Category Archives: this is not my beautiful wife

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 WorldPictures 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.”

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“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.”


White Woman

It’s hot outside, the air still and heavy. I walk into the little bar at the small, localish hotel where I’m staying. It’s late morning after a late night out with my local co-workers in a small yet lively town in the interior of a country in Africa. Coffee in one hand, I’m in search of a big bottle of water to take back to my room. I hear… White woman…. I know you want to talk the white woman… She’s saying it loud on purpose to get my attention.

I turn around. They are sitting in the lounge area. She has a round face, large round eyes, dark skin and long braids. He is skinny, balding, his white skin weathered and freckled. She’s wearing a loose green and yellow patterned traditional dress. He’s in jeans and a t-shirt. They are both nice looking. I smile – this is the kind of town where it’s not out of the ordinary for people to strike up conversations with each other.

As I’m focusing in on the two of them, my local colleague raises her head over the sofa back at the booth next to them to say good morning. I hadn’t seen her as I came in. She’s there enjoying the air-conditioning.

I step back from the bar to greet everyone, forgetting about the water. Come, come, sit, the woman says, motioning her hands to the lounge seat next to her. He want to talk you. The man is smiling, nodding. I motion for my colleague to join us. The table has a few empty beer bottles on it and a very full ashtray. Dolly Parton is streaming out of the speaker above us.

They want to know where I’m from and what I’m doing there. My spoken French is barely passable. Their English is slightly better than passable. We explain ourselves in a mix of both.

I say I work for a development organization.To develop what? they ask. I don’t even know how to answer. Sometimes I’m not so sure we are developing anything, really. I’m having a crisis of purpose lately. My co-worker steps in to save the day. She explains our work. They kind of get it, but not really.

I am a professional hunter, he says. I am here with my wife.

If I am really your wife, she interjects.

He continues…. I have been in the bush for 8 months. You are the first white woman I’m seeing for so long time. There are no white woman here. Why are you here?

Yes she interjects; he is very excited. He really want to see a white woman. He’s been in the bush for so long time without seeing one. He’s only with black people like me. He want to talk you very much. I’m sorry my English is not so good. You see even he, he never talk English but he is so happy to see a white woman. He is talking so much English. You see him? Yes, so happy to see a white woman.

I try to figure out their relationship. Why is she joking about being his wife?

They light cigarette after cigarette. They order another round of beers and invite us to drink with them. We decline — beer right after coffee without food seems like a bad idea, especially after a night of plentiful African Guinness and whiskey.

The people here, the white people, they don’t talk to him, she says. They are his own people but they don’t like him.

They don’t like me because I live in the bush. I’m born in Africa, he says, I have more than 40 years and I lived only 11 years in France. My father was also in Africa — more than 40 years.

She tells about an embassy party where they were ignored. She says she drank beers and then asked them ‘why you don’t talk my husband? You don’t like that he is living with me? You don’t like that he is in the bush with people like me? You don’t like blacks?’ She drank their free alcohol and ate their food.  She drank beers for him. She drank for their 2 children who are French citizens. She drank for herself. They did not ask us to come back.

I’ve never met a hunter. I’ve only seen fat, red-cheeked Afrikaaners and safari-geared Americans on planes and made assumptions that they were aggressive, blood thirsty, giant-portions-of-meat-eating, racist colonizers. It’s strange to talk with someone who identifies as a hunter, to feel my assumptions shifting and not matching up.

My colleague asks what they do with the animals that they kill. He says their clients hunt for sport. They take home their trophies — sometimes horns, sometimes cranium, sometimes the entire head and chest for mounting, sometimes the whole body for the taxidermist.

We eat the rest. We eat every kind of meat, the woman tells us.

She even eats her cousin, the man says. Baboons. She pinches the hair on his arm. The baboon is your cousin, not mine.

He lists the animals they hunt off on his fingers — elephants, lions, leopards, water buffalo, different kinds of antelope. Animals that I thought were not to be hunted. Animals I can’t imagine ever wanting to kill. He says endangered animals don’t exist and that extinction is a plot by the people at the WWF. There are many many lions in Africa. The WWF just wants to make money. This story that the animals are disappearing is for television, for Europeans and Americans.

The woman tells us that like him, she is also a foreigner. She is not native to this country. She and the man met in another country where he lived for several years.

I ask if they left because of conflict in that country. Bah, he says, the conflict is also for television. On television the conflict is a big thing, you see it and you think it’s so bad. In the bush we don’t see it. We have a happy life in the bush. There you are just living every day. The next day you wake up and do it again. You are just hunting, eating, drinking beer and fucking every day. People don’t have any worries.

Me, she says, I don’t worry anybody can come to bother me in the bush. It’s like a game for me. I’m not afraid. Because in my country…  in my country, she says… . She holds out one arm in front of her and puts the other index finger to her forehead. The rebels. They came. We were going away, we were leaving but they stop us. The corners of her smile bob up and down. Her eyes turn red and fill with tears that spill over down her cheeks.

Kalashnikovs, he says, nodding at her, dragging on his cigarette, taking another sip of beer, getting up to go to the bathroom.

I put my hands like this, up. I went to my knees. I tell them… I told them they are free to take everything. But they stay like this. She puts the imaginary Kalashnikov to her head again. She apologizes over and over for crying. She wipes the tears away with the flat of her hand but they keep falling. Her smile is a grimace. Above our heads, Dolly Parton launches into Jolene.

For me it is hard. We were three sisters. They… she puts her fists to her hips and makes a thrusting motion. They do this very hard. She tries to smile again. Sorry. Sorry.

You know when the war finished, they kill so many rebels. They put the bodies in the river. They told people don’t drink the water in the river. But me, I drink. I want to drink. I want to drink them. I want to take a knife to kill them but I can’t. So I drink. I want to cut them. I want to cut it off. To put it here, here in their mouth. But I can’t. I can’t. So I drink the water to know that they are finished. Me, I drink them.

He comes back from the bathroom. She blinks the moment away and smiles at him, pats him gently on the knee. They order more beers. The conversation comes back from the very dark place. She says he loves her because he stays with her through everything. He supports her. When he sees women he likes, he tells her and she looks the woman over too and agrees, or not.

Like you, she says, he has been so long without seeing a white woman. You see him, you see his body? He is like this, he is like a fish on sand. She flops her hand around on the sofa palm up, palm down, palm up, palm down, uncontrollably. He is talking so much, you see he doesn’t let you speak. He want to tell you his whole story. Here he doesn’t see white women. The white people here they don’t talk him.

He talks about hunting, his anti-poacher and his hunting chief. They are like his brothers. There is no hierarchy. They hunt together, they eat together, they celebrate together. In the bush life is simple, people are happy. We are happy, he says. Me and my wife.

If I am really your wife, she says.

They tell us we should go to the bush with them. You will like it, they say. It’s very nice. They ask for my cell phone number but I don’t have my work number memorized. They invite us to lunch but we decline. My colleague is tired of the “white people food’ the hotel serves and wants to go to a place around the corner. I can tell she is not so impressed with these people either and wants to get away from them, back to her comfort zone. I’m feeling sticky and sweaty. I tell them I’ll go to shower and on the way out to lunch, I’ll stop in and give them my phone number so we can see about going to their place later in the week.

You are leaving? she asks. Have we disappointed you?

No, no, I just want to bathe, I say. She laughs at me. Why?

I’m sweaty, I tell her. I’m not dressed. Look, I’m wearing my pajamas under my skirt. I only came down for coffee. She eyes me a bit differently. Oh, she says. Me, I want to see the change when you return.

I feel self-conscious now but I go to shower anyway.

I come back and they look me up and down. They comment on my clothing. My freckles. My shoes. They say I am beautiful. He looks happy. She drags on her cigarette and swigs her beer. She says his body is too excited. He is a fish out of water. She makes the flopping motion with her hand again. She doesn’t look so happy.

I’ve written down my name and number on a scrap of paper. I’m intrigued by the idea of going to ‘the bush’ with them. They are so much more interesting than my job at the moment. I can tell my local colleague is not interested at all. She doesn’t trust them. She likes things that are above-board. Things that are straight forward and familiar and respectable. Things that she knows.

We go Thursday he says. My driver will bring you. You come to see the animals. How can you come so far and you are only working, without seeing animals? There you will see them very close. It’s very nice.

Yes, come, she says. It’s beautiful. You will like it. We are so happy there.

My colleague says we need to leave to go to lunch. She says we will be in touch with them later on, but I can already tell she will make sure it never happens.

I give the woman the piece of paper with my name and number. She looks at it. She asks my name again. She raises her eyebrows and laughs. In my language, this means… She makes a circle with her hands and rests them on her thighs, in front of her groin. It is the meaning for this. For clitoris.

He laughs, takes a drag from his cigarette and another sip of beer. They look at each other. That is good, he says, nodding. That is good for me. I spend so long without seeing a white woman.


Fragility

Once when the guy I had recently started dating (and would eventually marry) was late to pick me up, I decided I should be angry. I should practice my assertiveness (something I’ve never been very good at) and let him know that I was not going to take that kind of rudeness. That I wasn’t to be taken advantage of. That we needed to start this relationship off on the right foot.

I imagined what I would say when he finally showed up. The non-assertive voice in the back of my head kept popping in to make me doubt myself. Maybe there’s a reason… he’s never been late before… be patient… see what his story is. No, I argued with myself. I’m a feminist. We young women shouldn’t be taking this kind of crap. My friends and I need to demand more respect from men, and here’s a perfect example of what we shouldn’t be putting up with.

Time wore on. Thirty minutes. An hour. I veered back and forth between ‘you should be angry‘ and ‘maybe he’s not interested in you/he’s blowing you off‘ and ‘maybe something happened to him‘. Two hours. Two and a half hours. Three hours. Then a phone call. He’d been detained. Oh….

***

Then there was the time after we were married. We were living in his country. There was a war going on in the background. We were at the market and had run into an old school friend of his who was very flirtatious. She kept bringing up things they had in common that I hadn’t been around for. She kept touching him on the arm. She was pretty and she had an exotic name. On the one side it was obvious my husband was head over heels for me. On the other, this woman made me feel jealous. She invited us out to her mother’s place for lunch. I didn’t want to go. I knew I would feel out of place and uncomfortable. I made up an excuse to stay home, not saying what I really felt. Come on, my husband said. Come with me. I want you to go. At the last minute, I agreed.

We took a public bus out towards her parents’ home. About 45 minutes outside of the capital, we came across a group of soldiers. A long flatbed military truck was parked off the road with some civilian men and boys sitting in the back. The soldiers stopped our bus. A few of them boarded, guns slung over their shoulders. They glanced around, looking everyone over. The bus was silent. They started pointing: You. You. You. You. Get off the bus, they motioned. One of the people they pointed at was my husband. He got up from beside me. I got up too. No, no, stay there, he said. No, I said. I followed him off the bus, my stomach heavy. What was going to happen?

The soldiers noticed me.  No, no. You. Get back on the bus! they told me. I’m with him, I said reaching for his arm and circling mine tight around it. He is my husband.

Oh oh, they said graciously, raising their hands, palms out in front of them in defense. We are very sorry. Excuse us. Excuse us. Sorry, sorry. They directed us away from the group of unlucky boys and men who were not married to me, who didn’t have an excuse for not climbing up into the military truck, who didn’t have a way to get out of being forcibly recruited. Two soldiers walked us back to the side of the main road. One of them stopped the next bus and put my husband and me on it. We went on our way, off to lunch, the incident just a little 10-minute sidetrack for us.

Meanwhile those other sons, brothers, boyfriends, husbands would not be going on their merry way at all. What was it like for their mothers, sisters, girlfriends, wives when they never arrived for lunch that day? Were the women imagining the assertive things they would say? Were they musing over a reaction, only to realize they were oh so very wrong? When night fell, did they become desperate, looking for their boys and men? How long before they found out what had happened to them? How did that chance bus ride change a family of lives forever?

My husband’s old flirtatious school friend didn’t seem so threatening or important any longer. We rode the rest of the way to her house silent, sitting close, hearts pounding. Hyper aware of what had just almost happened. What if I had stayed home? I have no recollection at all of the actual lunch, that trivial thing that I had been ridiculously concerned about.

***

There was also the time that I was sitting in a chair in a tidy air-conditioned office, waiting for a job interview. Sitting there in my nice clothes, nervous about the interview, idly chatting with the secretary. While I was there, worrying about the interview, my husband was being held hostage by four heavily armed men out on an empty plantation off the side of a rural highway a couple of hours out of the capital.

It was a random thing. He and some co-workers were coming back from a training session in a community. Four men with automatic weapons stepped out onto the road and told them to halt, probably because they were in a decent looking 4×4. It was a robbery, not anything political or military, just simple post-conflict organized crime. While the robbery progressed, the old man with the machete who guarded the plantation ventured over to see what all the noise was. He was shot. The police happened by. There was a showdown of sorts but everyone came out OK, well, everyone except the old man with the machete.

My husband arrived home on time that night, but shoeless and carrying a small cardboard box. There was a wounded mourning dove in the box that he’d found and brought to give to his mother (she loved birds). His shoes, cheap watch and silver wedding ring had been stolen. It struck me that I’d been calmly sitting in an NGO office, interviewing for a new job while he and several others were sitting in the middle of a field, wondering when they were going to be shot. The whole thing felt surreal. What if we’d left the house angry with each other that morning and things hadn’t turned out OK for him?

***

Life goes on. The day-to-day takes over again. But underneath it, you keep your awareness of life’s fragility.


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


This is for my Corporates. Lesson 6: Win-win or forced marriage?

I’m really pleased to welcome my new friend J. who blogs at Tales from the Hood for a first guest post here on ShotgunShack!

J. gives us Lesson 6 in the This is for my Corporates Series.

Click for Lesson 1: Watch your LanguageLesson 2: Y’all really believe in that vision sh*t?Lesson 3: What’s ‘The Field” Got to Do with It?Lesson 4: People are not Props, Lesson 5: How to Kill what your Non-Profit Had Going for It and Lesson 7: A handout is a handout is a handout.

 

If you happen to be a big manager at the head office of a big non-profit organization, and you’ve been brought in from the corporate sector to show those wishy-washy bleeding heart non-profit suckas how it’s done, this series* is for you.

Lesson 6:  Win-win or forced marriage?

For those of you whose job it is to raise support of different kinds for your organization from for-profit corporations, I’ll go out on a limb and guess that probably the hardest part of your job is getting your very own colleagues over in the programs department to support you. I’m guessing that you’re more than just a little bit frustrated by the push-back and the foot-dragging and the nit-picky nay-saying over what probably seem like obvious “win-win” ideas to you.

So let me give you a heads up. Here are a few things that you should know about aid-worker culture while you attempt to persuade us to work with you as you go about your job of working with corporations to gain their support for your employer’s programs, whether through cash grants or gift-in-kind (GIK).

That don’t impress me much… We don’t really care who you sat next to at what roundtable and what Fortune 500 corporation they’re the CFO of. We’re not interested in hearing the long history of your schmoozing so-and-so. It doesn’t impress us to know that your “contact” plays golf on Tuesdays with the President…

Yeah, yeah, we understand that these things are important in your world and that schmoozing is an important skill. We don’t want to disrespect the hard work you’ve done cultivating relationships with your potential donors. But often it feels as if you’re coming to us with the expectation that your schmoozing is what will make our decisions about which opportunities to pursue and which to leave on the table. However, you should know that from our perspective the thing that matters most and that should trump all other considerations is:  what is good for participants in our programs in the field?

And so, when you come to talk to us about corporate opportunity X that you’ve been schmoozing and wining and dining and playing golf over, what we really want to know right up front from you is: what is on offer and under what conditions? From our perspective it begins and ends there.

Forced marriages. Similarly, it’s a huge turn-off when somewhere near the beginning of your pitch to us is the issue that “this relationship is hugely important.” Maybe if we agree to take a grant to do this kind of lame project, this corporate donor will “trust” us and work more with us in the future on projects that are better. Maybe this is a very high profile corporate donor and having them on our organizations’ corporate CV will make our employer look very good. Maybe the amount of money or value of GIK on offer is so large that the executive team really wants to find a way to say “yes.”

We’re not naïve. We understand that these are very real considerations and that give-and-take is just a part of how the real world works. But when these kinds of issues – rather than what is good for the communities where we work – drive decisions, it makes us feel dirty. When the importance of a relationship with corporation X in the US or Europe takes priority over what’s good for the field, it makes us feel like we’re being married off without consent so that you can collect the dowry and get in good with the big boys.

Changing “game-changing.” We can smell a sales-job a mile away. Particularly when you say something like, “this is potentially game-changing.” Once you utter those words, we know you’re talking smack. Why? Because in our view the real “game” of relief and development work is out in the field, where the rubber meets the road, in the communities where we work. Unless you can convince us that you have credentials in that sphere, you don’t know the game well enough to play, let alone change it.

Two hearts livin’ in two different worlds… Simple, but important. Many of you earned your street cred in the for-profit corporate world by persuading people to go along with your ideas. Maybe in sales. Many of us earned our street by going into impoverished, depressed, sometimes terrible places where it was our job to listen to local people, to analyze problems, to consider operational contingencies, and to consider ideas from as many angles as possible before undertaking them. A lot of what we do even amongst ourselves will often feel like so much picking apart of ideas, semantic hair-splitting, fretting about what might go wrong. Remember, for every Business Roundtable or AMCHAM meeting that you attend, we also attend a coordination meeting in the field or a technical working group. For every corporate grant win that you get to feel proud of in your world, we potentially have to endure glowering looks of colleagues in other agencies or host government counterparts for having sold out.

In short, your win is sometimes our loss. What’s more, a win between corporation X and NGO Y in a developed country can mean a distinct loss on the ground in poor communities. We’re not trying to be difficult. But until the people we work with on the ground in communities finally have a seat at the table, it is our job to do all we can to keep those losses from happening.

—–

More Lessons in the This is for my Corporates series:

Lesson 1: Watch your language

Lesson 2: Y’all really believe in that vision sh*t?

Lesson 3: What’s “the Field” got to do with it?

Lesson 4: People are not props

Lesson 5: How to kill what your non-profit had going for it

Lesson 7: A handout is a handout is a handout

*The Lessons here are based on carefully recorded participant/observation sessions among myself and subjects working in a variety of non-profit settings. In order to qualify as a “Lesson Topic” each conversation point must have been heard at least a dozen times per year over a 15 year period. New Lesson Topics are being compounded daily. If you would like to suggest a topic, hit me up.


Butterflies

I worked in a country that was just getting through a Civil War at one point in my career. I was in my late 20’s. I had very strong opinions about who was right and who was wrong in the conflict based on conversations I’d have with people in the (poor) neighborhood that I lived in, and the arrogant, right wing attitudes of the upper class who I felt brought the conflict upon themselves by their unwillingness to stop supporting a dictatorship and exploiting the poor.

The agency I worked with had a reconciliation program. They were supporting organizations from both sides of the conflict to work together and helping ex-combatants adapt back to civilian life. One of the organizations was an association of war wounded from the armed forces: ex-soldiers who were missing arms, legs, or blinded, or had some other sort of disability due to the war.

I was sitting in my office one day around lunchtime and the buzzer rang. The secretary was on break so I got up to open the door, and C. walked in. He was a bit scruffy but there was something about him. Instant crush. Damnit. One of those things where you look at someone and they look at you, and you realize that you’ve both just gotten yourselves into a potential hot mess.

He was with another guy, T. They were looking for me because I was the point person for the project they had submitted for funding. My stomach did little butterflies and my head told it to stop. Be professional. Get your shit together. Both C. and T. walked with limps, which tipped me off that they must be from the ex-soldiers association. We got down to business.

They were presenting a project and I had to review it. That was normally quite a process which would go back and forth several times. They’d explain to me what they wanted to do, I’d take notes, try to understand the project well, present the project at our project committee meetings, get feedback, give them the feedback, they’d adjust, re-submit, I’d re-present until eventually the project and budget were in the state where we gave them the funding. If you have ever submitted or awarded a grant, you get the idea.

With all the back-and-forth, I quite spent a bit of time with C. and T. I visited their office where they were making prostheses for other war wounded. (That was the project that we were to be funding). I sat in on some of their association meetings and trainings. They came to our office to hand things in.

I never was able to get over the butterflies. C. must have had the same experience, because the interactions were always charged with a certain energy. He was presenting at a meeting at our office one time and couldn’t keep the half-smile off his face when he’d catch my eye. He’d forget what he was saying and have to re-group his mind. But we were both married already. So we never talked about it.

One day C. and T. and I were in the lobby at the agency where I worked.  We exchanged the normal pleasantries. How are you, how did you sleep, how was the morning. C. said he hadn’t slept well. I made a comment like Oh, that’s too bad. Weather too hot?  He said No, that he had nightmares of his leg getting blown off. Of a loud noise and being loaded into a helicopter, losing consciousness, waking up again and seeing that he was missing the lower half of his leg.

Oh.

T. said he often had similar dreams. They started talking about their time in the armed forces. C. had been recruited off the street when he was around 15. T. had joined voluntarily. C. talked about how the army would come around and pick young guys up off the street. They’d take you to the barracks and beat you up. Then you’d sleep on the cement floor. The next day they’d come back around and ask: Who wants to go home. If you raised your hand, you’d get another beating. Eventually everyone decided they’d prefer to stay. They’d make you drink dog blood and pump you all up before you’d go out to fight.

T. spoke. I don’t dream about my leg. The thing that gives me nightmares is the time I shot a child.

You shot a child? How could you shoot a child?

I have nightmares about it all the time. He was probably about 12. I can’t get his face out of my mind. I never sleep the night through. But it was him or me. I was there, pointing my gun at him. He was there pointing his gun at me. One of us was going to die. So I pulled the trigger.

Oh. Um. Wow. Uhhhhhhh… think, think, uh, don’t know what to say to that…. uhhhh…. So, shall we review that project then?

C. drove me home one time after I’d made a visit to the project. He told me that he had a gun hidden in the car under the passenger’s seat because he was afraid the armed forces would send someone after him since he was leading protests against the government to demand benefits for the disabled ex-soldiers. Did I want to see the gun? I felt scared. I was an idiot for getting into a car with a guy who was from the Armed Forces and who had a gun. He said I could just reach down and I’d feel it there, and I could see it if I wanted. I had never held a gun before. And I didn’t want to. I declined.

We drove through downtown. Total Eclipse of the Heart was playing on the radio. He said he’d always wanted to know the words, so I translated them for him as we drove in stop and go traffic. The other thing, the thing we weren’t talking about, made the tension in the car thick.  We got a couple blocks from my house and I said he could let me out there. I didn’t want people talking about who I’d gotten a ride home with.

So, can I at least have a kiss on the cheek? he asked.  The tension burst.  No, I said. I can’t.  I’m married. I can’t. I have to go.

I got out of the car. He drove away.

Their project continued. I always looked forward to the project monitoring visits and office meetings. The tension built up again. My husband picked me up from work one day after C. had been in the office. I was giddy. What’s your problem? Why are you acting like this? You’d think someone just proposed to you.

One day, C. came by the office unexpectedly. He told me that he was leaving the Association. I had my small daughter, about 3 months old, at the office with me. It was the end of the day, time to go home.

Come for a ride with me on my motorcycle, he said. Bring her, she’ll be safe. I looked down. My mind swirled. I was torn.  I can’t, I said. I really can’t.  You sure?  Yes, I’m sure. I can’t.  Ok, he said. Silence…. Too bad, he said…. Well, anyway, he said….  I just came around to say goodbye to you.

I never saw him again.

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I have a friend who says I’m too nice. That I shouldn’t let myself get called out. That I should stand firm on my positions and opinions. But everyone has their reasons and their frameworks. There’s always a story behind a story behind a story. We’re all just trying to get through life, whether it makes sense or not to other people, or even to ourselves sometimes.