Few people can claim a career as filled with high purpose as mine, yet until a year ago, I felt I made no difference to the world. I have taken a twenty year journey across four continents to discover my vocation and every dead-end and wrong turn has helped shape my final conviction that I can do one thing well, and that one thing can change the world.
I am a Quaker attender; a member of the congregation of the Religious Society of Friends. This is not because I have any particular faith, but because a Quaker Elder once told me that wells and worship go together, and the Bible was best understood when accompanied by fresh water, adequate food and freedom from persecution. It's not belief that makes me a Quaker—it's my adherence to the productive discipline of the Society of Friends. A discipline that demands positive action.
Quakers ‘wait in the light’. Nobody mediates a Quaker's relationship with God—in silence and with whatever grace each of us can find, we wait to know the divine will.
I'm not good at waiting. Despite attending Quaker meetings since I was seventeen, I've never discovered God's will. My constant darting off into new projects didn't help, but I wanted to be useful, not passive. So I tried to make the world a better place.
I began by joining a charity working for conflict resolution. My responsibility was to find ways to make our work exciting to funders. There was a crucial problem in fundraising for mediation services: you can't prove to a funder that you prevented a conflict, but everybody can prove that you failed to prevent one!
While my colleagues dealt with hot and cold wars, genocides, terrorism and persecution in all its forms, I dealt with rich people and richer corporations. I learned which stories could be told and which could not. I could, for example, tell of the young Somali warrior who discovered at the end of a vicious night-time battle, that he had killed his childhood friend who was fighting for the other clan. But if I told of the Somali parents forced to applaud as their five-year-old son was beheaded with a bayonet—well, the funder would probably turn away from the story, and the cause. I buried those untold stories in the footnotes to policy papers and I thought I'd forgotten them.
I was head-hunted to join a think-tank researching global governance, and so I moved from the specifics of war to the universals of world government. In the rarified air of philosophical conceptualisation, I learned about utopias and dystopias and was saddened by how many communities, established as the former, swiftly became the latter. I discovered the complex systems that underpin global diplomacy and worldwide commerce and I tried to help shape a world where global governance was fairer to the poorest and took account of strange new buzzwords: sustainability, North/South dialogue, indigenous rights, global commons.
I met world leaders, both political and religious. I worked alongside those campaigning for democracy and those seeking the release of Nelson Mandela and Olusegun Obasanjo from their respective prisons. I saw first hand how destroying one section of society—in Nigeria's case, the middle-class—can devastate an entire country. Over the border, in Niger, a small boy ran screaming at the sight of me. He had never seen a white person except in a few lurid newspaper cartoons where ‘white’ meant ‘death’.
I visited Morocco often enough to believe myself no longer a stranger. For a long time I failed to see that it was unfailing Islamic courtesy that allowed me to feel so at home, not any skill of mine at integration. I saw how Africa's refugees began to pile up on the shores of the Mahgreb countries. Those economic migrants all faced towards Europe, lost and hungry, tired and damaged by the need to leave their homes. They faced Europe but their spirits looked back over their shoulders, to the lands and people they felt they had abandoned.
Through all this I moved, making money and raising money. It touched me, how could it fail to? But I was only a functionary—my efforts allowed the real work to be done by others. I produced the money and they produced health, or food, or freedom.
One Friday, in Marrakech, a Dutch colleague persuaded me to take him to a certain souk where I bought good saffron. He shopped, while I drank mint tea and exchanged wry looks with the local shopkeepers whenever a particularly immodest European passed by. We shook our heads at the shorts and t-shirts that left an unacceptable (and usually sunburnt) amount of flesh on show. I felt at home.
In the near distance we heard the unmistakable sound of a procession, but the twisting streets of Marrakech confuse both visitors and acoustics and, before I could drag my colleague from his bargaining, we were part of a chanting crowd of men travelling to, or from, the Zawia of a saint. Such events, such outpourings of faith, were common, but this one was unscheduled and I was unprepared.
I was modestly dressed, of course, decently covered to ankle, wrist and neck, my hair concealed under a small hat. For a normal shopping trip this was acceptable, but my face was exposed, an offence to the pilgrims, and I had nothing to help me. I grabbed my cotton shopping bag and tipped it upside down. All the spices purchased by the Dutchman tumbled out and I wrapped the cloth across my face, leaving only my eyes on show to the singing, clapping, laughing men.
My Dutch workmate laughed out loud. As the narrow street cleared, the shopkeepers began to stare and smile too. I burned with embarrassment and felt very stupid as I unwrapped the fabric from my head and set about repacking the filthy, trampled packages.
When I straightened up again, a panting youth confronted me. “The Imam thanks you for your goodness,” he said in uncertain English. He had run back from the pilgrimage, chosen, presumably both for speed and for his ability to speak my language. Raising his voice he declared in Moroccan, “The Imam's blessing on this woman, for her piety,” and ran off again. The souk was silent.
“God's blessing on you,” said the nearest man.
“And on you and your family,” I replied automatically. My action had not been futile. Somehow, through the heaving, exultant crowd, a holy man had seen my desire to respect his faith. My clumsy veil had delivered a moment of grace, thanks to one religious leader's generous understanding of my purpose.
By the end of the street I was in tears. Every man I passed sought God's blessing for me. We had momentarily transcended the barriers of religion, gender and class—to be left without words, simply smiling at each other.
Three years later, in India, jet-lagged and utterly miserable, I sat on the side of a man-made lagoon and sulked. I felt ill. I worked too hard. My colleagues didn't appreciate me. Nothing I did made any difference, I was simply spending my life massaging unsolvable problems into a slightly better shape. Lost in this deep self-pity, I finally saw what I was waiting for: a small craft like a canoe, paddled by two Keralan youths. I rested my camera on a fence-post and waited for the perfect shot. I would use the picture on the cover of a report about global governance and fisheries policy.
When I'd finished, I glanced at the fence-post for the first time. It wasn't a smoothly moulded concrete object, as I'd assumed—it was a chunk of granite, hand-hewn into shape. The fence wire didn't pass through it, or attach to it, it was simply looped around the post, and the next, and the next. Somebody had gone to huge trouble to create a Western-style fence to keep rich visitors away from the edge of the shallow lake. Or was it to keep villagers away from the tourists? I followed the posts, taking a picture of each one, until I arrived at the end of the fence. Halfway around the lagoon it just stopped; the remaining wire lay on the ground in a neat coil and anybody could walk into the resort by simply following the line of the fence—from outside or inside.
I spent most of my free time during that conference trying to unravel the mystery of the fence posts. To my frustration, I didn't manage to find out who had chipped the posts out of solid rock to create a facsimile of the concrete posts that held up the local bridge. Nor did I establish the reason the fence had been created in the first place. I knew there were seventeen hand-carved posts between my bungalow and the lagoon, because I had taken pictures of them. There were probably an equal number or more in the opposite direction. It was one of India's mysteries.
When I got back to England I discovered I had a stomach ulcer, so my misery had not been entirely due to self-pity. My convalescence was spent wondering about those fence-posts. I felt I was supposed to do something about them, but I didn't know what. I waited in the light until I was well again, but no answer came and eventually the fence-posts faded into memory. They never quite disappeared though, and sometimes—as I fell asleep at night or passed empty hours commuting from capital to capital, business-class—they would appear in my mind's eye, like the boundary of a road to nowhere.
I moved to a non-profit organisation that aimed to measure and report on corporate accountability. I learned a new set of jargon: triple bottom line, partnership reporting, corporate responsibility. In this new role I saw sweatshops in the Free Trade Zones. One young woman, who made running shoes, showed me an oil drum full of oral contraceptive packets. She refused to tell me her name, for fear of reprisals, but she said any worker who did not agree to take the pills was sacked.
I met Werkneh in Ethiopia;he showed me a tiny field of stunted shrubs. “Here we had a coffee farm,” he said, “but the cooperative that bought our coffee was told by its funders that it must focus on Sudan, not Ethiopia, so nobody came to buy coffee and now the village feeds the coffee trees to the goats…and we have no dollars.”
In Colombia I was introduced to Cesar. “Here we had a coca field,” he said, “but a cooperative came and said they would buy coffee, so now I grow coffee.” I wondered how long it would be before his coffee was uprooted and the drug crop was replanted in its place.
Back in the UK, I met consultants who strove to convince me that tobacco was a vital crop to some of the world's poorest communities, and others who tried to persuade me that only organic products should be endorsed by my organisation, because only organic lifestyles could guarantee a future for the planet.
This new set of experiences left me with the same mixed feelings as ever. I could see that there were people out there doing great things, and others doing terrible ones. All I seemed to achieve was to drift about, observing them all. I waited in the light, but no purpose illuminated my understanding of the global marketplace.
Finally, in a desire to literally get my hands dirty, I joined a tree-planting charity. I learned that the fruits of three or four kitchen-garden trees could save a whole African primary school from vitamin deficiencies, but few trees reached maturity because they were uprooted by the villagers. When I went back to Africa I discovered that when there was no other fuel, the men would cut down the trees for firewood. I asked them why. “The children must eat, and their food must be cooked,” shrugged a Sudanese man. “We cannot wait for the fruit to fall into our laps. Our children must be fed today.”
Later I spent two hours in one London borough, trying to find a tree big enough for a child to climb. There wasn't one. An entire generation was being condemned to grow up with spindly, vandalised saplings, or no trees at all. For these ‘privileged’ Western children it wasn't a question of being able to tell an oak from an ash—most of them didn't even know trees got big enough to swing from, or sit under.
I still attended Quaker meetings from time to time, and people still told me I was doing important work, although increasingly I doubted it, and then one day, nearly two years ago, somebody asked me to do something new.
“Could you write us a story?” asked a fundraiser. “We want it to show why fresh water really matters. We've done everything else we can think of to raise funds: annual reports, television advertising, appeals, child sponsorship, videos. Now we want to try an anthology. All the proceeds will go to a well-digging charity.”
I was back where I'd started, with wells. I wrote the story. The fundraiser didn't like it. Too literary, she said. So I sent it to a literary magazines and it was published within months.
Since then I have had more than fifty stories published and dozens more are scheduled.
When I pick up my pen, I wait. The stories have spent two decades waiting, now it's my turn to wait for them. My time in conflict resolution created a Sarajaven waitress called Nina: her story of displacement and revenge earned second place in an international contest. Two years studying staple food crops allowed me to write the tale of an economist who falls in love with an agronomist and the role of cassava in their courtship—that story has been published once and will soon be reprinted again. Working in Cape Town and London, where privilege and poverty coexist, has given me material for a series of stories about growing up in cities; three have appeared in print already. These stories are the distillation of the past two decades. They are not all huge and passionate tales; some are tiny and frivolous and deal with no more than the feeling of snow on your tongue, or the smell of goat's meat roasting for a feast. In them though, is everything I have seen and felt, smelt and tasted and heard, in my long, irresolute journey to discover my purpose.
It is a small purpose, to write stories. It does not change the world very much, or very fast, but it is my purpose—and I wait in the light for each story to come to me. I have not yet written the story of my moment of grace in Marrakech, nor the tale of the hand-hewn fence-posts along a lagoon in Kerala. Those words have not yet come to where I wait, but I believe they will.
To tell the truth as I have seen it is not easy, but it's easier than keeping quiet. A five year old Somali boy heard his parents laugh and applaud as he died—that story needs to be told, one day.
I use words to illuminate the minor truths of my experience. Many of these words may never have a reader, but that is not my concern. My aim is to wait in the light until the words arrive to transform my experience into something that others will read and, through reading, may understand. With understanding, we can all choose the side of the fence we stand on, even if the fence goes nowhere. We can change the world, one step, and one story, at a time.
About the Author
Kay Sexton is a Jerry Jazz Fiction Award winner, with a column at www.moondance.org. Her story, Domestic Violence, was runner-up in the Guardian fiction contest judged by Dave Eggers, Tats earned an honourable mention in the Desdemona's Erotic Fiction contest, Sarah Hall (The Electric Michelangelo) has just chosen Acorns and Conkers as the runner-up in the ESSP short story contest and Kay's work appeared in seven anthologies in 2004. Her website www.charybdis.freeserve.co.uk gives details of her current and forthcoming publications. Her current focus is ‘Green Thought in an Urban Shade’ a collaboration with the painter Fion Gunn to explore and celebrate the parks and urban spaces of Beijing, Dublin, London and Paris in words and images.