Rosie and I met in a small German town. You’ve probably never heard of Bochum, but there is so much in this story about geography that you might take a map and start looking up places right now. We were studying humanitarian action together. We were also dancing, drinking and arguing how to save the world. And we really meant it, to save the world. After getting our masters’, she went back to Sri Lanka to do tsunami rehabilitation work, sometimes I heard from her, when she came to Germany for common friend’s wedding, sometimes she was in Copenhagen, sometimes in California and now suddenly in Japan. A few years ago I learned that Rosie had become a playwright, a poet and an actor, enacting her autobiographical plays. Other than that she remained fierce and fearless, honest and generous and an amazing storyteller. This is the story of my friend Rosie, a woman from the far corner of the world.
– You get to meet so many people of different cultures and backgrounds… So, when you meet them, what do you say about yourself? With what words do you define yourself?
-I tell them, I ethnically origin from the Eastern Himalayas, and they look at me usually a bit confused (like they want more detailed info), and so I add that I belong to an indigenous ethnic community called the Nagas, we are around 2 million…. scattered along the India-Burma border….
– Himalayas! I was planning to ask you about Himalayas. For ordinary folk, like me, it’s almost like you were saying casually “oh, you know, I origin from Middle-earth” and actually meaning it. What was it like, growing up in the Eastern Himalayas? What did your childhood smell like? What did you see from your window, on your way to school? What was great? What was terrible? What is your best childhood memory? And, since this is the first thing you tell people about yourself, how does this define who you’ve become?
– I was born in the mountains, in a small town called Kohima in Nagaland, but my parents moved down to the foothill town called Dimapur because this town was better connected to the rest of India and the world with an airport and a railway station. Looking back at my childhood days, I always thought I was born at the end of the world because Burma (military junta) and China (communist) our neighbors didn’t have good relations with India and our borders were closed. It was as if there was a thick wall along the borders…. so I was forced to look westwards towards mainland India and beyond….
I have memories of a lot of heavy rains accompanied by strong wind. It was hot and humid during summer, so we enjoyed playing in the rain, we were surrounded by thick green grasses, trees and a lot of flowers. At night, often when there was electricity blackout and everything was pitch dark, with only a kerosene lamp burning in some corner of our house, I still remember the storms with loud angry thunder and lightning– that magically lighted up the whole sky, it really scared me but also struck me with awe.
And during the daytime, when the hot summer earth and the tarred roads were kissed by the rain– there was a smell very unique, to both these kisses in the humid air, that unique smell is so vivid in my memory. I used to be scared when it rained heavily on our corrugated tin-roof, it made a lot of noise but being close to my parents made me feel safe. Our kitchen often had dried bamboo shoot pork curry smell because that was a delicacy of our Lotha tribe, I still cook this sometimes and my German husband loves it, bringing back memories from far away…
There was a window in our house, and it had a view directly towards our gate which was some few hundred meters away– in the evening me and my younger sister Julie sat there and waited for my mother, who always brought us some sweets when she came home after work. As soon as we saw mom, we jumped out of the window like two little monkeys and attacked her bag. This was the climax of the day.
I was the eldest daughter, I had one sister who was two years younger than me and another sister who was six years younger. I remember carrying their school bags, so I carried a total of three school bags packed with books and pulled one sister with my right hand, the other sister with my left hand– of course we took a rickshaw to school, but just pulling my two sisters in and out of their classrooms felt like eternity.
In school, I was one of the most talkative girls, I don’t know why I couldn’t shut my mouth– I always had never ending things to say. Because of this, I was often punished and to use me for a meaningful purpose, a teacher often made me tell stories to the class. I use to make up stories and tell them, I remember sometimes I laughed so much at my own stories that no coherent words would come out of my mouth– and my classmates and teachers laughed just looking at me. It was hilarious.
I had a very pretty and independent minded mother and my friends envied me– this was so nice. Both my parents were free spirited so they gave us a lot of freedom, which was unusual for that part of the world, where many people have taken over the conservative side of Christianity. I was very fortunate compared to many of my friends there.
What I didn’t like as a child was that my father always got into trouble with his political ideas with the local political elites and we as a family had to suffer a lot because of him. I saw my youthful parents destroyed year after year because they didn’t give in to the conventions of our society. This as a child was very painful to observe, but I guess, this was a tough training for me to survive wherever I went around the world…
And by the way, I just turned out like them– political and loud-mouthed like my father and free-spirited and independent like my mother, not so pretty like her, but good enough to find a husband who is with me for 16 years.
– This is how I remember you: talkative, opinionated, always ready to share a good joke and loved by absolutely everyone:)
What did you dream of, when you were a child? And how old were you, when you left your corner of the world?
– As a child I always wanted to travel, the big wide world out there just fascinated me… I was drawn to people, culture and places that were very different from what I was exposed to as a child. I remember my parents had a lot of friends from mainland India and because my mother worked for the government information department, any state guest i.e. foreigners that landed in Dimapur (the gate way to Nagaland), she was responsible for giving them orientation and for interviewing them. So though we lived at the end of the world– and due to the insurgency movement foreigners were banned to come to Nagaland but the few that poured in, somehow we had access to them.
Most of my mother’s friends were housewives, she was an exception because she was a full-time career woman, during school vacation and weekends she took us with her to her office and I sat in the corner and listened to their talks. Somehow, I was totally fascinated by adult talks. I was 15 years old when I left home to study my pre-university in Bangalore in South India and then proceeded to Delhi for my university education. After I left home, I stayed mostly away from home only visiting my family during school breaks.
– You won’t be surprised at my next question. How did you become a humanitarian worker?
– In my part of the world, helping each other was just a normal part of our lives, generally people were (and are still) poor, there is no health insurance, unemployment benefits etc., so sick people, single illiterate mothers, old people or people with no proper skill were socially very vulnerable– and these people were often our relatives, a part of our clan or tribe or often our neighbors. I remember very early that all our old clothes were handed down to our underprivileged relatives and also children of people who helped us with our domestic chores. Our leftover foods were distributed in the neighborhood and many relatives who would come down from the mountains for treatment because of illness were given shelter by my parents.
My mother was very good in writing applications and she also had contacts at the higher governmental and political level, so when divorced women with kids had nowhere to go they would come to my mother and she wrote applications for some financial support from the spouse’s employers on humanitarian ground. There was no existing legal framework in place so my mother talked to the spouses’ employers to find a way to help the illiterate wives and their kids. I think my mother was hated by many male chauvinists for her common-sense feminist approach.
When poor people in our neighborhood fell ill, their wives and children told my mother they had nothing to eat because their husbands and fathers couldn’t earn their daily wage. My mother gave them some food initially but later she informed herself about the frequently occurring illnesses like malaria, diarrhea etc. and she kept basic medicine at home to give them. She explained how to avoid diseases and spread awareness. As she had a good rapport with local doctors at the civil hospital, she phoned them and sent the serious cases to the hospital. Most of these people thought my mother was a doctor, she was called doctor madam.
My father was more focused on structural change, he had something like Bernie Sanders’ philosophy. He often said– I will not buy votes, because he didn’t want to be corrupted when he is elected. He contested four general elections and was not elected even once but that was his principle, later he died a frustrated man. And when I argued with him why he still wants to make political change when his voters are interested only in money– he told me if the whole system is corrupt and poor people become poorer, they will not let us live in peace, the elites have their gated houses with guards they are protected, it’s the rest of us that will have to pay the price. He loved saying, we have no choice. So maybe, humanitarian work and activism was just programmed in my DNA through my early socialization.
– I remember this Facebook-post from 2014:”After my soul’s operating system crashed in 2009 after long years working in Aid & Development- I rebooted by life and re-cycled myself into a ‘spoken word artist’. And currently, I am in Berlin looking out for venues to perform my solo-autobiographical piece in January 2015.” I don’t have half of your experience with the aid work, but I know how much it can hurt you and burn you. Tell me about the re-booting and recycling and rising from ashes and how does one become an artist?
– It was when I was in Sri Lanka doing my post-tsunami rehabilitation work, the Sri Lankan government defeated the Tamil Tigers in 2009, leaving behind thousands of civilian deaths and destroying people’s houses, livelihoods, etc.– these were the same people who had experienced the tsunami disaster 5 years back. This really devastated me. And along with my work in Sri Lanka, I was writing my master’s thesis on the Gaza conflict and there was an ongoing Gaza war (2008-09).
With a full time job in a war context and writing a thesis on an ongoing war– I understood the hypocrisies of world politics and the limitation of aid work. I was very tired and I was also turning 40 in 2009, so I started asking myself whether I would like to continue my career in the same area or not — and the answer was NO. No, because I had no energy to carry on work that demanded so much of me when the problems kept multiplying. Therefore I decided to do something that will help me to take an inner journey within myself, and as theater always fascinated me, that’s why I started studying theater, even if my classmates were 15-20 years younger, I thought so what– I can always try!
This is how my journey started from ABCD… I realized very soon in the theater school that my body was illiterate because I’ve only used it for functional purpose and I had abused it, by always taking it to its limit and not caring for it. Thankfully, physical theater helped me to approach my body and mind more gently. Step by step, and now after 7 years, I feel very at home to stand on stage and say and do what I want to.
What I enjoy most is to write my own poems or stories and to perform them– it gives me the freedom to re-frame my story and reconstruct my life poetically the way I want, as I origin from an indigenous community, usually it’s the outside people who write and define us. Now at last I feel free, free to write what I want, free to say what I want, free to present how I want and this is super empowering. Of course, all that I did in the past helps me because I write mostly out of my experiences, I think I did the right thing– because now I feel I’m following my heart and my soul feels at home in “my brown indigenous Rosie-body”.
– Wow Rosie! What an enormous courage it should take to walk away from your calling, from something you’re extremely good at, because I know that humanitarian work is way more than a job and I know how good you are at it. How much courage it should take to not let it define you any longer, to become a novice, to let yourself be awkward and clumsy and a learner. Even more courage, probably, to tell yourself that you want to be someone else entirely. How did you feel when you were on the stage for the first time and there were people, real people in the audience, waiting to see and hear you bare your soul?
– There was a character I developed in my second year at the theater school called Silky Diamond in a cabaret show with my classmates. Silky was a woman deep in her midlife crisis, her good days are already long gone, a kind of a loser, her boyfriend Johnny left her for a younger woman long ago, her body is saggy, her make-up always smudged, she wears secondhand clothes styled from the 1960s and she volunteers at a multi-ethnic neighborhood variety show, somewhere in the suburbs of London.
I really enjoyed playing this character so much because something inside me connected so well to this woman. I felt like a real loser initially in the theater school, somehow my young classmates didn’t know what I did before, they just saw a woman in 40s struggling in a physical theater school. Playing Silky Diamond put some of my deepest inner fears at rest, because I felt I enjoyed playing this character so much– and being a loser on stage was just simply so cool.
My classmates laughed a lot during the rehearsals because they saw me in this Silky character and after the show I remember people coming and asking me more about Silky. From this experience, I learned that I can take all my fears and blend them in my writings and perform them, and this really gave me a sense of deep-freedom, in the sense that I’m not alone fearing something– when I share it with my audience, because they come up to me and share their own fears too.
– I spent some time looking at your photos on Facebook, some that I remember and some that I missed as we drifted in and out of touch (and in again!). And I marveled at how many different faces you have. Or is it all the same face?
– Hahaha, I can tell you that my heart is the planet earth, it doesn’t change but my face reflects my different emotional seasons– and depending on what season I’m experiencing emotionally, my face changes in-tune with that particular state. I don’t try to hide my emotional seasons anymore, it’s all a part of me (in me)– I just love and live them as they are, even if I’m in deep dark cold winter state, I know that spring is not very far away…. because I can smell it even if I cannot see it.
– Indeed, spring is not far away! Tonight the rain fell and washed away the snow in my northern city and, as I walked through the thick mist this morning, I caught a delectable scent of spring in the air. Tell me, what is it like in Tokyo? How and where are you meeting your spring?
– I’m welcoming spring by sharing my writings with people in Tokyo, like the flowers that bloom and bring beauty– I love to bring my writings alive by sharing them with an audience. I was recently in Apocrypha True Storytelling in Tokyo, where I told a story about my father how we finally put his soul to rest and made my peace with him. I also organized a poetry reading afternoon designed only for women in my cozy tatami room where I shared my poems inspired by my feminine spirit. Today, I’m soon off to my favorite Japanese onsen to pamper my midlife body and to relax with friends. Soon, I’m so looking forward to be surrounded by one of the best springs in my life– Japanese Sakura (桜) in Tokyo where the cherry blossoms will envelope our lives here– it’s going to be like heaven on earth.
– You are so right about sharing your writing! There are so many other things I want to ask you, Rosie, I even had more questions prepared, but somehow I feel that this story is complete. Even though many things are left unsaid, I shall ask you no more. I feel that it’s a good place to end – the spring, the beginning. And this is what I wish you: that every end becomes a new beginning and every full stop is but a sigh before the start of the new chapter.
– I totally agree with you Vira, now you can go ahead and write wherever your thoughts take you. I think of you as ‘the moon’ and I ‘the star’ or you ‘the sun’ and I ‘the flower’ (or vice versa), there is a magical connection or say a creative interdependency. Yes, there is life’s hidden plan in every honest and intense encounter, this is what I deeply believe, because these encounters transform something in us forever…
Artist name: Rōzumarī Kikon. You can follow and support Rosie on Facebook