Tag Archives: development

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! ūüôā

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‚ÄúIn 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.‚ÄĚ

*****

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‚Äôs 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‚Äôs wild because I wrote it. Or else I am thinking how much I want them to stop because they are doing it really badly.”


Promises

Several years ago I was sent by the INGO where I worked to a nearby country to accompany and translate for a photographer and a reporter who were touring a post-conflict zone. They were going to take photos and write stories about the situation in the country and the work we were doing to address the impact of the situation on the most vulnerable communities. A driver and someone from a local NGO counterpart accompanied us.

There were many indigenous groups in the zone that we visited. It was my first experience at translating in a multi-lingual rather than bi-lingual setting. The journalists would ask a question in English. I’d put it into the official language of the country. A man from the indigenous group would make sure he understood what I was saying, and then he’d turn around to the group of men that had gathered to meet with us and relay the question or comment to them. They would have a long discussion, or sometimes ¬†what seemed like an animated argument, and come to a consensus on their answer. Then he would turn around to me, give me the group’s answer, and I’d put it into English for the 2 journalists. Sometimes the two journalists would clarify to each other in their native language, which I didn’t speak.

The group that we visited in one particular community had been forced off their land by the government who declared the area they had always inhabited an ecological reserve. They believed this was a political move rather than any real government concern for the delicate ecology of their homeland. They felt the government wanted to weaken them by removing them from their land and decimating their culture and their capacity to resist. This was part of the government’s approach to dealing with ‘lack of development’ in the country.

The photographer took lots of pictures. The reporter was thrilled with the story. The local counterpart representative looked happy. He was very supportive of our visit. Certainly it was worthwhile if it meant some more funding for his local NGO. I was excited to be in communities I’d never normally get to spend time in, plus, the journalists were really fun to hang out with. A great visit for everyone involved…. right?

As we prepared to say our goodbyes to this particular community, the headman said to us. “There is one more thing before you go.

Yes? yes?” said the reporter, adrenaline surging at the fascinating stories she would write about the lives of indigenous peoples and their romantic struggle for survival. “Tell us,” said the photographer, spirits high, imagining the colorful photos he’d print of the people in native dress against the pristine natural background, the bare-breasted women with babies tied on their backs, washing in the stream.

“Don’t take our photos and our stories with you if you are not going to help us.”

We realized we might be there a bit longer, explaining ourselves.

The photographer promised heartily that he’d send copies of his photographs. The journalist, instinctively holding her hand over her heart, promised she would send a copy of any articles that were written. I translated the promises, and made my own promise to send any articles and photos to the local counterpart, who promised to get them to the community.

They didn’t look satisfied, so now it was us conferring amongst ourselves to come up with a response. We agreed that I should carefully tell the headman that we couldn’t help them directly. I should explain to them the concept of ‘advocacy’, and tell them how the work we were doing would help ‘raise awareness’ about their situation and pressure their government so that they would not be moved off their land. ¬†I should help them understand that the local counterpart, the journalists, my organization and I were all ‘advocates’ for them.

They understood all those ideas just fine, but shrugged, not so satisfied. We felt uncomfortable. We didn’t have anything concrete to offer. And anyway, we didn’t see ourselves as ‘whites in shining¬†armor,’ coming to save them. No no, we were beyond that, better than that. We had progressed beyond all those other organizations. We were ‘changing policies’ not ‘giving hand outs’¬†and through our work we would be ‘catalyzing sustainable and lasting changes‘ in people’s lives. At least that was what we wanted to believe.

But what we were really doing was taking their story to use as a way to shine a light on our story about how any funds donated to us would empower them (and other beautiful, brown and colorfully dressed people like them) to save themselves. We really did believe that we could make a difference with our newspaper articles, our photos and our advocacy. Truth was that it was still more about us and our organization than it was about them.

“People come and take our stories, and they never come back, and our situation doesn’t change,” they said. “We hope that you will be different.”

Sure, we wanted to be different, but I’m pretty sure that the story that the reporter wrote and the pictures that the photographer took ¬†didn’t help this particular community at all. I never heard anything else about them after our visit, and I’m fairly sure they never heard anything about the 3 of us. Though I bet the next few times they saw the local counterpart, they asked.

The journalists got some fantastic photos and nice stories about the organization I worked with placed in the most popular newspaper in their home country. We all believed those stories were helping a larger cause somehow, and therefore that it was a good thing. Who knows, maybe we did make some kind of small difference in the big scheme of things.

Several months after our visit, I got a press clipping in a language I didn’t speak, which I sent off by post, not really knowing if the community would ever get it. We fulfilled our promises in deed, but that visit has always stayed with me.

“We hope that you will be different.”

We were not.


Dear Development…

(wherein @giantpandinha ends her relationship with Development and posts her open letter here….)

Dear ‚ÄúDevelopment,‚ÄĚ

By the time you read this letter I will be gone. We have been together a total of five years, with a long separation in the middle when I nearly eloped with social anthropology…. In our first stormy year, I was the ‚Äúlocal hire‚ÄĚ expat on a bicycle. The other four, I have been based at headquarters, where the biggest crises seem to revolve around lack of milk for tea.

I studied you, Development, at university, never really imagining myself working for an INGO. I was always more interested in culture, history, the lived experience of people coming out of colonialism than in “you,” the economic development part. Okay, so I was interested in human rights, but that was an indulgence – I always perceived that the rights obsession has its own perverse consequences in certain contexts.

I have been lucky in the two jobs I had – both allowed me to dodge the massive compliance edifices being constructed around me. These jobs allowed me to make other friends, they were not the jealous types.

In my last job, at an organization majority funded by individual supporters, people gave to us for who we were. Something I thought could free our hands to focus on the causes of poverty and to avoid what I have seen in many agencies. You know, the ones more dependent on government monies hence spend so much time bean-counting and measuring that they are unable to work with the people closest to the reality on the ground… the ones that treat development like a massive Rube Goldberg machine, where you put some inputs in, a series of technical and scientific interventions are applied… et voil√†. People are pulled out of poverty, and ‚Äúsustainably,” at that.

Thanks to Andrew Nastios, I learned that this approach is actually more Ford and McNamara than Rube Goldberg. That the reason ‚Äúdevelopment‚ÄĚ feels so bankrupt to me is that all of its tools, its systems, its approaches emanate from the managerial thinking that gave the world the car culture, and that made the Pentagon so powerful.

In my latest post, I worked in an environment of total cognitive dissonance. Where the language was of solidarity, of partnership, but in our day-to-day we tangled with massive compliance systems. Forcing them on social movements and NGOs in the Americas, Africa and Asia. All of these systems totally overdone, considering the level of trust our supporters had in our work. Obviously we needed strategy and to know partners were doing good work – but systems balloon and mushroom out of control. Even those creating them recognized their Frankenstein(s).

I was one of the only people given the slack to actually get to know our partners without jamming their words into required tools and reporting forms. I often wondered why people did not express greater envy about my job – the fact they did not was worrying in and of itself.

Against this backdrop, I was involved in trying to create a responsive, light monitoring and evaluation system that would ‚Äúprotect‚ÄĚ the work we did on the crucial stuff that Duflo and co. cannot ‚Äúrandomize‚ÄĚ – campaigning, policy influencing and social change. A worthy thing, and I feel almost like I am betraying those I have worked with on this by quitting now.

But our leadership does not really get what is at stake. Even in my relatively enlightened corner of the aid business, people are busy just simply being busy. Defending their little corner. Stuck building systems that are not for people but for abstracted automatons.

Our leaders are not serious about scanning the horizon, about admitting that the public is right to scrutinize aid. I hear none of the kind of serious soul-searching that the moment requires.

We repeat transcendent values like dignity and justice as mantras yet we are blinded by bureaucracy and relentless self-interest. We keep running into the breach and doing the work that governments must do for their own citizens. As much as Dambisa Moyo annoys me, why can‚Äôt we set a date for when this should be over? What would it look like if INGO staff actually dedicated themselves to the sensible clich√© of ‚Äúputting themselves out of a job‚ÄĚ?

People all over the world want to feel good, or even maybe just more ok. Even though most know humanity is screwed in the long run, people yearn to go where the energy is. Yet INGOs keep appealing to them with the same negative images, and collecting cold data for their institutional donor patrons. Individuals, and I would venture even taxpayers, do not need experts to spew evaluation data at them. They want to feel a stake in what is generative, what is life affirming. Statistics have a role, but their role is a backstop. People in the US and Europe want to support others in their struggles to make things better, and they want to see the connections between here and there.

In the end, the truth is that I feel very exhausted. And hurt. How is that possible? I am not hurt because of a failure of leadership per se, or a lack of vision in the sector. (I am more than aware of my  borderline pathological disdain for authority, which I done my best to keep in check.)

What hurts is being there. Taking this daily battering of double-speak, seeing my peers stripped of illusions slowly becoming jaded, mercenary aid worker hacks. Or seeing them simply jump ship to do the same thing elsewhere, like a change of scenery will make everything better. Or even worse, seeing them bury their heads in the sand.

Oh, Development, no amount of earnest critique, satire, or wounded camaraderie can save our relationship now.

So while I am disappointed in you – I tried so hard to make it work – I am not bitter. In spite of this hurt, I remember back through the last couple of years. You introduced me to amazing people. Some of these mutual friends we can keep. (That is if you do not make a voodoo doll of me after reading this letter.)

I am going to be starting some projects with like-minded friends, that are not about the same old patron-client relationship, repackaged in managerial logic and dragged out for post-colonial generation after generation. These projects are about trying to link people of good will, with energy that does not come from a knee-jerk guilt reaction.

If I fail, great, but I have failed as a human and not a cog in a lop-sided machine.


Holes

I made my first trip home to the Midwest after I’d lived out of the US for about 2 years. I wasn’t yet an ‘expat aid worker‘ but I had married a¬†‘local’. My husband and I lived minimally, surviving on his salary. Neither of us was¬†on the front lines by any means, but the war¬†in his country had only recently ended and things were still on edge, so we lived a bit on edge too.

This trip home was a classic example of so-called ‘reverse culture shock.’ Before my 2 years in my husband’s country, I’d been on the West Coast for almost 5 years. So being back in my mid-sized, middle class, Midwestern home town was a trip. People were big. They shopped in bulk. They ate large portions. They drove everywhere. They loved the mall, super-sized stores and fast food restaurants. The women had big hair, summer tans and gold jewelry. The fruit at the supermarket was big and fake looking. When you got it home, it was flavorless. Buildings were closed up, air-conditioned, sterile. The houses were sided or nicely painted, the lawns square and manicured. Streets were wide with multiple lanes. People drove shiny new cars and minivans. I felt a bit like I’d stepped into the¬†Black Hole Sun video….

On the one hand, sleeping under a down comforter in a chilled, quiet room with venetian blinds drawn meant I didn’t wake up with the sunrise and the roosters, and that was nice. My feet didn’t get dusty when I walked around outside. There was a washing machine, a dryer and a dishwasher. There were no mosquitoes or roaches or any other bugs in the house. The streets weren’t jammed with buses and cars beeping, revving engines or blowing out clouds of black smoke. I could watch old episodes of my favorite childhood shows on Nickelodeon, and they weren’t even dubbed. My mom made my favorite meals.¬†You could drink water from the faucet.¬†There was an abundance of cheese, real butter, green salads, and the chocolate didn’t taste like flavored wax. I didn’t worry about being assaulted — or worse.

On the other hand, I felt like a stranger.

I remember my mother complaining about how my younger brother was wrecking the house and didn’t care. The house didn’t look wrecked to me at all. It looked just how it had always looked, and it was about a thousand times nicer than where I lived with my husband.¬†“Come in here and look at this!” she said. “He put a hole in the carpet.”

We were having a conversation about a hole in the carpet?

I followed her into the room where the hole was.¬†“It’s right here….” She scanned the floor for the hole. She couldn’t find it. She knelt down and ran her hand along the carpet, feeling for the hole. “Ah! Here it is. Look at this!” I looked at the small tear in the carpet and made what I hoped were appropriate comments. I felt closed and distant. I was angry at her for complaining. Did she have any idea that most people in the world didn’t even have carpet? And she was upset over a small hole?

I couldn’t relate my mom, or anyone else really. I didn’t know where to start when they asked what it was like where I lived. Most people had no idea where the country I lived in was located, what language was spoken there, or that there had been a war there that they were funding with their tax dollars.¬†My grandmother wanted to know if we had toilet paper over there.¬†It took too much effort to explain and contextualize. My self-righteousness ran high.

One of my best friends from college came out from the West Coast to see me for a few days. She at least knew her geography, wars, history and US foreign policy. But it took us awhile to find some common ground. I had my young child with me. I wasn’t as hip as I used to be. She talked about how she didn’t have her dream job yet, that it was hard for people our age to get going on a career. She talked about her aspirations to be something or someone special. I tried to find a way to relate, but it was hard. Where I lived most people didn’t have big career dreams and aspirations, they felt lucky to have some kind of income.

It was her first time in the Midwest and she was culturally shocked too. Things mostly just made her laugh in dismay. She found the Midwest ‘scary’ and Republican. We had often gone vintage clothing shopping in college, so we took a day trip away from my home town out to some smaller rural towns to check out the thrift stores. They normally sat on desolate Main Streets alongside little diners, variety stores, quirky craft boutiques and secondhand bookshops. She took black and white photos of the 1950s style storefronts, the old-fashioned signs for ice cream and hot dogs, and the church signboards with crooked or missing white letters that urged sinners to come in and be saved. We ate¬†French¬†fries and grilled cheeses and drank lemonade at one of the diners.¬†A friendly old man in a baseball hat and overalls tipped his hat and held the door open for us, chatting us up in his slightly Southern accent.

After I got back home to my husband, my friend sent me some cassettes of her favorite bands, things she knew I’d like. She explained in the enclosed letter that one of the bands was fronted by Courtney Love, the wife of the lead singer from Nirvana. The band was called Hole.

I was excited to have some new music from an old friend. I popped Hole into the cassette player. Teenage WhoreBabydollGarbadge Man… It sounded harsh and ugly to me. My husband made faces. ‘Why are you listening to that?’ I pressed stop, annoyed at him, yet I couldn’t explain why I was listening to it. I wanted to defend myself, my college friend and Hole, but I had nothing to say.

For the next several weeks, when he was out of the house, I listened to Hole over and over, trying to learn to like it, trying to hang on to bits of my old self.


The forest, the trees, and the shoes (of course)

I was waaaaay up in the mountains of Honduras, in a remote rural community. My colleague was with me. It was her first time traveling outside of the US. We were visiting a housing project that a major donor had been supporting over the past several years. He wanted some pictures and a first hand report, since we were going to be in Honduras anyway.

It was the rainy season. We spent several hours on narrow, winding roads pitted with deep potholes. We got stuck in the mud once and the driver offered us his umbrella to stand under while he dug the car out. We drove through small rivers. Everything was green and red-brown. The houses were of clay and thatch. They blended in beautifully with the countryside. Unfortunately the insects that spread Chagas disease live in thatch, and breed in the walls and roofs of these types of homes. Chagas is a big problem in much of Honduras, and was one reason for the housing project we were going to see.

The community was quite happy to have us. Visitors from the outside were a rarity. They invited us around to see their homes, clearly there was a lot of pride going on. We gathered in a circle, some of us sitting on plastic chairs, under a big tree as the sun came out from behind the rolling clouds.¬†The housing project committee explained how they had put in all the manual labor, they had organized for the material purchases, and they had worked with los se√Īores ingenieros to agree on housing designs.

Mothers told us that now, because they had cement floors, they were sending their children to school. We were confused for a minute. What did a housing project have to do with children attending school? The mothers explained that they had been unable to keep anything (or anyone) clean before, because of the mud floors. But now they were able to keep school uniforms and shoes clean and ready for school, so they were not embarrassed to send their children off to school over in the next community.

Now that the housing project was complete, the community wanted to negotiate funding from the donor for a water project. They would be able to plant two times a year instead of once if they could tap into an irrigation system. They showed us the feasibility studies that they had managed to get done. They invited us inside the community president’s home to eat giant portions of turnips they had recently harvested, telling us how they could double production if the water system could be funded.

The community was animated. They were in a tough situation, but they were moving ahead. I felt really motivated.

As we drove away, I looked over at my colleague. She was in tears, upset by the poverty she’d seen.¬†‘Oh! Did you see the children?’ she said. ‘Some of them weren’t wearing any shoes!’

Talk about missing the forest for the trees.

*****

This post is part of the Day Without Dignity Campaign, a counter-campaign to Tom’s Shoes Day without Shoes Campaign.

Instead of going barefoot for a day to ‘raise awareness’ (eg., to promote Tom’s and reinforce the idea that poor people are helpless victims), why not do some research and donate the amount you’d spend on a pair (or 2) of Tom’s shoes to a good organization that does something concrete to support people to achieve their own goals though their own dignified efforts?


Planes

I took my first big plane ride when I was about 10. The trip was pretty exciting. I went to see my 2 aunts who lived on the West Coast at the time. We spent the first part of the trip in Northern California and then drove to Southern California. On the way out, I met my first vegetarian. She was sitting next to me on the plane and had long, straight brown hair and wore nice silver jewelry. She told me her cat was also vegetarian, which both surprised and confused me.

My N. California aunt¬†lived in a tiny house out in the woods, quilted, drove a pick up truck and was a volunteer EMS attendant. She¬†had a giant sheep dog and some kind of woven wall hanging that she had made out of the hair collected in the dog’s hairbrush. My mother had allowed me to take the family camera with me, warning that I only had 24 photos to take during the trip, and that I needed to conserve them for the whole week. My N. California aunt, however, said snap away. Experiences only happen once, and you can always buy more film.¬†In Southern California, I got my first glimpse of palm trees and freeways and personalized license plates. My S. California aunt drew out my horoscope for me, using the rainbow of Bic markers that she kept hooked in a row on the outside pocket of her big purse.

Since then I’ve spent a fair share of my waking and sleeping hours sitting on planes, traveling to new places and experiences.

The first few minutes of getting on the plane are always a gamble. There are any number of things you might be in for during that long haul. You might get 8 hours of uninterrupted thinking, sleeping, reading, music listening and film watching, or you might get a do-gooder, someone with bad breath, or an unruly child. There is always the dim hope that the person who ends up next to you might be interesting and attractive.

Once, on the way to Nigeria, I was sitting there in the middle row of seats, checking out the people streaming in on the right-hand side of the plane, deciding who I hoped would sit next to me. While I was distracting myself with that, a Nigerian guy slipped into the seat next to me from the left. He was decked out in a baseball hat, mini dreads and two fancy phones. And he was hot. He immediately started in, using his phone as a prop to strike up a conversation.

In a bizarre time capsule, we spent the plane ride talking, holding hands, drinking plane wine and watching movies together. I kept hoping my colleague, seated a few rows ahead of us, wouldn’t wake up from her Ambien and wine-induced slumber and notice. I wondered what the hell I was doing. The plane landed early morning and we exchanged numbers. He promised he’d call me later in the week. I said it would be difficult to see him as I’d be out of the city. We went to baggage claim and he hugged me goodbye, a bit intensely. My colleague gave me a strange look, raising her eyebrows. Argh.

He called me a couple times in Nigeria but I couldn’t really talk. Months later on Christmas Eve at an extended family gathering in the Midwest, with relatives I barely ever see, my phone rang and I let it go to voice mail. I checked it later, but didn’t call him back.

What happens on the plane stays on the plane.


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.”


Things you don’t see

I arrived to a new time zone a little under a week ago and am staying in a nice enough rural place with a pretty sparse set-up. There are some flowers in the garden outside, and a clean, narrow bed with a thin mattress and faded blanket. The walls hold the requisite framed pictures of nature scenes and inspirational sayings in English. There’s a throw rug that smells like it’s seen better days. Although there’s no mirror on the wall, there’s a little hand-held one with a plastic orange handle on the small table in my room. There’s no television in the individual rooms, but you can hear one blaring most of the time from the common dining area. The power supply is steady during the day. I can smell high powered disinfectant and insect repellent when I come back from the community in the afternoons, after the room has been closed up all day. The slapping sound of the woman caretaker washing clothes starts early in the morning. We’re able to communicate fairly well, sometimes with a little help from my colleagues.

Naturally, in addition to alcohol, Internet (both of which I’ve been able to get easily enough since the guest house has local beer and my colleague hooked me up with a ‘mobile Internet key’) and chocolate (brought some with me), I’ve been dying for a hot shower. It’s not really cold here, but gets down to 55-60 degrees¬†Fahrenheit at night, and early mornings are chilly, as is the water that’s been sitting in the pipes overnight.¬†What’s a girl to do but tough it out and reduce the personal hygiene standards for a couple weeks?

I slept in a bit this morning. Maybe that’s what’s made me a little more alert to my surroundings…. I noticed this in my room.

And realized all I have to do to get a hot shower is make it do this.

Doh. Funny how your pre-conceived notions make you blind to what is right in front of you.


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


Neoliberalism

Photo from Guebara Graphics photo stream

Here are a few paragraphs on neoliberalism taken from a great Egypt-focused article called “The Revolution against Neoliberalism” by Walter Ambrust:

“Although neoliberalism is now a commonly used term, it is still worth pausing a moment and think[ing] about what it means. In his¬†Brief History of Neoliberalism[1] social geographer David Harvey outlined ‚Äúa theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade.‚ÄĚ

Neoliberal states guarantee, by force if necessary, the ‚Äúproper functioning‚ÄĚ of markets; where markets do not exist (for example, in the use of land, water, education, health care, social security, or environmental pollution), then the state should create them. Guaranteeing the sanctity of markets is supposed to be the limit of legitimate state functions, and state interventions should always be subordinate to markets. All human behavior, and not just the production of goods and services, can be reduced to market transactions.

The market becomes an end in an of itself, and since the only legitimate function of states is to defend markets and expand them into new spheres, democracy is a potential problem insofar as people might vote for political and economic choices that impede the unfettered operation of markets, or that reserve spheres of human endeavor (education, for example, or health care) from the logic of markets. Hence a pure neoliberal state would philosophically be empowered to defend markets even from its own citizens. As an ideology neoliberalism is as utopian as communism. The application of utopian neoliberalism in the real world leads to deformed societies as surely as the application of utopian communism did.”

So take a moment and ponder what neoliberalism means, what it implies, and what its effects have been. Apparently it’s not exactly working in a lot of places.¬†I mean, look at Haiti, Central America. Egypt and its neighbors. Look at the United States.

When it comes to the world of aid and development, I get really nervous when I hear people talking about eliminating aid and allowing markets to take over, as if that will just solve everything. ¬†This complete bowing down to the market in every way, shape and form is obviously not working. Aid in its present form is also not exactly working. And the two things are pretty intertwined, feeding off each other….

I don’t have any solutions, just a lot of questions.¬†But what if instead of eliminating “aid”, we eliminated “neoliberalism”? Or we eliminated both and¬†came up with something totally new; something that actually works for the majority.