“I’m kind of disorganized. I’m just a guy, like, whatever happens you know? And that’s alright. That’s what I am.” However, he added, “When I plan it usually goes good. I feel like I should work on that, I feel like I should be planning more.”
That’s Daniel Ndoumou who coolly leans so heavily on fate. From Gabon, he now lives in Dallas, Texas, and studies biology at Richland College in northeast Dallas. Aside from school, he plays club soccer and pursues a passion for photography.
Between Daniel’s permanent, energetic, sly grin and dark, somnolent eyes, his demeanor suggests a laissez-faire personality. But his accomplishments suggest otherwise. He speaks two languages fluently. He’s shot hundreds of photos, including innumerable covers, for Richland’s student newspaper, the Richland Chronicle. He’s captured state level awards for the aforementioned photos, and most recently, multiple universities have offered him soccer scholarships.
And all is going according to plan.
Coming to the U.S., Daniel said, “was one of the first decisions I made myself. Because my parents usually decided for [me] the kid. That’s how they are.” Daniel’s father wanted him to study in China or the U.K. But Daniel wanted to study in the U.S. “My plan was to play soccer and then go to school.” And, of course, shoot photos—but for pleasure: “I’ve been doing [photography] since I was a kid, but I wasn’t doing it like ‘oh, yeah, yeah, that’s what I want to pursue.’ I’ve just been doing it for fun.”
I asked Daniel how it was, coming to the U.S. He laughed. “At first I was like, ‘Whoa! I’m really far from my family. What the hell am I going to do about it now? My parents cannot plan everything. Because, you know, before I got here, they already paid for like the taxi and the hotel and everything. So from the airport there’s a guy waiting for me to take me to the hotel. And from the hotel, now it’s my turn to look for another hotel close to Richland so I can do the application and the shots I was supposed to do like meningitis and all those things.”
Within a month of arrival, however, he’d completed his application, suffered the requisite shots and rented a new apartment near Richland. “It’s pretty easy, pretty easy,” he said. He immediately began his studies.
One thing he did not do was miss family. That’s not his thing. He speaks with them by phone sporadically, maybe once every other week. He imitated a conversation for me: “Oh! It has been a long time!” he acted in a deeper, more serious voice. “How are you doing? It’s been two weeks since we spoke. We are just checking if you are alive. Thank you!”
Adjustment to the U.S., for Daniel, involved realizing that not everything is Jay Z and Beyoncé and Kobe. Also, “There’s more freedom in the U.S.,” he said. Daniel sees U.S. parents as “less worried” about their kids than Gabonese parents. He also discovered three principle ways to interact with Americans: soccer; photography; and geography lessons.
Soccer, he said, “was the easiest way I could speak to other people, to know somebody, or to tell the person where I’m from. Or to make friends.” Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, a Gabonese forward for Arsenal, became a “reference.” People who knew of Augameyang usually knew of Gabon.
Daniel’s photography also sparked – and still sparks – numerous interactions. Oftentimes, curious strangers ask Daniel what he’s up to, or why a camera hangs around his neck. Sometimes they give him their phone numbers and ask if they can call him for pictures.
Geography lessons also allow Daniel to connect with people. “I have to teach more people about where I’m from,” he says.
“Yeah, Americans aren’t great at geography,” I offer. “I realize, I realize,” he agrees.
School, soccer, school, soccer was the rhythm of his early life. He’s a talented footballer too: at Galaxy International School in Ghana, where he studied for five years, he played as a junior with the seniors. But, Daniel confessed, “I wasn’t like the best student too. I was usually passing by the limit.”
As for photography? Well, Daniel said, “I started doing it unconsciously with my parents and their camera.” First he found an old-style camera and began playing with focus. Then he discovered “normal Sony cameras, what is normal, Fujifilm cameras.” Thusly, gradually, as he discovered his talent, photography became his passion—a passion he pursues to this day.
Two months after his arrival in the U.S., Daniel purchased a Nikon D80. This, in his words, “was what got me way, way better.” He continued shooting and practicing, for his personal pleasure and benefit. Eventually, he began to shoot for the Chroniclewhere colleagues have dubbed his work “amazing.” Nowadays, Daniel uses a Canon Rebel T5, a Nikon 60 and a Nikon 70 to shoot sports, concerts, outdoor events and portraits. More than anything, however, he shoots sports—especially soccer.
I asked him, “How do soccer and photography connect?”
“I don’t only like to play [soccer],” Daniel replied. “I like to watch too. And then when soccer and pictures come together? What makes it easy for me to get the shots I have for the newspaper, that they say are amazing—it’s not difficult for me because when you watch a game I kind of know what is going to happen. Like, when the ball is this high and this girl’s already here, I know the arc of the ball is going to land here and that is what they’re going to have to do. I can anticipate.”
In other words, because Daniel plays soccer and likes watching it, he has a unique feel for the game that non-player photographers don’t – can’t – have. “It’s a lot of anticipation,” he said.
His photographs corroborate such a bold claim. In an issue of the Chronicle, I found three photos from a soccer match taken at 1) the moment of a header, 2) at the moment of a shot, and 3) a perfectly symmetrical photo of a player dribbling. The talent, to my eyes, is readily apparent.
But what does Daniel plan to do with his soccer and photographic talents?
“First, I need to be done with these classes over here [at Richland],” he said. He wants to study sports medicine and play soccer at a university, but he needs to complete his university applications. After graduating, he wants to return to Gabon and work in either sports medicine or general medicine. Unless something happens like a relationship. Then he’d stay here.
In the meantime, he’ll continue creating art. Why? Does he make money from photography? “No, no, no, no,” he replied. Although he does privates, he does them because he enjoys obliging friends’ photo requests.
And that’s the key: Daniel just likes to take photos. It’s his passion. Taking photos is “an automatic thing that comes just like that,” he said. In the future, he might use photography for extra money. (“If I go to work maybe, like, at a hospital, and then when I’m done, maybe during the night or the weekend I can do a ceremony. Or maybe there’s a wedding. I can take photos for that, I guess, and make some extra money,” he offered.) But whatever happens you know? The joy he finds in photography, his passion for photography, and a desire to improve his skills are sufficient for him.
Before I go into Pete’s life, I want to explain my meeting with Pete. I first met Pete at the Twin City Mission in Bryan, Texas. Pete and I struck up a conversation and I was immediately drawn to his story. When I first addressed Pete with the idea of documenting his life story, he was overjoyed. “Of course I would love to tell my story, people need to see how God has impacted me.” I hope Pete’s story will affect you the same way it has affected me, moving you to appreciate the power of gratitude in our very own lives.
Pete Ybarra III was born on August 18, 1966, in Navasota, Texas. His father, Pete Ybarra Jr., soon moved Pete’s mother, Guadalupe James Ybarra, and Pete’s 6 sisters and 4 brothers to Jacksonville, Texas. Pete grew up in Jacksonville. He lived the majority of his life much like any other kid who grows up in a small town: attracted to mischief. He soon was skipping school and getting in trouble with his parents. Pete noted that throughout his youth that he suffered from unbearable headaches, which incidentally would be a foreshadowing of a greater evil. Due to these headaches, he had to focus harder than most in school. He was unable to hold his attention in class and found himself skipping class to avoid the pain. When Pete was a teenager, his uncle committed suicide, leaving devastating effects on his young self. After high school, Pete moved to Bryan where he started working for Cives Steel with his father. He worked there for many years and loved getting to work with and grow closer to his father. While working at Cives Steel, his family was shattered again with the news of two cousins taking their own lives. Yet, they were able to support one another to work past this.
While working for Cives Steel, Pete started dating a girl named Christina and they soon had a son named James Arthur Jones. Pete loved his son very much and tried to take as best care of him as he could. Due to legal restraints, he was unable to see his son often, but made the most of his meetings when he could. During this period, he bounced around jobs and girlfriends; it was conspicuous that life was hard for him. Yet, it was evident that he was a tough soul that could make the most out of such difficult situations. After many years, Pete moved out of his apartment in Bryan to a plot of land his parents owned on the outskirts of town. While outside of Bryan, Pete stopped working for Cives Steel and soon took a job at Sanderson Farms driving a forklift in the freezer. While there, he started dating a woman named Karina and helped her raise her kids. He dated Karina for 8 years before she walked out on him. Afterward, he began working for Knife River, a truck driving company based out of Bryan, Texas. He loved this job, as it offered him the chance to visit some amazing places. During his training, Pete visited New York and Maine. His driving was something that allowed a small-town kid to get out and see the big world. While working at Knife River he started dating Anna, and during this period of tranquility, his life would soon take a major downturn. Pete’s headaches were getting worse and soon he came to the realization that something had to be done about it. Reluctantly, he went to the hospital and was given a CAT scan. Immediately following the scan, Pete was rushed into emergency surgery. The doctors told Pete that without the surgery, he would have had three days to live. After the surgery, he woke up extremely lost and stood up immediately, ripping the tubes out of his head and leaving Pete in an even more vulnerable state. After being stabilized in the hospital, he was sent home. Pete said that he should have been sent to a nursing home, but he was unable to pay for it because he had no insurance. Due to his state of need, Anna ended up walking out on him, leaving him in the care of his nephew and sister. He said multiple times that he would not be talking to me today if it were not for his nephew who nursed him back to life.
Without the ability to work, Pete’s water and electricity were soon cut off, so he had to run an extension cord and haul water to his house from his parents who thankfully lived close by. He soon followed this up with a smile and said, “Hard life man, thankfully I am not there anymore”. He lived in this condition for multiple years, until the pain crept back, forcing him in and out of the state hospital. His periods in the hospital were vital for him. Pete had no money and no way to survive, so he relied on the state hospital for food, medicine, and a place to stay. During this period, Pete said he, “Got used to being broke, I lived my day by the hands of God”. After multiple years of being a regular resident in the state hospital, he was starting to see the finish line to his road toward recovery. However, his life would soon be rocked yet again, receiving news that his son had taken his own life . Pete, who now has had many years to recover from this, explains this time in his life calmly. Yet, it was very plain to see that this event still devastated him to this day. With the struggle of recovery from surgery and the pains of living in poverty, the added emotional trauma of a son passing brought Pete to his knees. Yet, Pete, a man with a heart set on the Lord, now takes this pain in stride. He knows that the Lord has a plan for his life and is prepared for whatever comes next.
When I first met Pete, his openness and positivity around the passing of his son is what drew me to his story. How could one man suffer through so much pain, and yet still have such a beautiful outlook on life? Pete’s journey forces one to reevaluate the struggles that exist within our very own lives. Without a doubt, Pete’s battle against continuous adversity allows one to view themselves with a different perspective. Pete’s life is one of hardship, struggle, and suffering; yet despite these conditions, he surges onward. Pete views life as a prize, not a penalty. He sees every waking day as an opportunity to be grateful, thankful for the opportunity of another breath. Regardless of the devastation Pete has endured throughout his being, he views life to be miraculous and beautiful in design. Pete is a spark of optimism in a moment we need it most. He truly is the epitome of gratitude, showing us how deep hope runs in the face of calamity. Pete’s story resonates deeply within me, not because I can relate to his life, but because his story puts mine in perspective. If Pete can live through death, poverty, and desperation, and to still approach life with a luminous, radiant, and joyous smile on his face, why can’t we?
You, spat out into creation unknown. Conscious but not unaware of the mind to be. Blank stated with whereabouts unimagined as you clench towards another breath; surviving. To its necessity, you cannot hardly understand, but continue to chase after it anyway. Instincts, for only you are, but learning to be self too. Consciousness, awareness, is not annate in your being, it must be learned through the coming ages to be. But infatuated we are by the existence of a child, who does not know he exists at all. Is it not the individual, the thoughts inside that make an individual lovable for who they are? What else is there to cling to in the self if not the thinker inside? But proof is so shown, that this is not what makes us enamored with the individuals before our being. Because if this was the case, our enamorment could only find reason in a blank stated being. But it has to be the case, that all that exists is our minds and thoughts that create our actions in reality. So inevitably, all we can know, love, hate, enjoy, and resent, are the thoughts the thinkers bare into existence. So if thoughts are all that exist, why are we so obsessed with the thoughtless? Perhaps because we recognize that the thoughtless are more lovable than the thinkers. But why is that? It may so be because our assumption is that the thoughts that exist in the minds of the thinker, are the antithesis to the thoughts of love, joy, acceptance, and selflessness. How could it be anything but this, if we would instead be obsessed and awed by the one of no thoughts than the thinkers all around us? If not this, maybe it is because we presume the more devastating. That, why we may not know what the baby is thinking, we know what it is not. We know that it isn’t conducting deceit and lies to mask what’s truly inside. We know, that all it is trying to accomplish is survival, looking to you to help him in the journey.
What’s most frightening of this, is that it shows what is us. We, are devastated beings. We would rather turn to the mind of the thoughtless than struggle with the thinker. What we define as purity, is emptiness in mind; what we define wrongful, is the thinker inside. How poor to exist it is that we’d rather love the empty than the mindful. If we believe this of our being, it is the most logical thing to do. If something is bad and something is neutral, every time it is obvious to choose that of which is neutral. But why are those our only two choices? You see, you might not find yourself to be a baby lover, but while a baby might not be your neutral, something is- a car, entertainment, sports. But wouldn’t we choose the opposite if it existed? Surely, if a neutral and a positive outcome were offered to us, we’d choose the positive. But clearly, that situation isn’t presented to us, because we believe that the good is better than the person. But why is that? Why is it that we choose the non-thinker over the thinker, because we perceive the thinker is bad? It seems obvious, but seldom recognized. The truth of the matter, is that the only place we can hypothesize the thinker as bad, is by drawing on evidence of our own minds. Because after all, the only thing we can really know is ourselves.
So let’s talk about you for a minute then. Why does your brain lead you to think others thoughts are terrifyingly against you, if the only place you can run to assume such a thing is from the place of your own mind? How bad must you be to perceive everyone else is too? On the surface, you don’t really think you are, because you’re horrified at the possibility of such an identity. But underneath, you know it to be the truth. You know yourself to feel like a liar, a deceiver, a manipulator, a narcissist, but you won’t let yourself admit it. But yet, the damage is already done, because, despite your recognition of self as such, you’ve branded everyone else around you to be of the same. You see, it’s not the others around you who are bad, it’s your mind that forces you to believe they are. So how to escape this? How can we change our mind to be desiring the thinker instead of the thoughtless? What first must be offered is an opportunity to view the thinker as a thinker of good. If we are to do such a thing, then can we be existing to pursue the existing instead of the non-existent in mind. In order to accomplish such a task, we must first change our views of self in order to change our views of others. What must be undone, is the thought that we are bad and not enough. If we can go about such a thing, then we as well can assume that others are good too.
But to do such a thing is the challenge. After all, has this not been our fight throughout our existence? To wrestle with the thoughts of depression, anxiety, meaningless, but failing to overcome them? If we have been unsuccessful in our war against thoughts of negativity, then how can we assume we are now to accomplish such a victory? If we are to pursue the methods of current, we are to, and always to fail. It seems so obvious that such is inevitable; how could the same brain that forces you to destruction, be the one that lifts you to joy? It is rather impossible, and ineffective to merely attempt. Therefore, if the recognition is that our minds can’t fix us in our attempts to fix ourselves and the perceptions of others, then what can? Only a simple recognition will.
You see, your inadequacies, desires, brokenness, is not of your own, it’s invasive. It is not how you were designed, not how you were formed; it is not you. You weren’t wired to feel empty and broken, and to perceive the rest of the world to be so too. You weren’t designed to seek fulfillment from the thoughtless baby, you were designed to find fulfillment in the thinker. But we reject the opportunity to do such because we presume the good thinker does not exist, because we are not him. But how devastatingly horrid and radically incorrect that false reality is to believe in our minds. To believe that we are not the good thinker and that the other is not too, eliminates any possibility of joy in the real world.. You see, the deceit you believe in yourself is that it is you that is bad, and not the invader who forces you to believe that you are. You are good andloving, but the invader makes you think you are not. You’re aware of such too but you lie to tell yourself you are not. Every time you fall to selfishness, substance abuse, sexual immorality, you know it will leave you unfulfilled. But yet, you do it anyway. But what is it inside that tells you your actions will leave you unfulfilled? That’s the real you, the voice of real truth, the self God made you to be. Unfortunately, it is the invader who makes you believe that this truth is a lie. It is this voice that forces your will to choose contrary to what you know is right. It is this invader who forces you to believe you are bad. It is this invader that forces you to believe all thinkers, therefore, are too. But can you not see it? This bad, this invader, is not you, and it is not us. The mistake we make in ourselves is to believe that because we are born with sin, it is something necessary in our nature. But such a connection to jump to is invalid, and incorrect to believe. A baby born with an umbilical cord is not to remain on its body for the remainder of its existence, it is to be chopped off for the betterment of its survival. In the same way the sin we are born into is not one we are to remain in, it must be removed in order to discover the goodness we were designed in.
A beach ball with mud on it is not a bad beach ball, it just needs to be washed; the same is true of us. The shame is that we don’t see this to be. We don’t see ourselves as an individual with dirt on us, we see ourselves as dirt. But that is simply not the truth. You and I are good. You and I are perfectly and wonderfully made. You and I are beautiful inside and out. What we can no longer allow ourselves to do is believe that we are anything else. If we are to continue in our devastating ways, then love, joy, happiness, and peace, are impossible. It is time that we recognize truth, and separate the evil in our lives from the beings that we are. You are not bad, the invader is. You are good because you were made by the fully good.
Therefore, stop and look around. See the beauty that surrounds you, the loving, gracious, and caring beings around you. In your imperfections and in your doubts, recognize that these are not of you; they do not belong to the being you fully are. You are the beach ball, not the mud. Allow him to cleanse you in the waters. Rise up from the ocean and look at the dirt surrounding you. Be overcome by the mud in your sight, but more overjoyed in the ocean’s depths, its magnitude, and its ability to cleanse. But do not fret, run and seek with urgency. See the balls in the sand, the dirt covering their presence. Yet, do not doubt, the pureness that exist in each and every ball. View their dirt, but recognize it is not them. Let them radically know that their home is in the sea, and their mission is to run to it, awakened in the being of the cleanliness they were designed for.
The sensible recognition that isolation is what we’re indebted to is a horrifying realization that we must come to grasp with. Cognitively, we are bounded behind the prisons of cranial dimensions, fully enslaved to the idea of any escape. The thoughts that elicit from our cerebral lobes emits itself to the concrete layer of our mind, bouncing off its domain back towards ourselves before we’ve even processed its return. Discoveries and introspections radiate deeply within us, but are unable to be shared with the minds of others. Your relative objections will suffice, transparent attempts to reveal emotions and ideals alike to the others surrounding us are attempted, but are they really absorbed? There is no guarantee of such a notion. There is no reaffirmation that the sound waves invoking meaning behind your being, are computed with an adequate understanding of the sentiments one is trying to convey. Running from this awareness is of no innocuous interest, as the realities of its nature will only paralyze us more as our lives press onward. There is no decision, but to embrace its very axiom. There is no guarantee that we are heard; that we are discovered in the very place we are at.
So what is to come of this situation. How are we to survive, when the joys of existence derive from the knowingness of others, yet are biological natures prevent its occurrence from happening? Who are we to run to if our very sanity depends on others' understanding we are not? It seems our only attempt to alleviate this natural predicament is to push through its domains; how we are to do this is the real query to dissect.
The process is most simply explained through its action; so we will depict it. A friend sits down with a companion, long eyes and hung head befall before his appearance. The companion has a guess now regarding the mind of his friend. He sparks the question, “what’s wrong?” The saddened friend’s mind races internally, “Does he really care? Is he asking just to get on with it? Does he even want to know?” There is no assurance he will ever know, he never truly will see. All that he has is a hunch, composed of clues to understand his companion's external display of inquisition. He determines an answer on this hunch in terms of context. He studies his eye contact, the sound in his voice, his past experiences with his companion. Within seconds he processes a conclusion, whether to trust his genuine curiosity or to doubt it. But at even the very most, all he will ever arrive at is a guess of the state of the other.
Even more, this isolation supersedes the even simple actions of its being, and extends even deeper into the content within its action. The only attempt we have of explaining our internal experiences is through the insufficient concept of language. But what is the guarantee of universality in conversation? There is of no method to implement a notion that our words are truly understood. Chairs and bicycles aren’t typical to the skepticism of clarity. We see these things with our eyes, and given our perceptions are the same as another, there is a higher assurance that the symbols we’re discussing are interpreted similarly. But these words are of no usage to our introspective manifestations. They shed no insight on our feelings of love or angst, rather on surface-level agreement of the objects directly before us. No, the real insights come from categories of language indicating feeling and emotion; this is our real trouble. Only the words of intangibility can provide awareness of our being. However, subjectivity obfuscates attempts to externalize our meanings. Happiness and joy are not bound to the agreement of both parties, they solely depend on one's individual experiences of the terms. But this can never be truly understood by both, never truly shared what their definitions of the words are. In our deepest attempts to project our feelings, the promise of its understanding to the other depends on his interpretation of it; it depends on the individual's isolated conceptualization of its meaning.
This is the only reality socialization can provide us with, yet these are the longings of our lives. The desire to transcend oneself into the mind of another is our deepest of wants. This feeling of being known is our only opportunity to truly feel alive. In accordance with its functionality, our only hope to live is to chase its arrival. Without connectedness to our fellow man, we are dead, alone. Yet despite its awakening, we must push beyond the suffocations of isolation. We can only discover an escape from ourselves by believing that we are able to do so. The knowingness of its reality is of impossibility, and frankly of absurdness to attempt to discover it. We must believe that our minds can be comprehended, that our words can be understood, that our internal can be made sensical. All we will ever have in life is a hunch that we are known; assurance is an inability, but doubt, can never lead to anything but isolation.
Much has been said about President Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from territory in Northern Syria that was controlled by our Kurdish allies. In fact, most of the commentary about this move has been overwhelmingly critical regardless of the author’s political affiliation; even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell rebuked the decision. With such strong bipartisan opposition, it is evident that many in our government believe this withdrawal to be harmful to American interests in the region. So what are the potential consequences of an American withdrawal out of Syria?
Perhaps the most obvious consequence is the loss of American influence on the world stage and in the Levant. The US has been very involved in Middle East politics for decades and the presence of American troops in the region was a large part of that involvement. Now with American troops withdrawing from Syria it leaves a power vacuum which Russia is already moving to fill. Russian troops are patrolling in the region and returning cities formerly occupied by US allies to the Syrian government. Additionally, Putin has begun increasing his personal presence in the region with visits to Saudia Arabia and the UAE.
Another consequence is the apparent about-face of the Kurds foreign alignment. The US had allied the Kurds in the fight against ISIS, arming and training them and using them as the primary ground force in the region to avoid the deaths of American servicemen. But in the face of brutal aggression from Turkey, a NATO member and US ally, the Kurds turned to any potential allies in the region and it seems they decided Russia and the al-Assad regime are they best hopes for survival. This move essentially guarantees Assad’s victory in the eight-plus year civil war as the Kurds controlled the largest contested portion of Syrian territory. Russia has also intervened and negotiated with Turkey to relocate the Kurds from the Turkish-Syrian border, another step in a growing relationship between the two former enemies.
A third consequence is the potential setbacks in the fight against ISIS. The Kurds were holding a number of prisoners captured in the fight against the terrorist group and soon after Turkey launched reports surfaced captured fighters were escaping in the chaos, providing new strength to the organization President Trump claimed was “100% defeated” earlier this year. Kurdish officials said that upwards of 800 fighters escaped from a single detention camp as a result of the Turkish invasion. Turkey rebuffed those accusations and said that the Kurds themselves were intentionally releasing the prisoners. Regardless of how these prisoners are escaping, the fact remains that hundreds and potentially thousands of ISIS members are now loose in the region causing further chaos and likely extending the need for American troops throughout the Levant.
Finally, there is the issue of Turkey itself. In its invasion of Kurdish territory, Turkey, an ally of the US, is openly at war with the Kurds, an ally of the US. The conflict has soured American-Turkish relations significantly, with Turkish President Erdogan allegedly tossing a letter from President Trump in the trash. Simultaneously, Turkey’s relationship with Russia continues to grow, and all of this comes after Turkey upset the United States by buying a Russian missile defense system in the summer. The growing divide between America and Turkey could have catastrophic effects on NATO and Europe as Turkey has played an important role in deterring Russian influence but now seems to be distancing itself from its Western allies and aligning closer with Russia. Currently the Levant is in utter chaos despite claims of multiple ceasefires from the White House and more chaos will likely follow as the US is continuing to conduct military operations in the region, now heavily occupied by Russia and pro-Russian forces.