All Is Lost (Chapter 19)

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IMG_0351If Backswing is that thing we are trying to put into perspective so that we don’t get caught up paralysed into a state no action, then hitting the ball out of the park is that thing we are wanting to see more of. There is a relationship between Backswing and hitting the ball, and this book explores that in many different dimensions to focus on how this affects both the personal and the institutional domain.

I left one name out of the previous chapter intentionally in the list of people who helped buoy my sense of hope, and wanted to mention them here because of the significance of their actions. Tim is a person who I have already mentioned earlier in this book. I described earlier that he is perhaps the one person who has consistently bookended my experience on this epic quest from the time in 2007 when I first flagged my intention to commence the running quest which eventually became the 10 City Bridge Run.

I want to avoid isolating one individual when I mention the encouragement I received from other people. All supporters to the 10 City Bridge Run have contributed to making this journey possible, and I am extremely thankful for them all. Tim provided the inspiration behind an expression I have used called The Kindness of Strangers after a morning we shared together where he showed his immense capacity to care for others.

He and I would often meet with other people in Surry Hills, in fact in the same cafe where Kelley and I sat and discussed the website which I describe in a previous chapter. Our mutual friend Gavin has convened this space where many still regularly meet for coffee on a weekly basis. It is from the small actions of others that big ideas grow. Innovation and new value creation are unintended consequences of association, and seldom is there a single ‘eureka!’ moment between two individuals which solves all the problems for a single issue. It is because of the human bridges created by people like Kelley and Gavin with others gradual and small iterations that empowers others to make significant impact far beyond the reach or view of those who might be the catalyst for this alchemic ideation.

So too was it with Tim. One morning we were having coffee together, and unusually we were alone which allowed some space to talk. To really talk and engage in the process of real conversation takes courage and personal investment through being personally present with a willingness to participate. This doesn’t mean necessarily agreeing, but it does mean that there will be listening and respect shown which is reciprocated out of care for one another.

On this occasion, Tim asked me how I was going. He sensed everything was not quite right, and he was correct. Together, we entered a very personal conversation, and allowed each other the privilege of opening a space where we could both be vulnerable. During the conversation that followed, Tim responded with great courage by suggesting that we explore some options that would be to my immediate and long-term benefit. The Kindness of Strangers is grounded in a concern for the humanity of others, and is essential in the building of a human bridge. Tim had no obligation to spend that time with me. It was a generous gift that I received from him that day.

Often when people think about hitting the ball out of the park, there is a tendency for this to be measured in material gain: money, fast cars, flash houses, and everything that comes with this. Material things are nice, but the truth is that we really come closest to hitting the ball when we are at our best in caring for other people. Maybe Backswing is at its worst when we hold ourselves back from simple acts of kindness that truly connect us with our humanity through the opportunity to help others.

The details of how Tim helped me that day need not be mentioned here specifically, suffice to say he helped me to take stock of where I was and also pointed a way forward. Without these small acts of kindness from good friends and sometimes strangers, this trip would not have been possible. The Hero’s Journey traverses a fragile passage. The human bridges we make with other people are essential to finding our way through.

With the help of others, I was inspired to continue the quest to address an important question about child survival I had commenced which I had called the 10 City Bridge Run. Knowing that I was beginning from a place of financial hardship as I recommitted to the journey ahead, I realised I had no idea where this would take me or indeed how I might get there, let alone when.

Coincidentally, around this time, I was invited to travel to Papua New Guinea by a business consortium who had tasked me to examine the opportunities for ecotourism. A few years earlier, I had completed some similar work addressing a particular opportunity for ecotourism in a remote desert Indigenous location, and as a result of the quality of my work I was sought out by these people to investigate the situation in Papua New Guinea.

I had read a lot about Papua New Guinea, but never set foot there. How hard could it be, right? After all, I was a bit of an expert. I was soon to see how strongly issues of health infrastructure, education and governance would have on shaping child mortality.

It was ironic that I flew to Papua New Guinea confident of my ability to intervene, but not really stopping to think that it would be a remarkable opportunity to really learn more about child mortality. I had a perspective that perhaps was not atypical of many (white) Westerners visiting so-called Developing or Third World countries. Unflatteringly, the measure of a developing country was typically based on the things that made issues like child mortality prevalent. We define a global system measured by a relative ranking of injustice. Just great…

I arrived into Port Moresby with a mind that was half made up about the capacity for knowledge transfer and capacity building. I mistakenly thought that Western technology would be the saving grace for allowing ecotourism to prosper in Papua New Guinea. After all, our lives and cities didn’t seem so bad, and our statistics were something to boast about. What I came to learn was that Western lifestyle stood to gain from the knowledge transfer from the remote village lifestyle found across Papua New Guinea.

I spent most of my time in two remote villages, both located is very different parts of a remarkable country renowned for its diversity. Travelling to the first village was an education in itself. A plane to a small airstrip, then a bus to a beach, from where we took a Zodiac dinghy across a stretch of ocean, and from there rode in the back of a truck to the village. I began to appreciate how badly formed infrastructure might affect access to health.

As I surveyed Papua New Guinea, infrastructure seemed to be a problem in all the areas that mattered: health, transport, communications, education, clean water, distribution of food, access to markets. In spite of this, it was curious that the infrastructure for logging, fishing and mining seemed to have little obstacles. When money was involved, mountains literally could be moved. Here was a country that used to be a protectorate of Australia and that was virtually unknown as it was roughly assaulted by the extractive industries of foreign business interests.

How could this be? Papua New Guinea would appear in the books and articles I was reading about poverty and child mortality, but I could never recall this information. I suspect that in the interest in places like sub-Saharan Africa trumped the oxygen from the conversation in other areas.

I decided to start collecting photos of human bridges for the book I was compiling that supporters had sponsored to enable funds to be raised for my trip to occur. I realised that I could collate thousands of photos in Papua New Guinea, and maybe I could even leave a few cameras behind for people to continue to help build the number of photos I was hoping to gain. I would ask people from a village to form a human bridge so that I could take a photo. They were happy to help, but I was finding it difficult because I hadn’t fully appreciated the nature of village life. Not only was there a language problem, but the concept of a bridge as I understood it was not a readily understood by the locals.

A photo of a human bridge has to tell a story. It was ironic that I saw the ordinariness of their village life as fascinating much in the same way as the regarded my digital camera as mind-boggling. I had failed to appreciate what a human bridge actually meant, not only to me, but also what was unique in these people’s lives that would be important so as to communicate a gripping narrative about child mortality. It was only February 2011, and already earlier that year I had benefited greatly from the human bridge that Tim built with me, and yet I couldn’t see the unique situation I found myself in to use this opportunity to tell a story.

Worse still was perhaps that I was seeking to take these photos in a way that almost certainly was questionable, if not unethical. I hadn’t adequately asked for their permission because of the language barrier, and neither had I adequately spent time to explain why I wanted their photo to help with an issue which I ought to have recognised was serving their welfare.

I wasn’t the first person to get it wrong when visiting a developing country like this. There is a tendency for Westerners to assume they are bringing solutions which can help to add capacity. I am not saying that Western technology has no place, but unless we truly understand the situation that other people are facing, how can we ever hope to be part of the solution to address the problem. This is the problem with so much emphasis on statistics within agencies such as the United Nations, if only those statistics are used for understanding the situation. It is a complex mess that needs help from everyone.

I was taking a boat from one village to another and went to review the photos on my camera. It was a new camera, and I was presented with an option which resulted in me deleting all the photos on my memory. All was lost. All the precious photos were gone! I remember spending half a day in a small computer repair shop that a friend of a friend operated. I was hoping that there might be some ghost copy of the photos on the memory card. We tried and tried, but couldn’t recover anything.

As I was preparing to leave Papua New Guinea, I had the good fortune to visit some of the hospitals and speak with some of the doctors about child mortality. They were all locals, and incredibly passionate about overcoming the immense challenges they were confronting. They all sighed deeply when beginning a conversation with me. Yet another white guy who had come to try to solve their country…

I learnt a great deal from those hospital visits. There was no dying babies to see, and I was heartened by the large numbers of young mothers with their new-born babies. It helped me to put this issue of child mortality into perspective.

In hindsight, I realised that my time would have been better spent trying to talk and understand people rather than photograph them, and that the time I had spent trying to recover lost photos would have been better spent listening to doctors educate me about their country.

A had lost all my photos, but that didn’t matter. It was actually a new beginning. I had received my first lesson in understanding the problem, but I still had much to learn.

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