Sunday, July 5, 2009

Independence Day

Happy (belated) 4th of July! After reading the New York Times on July 1st (Canada Day) I don't think I will ever think about this day the same. The NYT featured an Op-Ed where Canadians living in the US talk about what they miss the most about Canada. Among the contributors was Malcolm Gladwell, a staff writer for The New Yorker and the author of several books including “Outliers: The Story of Success.” There is a chapter in that book called the Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes about the cultural norms involved in communication in work environments between colleagues vs. superiors that is just fantastic - came in very handy as a managemnt tool with my multi-cultural team in Sudan! Very worth the read. Anyway, Mr. Gladwell's observation for the Op Ed was as follows:
In history class, in seventh grade (or as we like to say in Canada, grade seven) we learned the story of the American Revolution — from the British perspective. Turns out you were all a bunch of ungrateful tax cheats. And you weren’t very nice to the Loyalists. What I miss most about Canada is getting the truth about the United States.
That made me chuckle. So from this point forward, July 4th shall hereby be known as the day when the petulant teenage US of A declared itself officially too pissed off at England to keep paying taxes and stormed out of the British Empire's house. Rock on.


I am in the US right now, taking some of my many, many unused vacation days. I think I was up to 28 as of my last paycheck. There's no way I can use all of these before I leave Sudan, but thankfully my organization will pay them out to me when I leave. I have to say, it's very good to be home. Tomorrow I begin my 3 day journey back to Juba to pick up where I left off in Paradise!

Last night my family and I, along with thousands (millions maybe?) of other Americans, packed up the back of our SUV with fried chicken, potato salad, brownies and beer and drove out to a field to watch fireworks. I know at least one other family that was doing the same thing! It has been a long time since I have seen fireworks, so I was very excited about this expedition. Anything less than complete enthusiasm on my part would not have been enough to pry my father away from the house to drive somewhere an hour away to interact with people we don't know only to be stuck in a traffic jam for hours afterwards. But along with the fireworks, we did play some pretty intense games of Crazy 8's and got to cringe when my mom started snapping her fingers and dancing to Outkast's "Hey Ya" when it came onto my ipod playlist. Fun times.

As the fireworks started and everyone let out a collective "ooooh, aaaahhhh" all I could think about was how ironically, twistedly similar the US is to Southern Sudan in how they celebrate their independence. Well, semi-independence in the case of Southern Sudan. In the US we set of fireworks. Loud, colorful displays representing the "bombs bursting in air" of our national anthem. The fireworks simultaneously scare and delight children like rollercoasters do (maybe thrill is the right word?), and make adults smile, both at the reaction of children and at the fact that the US is free, and does have independence.

In Southern Sudan, the "bombs bursting in air" is a tad bit more literal. When people are celebrating in Southern Sudan, they fire their weapons into the air. Mostly AK47s, no heavy artillery. But the big BOOMs of fireworks sound a bit too much like RPGs and the smaller version of firecrackers most definitely mimics the crackling of automatic gunshots. That's why a lot of expats from Western countries think that they are hearing fireworks the first, second and even third times they hear gunfire.

I sat on that lawn, full of food and Sam Adams Summer Ale, streching my neck upward to take in the beautiful waxing moon behind the firework display, and my mind kept drifting back to sitting on a concrete floor on SPLM Day, waiting for the celebratory gunfire to die down, and the way both those gunshots and the fireworks reverberated in my body, echoing the same way. I am working on another post about that experience, so stay tuned.

Has anyone else had this experience? Veterans, or otherwise? How long does it take for the assumption that every loud noise is a gunshot to go away?

I only hope that one day, Southern Sudan will have the chance to celebrate this way, that the bombs bursting in air need only be a colorful, gentler, happier representation of their past.

1 comment:

M.Lane said...

Wonderful post. It will make a great start for a chapter in your photo book I KNOW you are working on called "Independence Day" in which you can have this text and photos of the US/Sudanese celebrations.

Since Sudan as a whole only became free of the UK in 1956 and the CPA was only signed in Jan 2005 perhaps there is plenty of time for independence day there to develop to a more happy and peaceful scheme.

Take care. Travel well.