Three Stories from Three Continents by Henry Regehr August, 2020.
From infancy I was surrounded by my mother’s storytelling. During the dreary, dry depression years she translated her own rich reading into children’s language. We were often sitting on the floor around her while she retold melodramatic stories of the Napoleonic wars, or of families in poverty or of Bobbie who grew up in prewar rural Germany and accompanied his parents to the overwhelming World’s Fair in Berlin. We shared Bobbie’s excitement and we were frightened when he was lost in the big city. We were relieved when the policeman found him watched over him until his parents jubilantly appeared to claim him and take him back to his country home. Our children’s world was enlarged with the magic and drama of mother’s stories.
It is to be expected, then, that I would, too, look back on my own experiences and translate them into lively narratives with colorful images and that I would be an active participant in the telling of other people’s stories. It would be natural that I will listen carefully to the high-drama narratives of people I have met in my international travels to exotic places and that I would pass the stories on in living color.
Here are three of these stories.
Fire in a Residential School in the Northwest Territories
Residential schools were established by the Canadian government which authorized churches to run them at their discretion for the purpose of extinguishing the native culture in these children and forcing them to assimilate into the Euro-Canadian world. This policy was called “aggressive assimilation”.
The RCMP arrived at the Crowfoot family summer camp intent on taking the young children, age six and eight, to the residential school some eighty miles away. The wrenching experience of threats, force, tears, and painful separation is deeply etched in fifty-six-year-old Red Feather’s face and in his troubled memory. He recalls his mother’s terror and his father’s anguished and impotent rage. Red Feather describes the frequent beatings, the night visits and his desperate homesickness.
As “Red” tells me his story at the lunch table on my visit to Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories, he still demonstrates his suffering with his quivering voice and with his tears. He tells of his alcoholism and the rage that had driven him to angry, violent outbursts. But the arresting part of his story is this: he was driving his car along a mountain road accompanied by his friends. He says he was very drunk, angry, and was ranting at great length about the condition of his people and the injustices the white people had inflicted on them degrading them over the generations. Suddenly he seemed to be on top of the mountain looking down on himself as he raged on. He could hear what Red in the car was saying but at the same time he watched it with cool objectivity, he says. After a few moments, he was back in the car and aware of his surroundings. He become silent and reflective. It was a life-changing moment. As Red and I sat at the lunch table he went on to describe how that became the day he turned from his rage-filled alcoholic state and began a long career in advocacy for his people.
He had another story. One night while at the school, the building caught fire and there is a terrifying exodus, down the exterior wooden fire escape. As the children and staff stood outside transfixed, watching the conflagration one of Red’s friends, twelve years old, rushed back up the stairs having announced loudly that he wanted to save his treasured arrow. He disappeared into the burning structure. Meanwhile the fire spread, and the bottom of the stairs began to burn. His friend then reappeared and begins running quickly down the flaming staircase and dashes toward the other frightened residents. The crowd stood in awe of what they have just seen, and Red told him that he was amazed to see his friend alive. Red explains: “As you were running down, the bottom four steps collapsed in the flames, but we saw you continue running as though the steps were still there”.
The Professor of Medicine and Mao’s Cultural Revolution.
Doctor Chi, now middle aged and retired from his teaching position in medicine at Hang Zhu university, had taken the responsibility of organizing the visit of our team of three Canadians to psychiatric hospitals around the Shanghai region of China. The team includes a well-known psychiatrist, a family physician and me, a psychotherapist. we traveled by bus and by train to large hospital facilities where patients were treated with a combination of western medicine and in the traditional Chinese way. My roommate was a Chinese surgeon who acted as translator for our various talks, lectures, and demonstration interviews. He tells me that after his present assignment with us he will be doing major surgery on a prominent Party member and he shows a bit of pride as he announces this. On one occasion, though, he uncharacteristically bursts into anger. Because the school dormitory to which we were assigned is not ready for us, we are all placed in rooms reserved for Party officials. The otherwise placid surgeon sees what to him is luxury accommodation available to the elite and angrily berates the Party for the inequality between the Party leaders and the rest of the population, including himself. I am perplexed since the room looks, to my western eyes, like a third-rate hotel.
On our travels around the country we saw the astounding changes that were occurring in this thriving economy. Mile-long columns of barges were being pushed along the canals. Whole mountains were being dynamited, layer by layer, and the gravel from this work filled the barges bound for massive construction sites. The cities and rural areas were hives of people working, carrying wicker baskets on poles, repairing bicycles in roadside shops, building skyscrapers and constructing roads and bridges. Old people created gardens on any vacant space they can find, and they were busily looking after their private plots. No one ass idle.
The Party was ever-present. At each new location we quietly checked for the Party observer. He was invariably the man who said nothing, hovered around listening attentively to every conversation and followed when we wandered more than a few yards from the official group. He is the person who, if we try to started a conversation with him, would indicate that he did not speak English.
When I strayed a few feet away, he roughly grabbed my arm, marched me back to the conference room, pushed me into my chair, and glared at me from the doorway until the meeting was called to order.
At the end of our time in China, Dr. Chi and I have a farewell lunch and he tells me his story. It is one that is very personal to him but is as familiar as an incantation: during Mao’s Cultural Revolution he turned, in the minds of his students from being a respected professor to being a hated counter-revolutionary, evidence be damned. His medical students on one occasion interrupted his lecture, yelled obscenities at him, pulled him into the street, put a clown’s hat on his head, and paraded him forcibly through the city while hitting him repeatedly with sticks. All the while the screaming continued with added quotations from the Red Book to give their outrage legitimacy. The Party had gone berserk and the students were manipulated into acting out its perversity. He was eventually sent, he told me, to a “retraining camp” where he was subjected to further disgusting humiliations.
The doctor’s story of betrayal continues while we lunch. The Cultural Revolution, he said, at last came to an end and Dr. Chi is reinstated at the medical school, while obviously suffering from the trauma. The students returned to their classes and laboratories. Although the professor/student roles were again resumed, the unspoken stories of the bizarre, unconscionable events are a constant, nagging, presence. The subject is taboo. It is the ghost in every interaction, in every conversation.
Dr. Chi’s story was still alive in his vivid memory and like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, it must be retold. And he will retell it to anyone who will listen, except his former students.
The Ugandan Physician and the Idi Amin Terror
Dr. Kabaka is the dignified director of a hospital in rural Uganda near the Congolese border. The Canadian team is there to provide leadership in Organizational Development and to resolve some of the overwhelming administrative issues now facing the group at the hospital. Leading the team is a professor of business management at a Canadian University and his wife, a teacher at another college. I am there as leader in group dynamics.
Uganda, at the time of our visit, is painfully recovering from the trauma of the Idi Amin dictatorship. During his time soldiers that roamed the country, occupying any building they chose, stealing whatever they found, killing and raping people at will and arresting whoever the regime saw as an enemy. Asians were a special target as were professionals and teachers.
The hospital we were now visiting had, during that fearful time, been stripped of everything: beds, equipment, windows, and doors were all carted away. The interior of the director’s house had been ransacked, the cement floor had been used for cooking-fires and as toilet. The pump was pulled out of the well and disappeared. However, by the time we arrived the campus was back in use made possible by large donations from abroad. The staff were back at work with extremely limited resources but were they dedicated to their task and ready to learn how to re-organize their place of healing.
Between working group sessions, the traumatized director had his personal drama to tell and we were spellbound by the narrative. Early in the Amin regime, a friend had rushed to Dr. Kabaka’s house while he was absent. He told the doctor’s wife that Amin’s assassins were on their way to the hospital to kill him and that he was to leave and go into hiding immediately. On his return, Dr. Kabaka heard the story, took the food his wife had prepared for him and rushed back to his staff car and drove quickly away to find his friend who might be able to hide him. On route he saw a military vehicle coming toward him at high speed and realized that the two uniformed men were surely the assassins. He sped up but within half an hour he saw to his horror, in the rear-view mirror, that the military car was speeding behind him. In terror, he accelerated, trying to keep ahead of his pursuers but realized that there was no point in continuing the race, so he slowed and pulled over to the side of the road. To his amazement the military car sped past him heading toward Kampala. When he was able to get control of his shaking body, he heded to his friend’s residence and found him at home. When his friend realized the doctor’s predicament he immediately got into the car and directed him to the road that led to the Congolese border crossing. Here he told the doctor to stop some distance from the border guards. He walked to the guard post, had a conversation with the guard and then waved Dr. Kabaka through the crossing.
Only when Amin was finally deposed, was he able to get back to his wife and to his decimated hospital. His wife was able to tell him that the assassins had indeed come to his house where she had the wits to tell them that her husband was already in Kampala. They rushed back only to pass him in their hurry to find him.