“It is very kind to send us food, but this is Africa and we are used to being hungry. What I ask is that you please take the guns away from the people who are killing us.” (from http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/in_pictures/7923247.stm)

A human rights group called Waging Peace collected children’s drawings from the Darfur region as evidence of the continued genocide there… Check them out at http://www.wagingpeace.info/


vegan I’m going to expand the topic of my blog to not only talk about issues related to Africa/int’l development etc, but to also talk about veganism (and perhaps more?) I read many blogs within the “vegan-osphere” and a conversation last night spurred me to think more about veganism in contemporary Canada.

I must be spoiled. The people I surround myself with are either vegetarians, vegans, or incredibly  understanding of my choice to be vegan.  So, sometimes I forget that 90-95% of the world (I made that figure up, does anyone have a statistic?) consumes animals/animal products without batting an eye. I am privileged to live in a region of the world where my food choices are abundant and relatively inexpensive. Because of where I live, I am confronted with the free time and energy to invest into thinking about my diet and the impact it has upon the world around me. I realize that in many parts of the world, to have such choices is often unthinkable- you raise your own animals, using their byproducts and their meat, you grow some vegetables in your garden, and what you don’t have, your neighbour or extended family does. You may buy a few products here and there at your market, or have relatives from abroad bring them when they return home. In a more rural context, an omnivorous diet seems logical for many people.

Anyway, what happened last night in Swahili class… We were learning the terms for kitchen items, such as cooking spoon (mwiko) and tomato (nyanya), we also learned the term for chicken (nyama ya kuku) and pork (nyama ya ngurue- this is good studying for me!) The teacher was giving us hints about the words and then we’d guess the meaning. When the term for pork came up, the teacher said “Muslims don’t eat this kind of meat,” and then he asked me, “Do you eat pork?” and I responded, “I don’t eat any meat. Or anything that comes from an animal.” I’m not sure why I couldn’t have just said “No,” but I always feel a bit defensive when people automatically assume I consume flesh. This of course started a discussion about meat-eating. The teacher told us that his anatomy professor in college once told the class that people eat meat, because people are made of meat, and so must consume meat in order to live. (Interesting logic…) Anyway the conversation progressed, with the teacher asking everyone “Why do we eat meat?” One older woman in class (she will be going to Kenya with her church) responded, “Because people who don’t eat meat are anemic.” I accidentally laughed at this, and I told her, “I’m not anemic.” In fact, when I told a doctor last year that I am vegan, he was surprised at my “very healthy” iron levels.  She said that her iron is low, and her doctor recommended she eat more red meat…

I am just stunned by how… outdated this advice is. There has been much research lately about the negative impact of red meat on health: raises the risk for various cancers, raises cholesterol, raises risk for heart disease, raises risk of “early death” etc… And there are plenty of whole food solutions for iron deficiency: chickpeas, spinach, avocado, beans, figs, apricots, brown rice and most of these come with the added nutritional benefits of calcium, healthy fats, fibre, and phytonutrients (and they are violence-free!)

I hope we are looking forward to a future of more honest information for citizens from health care professionals without the influence of industries that propogate violence (waged on animal, human and environmental health) and misinformation.


August 2, 2009

Check out Bamako’s Digital Multimedia Bookshop,  a” handmade computer box that acts as an offline distributor of online multimedia material.”  http://www.afrigadget.com/2008/07/31/bamakos-digital-multimedia-bookshop/

(picture taken from http://lasource.kunnafoni.org/english)

afri gadget

no one can stop the rain

I just finished reading No One Can Stop the Rain: A Chronicle of Two Foreign Aid Workers during the Angolan Civil War by Karin Moorhouse and Wei Cheng.  The book, written in a change-of-hands style based on Karin and Wei’s observations, journal entries, emails and even Wei’s paintings, details life as it was spent day to day by the couple in Kuito, Angola during a time of major insecurity in the country. Both were Medicines Sans Frontiers (MSF) volunteers, Wei, a surgeon originally from HK, and Karin, a marketing executive originally from Australia. Karin worked on the logistics side of things, while Wei toiled away in poorly equipped operating theatre, amputating land-mined limbs from men, women and children civilians. For me, someone who wants to work in a similar capacity, this book provided me with a better understanding of the day to day reality of working in the field in dire conditions. This knowledge, coupled with Wei & Karin’s bittersweet reflections on the Angolan peoples’ ability to endure, propels me further toward my goals.

One of the  most shocking sections of the book describes the land that is ridden with landmines, and the grueling process which local workers undertake to rid the area of landmines. When Wei & Karin were volunteering, Karin noted that at least 1 out of 5 people seen on the sidewalk were amputees- men, women, children. Compare this to where you live!  As Karin explained in the book, “It was said that one mine existed for each of the 13 million inhabitants” (248).  Something I found fascinating was the proces in which these local workers (called sappers) de-mined land: “Sappers work on their hands and knees, one square metre at a time. Each small plot was measured and marked with string and the colour-coded sticks. Sappers gingerly checked the surface vegetation with a thin probe looking for trip wires and booby traps. If they found nothing, they gently clipped the vegetation away with secateurs, removing each cutting by hand. After first testing their metal detectors, they waved these wands over a twenty-centimetre strip before creeping forward with their markers and repeating the process. Calibrated to detect metal up to twenty centimetres deep, the alarm sounded with frightening regularity, so it wasn’t long before the shrill warning sent my heart racing. But the sapper remained calm and marked the spot with a white plastic “X.” Mines have to be approached from the side as they are designed to explode from direct pressure from above. We watched as the sapper retreated to the safe zone from where he started to dig. Using a small trowel, he dug to a depth of twenty centimetres. Making a trench forty centimetres wide and twenty centimetres deep, the sapper dug unhurriedly toward the white X. He tenderly inserted a needle probe into the exposted soil wall of hsi hole at five centimetre intervals. If he hit nothing hard or metallic, he uncovered another five centimetre shaving of dirt. Bit by bit, he crept forward until he unearthed the metal in question. On this occasion it was no more than a harmless piece of shrapnel, which he cradled in his palm like a trophy (250).

Next time you find your job tedious and/or dangerous …


July 24, 2009

In my search over the past couple of years for the best source for quick, accurate and geographically varied news from Africa, I finally found http://www.allafrica.com last year.

AllAfrica.com is basically an aggregator site, which lists more than 1,000 news articles on a typical day. From their website, “Most of the stories you read on this site come from newspapers, news agencies and publications all over the African continent. We aggregate and distribute the reporting of more than 130 media organizations, each of which earns revenue from the agreement. Our aim is to reflect the diversity of reporting, analysis and commentary from as many as possible of the influential media in every country.”  (http://allafrica.com/publishers.html)

What I like best about this site is that you can choose to read news from a specific country, or about a specific topic by using a drop-down ‘menu’ of countries and topics. This has been a really efficient way to find current information on, say aid and development work and workers from a variety of sources, from the UN to a local Lagos daily paper.

“Rebranding” Africa

July 12, 2009

rebranding africa attempt 2

[The above image is taken from an op-ed article written by Bono for the NY Times, the image was created by Patrick Thomas. (See original article here: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/10/opinion/10bono.html?_r=1&pagewanted=1&th&emc=th)]

Since the editorial was published on 09 July, I have seen it as a recurring theme on many blogs, and the word “rebranding” took centre stage in much of the news-talk about Obama’s visit to Ghana. I want to draw attention to the underlying message of the image accompanying Bono’s article, the idea of a progress narrative, and why I think the subtextual elements and ideologies of the graphic are potentially dangerous to the future of Africa.

Progress is essentially an artifical notion created by Western cultures (ie white men) who believe(d) their achievements to be the height of civilization, with everything else before this height, and different from this height to be brutish, uncivilized, backwards, etc. Progress narratives then, assume that all up until this point in linear history has been uncivilized, and that in order for “uncivilized”/”third world” places to reach this pinnacle, there must be a constant, steady drive toward the “height” as defined by making progress toward these white, western ideals. These ideals include ideas about race, “good” governance, women’s roles, and the economy, and all other assumptions that cultures must agree upon in order to create a functioning society.

The above graphic asserts itself as functioning progress narrative, because of what can be read in the subtext of the image. The image is read left to right, which readers of romance languages (ie the west) will recognize as the “right” or “orderly” way to proceed through lines of text. The fact that the image is diminuitive on the left, growing larger and more triumphant on the right, is a simple visual representation the progress narrative, smaller on the left, beginning with the small “A,” Africa is inconsequential, but as we proceed right, the letters (representing Africa) become larger, bolder and more present, indicating that Africa has “risen to the height” to continue with the metaphor. So, now that Africa (as seen through Ghana) has reached the height of the emboldened “A” by meeting the western ideals for good governance through democracy, now we may see Africa as a continent of consequence. This undermines thousands of years of human history on the continent, and tells us that the West is the barometer for determining the worthiness.

Progress narrative ideology was clearly an active part of Obama’s Ghana visit, “…saying he wanted to draw attention to the country’s history of free elections and peaceful transfer of power between opposition parties” (source: http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/chi-tc-nw-obama-ghana-0711-0712jul12,0,7529697.story).

Bono explains, “Quietly, modestly — but also heroically — Ghana’s going about the business of rebranding a continent…Ghana is well governed…After a close election, power changed hands peacefully. Civil society is becoming stronger.” (source: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/10/opinion/10bono.html?_r=1&pagewanted=1&th&emc=th)

Both of these statements convey the sense of importance the western world places on the progress narrative, a specific element of which is the supposed righteousness of how societies choose to govern/be governed. The contemporary progress narrative asserts that there is something inherent, or natural, about governance through central democracy, such that the Ghanain demonstration of free elections and peaceful transfer of power has become a key sign of a “flourishing” (read: progressing) Africa.

Perhaps this was somewhat of a rambling post, but my point is, at its broadest level, that we must be critical about the way Africa is represented, and the ideologies behind those representations in western media. Since learning about progress narratives, I have realized how deeply entrenched they are in our understanding of the world- mostly the “third world.” Therefore, it should be our daily challenge, in our search for fact or truth, to remain aware of how omnipresent the progress narrative is, and how it informs our knowledge of places far away.

Obama in Ghana

July 10, 2009

I have been watching the news pretty closely for the past few days (unemployment, remember?) because of the news that President Obama would be in Ghana.  I have felt  ambivalent about Obama since before he won the election. I liked the idea of him, certainly, and was just thankful to have anyone but Bush in office.  Anyway, what I am most interested in is Obama’s “Africans are responsible for Africa” mantra.  In his speech, Obama had this to say:

“I think part of what’s hampered advancement in Africa is that for many years we’ve made excuses about corruption or poor governance, that this was somehow the consequence of neo-colonialism, or the West has been oppressive, or racism – I’m not a big – I’m not a believer in excuses.”

(link here: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/obamas-mission-of-tough-love-in-africa/article1207230/)

I have very mixed feelings about this sentiment expressed by Obama. On one hand, I agree to an extent that excuses are not going to drive a nation to healthier citizenry and governance. However, to assert that colonialism is nothing but an “excuse” is horrendous and an affront to all the worldwide members of indigenous communities and of indigenous ancestry who experienced colonialism first hand, 200 years ago, 100 years ago, and contemporarily.  The rammifications of colonialism are indeed being felt in a very real way through policies, artificial ethnic distinctions which still play big roles in the economy, politics and community life, and the loss of access to resources.

Post-colonial discourses such as Obama’s statement, assert that colonialism is a only a shameful relic of the past. These discourses endanger the public & political acknowledgement of historical inequalities, racist policies and how these operate today in the supposed “post colonial” context. Maybe not in the States, but in Canada (where I believe there is more public awareness of the colonial legacy) the notion of “contemporary colonialism” is the preferred way to refer to colonialism. Using this phrase, we are acknowledging colonialism in the present tense, not allowing colonial histories to slip from the collective memory.  Noting that colonialism is rampant today (Iraq, anyone?) is the most important message we can remember about colonialism, as it changes the way we conceptualize of international geopolitics.

Unfortunately, it seems Obama has failed us in this regard.  This, along with the recent news that Obama scaled back funding to help people in Africa with HIV/AIDS that was set in place by Bush, is incredibly disappointing. It is time to put down harmful discourses about Africa and look at problems for what they are: complex. Problems are formed by complex interactions between the political, social, cultural , economic, religious, and historical realms. It must be recognized that colonial forces such as the British, Portgeuse, Belgian, Spanish and French have played enormous roles in the past of Africa, and continue to do so in the present.

Does anyone have thoughts regarding contemporary colonialism & China’s continued investment in Africa?

UPDATE: 7/12/09: In response  to Idahotakemeback’s comment, here is the link to the full text speech: http://www.ibtimes.com/articles/20090711/obamas-speech-accra-ghana-july-11-text.htm

$13,770, please!

July 9, 2009

My heart skipped at least a thousand beats when I found this today:

The SIT Uganda and Rwanda: Post-Conflict Transformation study abroad program. http://www.sit.edu/studyabroad/10213.htm

The program is basically field work and course work that “explores key social, economic and cultural issues affecting Uganda and Rwanda as these countries attempt to rebuild sustainable societies following highly destructive conflicts… In both nations, students engage with academics and intellectuals, organizations, community groups and policymakers- all working toward reconciliation and redevelopment- to gain an understanding of the historical issues underlying the two conflicts and the nature of efforts to consolidate peace in their respective aftermaths” (from the website).

For Fall 2010, the program costs $13,770 (that’s just tuition: there’s also, air fare to Africa, books and supplies, homestays, visa, immunizations…wow).

Bake sale, anyone?

The title of this post  was a question posed to me by my dear mother a few days ago when I told her about my latest stack of reading material:

“Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe

“All Things Must Fight to Live: Stories of War & Deliverance in Congo” by Bryan Mealer

“The Man Died” by Soyinka

“Eyewitness to a Genocide: The United Nations and Rwanda” by Michael Barnett

“No One Can Stop the Rain: A Chronicle of Two Foreign Aid Workers during the Angolan Civil War” by Karin Moorhouse & Wei Cheng

” We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families: Stories from Rwanda” by Philip Gourevitch

Maybe not “typical”  light summer reading, but I have done plenty of that in May and June. Now, it’s back to reality. Most people who know me closely know that I have a fascination with Rwanda. I guess it all started with reading Roméo Dallaire’s book, “Shake Hands with the Devil,” after my best friend recommended it, as it was part of her Global Stewardship course readings. If you haven’t read it, Dallaire’s book leaves lots of room for criticism. Of course, I think it is fairly common knowledge that the UN and the US completely failed Rwanda in the 1994 genocide. We know this. But reading Dallaire’s book illuminates how exactly these failures and breakdowns occured. And the UN’s complete disregard for Rwanda’s citizens and future was arguably one of the biggest incidences of the world’s neglect that many authors are still trying to find where the blame should lie. For me, there are more interesting questions to be asked.

I did a research paper on the subject of the Rwandese genocide entitled “Beyond Ethnicity: Genocide in Rwanda” which I wrote to help myself understand how this particular genocide was imagined and perceived by the Western world. I had taken issue with Rwanda being equated with old notions that the genocide was just another brief uprising of African “backwardness” or “tribalism.” I knew that there had to be more involved in such a massive, brutal (most killings were done by hand: with machetes- quite different than passively dropping atom bombs on Hiroshima & Nagasaki, yes?) organized attack on the “Tutsi cockroaches.” To sum up my paper, here is how I concluded:

“In reality, it was the complex interaction of a variety of social, economic and political factors that created an opportunistic space for the conflict and genocide in Rwanda. The rigidity of ethnic classification instituted through colonial regimes allowed the political elites to construct class problems as ethnic ones, thus enabling the mobilization of thousands to take misunderstood revenge upon their antithesis, their ethnic enemy. The myriad of environmental factors and differential access to land and other ecological resources contributed to the depth of poverty experienced by rural citizens, and the anger arising from the cycle of poverty played an important role in the desire to resort to inhuman lengths to ‘right the wrongs.’ Due to the disadvantageous economic circumstances facing much of the rural poor in Rwanda, as well as a large, disenfranchised Tutsi diaspora in Zaire, political conditions were prime for upheaval and conflict, as individual and collective actors sought to make meaning of their status in society.”

To return to the question posed at the beginning of this post, Why do I study the darkest of human historical moments? Why do I feel the need to attempt to understand genocide? Is genocide understandable? And “doesn’t it impact you emotionally?”  To be honest, I have often asked myself these questions, as I see most people around me satisifed with 33 second sound bytes from CNN or Fox News. I have never come up with a clean answer, as being asked this question flusters me, because to me, it is obvious. I am certainly not putting down anyone else- there are plenty of current goings-on in the world which I am ill-informed of. I accept that, and with it, I take on the responsibility of becoming more informed, and am always working toward that goal. For me though, seeking to understand the seemingly inconceivable is a strategy for survival. I must know both tragedy and triumph in order to understand the world & my place in it.

As Philip Gourevitch says in his book (see above), “The best reason I have come up with for looking closely into Rwanda’s stories is that ignoring them makes me even more uncomfortable about existence… The horror, as horror, interests me only insofar as a precise memory of the offense is necessary to understand its legacy” (1998, p. 19).

Anyone interested in learning more about the 1994 genocide in Rwanda should look to these sources:

Wikipedia’s entry is actually very comprehensive with a lot of great links: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rwanda_genocide

“Rwanda: How the Genocide Happened.” BBC. 1 April 2004. Accessed 12 December 2008. http://news.bbc.co.uk /2/hi/africa/1288230.stm.


And for a more in-depth account of the genocide and especially the UN role, I highly recommend reading  Shake Hands with the Devil by Lt. Gen. Roméo Dallaire.

Eglise Ntarama, Rwanda

The Night Commute

July 6, 2009

Location: Gulu District, Uganda, Africa

Who: Tens of thousands of children

When: Every night

What: Walk up to 20 kilometres per night from IDP camps to large town centres in order to be safe from the preying hands of the LRA, the Lord’s Resistance Army, which is a force in Uganda known for abducting children for use as soldiers and sex slaves during the civil war.

Location: Missoula, Montana, USA

Who: Handfuls of college students, young activists, families

When: April 2007

What: Participated in the GuluWalk, an event created by two Canadians in 2005 in order to bring awareness to the Ugandan children known as night commuters. The GuluWalk happened on the same night in cities throughout North America, where 9-5ers, activists and college students joined together to mimic night commuting. Participants walked from their home with supplies needed for camping over night. In Missoula, participants chose to sleep on the grass in front of the courthouse, hoping to bring civic attention to night commuters.

GuluWalk 2007 in Missoula was a profound night in my life. A group of friends and I walked from the University with our sleeping bags to the courthouse, where we met with the other GuluWalk participants.  I’d participated in small town activism before, usually at the hip of my mother who plays an active role in defense of the natural resources in our hometown in Idaho, so I had already grown to have a feeling for coming together with the like-minded to do something that feels important to the people participating. I knew and enjoyed that feeling where political divisiveness lessens, giving way to productive dialogue and creating solutions. This night brought those feelings, but the atmosphere was unsettlingly jovial when coupled with the gravity of the situation in Uganda. There were younger teenagers from a youth group, gathered around a young guitar-playing boy, singing songs together. People were sitting together in groups, chatting and writing letters on stationary to send to then-President Bush. Photos of smiling Missoulians were taken to mark the occasion and to send off with the letters. Participants had not walked terribly far (according to Google Maps, our commute was 1.6 miles), we all came prepared with sleeping bags, some people brought pillows, and the most heavily prepared brought mp3 players, guitars, ear plugs, cell phones,  food, water, and tarps in anticipation of the unforgiving rain that did fall that night. Passersby of the GuluWalk may have been somewhat confused, wondering why people were casually camped on the front lawn of the county courthouse. What seemed to be missing was the realization of the gravity of the situation the night commuting children lived with on a daily basis. These children walked with nothing but the clothing they wore, with little access to drinkable water, and certainly no food, sleeping bags, or mosquito protection to sleep in a safe(r) place than their homes.  Homes to the GuluWalk participants were just minutes away, when we rose in the morning after feeling the rain seep through our sleeping bags throughout the night. I do not remember if I slept at all that night. I remember laying in the grass, with my head hidden under my sleeping bag, whispering back and forth with my friend J, in the lapses of our conversation hearing the rain hit my the nylon of my sleeping bag. My discomfort lasted mere hours and consisted of only the relative inconvenience of rain gradually permeating the seams of my sleeping bag. My discomfort was abetted knowing that when the sun rose in the morning,  I’d be walking back to campus in safety with my closest friends, to a hot shower and a warm bed. I had no concerns about being abducted by screaming men with AK-47’s. I was not worried about being taken hostage and used as a pawn in my country’s civil war… If it hadn’t been raining, I would’ve slept like a baby.

If you’d like to know more about the Gulu Walk, please visit the website at http://www.guluwalk.com/.

Also, the BBC’s “in pictures” featured photos of the real night commuters, see them here: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/shared/spl/hi/picture_gallery/05/africa_night_commuters/html/3.stm