Africa – People + Places

Cultures-ClashI’ve been sifting through imagery as I prepare to head to New York City for the 2013 Eddie Adams Workshop and meetings with potential clients.  What I’ve found has allowed me to relive the beautiful memories of past travels and the people and places I met.  Here, Africa represents itself in all its wondrous enjoyment, with the hopes of near returns on future assignments.

DSC_0086-(4)---Version-3Hamar, Omo Valley, Ethiopia

DSC_0206---Version-3Somewhere in the Afar Desert, Ethiopia

Gold-Stars,-Happy-FacesThe Layla House Adoption House, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

DSC_0179---Version-3The streets of Lagos, Nigeria

DSC_0024---Version-2The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, Nairobi, Kenya

DSC_0307-(1)---Version-5Hamar boy, Omo Valley, Ethiopia

High-RisenDiani Beach, Kenya

DSC_0009-(4)---Version-3Hamar girls, Omo Valley, Ethiopia

Tuti-AliveTuti, Omo Valley, Ethiopia

For more please visit: Travel

Cameron Karsten Photography

Photo Essay – The Creeks Vs. Chevron (Location: The Creeks, Nigeria, Africa)

One Life: An International Photography Competition – Vote for CK Photo!

One Life is launching a photography competition and I’ve uploaded my images to share with the world.  Please check out the slideshow highlighting the human element of people and their bodily expressions.  Then consider voting for my drive and passion within the field.  Thank you!

One Life: Cameron Karsten Photography

Visit One Life now to view the rest of the images and vote!

Culture Hopping: Life is the Essential Ingredient (Location: Planet Earth)

Like a roasted pepper, you’re done: well cooked, charred on the outside, burnt and spent. But on the inside, hidden within the veil of life’s fire-burner, you’re soft and ready.  Anticipating for more.

However, it doesn’t come all that easy.  After the months, weeks, or maybe only the days of travel, you return home to the accustomed life once left behind, and there, piled with new baggage you were ready to unpack, you find yourself overloaded with a new beginning.

And despite how many times you attempt to escape from this, seeking the bliss of freedom discovered upon the open road, mixed within the world’s vast cultures—leaving, returning, leaving, returning—you are met face to face time again with this long winding road home.  It stares at you.  It tempts you.

Upon returning, afflictive emotions once erased resurface (hint: they never leave!).  In order to take this road, you know you must begin the new journey with your new bags; keep on traveling, keep on truckin’ to peel away your surface layers to reach that core initially sought.

You must emerge from the cultures of the ancient times of open-air fires with stone, brick and mortar to reveal the modern complexity of steal and chrome.  The time allotted is the progress made, and until then the core will not be exposed.  Instead, the fires will continue to char, and char, and char returning you back to the start of that winding path, through and through.  Call it culture hopping.

And You Are?

Whether Africa, Asia, Southeast Asia, Europe, South America, North America, or some distant cardinal tropic marooned from the flanks of one’s accustomed culture, the traveler is an explorer in the miasmic layers, colors and spices of the world’s cultures.  To have that desire for taste, for preparation and creative roast is to obtain the initial interest of discovering a lifestyle other than one’s own.

It is a yearning for experience, for knowledge, for an accumulation of wealth that can never be bought, taught or sought in books:  It’s the potential growth of the soul that comes with willingness, dedication and an awareness given the time and space to be sown in the soils of one’s consciousness.

Through the journey beyond, an epic tale of letting go and allowing the fires to char on their own accord, experience becomes wisdom.  It becomes that seed enriched with appreciation for life, a life involving a continued exploration of man, woman, Nature and their intriguing interwoven dynamics.  Alone, this path cultivates and further roasts one’s seed of awareness allowing the pepper to blossom and the fires cook.

For such a traveler, life is the essential ingredient.  Within mind, body and soul there contains essential components only fed when the traveler throws oneself into this very unknown.  This is where life revolves.

Certain characters are necessary for the traveler to embark and take upon these fires when ready:  Such one loves the unknown.

He or she loves taking this upon destiny like a parasite caught in flesh.  It is a necessity, a fertilizer sucked from the deepest soils, where the senses abide to the farthest root tips; stretching, distending, growing further and reaching for that appreciation of life, its beauty and the diversity which flourishes.  These cultures of humanity define the sustenance of life, and without their firsthand experience there would be no worth to the traveler in the life surrounding.

And so, with a firm grip upon an adventurous nature, a character ready and willing to let it all go for something without any future at all, the traveler within me tossed this mind, body and soul into the deep soils of the earth.  Seed planted, sustenance fed—my pepper of various layers, colors and spices began to sprout.  The fire was already provided.  I began my culture hopping.

Cultures Revealed, The Culture Transformed

I went abroad, explored the cultures of islands, of development and riches, of poverty and those stricken with the despair of unjust treatment to their basic human rights.  I went abroad and found turmoil in the markets, unlike my hometown grocer’s well stocked and aligned isles.  I was ingrained within these new markets like a spider in a neighbor’s web, weaving my thread with theirs, calm and observant with the people of Africa, Asia, south-north-east-west and beyond.  I spun more, throwing an innocuous trust within my surroundings.

Further, I found isolated pockets of forest, tropical with malarial mosquitoes and monkeys.   I saw fauna and flora of the imagination, and I let my own wander to color my thoughts with its fragrance.

Things filled my senses.  Life invaded me.  From one culture to the next, I let go, stepping deeper into the unknown.  And I let go once more.

Literally it all consumed me, and as the small seed, a sponge underneath the flowing faucet, I soaked in it.  I was free.  I was the traveler.  I absorbed this flow—people, thoughts, situations and circumstances, foreign politics, cuisines and their palates, lifestyles and manners.  They became a part of who I was, and who I sought to become.

From one individual to the next, from village to village, city to city, via bicycle, rickshaw, tuk-tuk, taxi, bus, train, boat—or by foot—I was culture hopping.  I was experiencing this life I knew and never knew.  It was withdrawn from within me where I allowed an awareness to manifest the road ahead.  And on every step, the journey started anew as the flames were fueled, the fires turning hotter.

Eventually, I was done.

The pepper: blackened, charred, burnt on the outside.  Work was now necessary to peel away the layers, and so the traveler returned home to the culture left behind.  There, after faced with one phenomenon to the next, culture hopping at its finest (the pepper well-done, the spider entombed within, a sponge oozing the sustenance of life), explorations changed courses and routes led homeward to the familiar lifestyle.  But through each interlope and interchange of culture there was that reunion affected by this so-called hopping.

It was a reemergence with the traveler’s old self, bags ready to unpack before discovering there were still more bags to be carried.

Still Traveling

Often it’s unexpected, meeting this thing left behind which is now present; all around you, within family and friends and customs and routines.  It is the traveler of the past; the traveler before the traveler was ever a “traveler”.  In essence it is the mind, body and soul in which everyone knew and everything expected despite the change.

Returning from Southeast Asia to southern California, my confidence and belief within my own self and the direction I was heading hit a steel-plated wall.  All happiness faded.

But now, unexpected, the new traveler facing the old traveler before the traveler was ever a traveler becomes paralyzed.  He or she is overwhelmed with the past culture amounting to that of the new various cultures adopted.  Known collectively as “culture shock”, there is no turning back.

The old sages comment, “Easy is the choice to begin or not, but once begun, better finish.”

And like a dish of foie gras to a vegetarian consciousness, like a Russian bath for the Hawaiian local, culture shock throws you into a chasm where the lights are dimmed to view only the faintest silhouettes ahead.  There is nothing left behind.  You must continue and accept a responsibility, for this very shock is the effect of your culture hopping.  It stuns, saddens—and more significantly—paralyzes the senses and any feeling of centeredness.

Questions arise again, afflictive emotions stir as remorse composes a symphony of disgust, despair and pain before the next layer of pepper is charred.  There’s never the chance of having the opportunity to live the life of its soft sweet flesh.  This is the case of reemergence into Western society.

Returning from Southeast Asia to southern California, my confidence and belief within my own self and the direction I was heading hit that wall.  Happiness gone.  Despair arisen.  Confusion ahead.   What I remember most having returned from the months abroad was entering that Ralph’s “superstore” on Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena.

Culture shock as loaves of bagged bread—signed, sealed and delivered—shook with a consumerism’s shopping rage.  It was like an exemplified spree; carts with gargantuan mouths, open and wired to the teeth.  They could be stuffed full, occupying up to ten bags if willed.  There were meats, animals to be more specific, which now took the form of slice after slice, shank and steak and thigh and breast—or why not whole? My eyes witnessed the abundant glory to what a Newari family in the Nepalese Himalayas might perceive:  I’m in heaven!

No.  To me, having experienced the impoverished of India, Africa and Asia—as well as the freeway underpasses of California’s forgotten homeless; having walked the mountains and beaches where a family was considered lucky if a porter succeeded in bringing what they requested, this mass production of animals, genetically modified fruits and vegetables, and aisles upon aisles of sugared dumplings called Ding-Dongs hit my lower abdomen with an iron cudgel.

Cheeses and yogurts fermented beyond their expiration date.  Fizzing bottles of Coca-Cola and Dew blew their tops.  Bottles of water became dirty.

What happened to the market?  To morality?  What happened with globalization and to our care for others’ well-being?

No, I concluded, there was never a moral concern for life.  And there never will be.  What the hell am I doing here? I was culture shocked.

A Welcome Home

It’s the most difficult stretch of the journey; to return home to family and friends, to routine—to life as you once knew it—and apply successfully all the lessons of travel.  People look at you as they did in the past, but you say, you stand up for yourself:  No, I’ve changed.

The world revolves.

You see the news.  You have the luxuries you once forgot and indeed took advantage of in the past.  Daily life causes its stresses.  Anger, confusion, and all the other emotions come to greet you with a slap in the face, smiling like they’ve never done before.  Even those plates of food adorning your dining table are a blessing, but no one else seems to see.

Likewise, you yourself begin to struggle.  In your silent prayers you return your conscience back to the center and thank the sustenance before you and your family.  You thank the Universe for this life compared to others witnessed far away, an observance you’re beginning to forget.

As with most, the first return and its adaptation is the hardest.  You cope with it, you deal with it and you hopefully take in the lessons for your growth.  The second and third become easier due to experience, and with the appropriate placement of the lessons recalled, your life, whether traveling or at “home” in your own culture, becomes a continued journey of culture hopping.

You are the traveler and you feed this, caring for yourself with the practice of your experiences from the places you’ve been.  It is your new culture in which you live and grow from.  But how do you get passed the initial return, and the second and the third?

Over my travels, an unknown quote to an unreligious individual has reminded me of strength and courage: “God comforts the disturbed and disturbs the comfortable.”  It is a message shouting there is always more growth to be had.  Once you think you’ve reached the top, you’ve actually hit bottom.

Greeted with the eruption of past habits and routines, I have taken the journey of reentering the life I left behind as a whole new opportunity to evolve further to that infinite goal.  And what keeps me sane throughout the process is the remembrance of the journey passed and how it’s still in its entirety churning within me.

Therefore, I’m brought to the present, the internal traveler awoken within to become the traveler of the present moment no matter what road I might be on.  I see family and friends; they might mistake me for someone of the past.

Sure, I’m still that person, but now I’m him, which includes this new traveler.

I see shelves of abundance in a culture appearing oblivious to the rest of humanity’s infirmities and I become grateful to have that awareness of the resources in my life, their precious blessings, and how most persons round the globe might not have such a luxury as the basic necessity of shelter to plates to eat upon, or surviving family and a network of friends.

I remember how I used to take things for granted, including as a boy that dumpling of sugar, the so-called Ding-Dong.  Hence, there is no need to despise it, but better yet be appreciative of the options and leave it for others who might harbor interest.  And I’m grateful for the world’s diversity and the cultures out there to be explored.

Though what remains most important, disregarding the adventure of external discovery, is the magnitude of a continued internal exploration.  It is an application of one’s new understanding and belief into mainstream life that keeps this cyclone of the Self gyrating.

Barriers discovered, analyzed and then toppled; passed through to advance further into the conscious Self.

Each step hosts the opportunity for growth—mentally, emotionally and spiritually—and with the continued practice of one’s lifestyle within the new surroundings of home, obstacles of daily living no longer appear as they once did.  Instead they take the form of that flame, licking the edges of skin to provide a tool to peel away the outer layers to reach its deepest core.  That fire is of love and peace, as is the core—as is the practice, the people and places—as are those once termed “obstacles”.

And So, To Hopping

Today, there is more of Asia, West Africa, Europe and more Central America, including my own culture, within me.

As a traveler with a continuous yearning for growth through an experience of culture hopping, and a lessening culture shock, I have come to peer through a cleared perception, recognizing the differences and similarities of each land and its people.  I have come to accept these cultural barriers as a part of this physical world, established in total for our growth.  Beyond these barriers, they dissolve and I perceive a life with the oneness of all peoples.  My heart opens as I remind myself and take recognition.  Happiness returns.

Yes, I’m still traveling.

Life keeps churning, and as a morsel within the stew—that spice—as a bubble in a boiling pot, I have only so long before I leave and transform, before I am eaten by my own creation.

In order to fill this duty with its finest, in order to allow the fires to masterfully complete its roast, a strive to dig deeper attains progress.  It is the act of reaffirming the underlying connection between people and their cultures.  It is the subtle continued establishment within the mind that they—we—have founded this very life and that we are here together to share it.  Through this realization, carrying for myself and reawakening from sleep each fleeting moment, the afflictive emotions associated with the road and the return into daily life subsides.

A roasted pepper, charred skin peeled, I am now ready to continue with the ingredients of this infinite stew of culture, traveling deeper into the feast of life.  Culture hopping is my vehicle of choice.

Warri-Town: In the Dark Bus (Location: Warri, Delta State, Nigeria, Africa)

Just as it was with countries like Cambodia, India, and Nepal, Nigeria was real, it was raw, and it was dirty.  Asked why, a simplified answer spoke of how the people and their land were utterly besmeared by the hands of humanity.  Rounded up as slaves by an advancing world, sold, exploited, freed and once again colonized into a vicious cycle, it was their livelihoods and their land that received the brunt of destruction.  Today, the culprit is called oil:  The Blood of the Earth.  And a market of big leaguers stuffing their pockets with cash continues to fuel.

Twenty Seattleites found themselves in the epicenter of the Federal Republic of Nigeria where approximately 240 dialects throughout thirty-six states interacted within 357,000 square miles.  In the weeks we began familiarizing ourselves with one another and the culture pervading, each of us recognized a common bond.  We were here to experience Africa and we all came together, each independent persons with distinct perceptions, yet each harboring a unifying soul with similar intentions. Like threads in a blanket, we wove ourselves into a network of talent to design a new pattern.

Deemed grassroots diplomacy with Global Citizen Journey, we desired understanding and compassion, which emerged into a deeper awareness: People needed to know.  Our families and friends around the world.  Our neighbors and strangers back home.  Consumers and producers.  The people needed to become aware of the real Africa and the real conditions its citizens faced due to our hands.  This was our purpose, what brought us together—to become aware of our abilities as citizen diplomats, taking the reins of our life and society, and transforming them to meet their needs.

We were in Nigeria, an underdeveloped society striving for a chance, fighting to grow, sitting on a wealthy cache of resources.  We were in the Delta State about to embark on a journey down The Creeks to the village of Oporoza, where something slick and dark moved like a nighthawk.  It killed and pillaged.  It led clear minds astray and clean hands to dirt.  It was pushing Africa down.  Meet greed, the second culprit in this case, and greed and oil do not mix.

Nigeria, Nigeria, Nigeria.  I caught myself repeating this mantra beside Los Angeles-native, Eric Esplin.  We looked at one another and chanted as if in trance.  Nigeria, Nigeria, Nigeria.  Eric and I were finally there after the months of preparation and research.  I had sold my car.  Eric kissed his wife goodbye.  And we both left wanting this experience to permeate our being, infuse us with understanding that would transcribe into compassion and evolve into new lifestyles.  Together, along with a few others, we decided to act on our inhibitions and venture into the masses of Warri-town.

Warri was a significant metropolis of Nigeria’s Christian south.  It went by Warri-town, Wassi, the Oil City of Humanity, Wild West of Africa—and the atmosphere was riddled with the sense of something new, something alive.  Our select group tasted this and felt the need for adventure.  From the plush marble walls of the Wellington Hotel, we left behind its automatic doors and the gated entrance to meet the world of Nigeria’s booming oil town.  And after traveling from Lagos to Benin City, meeting up with twenty new Nigerian delegates, and together moving further along the road, it became just that: Warri in the Dark.

It was what all advisors warned against, including our own leaders and delegates (some of them from the city itself). The traffic, the madness, the exodus of humanity returning home with the 6PM closure of shops and subsequent seven o’clock road-ban of motorcycles due to recent unrest.  The jam was a river of creosote-stained logs, spinning in a whirlpool of rusted industry.

But what intrigued us the most was the sheen of the skin, its black gloss.  It cast a mellow glare like hot candle wax, while headlights from oncoming traffic reflected like sandblasted glass through the rising dust.  Men’s bald heads, their lanky necks and broad, ram-boned shoulders; women in color, rainbows of woven crystal magnified in the haze-ridden beams of night traffic: These two aspects of male/female clashed before slamming into one another with a meager quality of production and care, prosperity and concern.  Their heat infused in the mass of ground movement and mixed within the airborne ether of the African atmosphere.

Again, it was dark—a thick black held in a global container of humidity.  There were few stars, only faint specks seen burning through the dank layers above, and as we crossed the Danger Zone our Nigerian delegate, Nicholas Ijabor, announced,  “In the mid ’90s, even at the turn of the century, this was a battlefield.”

We nodded.  We stared.  White eyes blinking without sound.  There was nothing but black and that brown night beyond the bus’ thin glass.  Our bubble felt small, insignificant.

“This junction is the line,” Nicky continued, “the line of property both Ijaw and Itsekiri battled for.”  His talk was smooth, stirring our fears with his ease of localism.

I know what we were all thinking just then.  First, the reality of being in Nigeria.  I heard that chant in my head.  I looked across at Eric.  He felt it.  It was in his heart:  Nigeria, Nigeria, Nigeria.  In a peculiar way, we were all familiarized by now, but at the same time, we knew we never would be.  We were Americans in Africa.  We came from a culture that exploited their livelihoods and raped their lands.  At that moment, we were taking their oil, paying the multinationals to supply our economy, which gave the people little in return.  This was not our land.  It was not our oil.  It never was and it never will be.  We turned a blind eye as people died, wars raged and violence within a suppressed people’s revolution prevailed.  Oil was spilling across humanity.

Secondly, the US State Department recently released a statement on its website specifically advising travelers not to enter the Delta State.  This surfaced immediately.  Our minds spun with the cars, mottos, lorries, and people outside.  The bubble became smaller.

The feelings, the facts—our rationality—compiled.  As I sat in my seat the bus trundled thru traffic.  I came to a third carriage of thought.  The Security General had reported to our delegation his own personal concern: Do not travel outside Lagos, Africa’s 2nd largest city, without a trunk-full of AK-47s and a MOP squad for escort.

Suddenly, there was space for reflection.  The churning seas parted and we saw the Security General as a professional with words; sentences used by professionals for those very professional reasons.  That was what he was there to do. Cogs and bolts greased, the mind’s moving machine continued, traveling with the rest of Warri as a ship across calming waters.

Now a fourth and final respect reared: our own leaders, one by the name Joel Bisina—a local of Warri-town—warned of the adverse potentials after nightfall.  Looking out the windows again, blinking, and making sure what we saw was real, we wondered whether our bus with its government plates was a paradox.  We were white, rich in most eyes, with the world at our fingertips.  And we were traveling through their existence, at the opposite end of the spectrum, through the blackest of nights.  A deep brown of raw earth permeated my vision and there was only that steady darkness within my mind and within those who stared at our bus’ identification.

Being white in Africa, I seemed to relate with what was white.  Therefore, the only visibility I could perceive from our air-conditioned vehicle was the eyes and teeth of our fellow humans.  They were a clear, clean reflection that caught the glare of passing headlights.  They reflected back like moonlight on a pond, soothing us, reminding us of the perceptions we perceived and the choices we made.  Our minds reflected an external landscape.  Our environment mirrored that of our internal framework.  Everywhere was an oily darkness that stuck to the skin, but there were those eyes, those teeth—the inner brilliance of the light of the soul.  My eyes adjusted, my mind reorganized, and what I saw was the reality of an oasis amidst a midnight dust storm.

Our eyes remained wide, our thoughts pondered the “adverse potentials” as we crossed the Danger Zone, and we played nervous finger games among ourselves while the bus surged through any opportunity for space.  Then we crawled out, smelled the air and broke the bubble.  The eyes and teeth were filled with the light of many smiles as colors absolved.  This was Warri, the West African oil boomtown we sought.  This was our level of desire, arriving for awareness, breaking down fears and moving forward to change.  We were freely caught in this chant—Nigeria, Nigeria, Nigeria—where the oil suddenly ceased importance, where money did not matter, and what only existed was humanity and the planet we thrived upon.  I had an opportunity.  He had that opportunity.  She had the opportunity.  It was their land and their lifestyle.  But it was our connection as humans that united us within that African night.

Distinguished Guests: The Age of the Oil Drill (Location: Lagos, Nigeria, Africa)

Certainly out of our league.  When we entered the building, there was an air of leaving the world behind and indulging in the high-status frequency of world economics and infrastructure.  I passed a sign, or more a mural embedded within a wall like thick corrosive sludge in the shore’s seagrass.  It was iridescent, out of place, colorful within the drab building of white walls, symmetric hallways, and black electronics blinking, beeping, interrupting and heeding.   It stated:

Integral to everything we do is a commitment to valuing the uniqueness of the individual, harnessing the strengths of a diverse work force, and respecting and learning from the communities in which we operate.  As we succeed, so too should our partners in Nigeria, Kazakhstan, Venezuela, and other countries around the world.


I gave some thought worth pause.

My camera was in hand.  I snapped a photo.  A security guard approached.

“You take no photo.  No.  No photo.”  His head shook.  It was black as night.  It was black.  It was beautiful.

I pointed playing dumb, “This?”

“No photo.”

Too late.

Here we were, average citizens, turned global, now becoming diplomats.  We were inside the headquarters of Chevron Nigeria Limited.  We came for a meeting with the senior managerial staff to probe, to understand, and of course, to “respect and learn from the communities in which we were operating.”  We were twenty Americans about to sit down in a boardroom with the decision makers of Chevron’s involvement within Nigeria.  We left this exact country behind as we found ourselves within leather- and cotton-cushioned seats in a room outfitted with top-of-the-line conferencing technology.  Where was Nigeria?

“You are citizen diplomats in the inner sanctum of Chevron!” Susan shouted in a belligerence of excitement.

As we waited, prepared, and sat in anticipation, our penmanship doodled in quick fury.  It jittered with the unknown that was about to arrive.  What would we say?  What would happen?  What would come about with this meeting, and how could we all benefit from it, especially the people of the Niger Delta?  Together, we felt like we were a world apart from the streets of Nigeria in which we had just left.  The madness, the horns, the heat, the people and the bodies—crammed crushed beaten—the charred metals of slashing motors and their bikes.  It was a pure black ebony traffic jam on our way through the streets of the once-capital—Lagos. With an estimated population somewhere between 10 and 15.5 million people, making it the second largest city in Africa (Cairo being number one), we drove across town with the hoards of traffic in slow crawl.  Buses, vans, sleek black Mercedes with chrome wheels and tinted windows, along with clunking heaps of metal, motto-bikes and foot-traffic allowing time to pass slowly.  People moved in all directions, against all civil rules in what often looked like a rumble of rusted parts held together by bolts and the people themselves.  And despite the exodus of everyday Lagos, we reached our meeting with the precision of planning after the hours of simply crossing town, staring out the windows at the revolutions of Africa’s intensity.  Here we were, within white walls, within silence, putting back on the layers we had been stripped of as a stern, stubborn vent hissed a chilled air over our heads.  We had only spent one night and one morning in the country, and now we were gone.  We were in the corporate country of Nigeria; a Wonderland entirely different.

I sat back.  My leather chair responded; bounced, squished, squeaked, and reclined like a rocket launch.  The air filtered.  It hummed.  Mr. Denji Hastrup and Mr. Simon Winchester entered.

There were short introductions, which seemed wholly fruitless in the scope of their ripening money tree.  Hands were extended as we greeted the senior management of Chevron Nigeria Ltd., and our attentions spanned, as did the tailored wealth of their headquarter lawns.  Susan spoke with a leader’s determinacy; “We’re not tourists, we’re delegates.  We’re here to learn and bridge all sides.  We hope with our presences, with loving hearts and open minds, we can create more trust.”  She paused.  “We’re really here to listen.”

Listening.  This was Susan Partnow’s thing, as well as the other facilitators of The Compassionate Listening Project around the world.  And this was a part of our journey.  How else to learn, but listen?

Alright, indeed there is experience, but within the act and art of experience, you listen.  This is the essence.  Within experience, you don’t just listen with the ears, catching sounds, but you listen with it all.  Your body listens to the environment.  It feels the senses.  It absorbs them with the input they receive.  It immerses itself within the energy of the atmosphere.  It sucks from it—a nectar, the bee.  The body and the experience, when in a union of totality, are one.  They compliment each other.  They feed from one another.  And in order to accomplish this awareness, the body listens.

The Compassionate Listening Project, in an esoteric perspective, is this bodily listening.  It is an awareness of your body to that which is before you—whether a person communicating, whether more than one, or whether the environment you are within—to best understand it and open up to the potential for growth and healing, if necessary.  Deeper, you reach the level of the heart and soul, where your love innately resides; waiting, stirring, believing.  In its patience, your love lingers for your own initiative to release and fill others.

“We’re really here to listen.”  Susan’s phrase extended to a whole source of purpose.  As I sat there, I could see it written and pasted on a refrigerator, one of those magnets of wise sayings and quotes:

We’re really here

to listen

-Susan Partnow

I could look at it as a spiritual meaning.  We’re here to hear—to hear the inner voice of our guidance to direct us to the most beneficial, most safe, most loving home upon this planet where we could operate from the source of love and peace where this precise guidance emerges.  We’re here to listen to one another—something called respect, which could solve any and all problems, each catastrophic war and each domestic dispute among family, friends and strangers.  We’re here to listen.

As Susan spoke of our project within the Niger Delta, Denji and Simon indeed listened, but they often checked their watches, flipping their wrists, or allowed their eyes to wander round the room’s walls as if marveling at the technological masterpieces in which they had at their fingertips.  “Damn we’re good,” the eyes spoke.

The two execs were businessmen and this was the air within that hissing, humming, chilling boardroom.  They spoke to us with diligence and professionalism.

“It is not practically possible to have a full understanding of the complexity of the Niger Delta.  It is a region of tribes and peoples each with a distinct history and kinship to one another.  And for us to operate within it, we face daily trials dealing with the tribes who compete and survive based on their own and their neighbors’ performance.  There is jealousy and often hostility involved.  It is a very, very complex situation we have.  Once you know the problem, it is only half solved.”

We knew what Mr. Denji was speaking of.  We had had our history lessons of the region.  We were aware of the violence, the suffering, between the peoples of the Delta, and we were also aware of the turning of a blind eye in which companies such as Chevron, Shell, ConocoPhillips and Exxon ignored, even instigated.

But it was never all bad, that is…their participation and operations.  Back in the late ‘90s, Chevron funded the construction and operation of a hospital near a platform called Escravos, but relied on the Delta government to supply the doctors from the nearby industrial port of Warri.  This was the high point with the local ethnic peoples.  It was a time when relative stability settled over and under the oil-rich region and both multinationals and locals sought to work with one another.  Many projects such as these flourished.  Or maybe the word flourished used here is a little to ostentatious.  How ‘bout developed?  On top of the Delta’s development in the oil industry and its exportation and sales, the communities within and surrounding the oil platforms developed from the broad opportunities for employment.  Relatively speaking, most were happy, or that was the feeling within those communities reaping the benefits off their own land, as it should be.

This was the high point.  The two separate worlds, one of developed business fueling the rest of the world and one of primitive African fisherpersons, working with one another and both coming out on top—or so most thought.

The hospital near Escravos was up and running.  Local people had medicine.  Pregnant women had a source where they could be cared for, supported, and children could have the chance for survival with modern vaccines when they faced the struggle against disease and virus strains.  Working with one another.  Both coming out on top—or so we assume.

In 1999, the hospital, the drugs, the whole project burnt to the ground.  It was charred, seared, a place of modernity and community within the raw world of Africa’s tribes.  A local group, apparently due to the inter-conflicts between tribes, torched it, leading one to ask, “Was jealousy involved?”  “Why did they get a hospital and not us?”  “My water’s spoiled, as is theirs:  What do we get?”

Chevron returned and helped to rebuild the community’s hospital, one open to all peoples of the region, but the region is big, taking hours, maybe days to cover through the narrow alleyways of water in what is called The Creeks.  So others were not pleased.  They wanted theirs.  It burnt down again in 2003.

Simon looked around at us.  He wanted us to know the complexity.  He wanted us to know the frustration they all face within the business when the people help fuel this adversity of fairness and just responsibility.  “We have to find stability in the region.  It does not make sense to throw money where it will not benefit the people, where it will not care for the children and those who are ill.”

So the leaders at Chevron Nigeria Ltd. developed a new model for sustainable development within the communities, for the communities.  They would fund representatives from each community to create and develop the communications necessary.  It would be termed Regional Council Development, or RCD.  Within this board, representatives would meet and discuss funding options to get input and educate the locals about the prospects for development.  Likewise, a priority among responsible business management is the transparency of the company and its operations.  Therefore, RCD would discuss the costs of the project to create an open and indistinct development.  Simon put the mustard behind the bread; “When we know the cost of a project, when we know the cost of a gift, we are less likely to destroy it so quickly.”

RCD incorporates four basic principles:

  1. Participate with partnership
  2. Transparency and accountability
  3. Community empowerment and sustainable development
  4. Conflict resolution

With the first principle, Simon reiterated the success between partnerships when each member is involved and active in the developing process.  Open communication is key, involving as many perspectives with those present.  In regards to transparency and accountability, if the information and knowledge is not clear, it advocates the spread of rumors from a third party source.  When each participant and community individual is aware of the operation and aware of the contribution to operation, those opposing it in any way are less likely to react in retaliation since all honesty among the other participating member is open and on the board.

As I was listening, I was thinking: Smart man, right?.

And the third point Mr. Simon Winchester highlighted was on empowerment.  We all know empowerment; its strength, its force, its lifting qualities to make one believe and be believed.  Empower the people, Simon emphasized.  “Unleash their potential to develop community in order to create sustainability and stability.  If Chevron leaves, the project and creation will continue in the hands of its successors.”  I was beginning to see Simon as the next Zig Ziglar of the corporate world.

Empowerment is complete power shift.  It is a giving of power, or the potential for realization of power, back to someone.  But was that power ever taken?

Power is in one’s own beholding.  If one has power, conviction, belief, it is only taken from one if that person allows it to be.  Power is yours to keep, and it always is yours.  No one can ever take it; it is only yours to give.  And in the frame of empowerment, empowering people, especially the tribes of the Delta, would be allowing them the opportunity to reclaim their strength and participate in the development of their own land—something they have never had in this emerging world of business.  The new process, according to Simon, would involve the action of both woman and child—another foreign concept in the eyes of village elders.  This is the transparency process of RCD.

Our eyes were open; our ears receptacles from abroad in a world of distinguished differences.  But we listened through each capable orifices of reception.  We learned.

“This is community engagement 101,” Denji finished.  “And always be on alert.”  That last remark jumped out from the bush, and I wondered its relevance to the new model, but he summed up his feelings, whether business to business, or just straight person to person—an equal plane.  “You’re a bridge to us.  You’re a bridge to them.”

As we left the room, we all had the opportunity to ask more questions in a casual, wondering, cocktail-party ambiance.  I chose to wonder and be an observer.

My thoughts burrowed deep within a conscious questioning with every other diplomat, searching for an understanding of the issues facing the oil-rich region of the Niger Delta.  We heard Chevron’s proposed programs in order to meet the local’s needs, needs that have been ignored, trampled and despoiled among the multinational corporations’ greed for revenue and demand.  Yes, their words were professional, understood to be addressing a group of twenty philanthropic workers.  They were shakers of hands, and we met theirs, grateful for the time allotted to us humble seekers.  I wandered and approached a wall near the south exit and stood before a large plastic poster inscribed with the Codes of Conduct.  How professional.


Nigeria/Mid-Africa SBU

Operational Excellence

Safe, Reliable, Efficient and Environmentally Sound Operations

Do it safely or not at all

There is always time to do it right

Tenets of Operation


  • Operate within design or environmental limits.
  • Operate in a safe and controlled condition.
  • Ensure safety devices are in place and functioning.
  • Follow safe work practices and procedures.
  • Meet or exceed customer’s requirements.
  • Maintain integrity of dedicated systems.
  • Comply with all applicable rules and regulations.
  • Address abnormal conditions.
  • Follow written procedures for high risk or unusual situations.
  • Involve the right people in decisions that affect procedures and equipment.

Achieving World-Class Performance Through

Organizational Capability

Out the security borders and beyond the gated walls.  Out back into Nigeria, with Africa’s most populous nation at hand.