Saturday, January 24, 2009

In Honour of Australia Day, January 26th

In honour of Australia Day, forthwith a poem about one of our national anti-heroes, Ned Kelly.

Famous for his suit of metal forged from the farming implements largely given to him by his struggling Australian peer group, Kelly was of Irish heritage, born to a father who had himself been sentenced to penal servitude in Ireland and deported to 'Van Diemen's Land', now Tasmania, Australia's smallest state. It was here that Kelly was born and lived the first 12 years of his life before moving with his mother and siblings to Victoria after his father's death.

After falling out with a neighbouring pig farmer (tho Kelly claimed this was over an argument about Kelly's sister), Kelly was declared a 'juvenile bushranger', despite the previous charges being dropped. From there Kelly went on to 12 years of law evasion, cattle theft, and, later, bank robberies. Disagreement amongst historians continues over whether Kelly was a common criminal, or the victim of police harrassment and the champion of an underclass uprising. Many see him as the defining figure in selector/squatter conflicts of this era of Australian history. Despite Australia's self-chosen identity as 'the lucky country', the holy grail, if you will, for those looking for equality and a new frontier, its settlement brought with it the old British conflicts of class, and Catholic vs Protestant.

With the lengthy Jerilderie Letter (1879), Kelly sought to define his grievances and defend his position as one common to the Irish Catholic selector. Currently in the State Library of Victoria, the Jerilderie Letter is considered one of the most extraordinary documents in Australia's history. Jerilderie was also the site of one of the Kelly gang's most notable robberies. Having broken into the local police station, overcome the police and imprisoned them in their own cells, two members of the Kelly gang, then dressed in the policemen's uniforms, rounded up various townspeople and kept them hostage in the local hotel, where they all passed the time with 'drinks on the house'. In the meantime Ned Kelly and Joe Byrne broke into the local bank, stole 2,000 pounds, and burnt the townspeople's mortgage deeds. It was acts such as these which added to the gang's popularity and notoriety.

The irony, of course, is that, although embraced as an Australian icon, Kelly's issues were largely those that related to his Irish heritage and that of his father. Despite being seen as quintessentially Australian, and even romanticized by some in the same manner as the swagman in the famous song, 'Waltzing Matilda', Kelly saw himself specifically as an outcast and a man on the run.

When Kelly was eventually captured by police, over 30,000 signatures were submitted demanding his release and the reversal of his death penalty. But the penalty was upheld and Kelly was hung on November 11, 1880. He was 26 years old.

The final stanza of the poem is written in the sing-along, heavily rhythmic style of the Australian poets of the 1800’s, such as Banjo Patterson. The fifth line, out of rhythm and rhyme, is as a theatrical ‘aside’ to the reader; ie although we’ve made of Kelly, with all his moral and legal dualities, a sort of anti-hero, Australia will always prefer their heroes, anti or otherwise, cut down to size. In Australia this is known as ‘tall poppy syndrome’ and is part of accepted Australian culture. In the case of Ned Kelly, we’ll accept him as an inherent part of our historical culture and laud him as such, but we still prefer him ‘dead and buried’.

Despite his death over 100 years ago, the issues of class struggle, land ownership, especially as it affects Australia's aboriginal people, the morality of the legal system, religious conflict, and issues of immigration are still alive and well in Australia. As such, this poem asks:

How Dead Is Ned

They say he hid to dodge the bullets
But I wonder if it’s true
That he hid to dodge adoring fans
The 30,000 signatures
That clasped unwilling Irish hands.

Was his last view a policeman’s gun
A harbinger of death?
Or a hazy shroud of eucalypt
The tightening weight upon his chest
As Australia’s favourite wayward son.

He saw himself the outsider
A hostage to his breed
Yet he became iconoclast
A symbol greater than himself
That held a nation’s essence fast.

Wrapped in metal, slits for eyes,
No billabong, no Matilda air,
His coffin, responsibility,
His heritage his father’s rage
Long doomed before Jerilderie.

Too many lies confuse the tale
Of that which died behind the mask
Did he willing go to an unmarked grave
Tired of an unfinished task
Uniting two sides of a broken grail.

“We don’t know what to think of you,
But we’re glad you’re one of us
We’ll overlook your shortcomings
And share Australia’s secret trust;
We like our poppies dead and buried.”

Friday, January 2, 2009

I Am Rangawari Turitsinze

I am Rangawari Turitsinze and I am five years old. I live in Rwanda, of the Tutsi tribe, and my family is proud. Our life is hard, though not so hard as it was since people have come from outside my tribe and brought aid. I do not see those who aid us, but I go to school now, and my teacher reads my parents and me letters sent from a land far away. A woman who is not hungry sends us money for food, and for me to go to school. This makes my mother glad and my father says it gives him hope, though I do not know for what.

Like all girls from my village, my hair is coiled into knots that spring from my head and they make my mother laugh. She catches me as I run past her, and tugs them gently. “Rangawari,” she says, “your hair springs from your head like the happiness that springs from your heart.” She says my smile reminds her of sunshine and of the dawn, in the way that all mothers say these things. My father says little, as is the want of fathers, but I feel his eyes follow me and I feel the fear in his heart. When I have asked why he is afraid, he has said little, though today I know.

My dream has been to leave my tribe one day, and travel to a city far away, where I might learn to be a teacher also. I would return one day, and work in the school and marry Ashara, a boy in my class who is big and strong, whose family smiles when they see us together. Ashara says this will never happen and that he does not like girls. But my mother tells me that it is the role of women to hold our tribe together and to make babies and keep our village alive.

I hear my mother and my teacher speak of the power of women and I do not always regret not being born a man. The boys in my class tease us, and tell us that our value is only to carry the water, and to help care for the goats and the plants that the men grow. But my mother says that with no water and no plants and with hungry goats the men would not last long, and with no babies to follow them they would soon be neither strong nor weak, but instead nothing at all. I tried to explain this to Ashara once, but his father heard me and beat me soundly. My father in the end made me apologise to Ashara and his father, and I saw Ashara smirking when I looked up quickly in the middle of the speech my mother had me learn. “Say these words, Rangawari”, she said. “But do not believe them – not even for an instant. We say what we need to say to survive. We do what we need to do to remain invisible. Pity the day when you are noticed by men.”

And today that day came to my village. I was sitting outside our hut, drawing pictures of myself in the dust with sticks, and making my picture dresses from leaves. And then the air was filled with shouting. From out of the surrounding trees came many men, screaming and waving pangas with blades bigger than my head, and grabbing everyone in their path as they marched into our village. Some had guns, black and ugly, with long blades tied to their ends. I saw a soldier use his blade to run a man through as he waved his hands in front of his face and fell to his knees, begging to be left alive. I don’t think the soldier even looked at him as he pierced him through the neck, then used his panga to chop his head in one hard swing from his body. I tried to run but my feet felt like they were stuck to the ground with the sap we use to make the teething sticks for the village babies. The babies suck and chew and gurgle and slowly break them down till they dissolve right away. That’s how I felt – as though something in my belly had dissolved right away. I stood there, frozen, till I heard my mother screaming; “Rangawari! Rangawari! Run!” I watched her for a moment, then turned and ran as fast as I could to our school, and am hiding now under my teacher’s desk. I looked out only once, and saw my mother held from behind by two men while she screamed, bent double. It was a fear I never thought I’d see in one so strong, and it made me sick, so I hid my face, and in the end her screams went silent. Of my father there was no sign, though I saw Ashara as I ran to my hiding place, laying outside his hut, his neck cut, and his head resting in a spreading pool of blood. They had taken his clothes also, and between his legs there was a gaping wound and another pool of blood. He was dead.

They come for me now, the men with axes. I know I am all that is left, and I know my mother would be proud that I was the last to die. I am indeed clever, and would have made an excellent teacher for my village, though perhaps there are more important things to learn than numbers and letters. I do not know if my passing will be as my mother’s, slow and ugly, or as the men of my village – short and bloody - and I pray to the God of the white men that it will be fast. I hear them now, on the other side of the door. I hear them and I wonder who will remember me.

I am Rangawari Turitsinze. I am five years old and I will not see the dawn.


Author's note:

Rangawari was one of my sponsor children when she, her family and her entire village were hacked to death in the Rwandan massacre of 1994. I've put her story here to speak for her. Her voice should be heard.

But atrocities such as these continue today. The Democratic Republic of the Congo is seeing a concerted attack against its women by military terrorists who are seeking to destroy the very fabric of this nation by destroying and demoralizing the feminine heart and soul of the Congolese culture. The Panzi Hospital is dedicated to the surgical repair of these female victims of rape and the restoration of their physical, emotional and spiritual well being. Please, open your heart and consider giving to this worthy cause. Links to information about the Panzi Hospital are listed below.

To donate directly, use the drop down box in this link titled "Purpose" and select 'Panzi Hospital':