Invisible Maze Runners

To be snared in the social services system is ‘punishment by process’ in a machine that quit working long before the crush of the pandemic. Being a client usually means you are old, disabled, or chronically poor.  God help you if all three.

I’ve been devoting some energy to assisting a couple of women who had been members of Oakland Women’s Center.  Georgia (not her real name) used to weigh over 300 pounds. A stomach-stapling procedure has been instrumental in losing about 200 pounds, all the while producing various bleeding and pain that put her in the hospital more than a dozen times.

She’s been homeless, surrounded by abusive men and women, druggies and 5150s.

She’s living temporarily in a strange half-way hotel where stuff gets stolen, and people die in their beds. After many years of grief-filled homelessness, she is ready for – working for – placement in low-income housing. The paperwork is onerous and threatening in tone. She needs it to work out.  Desperately.

And then there’s Tina (not her real name), a professional caregiver whose previous work environments generated enough stress to put her in the hospital with a stroke on Christmas Eve two years ago. She lost 80% of her vision. Since then she has been homeless periodically and on SSDI.  She is not eligible for food stamps. By the end of each month, she struggles through a ‘hunger week’ when there’s nothing left to buy food before the next benefit arrives. She wants to work, but first she has to learn how to live blind. Training for admission to blind school delivered her an instructor who verbally abued her for not being quick on the keyboard.  She freely admits that she’s not computer fluent; being blind makes another mountain to climb.

Medicare has not been helpful in providing info about local health care providers. Tina must take a number of meds which are not covered. Recently, her Direct Express card (into which her monthly benefit are transferred), was charged for a set of meds.  Alarmed, she called Direct Express to stop the charge. They cancelled her card and sent a new one – to a post office box in a town where’ she’s never lived and at a charge of $13.50  (a couple days food if she’s lucky).  Her benefits come at the beginning of the month. Until the second new card arrives (in 3-10 business days) she has no cash. Nada.

I’ve wondered if some people just draw bad luck. But then I realized that these women share a certain vulnerability. Their common denominator is poverty. And most government benefits enforce that poverty. Solutions?  Is anyone looking at how to revamp the complex maze of ‘entitlements.’ The fate of the poor remains invisible until we reset the way they are ‘helped.’

Wildish Woman

Survival Tactics

Sometimes my ‘shield’is a vision of clear molded plexiglass, with varying thickness added as needed. Selected ‘incoming’ bounces off. I do not absorb the depth of the grief, pain, and craziness I witness.  This shield actually binds like impermeable wrap preventing other people’s feelings from carving the same hollows in me. I can help them get through.  That’s my strength and I like using it.

Life insists on both weary days of plodding along and also sublime days when a cheerful and generous universe seems to have your back. For me, the spectacle of human existence is never dull, but often baffling.

I remember a woman once a colleague. She presented a kind and deferential persona, cheerful but desperate. A close friend of hers told me: “When she gets in touch with her monumental anger, I do not want to be in range.”

I feel crazy and alone on occasion, depending on the season and the set of challenges delivered.

A woman i wanted to like tells me “I never get angry” – that made me angry. Two women whose talents I appreciated and encouraged close the door of our relationships in silence – that made me unbearably sad.  Silence wounds the heart more deeply than a tirade.

White animals, except the arctic ones, are known to draw antagonism from other wild creatures. I trouble over the possibility that white-haired me similarly draws fire. This wildish part suits me. Thought I am often terrified, I won’t be cowed by other women’s fears. I’m ever seeking bonds with true sisters, and I treasure the ones I have.

When we sufficiently dismantle our color-based caste system, another re-evolution. This one moves us toward once again honoring elders. We boomers, some of us anyway, have lived adventurous lives. We’ve witnessed  tsunamis of social re-adjustments spawned by  WWII and the Korean War (through our parents). We joined and survived the upheavals of the civil rights movement, the war in Vietnam (had we had good intelligence about the Vietnamese spirit, the US never would have defiled that patch of civilization), the Afghan and Middle East wars, the millennials’ ride up, and the proliferation of communications technology that oddly interferes with the soulful communities we long for.

We’ve survived, accumulating wisdom born of experience. Our contributions have not ceased and will not end – if our legacies carry forward what we value.  Honesty. Compassion. Patience. A fierce sense of service to those who’ve been stranded on the margins of our vast wealth. And an equally motivated capacity to laugh. Deserves more thought.

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Wrinkle Resistance

Face as Map

That faint tracery of grooves first manifests for every woman in a different part of her face. It feels sudden, like discovering your smooth shiny vehicle door has been keyed by someone with a grudge.  So-called ‘crow’s feet’ branch from your eyes across your temples, stress lines become furrows in your forehead – both vertical and horizontal, the slight indentations where your mouth laughs sadly evolve into the hinged-jaw look of a marionette.

Ultimately they all merge, your whole face a web of wrinkles. If live into my 90’s, just two decades more, I expect to acquire that facial topography. I’m not there yet, but my face is full-on into a relentless mapping exercise.

That relentlessness of facial alterations can be a shocking, a daily source of distress. Until you stop counting. Until you think with more affection about what these ‘etchings’ mean. They map out our years, our life experience. They confirm that we have survived for a long time, that we’ve achieved ‘elder’ status in the Human Tribe.

Looking ‘old’ in America simply has not been acceptable for women. And too often by women. Women spend a LOT of time and money tending or fending off this worry. To hide the evidence that we have aged, we spend over $2.2 billion every year on anti-aging creams and moisturizers and non-surgical cosmetic procedures. That’s not even counting facial cosmetic surgery. Or the ubiquitous consumption of cosmetics.

I’m as vain as the next woman, but I wasn’t going to bite on this misguided notion of what looks good. I decided instead to tend judiciously to my hair and skin and let my genes do the rest. I missed early induction into secret society of face painting. So I opt for just the basics. I’m not willing to pony up as much as it costs to be elaborately ‘made over’ every day.

Crowning Glory Story

White- or grey-haired women have ‘disruptive coloration’ [defined in the world of birds as a type of ‘cryptic’ coloration catching the eye and distracting the observer from recognizing the whole organism.]. On some, their un-pigmented hair looks fabulous; for others it represents a dispiriting loss of youthfulness.

Between 75-90% of American women color their hair. Most often to cover grey as it begins to assert itself. A vast industry devotes huge resources to analyzing and projecting what women will buy to mollify their terror of aging. I loathe being predictable to such corporation predation.

If we women let go of needing even half the stuff we buy to soothe our vanity, we’d free up hundreds of millions of dollars for few pressing social needs: mitigating the planet’s climate crisis, or making sure every human gets enough to eat, or providing the means for all  girls to be educated, or a million other tiny or vast efforts to improve our collective experience of life in the 21st century.

For me, there’s Women’s Centers Movement.  It’s necessary we do what we can.

Elemental

COVID and the Uprisings have put us on notice that we longer have time to piss around with the same brutality and ineptitude that have characterized much of our nation-making. 

Women need to inhabit all key leadership roles In the movements that arise at this time.  We want to crowd out the possibility of a planetary train wreck that men in power would greedily host. Now is the most stunning opportunity in most of our lifetimes to remove the barriers between us and to spread around the capital controlled by too few.

What makes women so much better suited to tending the human herd?

Our blood attachment with our children means we viscerally prefer not to see them killed, maimed, starved, or shot it.

We can get a lot done with just a look.

We are trained from a very early age to take care of people not us.  Then we learn to take care of us too.

We’re quick to read subtext, value nuance, and engage in soul-lifting conversations with those who share our dot in the universe.

The depression thing that has undercut so many of us will lighten or dispel as we gain traction being in charge and being valued, including by ourselves. Are you in for the long haul?

Biting the Hand that Needs a Shake

In past periods of  famine in Africa, relief organizations often flew in food staples from America and Europe at enormous cost. Regional suppliers seldom were tapped, depressing prices, consigning African agriculture to low output.  Rather than build the economy of the nation in distress, helpers tended to co-opt their means of recovery.


The same appears to be happening with PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) in Africa.  My particular interest is Kenya where, through Baraka Women’s Center, I know some back stories of Kenya’s COVID response.

The Plan

In April 2019, the Kenya National Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KNCCI), the Kenya National Federation of Jua Kali Associations  (KNFJKA), and The Micro and Small Enterprise Authority (MSEA) formed a coalition to promote small business in the so-called ‘informal sector.’ For COVID response, MSEA was tasked with forwarding the Ministry of Health’s orders to vetted small businesses, and paying invoices when the masks were delivered.

In an April 24th speech (at approx. 8 minutes in) Kenya President Uhuru Kenyatta promised  KES 1.5 billion (about $17.5 million) to enable the Jua Kali sector to take ‘center stage’ in the production of face masks for domestic and export markets. 

Informal sector businesses contribute about 83% of economic activity in Kenya.  Anything that supports growth in this sector will have a huge positive impact on the country’s recovery.

Money Arrives!

Since March 2020, money has been pouring into Kenya for COVID response:

$724 million from the International Monetary Fund

$1 billion from the World Bank

$208 million from The African Development Bank

$69 million from the European Union

Total:  about $2.1 billion.  This does not include smaller pledges and donated goods. Most of these funds are directed through the Ministry of Health.

The Train Wreck

Now we come to the Kenyan tradition of corruption, though profiteering has been a worldwide phenomenon during this pandemic.

Speaking on Monday, Aug 10, Health Minister Mutahi Kagwe said he and President Uhuru Kenyatta are determined to eliminate cartels in the Procurement Department inside the Ministry of Health. 

Meanwhile, 42 small manufacturers throughout Kenya have, or can acquire, the capacity to meet the government goal of getting 24 million face masks to Kenyans. Thirty- four of the organizations (80%) are managed by women.

Orders came to some like Baraka Women’s Center in May. As of Aug 10, they still have not gotten requests for delivery nor received payment for finished masks.

For them, finished inventory is taking up too much space. Cash flow has fallen to a trickle. The women who sew cannot be paid.  Families go hungry and feel more panicked about it.

Enter COVID-19 Action Fund for Africa (CAFA), a PPE initiative of over 30 organizations “dedicated to protecting Community Health Workers on the frontlines of Africa’s COVID-19 response” in 24 African countries (including Kenya). Key objectives: Find an urgent unmet need and protect community health services delivery.

The only reason there could be unmet needs for face masks in Kenyan is that MSEs / Jua Kali have been sidelined. CAFA’s incoming Western- or Chinese-made masks could depress prices in Kenya where, with sufficient capital, small women-lead businesses could deliver a wider and more durable country-based response.

The next two months offer an “opportunity window” to grow Kenya’s PPE manufacturing capacity.

It’s hard to predict when the train wreck debris will be sorted.  The livelihoods of thousands of women  now depend on a probe of government corruption, the actions of illegal cartels, and the reach of “well-wishers.” But the virus and hunger pause for no one.

Thanks to Dannika Andersen for fact-checking.