Many folks think of where I am in contextual terms–perhaps as the site of the outbreak of the Irish Troubles in 1969, or the site of the Bloody Sunday Massacre of 1972, or perhaps as the UK City of Culture 2013. Much like anything here in Northern Ireland, it depends on who is doing the talking, and who is doing the listening. I am truly in “Stroke City.” This funny nickname comes from the “/” [called stroke, not slash, in British English] present in the politically-correct city name of Derry/Londonderry, lengthy but often necessary in order to not alienate one group or another that live in this area. To us outsiders to L’Derry, we arrive in medias res, in the middle of an ongoing story (and conflict) stretching back hundreds of years, which makes everyday life a learning experience.
I am studying Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Ulster-Magee, and the relevant setting is a central reason for why I came to Northern Ireland. Not merely for its beauty, but to live amongst a society (or societies) recovering from damaging conflict, and understanding the roles of narratives, development, and reconciliation in creating a brighter future. In Derry, memories of the past are omnipresent, and different ways of remembering history continue to create tension. It reminds me constantly of what one of my undergraduate Native American Studies professors, Colin Calloway, would always remind us: “History is not an account of the past; it is the stories we choose to tell about the past.”
Our academic studies have been tested with real-life examples of threats to a peace process: in the past few months, there have been two destructive car bombs here in Derry (see my map and more information, here). In response, cross-community coalitions have joined in solidarity to emphasize that peace is the path the vast majority of the population have committed to for a brighter “shared future,” and not violence. A rally against dissident violence was held in the city centre, at Guildhall Square, and I was able to capture much of it on video (here). After talking about the violence in class and with lifelong residents of Derry, and seeing grassroots organizing around peace, I feel safe and hopeful that these are minor blips on the radar–the oft-repeated theme is, with economic downturn things like this just inevitably happen by dissatisfied parties. The successful long-term road to peace will embrace a vibrant economic component, and everyone is hoping that the current economic depression ends soon!
The opportunities I’ve been blessed with have been staggering. Here in Derry, I have learned so much from illuminating museums and tours (often free), chatted with Nobel Laureate John Hume (also recently named “Ireland’s Greatest Person“), and attended cross-community dialogues. The program at University of Ulster is excellent, and I learn so much from every lecture and extra-curricular experience. I attended our Mitchell Scholarship convocation in Cork (and other fun events, like going to a cooking school), and I have been awed and impressed by my peers. Even with only a few days all together, I love each person for their distinct and complimentary personality, and I think our tight-knit family of nine is a highly wonderful group!
I have left Derry often: to visit other Mitchells, to attend an Irish-Muslim entrepreneurship conference in Dublin, to hear Bill Clinton speak in Dublin, to speak on a non-profit panel at the Dublin Web Summit, to attend an Islamic feminism conference in Madrid, and will attend a two-weekend intensive mediator training in Belfast later this month. Whew! It seems like a whirlwind looking back, but it hasn’t seemed that way to me; rather, each opportunity has arisen organically and been so rewarding in its own way.
Despite ALL this, my favourite part of my year so far has been the chill, self-reflective part of my life. My unique setting cultivates this possibility. Stereotypically, one may think of Ireland as a misty island, full of open, green, and quiet places–the perfect environment for introspection and reflection. I find that around Derry, this is indeed true! I bought a used bicycle and I have been using it (not nearly enough!) to explore less-accessible parts of the Northwest and find calm and solitude in those places. I have been cooking and reading again, things that took a large-scale hiatus for my undergraduate college years. I sleep more. I am able to sip coffee and just think more. I have the time to reflect, explore, and re-examine foundational philosophies and spiritualities. It has been a meaningful journey in only a very short time, and I am continuing to learn, think, and reflect with much of my time. It is good for the soul.
I’ll end with a quick story, and I am not just making this up for hyperbole. Last week, I returned from a visit to Madrid to see a close friend, and had a lovely time there with her. As the plane circled above Dublin before landing, I looked out of my window and my heart suddenly swelled with happiness at seeing beautiful Ireland below. After touching down, I joined the sizeable crowd walking down the long airport corridor to immigration–and after joining in lock-step for some time, I could not contain myself–I ran! My heart racing with emotion, I went through immigration and then ran again until I got to the airport exit and was out in the fresh, Irish air. There I stood still, breathing deeply, inexplicably happy and smiling bright. I laughed with joy.
I felt like I had come home.
(For further reflections and descriptions, including pictures, of my experiences please visit my blog, here. Some entries are also hyperlinked above, and will open in a new window.)