Category Archives: this is not my beautiful house

The Clanging Chimes of Doom – Bandaid Remade and Remixed

Reposting to get you in the holiday spirit…. The original post appeared on Nov 20, 2010…. Enjoy! 🙂

This is perhaps one of the most impactful and damaging songs in history. I heard it on the radio today and got pissed off like I do every time I hear it.

Apparently the image of Africa and Africans hasn’t changed much since 1984. Twenty years later comes Band Aid 2 — because every multi-celebrity charity pity song needs a remake…. Love the intro sound of a crying starving child and the astonished yet highly concerned British commentator.

I don’t even know where to start on the stereotypes and disservice that this song (and similar charity marketing and sensationalist journalism) has done to the image of Africa (the Continent) and Africans themselves. I’ve spent quite a bit of time in African countries and I could post photo after photo of rivers and rain there. And things growing.  I never heard any clanging chimes of doom while there. There are lots of people who are not looking out their windows onto “a world of dread and fear”. Many of my African friends won’t celebrate Christmas because they are Muslim, not because they are starving to death. And many others will celebrate Christmas, but not American or Euro style. Not everyone is sitting underneath the burning sun. Africa is not a giant desert. Can we please not show famine in Ethiopia and pretend it’s representative of the entire continent? There won’t be snow in Africa? So what? Gahhhhh!

Luckily there is the glory of social media to take the edge off the fury…. If you don’t like the original version, there are plenty of re-makes to be found on YouTube. I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry. Here is a selection of the, uh, finest. You be the judge on whether these are worse than the original…. Taking votes in the comments section.

Feed the World with Friends (I wish this were a joke) Version. Wow. Just wow. E for effort. C for caring. D for Do Gooders. But the singing makes me doubt the potential for quality in anything crowdsourced.

Bad 1980s Sponsorship Organization Commercial Photo Montage Version. The original didn’t have enough pictures of crying children and flies in the eyes so this kind person overlaid some of the best of the worst charity photos on to the video to encourage us to care.  (Commenter: So, there won’t be snow in Africa this year? And you say the only gift they’ll get is the gift of life? So, no shoveling, and no commercial holidays? Sign me up.)

Singing Cartoon Turkeys Version (aka PETA Version?)

Dance Aid – Do they know it’s Christmas (Rave Mix) Instrumental so you can dance at your Christmas Rave without feeling guilty because of the lyrics.

Winnipeg Tea Party Version? “Dedicated to the poor children of Winnipeg School Division 1. Children whose childhood is less happy because schools run by tyrants will not say the word Christmas….  Christmas… A holiday so terrible according to commies that it can’t be named….” Special appearance poster by the Folsom Street Fair (the grand daddy of all gay male leather events) whose attendees “mock your religion while demanding that you get rid of the word Christmas…” ends with “glad this baby (Jesus) wasn’t aborted… stop the ACLU”.

2006 College Version complete with a lot of bare midriffs and self absorbed cleavage and blowing hair and dramatic effects which turn into…. a drink infested Christmas party… which ends up in a teenage mums against war protest slash terror attack… and ends with… um. Well if you make it through to the end maybe you can tell me what the point was?

Chris Brown feat. T-Pain laid over Karaoke Instrumental Version (?!?!)  I’m still not sure which lyrics are more awful — these or the original…. this is as bad, maybe worse, than the homemade versions– hard to make it through til the end.

High School Christmas Concert Version with uh high quality filming. (comments section: 3 letters is all this will take. OMG. And 2 words: bloody awful)

1985 High School Talent Show Version. Has that Risky Business feel to it. As a child of the 1980s I’m digging the outfits:

Canadian Version with lots of Tim Horton promos in the background…. “In 1984 the top recording artists across Canada gathered to raise money from the famine in Africa… when the public viewed Canada’s version, the world decided it was best for Canada to just make a fincial (sic) donation instead.”

Hipsters in a Mansion Version (TV Allstars) (“Bless ’em, they seem to think the clanging chimes of doom are something to be cheery about.”)

People in a Toystore with Tambourine and Ukelele Version? Commenter: “Sick! Sick and WRONG! I LOVE IT! My favorite lines: “There won’t be snow in Africa this christmas” (nor in LA, nor Hawaii…???) and “Thank God it’s THEM instead of You” ??? and “Here’s to them underneath that burning sun” – the stupidest lyrics ever !! YOU GUYS ROCK”

Status Quo Video Vault Version (anyone else love and remember The Young Ones? “All the homos in the place goin’ mental now….” “HomeOwners you mean, don’t you….”)

The Clanging Chimes of Doom are Back and Better than Ever Version. Voice and video don’t sync. There’s a dude singing in a shower. There’s a fake adopted black baby. Make it stop.

I’m happy that at least some musicians in the 80s were on the ball.  High 5 to Chumbawamba.

Feed the World. Pictures of Starving People“In 1986, the anarchist band Chumbawamba released the album Pictures of Starving Children Sell Records, as well as an EP entitled “We Are the World”, jointly recorded with US band A State of Mind, both of which were intended as anti-capitalist critiques of the Band Aid/Live Aid phenomenon. They argued that the record was primarily a cosmetic spectacle, designed to draw attention away from the real political causes of world hunger.”

*****

Update Nov 29, 2010: And hey, it seems like Bob Geldof would totally agree with me on this post! I’m starting to gain a little respect for him. According to this Nov 29, 2010, article in the Daily Mail. Geldof, who penned the song 26 years ago together with Midge Ure, says: “I am responsible for two of the worst songs in history. One is Do They Know It’s Christmas? and the other one is We Are The World. Any day soon, I will go to the supermarket, head to the meat counter and it will be playing. Every ****ing Christmas….” The former Boomtown Rats frontman, 59, added: “Sometimes I think that’s wild because I wrote it. Or else I am thinking how much I want them to stop because they are doing it really badly.”


Tiny Living (and Shotgun Shacks)

Every now and then there’s a huge spike in traffic to my blog. In one case it was because @cblatts linked to a post of mine. But most of the time it’s not because people are actually looking for me. It’s something even better. They are searching for the term “shotgun shack.”

What’s a shotgun shack? Wikipedia gives this history and definition:

‘The shotgun house is a narrow rectangular domestic residence, usually no more than 12 feet (3.5 m) wide, with doors at each end. It was the most popular style of house in the Southern United States from the end of the American Civil War (1861–65), through the 1920s. Alternate names include shotgun shack, shotgun hut, and shotgun cottage.’

Wikipedia says that the style can be traced from Africa to Haitian influences on home design in New Orleans, but that shotgun shacks are found all over the US. The homes became a symbol of poverty in the mid 1900s.

‘Shotgun houses consist of three to five rooms in a row with no hallways. The term “shotgun house”, which was in use by 1903 but became more common after about 1940, is often said to come from the saying that one could fire a shotgun through the front door and the pellets would fly cleanly through the house and out the back door (since all the doors are on the same side of the house).[citation needed] Another reputed source of the name is that many were built out of crates, e.g. old shotgun-shell crates, and those made for other purposes. However, the name’s origin may actually reflect an African architectural heritage, perhaps being a corruption of a term such as to-gun, which means “place of assembly” in the Southern Dohomey Fon area.[2]

Midwestern rocker John Mellencamp’s song Pink Houses alludes to shotgun shacks. It’s a bit on the sarcastic side and makes commentary on rural hardships in the US: “Ain’t that America for you and me, ain’t that America somethin’ to see baby, ain’t that America, home of the free, yeah. Little pink houses for you and me….” And the killer line near the end:  “Cause it’s the simple man baby, pays the bills, the thrills, the pills that kill”

The Talking Heads song ‘Once in a Lifetime‘ directly references shotgun shacks and it’s where I took the name for my blog. The song captures a feeling I get often when moving around in the world of aid and development. I’ve found myself waking up in a shotgun shack one morning and then heading to the US to visit my parents in their middle class houses that feel absolutely palatial and luxurious in comparison. Or spending a couple of weeks eating rice and ‘leaves’ and an occasional egg in a rural community but being wined and dined at some donor meeting the following week.

And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack

And you may find yourself in another part of the world
And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself-well…how did I get here?

But people searching for shotgun shack these days are not looking for me or for those songs for the most part.

Nope. They are looking for information on how to build their own shotgun shack either because they are unable to pay for their current home given the economic downturn in the US or they are making a clear decision to downsize, prioritize and live more simply. (Or a smart combination of both).

For example this story: ‘…Debra and her family lived in a nearly 2000 square foot home on an acre and a half of land. Then her husband lost his job and they began to work 4 jobs between them to pay the mortgage, until one day they remembered they had a choice.

Before having their son, Debra and her husband Gary had spent 9 years living in very tiny homes in South America. Living small hadn’t felt like a sacrifice, but a way to stay focused on what is important. They decided they wanted to get back to that.

They stopped working so hard, sold or gave away all of their extra stuff and began looking for the perfect tiny home.’

I discovered this weekend that ‘tiny homes’ is actually a whole movement, thanks to a tweet by @blakehounshell pointing to the Tiny Life: Tiny Houses, Tiny Living blog.

According to the site, Tiny Living encompasses:

  • Tiny Houses
  • Life Simplification
  • Environmental Consciousness
  • Self Sufficiency
  • Sound Fiscal Plans
  • Social Consciousness
A pretty cool movement. So if you’ve arrived here looking for me, great – read on! But if you arrived by accident looking for info on shotgun shacks or tiny houses, head over to Tiny Life and get your tiny living on.



“Unwatchable” …and pretty “Unhelpful”

I can kind of say I “know about” rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo. I’m not an expert on DRC by any means, but I’ve certainly read enough to know that it is happening.

Does “knowing about” rape in the DRC make me very sad? Yes.

Does “knowing about” it make me feel like the world is an evil place sometimes? Yes.

Does it blow my mind that humans endure or perpetrate this type of brutality? Yes.

Does it make me wonder what is underlying it, why it happens and what are all the complexities that surround it? Yes.

Does it make me wish that there were a way to help make it stop? Yes.

Has anyone offered a viable solution for someone like me to help stop it? Not really.

“Knowing about” and “caring about” don’t equal “having identified the right thing to do about.”

A new short film is out called “Unwatchable.” This film assumes that the reason people don’t do more about the situation in the DRC is that they don’t know about it or don’t empathize with it because it is happening to people in the DRC.

To remedy that, “Unwatchable” re-enacts a true story that happened to a family in the DRC, setting it the UK. The premise is that if we watch the same horrifying things happening to a white family in the UK, we will “know about” what is happening in the DRC, and then we will “care about” it enough to “do something about” it by signing a petition to “stop rape minerals”.

So, does watching a horrific short film about a white British family being brutalized help me empathize with families in the DRC? No.

Does it help me better understand the situation in the DRC? No.

Does it move me to do something about violence in the DRC? No.

Does it offer me a solution or a viable way to help stop violence in the DRC? Not really.

To start with, I actually can’t even remember who the organization is behind the film. All I remember is  some helicopters, a man with a bloody groin, lots of screaming and men in military gear, a teen-aged girl in a school uniform forced back on the kitchen table with flour all over her face being gang raped with a gun, and a little girl in white running in the fields with some flowers.

And another thing – no matter whether the people portrayed in the film were Brits or Congolese or from wherever, I would have been disturbed by the images. So if the goal of the film is horrifying the viewer by showing something that is “unwatchable,” then yes, goal achieved.

But am I better informed? Do I empathize now? Not really. Instead, I feel alienated, traumatized and I want to look away. I feel hopeless.

Will a lot of people watch the “unwatchable?” Probably. (Especially since it’s getting a lot of criticism right now.)

Does it make a solid connection between this violence and “rape minerals”? Not really.

No sane person would approve of rape as a weapon of war. But the difficult part is knowing what is the best way to end it, and knowing if there is really a way that someone like you or me can do anything about it.

Is legislation against “rape minerals” the best way? Who knows? There’s certainly enough questioning about the recent advocacy work and legislation that achieved a ban on them to make you wonder if banning is anything like a real solution.

The thing is, you can “know about” what is happening in the DRC and be “against rape” and still not be convinced that a petition or a boycott or Dodd Frank  is the best way to end it.

So does “Unwatchable” add anything relevant to the debate or identify real solutions? Not really.

In addition to being unwatchable, I found it to be pretty “Unhelpful.”


Finding meaning in Africa

I was on the way to Rwanda. My seat mate turned out to be an attractive, obviously wealthy woman, in her mid 50s. Before she even took her seat I knew she was going to be a talker. “Your first time to Africa?” she asked. No no, I’ve spent quite a bit of time there actually. “Oh, I’m going through a really ugly divorce,” she said, getting settled in and buckling her seatbelt, emphasizing “ugly” by widening her eyes. “I’m on a spiritual journey with a group of women. We’re going to see the gorillas and visit projects in Rwanda and Kenya for women victims of rape and violence. I know my life seems hard, but I’m really so lucky to be where I am. I am going to help women in Africa as part of my own healing process. I really need to find meaning and purpose in my life.” I inwardly rolled my eyes, thinking this woman was in no mental or emotional place to help anyone, let alone women who had been battered, raped or otherwise gotten a bad rap in life. I wondered why it was “Africa” that she needed in order to find “meaning and purpose.”

We talked the entire flight, and she kind of grew on me, despite the concerns I had about her reasons for going to “Africa.”

I saw a beautiful woman who had been in an abusive and destructive marriage, had a self-admitted and externally-obvious low self-esteem, a series of plastic surgeries and that kind of wealth- and power-based bad relationship with her children and ex-husband that I’d only seen in movies about rich people. I felt bad for the women that she was going to “help.” I imagined them feeling obliged to be kind to her as she got teary-eyed, bringing her own drama into it, feeling sorry for them, hugging them, “bonding with them,” taking pictures with them and telling them that despite their differences, they had something in common simply because they were women. She wasn’t a bad person, just perhaps misguided. I actually did hope that somehow her trip to “Africa” would help her heal the damage that had been done to her as a beautiful, rich woman from the West Coast of the US. I didn’t agree with her motives, but if she was going to be there anyway, I hoped at least she would come out of it stronger and healthier somehow.

As we parted ways upon arriving to Kigali, we realized that strangely enough, we were on the same flight back to the US, so we arranged to meet in the airport pre-flight for a bite or a beer. I found her at the airport with a group of wealthy, new-agey, middle-aged US women who were, like herself, seeking spiritual healing from Africa. They’d been to see the gorillas. They’d visited Kibera, a large slum in Nairobi. They’d gone through some kind of 5 or 7 or 12-step program to strengthen their womanhood and heal the spiritual and emotional vacuum inside them, to address the emptiness that often comes along with the life of plenty, privilege and pressure that only the wealthy understand.

She gushed about her trip to see the gorillas, and a long discussion ensued with the rest of the women about whether the guide was Hutu or Tutsi, and what that meant, and how they couldn’t help but think he must be Hutu, and they secretly didn’t trust him, though he was actually very intelligent. They talked about how the whole country of Rwanda needed healing. One of the tour operators explained a program that she was running to help women who had been raped “shake.” This “shaking,” she said, cures them of the emotional scars associated with the horrible experiences of having been raped, watching family members killed or otherwise experiencing the terror of living through a genocide. She said a similar program had been very successful in the DRC. I politely smiled and nodded at the appropriate times, feeling uncomfortable.

My airplane friend pulled out her iPhone and started flipping through pictures of gorillas and their adorable babies. Then her eyes welled up. “We went to Kibera” she said. “It’s a terrible place. Oh, these women. You have no idea what they go through. Look at this….” she said. “This girl was raped 7 times.” “This girl, she has HIV and her older sister is all she has left to take care of her.” “This woman started a home for raped girls, she was raped too, 12 times.” She quickly flipped through a series of pictures of girls and women that she had met and who had sad, sad stories that she repeated as if reciting facts from a text-book. I wondered if she saw them as human, or if they were just more photos to document her own experience of seeing the horrors found in “Africa.”

She talked about all her goals of helping these women. She was going to start a charity in Kibera for them and she wanted me to help, since I knew a lot about this kind of thing. I was at a loss for words. I didn’t even know where to start so I smiled and said we’d talk once we got home. We didn’t.

Maybe @kiwanja‘s right, and there should be a “finding Africa gave my life meaning tax.”


The most dangerous place…

So, this ad by anti-abortion group Life Always is pissing people off in New York City. And I mean really pissing them off.

Apparently there’s so much controversy that the ad is coming down. I like that. Score one for public pressure over an offensive media campaign.

What I found really interesting is the story that Tricia Fraser, the mother of the girl featured in the billboard, is demanding that her daughter’s image not be used. (HT ColorLines – News for Action) (Disclaimer: this story is from Fox News so there’s always a chance that it’s not actually true…)

Ms Fraser says she didn’t even know about the billboard until a friend told her about it a couple days after it was up.

I would never endorse something like that, especially with my child’s image,” she says. She did sign a release with a modeling agency, but never thought her daughter’s image would be used in an anti-abortion campaign focusing on African Americans, she says. “I want them to take it down.”

I applaud Ms Fraser for her reaction. I’m glad that she had access to the image and that she had the wherewithal, the courage and the strength to stand up and say “take it down.” I’m glad that the context in the US was such that she was able to do that.

It made me think about all the children’s photos taken in “developing” countries and then used externally (eg., not in that country) in various campaigns by INGOs and advocacy agencies. What if this child was from rural Uganda and her image was being used in a campaign around AIDS or child trafficking or another issue that can be stigmatizing? Would her mother have a real choice in how her image was used? Would she even know how the image was being used? Would she have the power to get the image removed if she didn’t agree with the campaign’s message or if she didn’t want her child associated with it? And how would she be viewed by the INGO or advocacy agency if she made a fuss about it?

How many aid agencies and their PR or marketing firms can say that they share their messaging and the use of children’s images with parents and communities to ensure that parents are OK with it? The images are likely taken with no remuneration for the children and families. When people ask to be paid, they are probably told that “we are a non-profit, we won’t be making any money from the image” or that the family should be grateful that they are able to give back to the INGO in this way (the INGO has been helping them a lot after all…), and that their image will allow the agency to raise money do some more good work.

I understand, in a way, how this all works and why it is how it is. And there is a lot of complicated stuff inherent there. But that doesn’t stop me from feeling uncomfortable about it.

People are not Props


C’mon play the game

Here’s a funny story.

The director of an organization where I worked had an outside research group come in and take us through some really interesting training and discussions around how we framed our communications and our work, and how the public and the media see aid and development, and why it is so difficult to engage the US public in international development issues and giving.

The facilitator brought up many of the themes highlighted on the blog “Good Intents”, such as the perceptions that it’s up to the US to go and save the world; and showed us research on the public’s erroneous perception that the US spends a larger percentage of its budget on foreign aid than any other country.

We discussed how important it is to change that thinking and to engage the US public in a less isolationist and more interdependent view of the world. We took on a commitment to ensure that our own publications would tell a different story and to try to work with our sister organizations to move the US public towards a different understanding of the kind of work that aid and development organizations do.

I was really excited about this new direction, given that I’m not a big fan of traditional marketing. (See my “This is for My Corporates” series and The Great Divide, for example).

A high profile disaster happened soon after our workshops, and I was called up to go. It would be an office job, intense work but nothing majorly dangerous and not much suffering involved. It would be an extended time period though, and I’d have to leave my kids home for much longer than I was used to.

I negotiated around with work and figured out my family stuff like I always do. I was excited to go.

The director came over a few days before I was to leave telling me he’d asked the communications team to get some media coverage of the fact that I would be going because it would be a really good story.

“So, are you nervous about going?” he asked me.

“No, not really. I’m actually excited.”

“Oh, but you must be worried about leaving your family behind to go and help, I mean, you are a single mother and your kids are still small. You’re really making a huge sacrifice.”

“Oh…. I hadn’t really thought of it that way. I guess so, but actually I don’t mind going at all, it’s part of my job, isn’t it?”

“Well, yes, but not everyone does that and this must really difficult for you. You must be at least a little scared to go. You don’t really know what you’re walking into.”

“Well, it’s pretty much going to be an office job in [insert name of big city that hasn’t been affected by the disaster]. I mean, I’m not going to be in the trenches, and the disaster happened over a month ago, so I really don’t think there’s much danger for me.”

“Well, yes, ….”

I guess our comms team didn’t pursue the hot media opportunity.

Funny how organizations can be schizophrenic like that. Giving you training one day about how you should all be working in a concerted effort to change the public’s perceptions, and then asking you to play the game and reinforce the same old story the next day. Always between a rock and a hard place.