  This year I was one of seventy MBA students to visit Tokyo and Seoul.  The group included full-time and executive MBA students, most of whom were Irish.  Our tour included stops at the Irish embassies in both cities, discussions with Enterprise Ireland, as well as general company visits.

It was a unique experience visiting these countries as part of a delegation from Ireland, not from my home country.  While I’ve lived in Ireland since August, and feel part of the MBA community, my passport still reads USA.  My perspective is directly linked to my being an American and having work and educational experiences in the United States.  Traveling with the Smurfit group gave me an opportunity to experience Tokyo and Seoul through a different lens.  Even though I was thousands of miles away, the trip helped me better understand Ireland too.

One area that struck me the most is how global the Irish economy is.  The Irish students I travelled with, some who are students while also working full-time for Irish companies, looked at business in an almost borderless way.  They were acutely aware of new technologies being developed around the world.  They asked questions about how Ireland does and could encourage more foreign direct investment.  They wanted to learn how to apply business principles being used in Japan, Korea, or Asia more broadly to the work they were doing now and in the future.  Foreigners unfamiliar with Ireland may jump to thinking of the Irish economy in agricultural terms, rooted in traditional businesses, or having a provencal flavor.  But my classmates reminded me how global, tech-savvy, and forward-thinking Irish businesses are.

Ireland’s neutrality was also uniquely apparent on the trip. I imagine visiting that part of the world with a group from the United States, particularly South Korea, would mean a noticeable focus on diplomacy, military relationships, and foreign policy.  The link between government and business, or business and international affairs, would have likely featured prominently.  But my Irish classmates seemed less focused on those elements.  I imagine that may be because Ireland has a strong emphasis on neutrality and doesn’t have the history or military and diplomatic involvement in the region that the United States does.   It also may be due to the fact the links between business and government aren’t as central in Ireland as they are in the United States.  Discussions and questions took different directions being in an Irish group than they may be been with an American group. I appreciated those differences.

Departing Asia with my Irish peers left me thinking about where there were similarities and differences between the three regions — my home in the United States, my current home in Ireland, and the places we visited in Asia.   All are connected through an increasing global, networked, and mobile business environment.  All rely on one another in various ways — for investment, diplomatic support, collaboration, trade, and human capital.  All have specific strengths that they can share with and learnings they can borrow from others countries.

I spent St. Patricks day in Seoul with a group of Irish students and other MBA classmates from different countries.  That day in particular was a reminder of so many things I’ve loved about living in Ireland — welcoming hospitality, ability to find and share fun wherever with whomever, and a diaspora that has brought Irish culture to every corner of the world.  

Also… fear not.  You can find an Irish pub and a pint of Guinness even in Seoul, 8,946 kilometres from Dublin.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Lough Corrib

Something in undergrad that I was very conscious of, but not too proud of, was my tendency to get caught up in whatever I had going on at school and forget to take part in the world around me. Undergraduates at Penn would joke that we would get stuck in the “Penn Bubble” and not explore the city around us. This year, however, I have made it a point to better balance my time doing work with the opportunities beautiful Ireland has to offer. From going on runs around Galway, exploring the quaint stores on Shoppe Street, taking bus tours to Connemarra and the Cliffs of Moher, or visiting fellow Mitchells in Cork and Dublin, I have taken every opportunity to get to know Ireland beyond just my studies.

One Saturday afternoon, after finishing up an essay, I was looking for things to explore in Galway as a study break. It was a (surprisingly) very sunny day and since Azza and I have taken up leisurely bike riding since moving to Galway, I decided to look for interesting sites on Google Maps to take a ride to. Usually, I bike along the River Corrib or the promenade lining the Galway coast because of the beautiful scenes they offer. Never did it occur to me (before this), however, that the River Corrib that runs into Galway Bay must stem from a pretty large source of water. Thus, this time I decided to scroll North instead of South on Google Maps and found that there was a HUGE Lough (pronounced “Lock”) just several kilometers north of campus – the largest Lough in the Republic of Ireland, in fact!

Screen Shot 2017-03-22 at 3.09.11 PM

Lough Corrib in Relation to Carla and Azza’s apartment

Azza and I promptly hopped on our bikes to go explore this newfound realization. To get there, we rode through all of the greatest parts of Galway — we began in city center, passed through NUIG’s campus, rode past sheep farms and rock quarries, and finally ended up at the Lough’s edge. Not knowing that this Lough was even here just an hour before, Azza and I were both blown away by its beauty and the fact that something so gorgeous was just on the doorstep of our city. Experiences and explorations like this make me so grateful for Ireland and everything it has to offer. Though a small country (about the same size as Indiana), Ireland has a lot of breathtaking places to explore.

IMG_9884

Our bikes nestled against a cute vine-covered tree next to the lough

 

IMG_9886

Azza making her way to the lough from a small path we found by the road

IMG_9887IMG_9890

IMG_9888

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Meeting George Mitchell!

On February 10th, I had the opportunity to go see former Senator George Mitchell speak on a panel at Queen’s University Belfast with Monica McWilliams (former leader of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition) about their memories from the peace talks that culminated in the landmark 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which helped bring peace to Northern Ireland. Listening to Senator Mitchell speak about his role as Chairman of the talks, I was immediately struck by his verbal skill. When faced with a surprising question, he would pause for the most fleeting of moments to gather his thoughts, and then launch into a measured soliloquy in which not a word was out of place and which seemed to always end gracefully. Listening to him extemporaneously thread his words into artful, precise sentences carrying intricately linked ideas that cascaded from one to another in a way that was simultaneously orderly and natural-feeling was quite remarkable. The man simply radiated equanimity, gravitas, and intelligence, possessing a quiet but palpable charisma.

Many of the questions that were posed to Senator Mitchell asked him to speak to whether the successful efforts to end the violence in Northern Ireland offered lessons that could be applied by intrepid mediators in various other conflicts around the world. One point that he returned to repeatedly was the idea that while negotiators working on other conflicts could certainly learn from studying the conflict in Northern Ireland, all conflicts are different and are likely to resist a standardized approach. Furthermore, he argued that an undue focus on mediators like himself and mediating strategy in general was missing the point, because a conflict can never be resolved unless all the parties to the conflict are committed to its resolution-absent that crucial precondition, it doesn’t really matter what the mediator does. The most brilliant mediator in the world cannot compel or cajole belligerents to make peace if they themselves do not want it.

After his talk, I had the chance meet Senator Mitchell and then sit in on a film interview of him conducted by Azza Cohen, one of my Mitchell Scholar classmates. The interview was much more personal than the panel discussion, with Azza gently probing Senator Mitchell’s motivations and memories not just from the period in which he lead the negotiations, but also from earlier in life. One thing that really stood out from the interview was Senator Mitchell’s emotional discussion of his parents and the sacrifices they made for him. His father was an orphan of Irish descent, and his mother was an immigrant from Lebanon, a Maronite Catholic. His father worked as a janitor, and his mother worked in the paper mills of central Maine while also performing double-duty of a homemaker. Neither had a formal education, and yet they managed to ensure that each of their five children received a college education. Neither could have imagined that one of their children would rise to become Majority Leader of the United States Senate, and yet that is exactly what happened. It’s a remarkable testament to the social mobility that defined the America he grew up in, and which I hope will define the America of my lifetime as well.

Senator Mitchell, myself, and Azza

Senator Mitchell, myself, and fellow Mitchell Scholar Azza Cohen (at Queen’s University in Belfast)

Political murals in Belfast

Political murals in Belfast

 

Posted in Conflict Resolution, Northern Ireland, Travels on the Island | Tagged | Leave a comment

Encountering the Heritage of “Eire”

One of the joys of this Mitchell year has been the opportunity to explore Ireland and to encounter the depth of its spiritual and historical heritage. Just by living here over the past 7 months, I have been well exposed to the enthusiasm of the Irish for all things Irish, but two trips this spring semester have particularly sharpened my appreciation for the Irish emphasis on ritual and historical memory.

The first was in late January, when a friend from Maynooth and I went out to County Mayo in the west to climb Croagh Patrick, the mountain upon which Saint Patrick famously made a forty-day retreat, fasting, praying for the conversion of the Irish, and living in a cave amidst the harsh elements. Climbing “the Reek,” as it is called, is a traditional spiritual rite of passage for the Irish—a pilgrimage of penance, sacrifice, and prayer and an act commemorating the saintly man who brought the Catholic faith to Ireland.

To this day, on “Reek Sunday,” the last Sunday in July, tens of thousands of pilgrims from all over Ireland flock to follow in the footsteps of Saint Patrick, while countless more go every other day of the year. Amazingly, a substantial percentage of them, including many elderly, make the whole trek barefoot—and this climb is no joke, filled with steep inclines and many sharp and loose rocks! Though my friend and I did not go barefoot, we certainly faced our own share of challenges, including heavy rains and, at one point, 70-plus mph winds on a flat about halfway up the mountain. The experience was humbling, especially when I considered that millions of Irish throughout history, often much older than I and with much less than sneakers and a rain jacket, had completed the climb successfully, let alone that Saint Patrick had survived those conditions for forty straight days. It was a sound reminder that the climb is not so much about the physical ascent as it is about the spiritual.

The second trip was a recent excursion down to the south of Ireland, where I visited Cork (the home of Peter, another Mitchell Scholar!), Cobh, and Kinsale. One could say much about the rich character of all three places and the unique spirit of the southern Irish, who hold firmly that Cork is the “real capital of Ireland.” But a brief afternoon trip I took out to the beautiful seaside village of Kinsale was particularly memorable. My scholarship coordinator at Maynooth kindly connected me with her brother, who lives nearby and gave me a tremendous tour of Kinsale Harbor, explaining with impressive detail the deeply nuanced history of the area.

Throughout the tour, I could not help but be struck by the enduring persistence of the Irish in working to maintain and preserve their identity, culture, traditions, and historical memory. Kinsale is famous for being the site of the 1601 Siege of Kinsale, which was a major battle between Gaelic tribes, supported by the Spanish, and the English, who were seeking to expand their control over the entirety of Ireland. After a fierce and highly tactical fight, the Irish and Spanish ultimately lost, marking a major turning point in Irish history, for the English had finally broken the Gaelic tribal governance system and their way of life. (And in important ways, that English victory opened the door to further westward colonization in the New World, which may well have been entirely Spanish-speaking had the Spanish been victorious at Kinsale and held off the British.) Yet to this day—especially in the wake of last year’s 100th anniversary of Irish independence—the Irish are proud to commemorate that battle and the persistent efforts of their ancestors across the centuries to defend and preserve their religious and political sovereignty and heritage. In a technocratic age that can tend to look to the past with skepticism and distrust, the sincerity of the Irish reverence for their spiritual, political, and cultural heroes of years bygone is refreshing and inspiring, and, indeed, something I will be proud to take home with me.

The view 1/3 of the way up Croagh Patrick.

The view 1/3 of the way up Croagh Patrick.

The view from the top of Croagh Patrick.

The view from the top of Croagh Patrick.

A cold and rainy selfie from the top of Croagh Patrick outside of the church and shrine to Saint Patrick!

A cold and rainy selfie from the top of Croagh Patrick outside of the church and shrine to Saint Patrick!

Kinsale Harbor, with Charles Fort, the site of an important defense stronghold during the Seige of Kinsale, in the foreground.

Kinsale Harbor, with Charles Fort, the site of an important defense stronghold during the Siege of Kinsale, in the foreground.

The plaque commemorating the Battle of Kinsale.

The plaque commemorating the Battle of Kinsale.

The empty chair of the Gaelic chieftain.

The empty chair of the Gaelic chieftain.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment