Archive for February, 2008

Watermelons

February 29, 2008

Watermelons
by Charles Simic

Green Buddhas
On the fruit stand.
We eat the smile
And spit out the teeth.

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Five words please

February 23, 2008
A challenge for you dear reader.  Five words to describe Africa.  Don’t think about it.  Just write them down (you can even post them on the blog if you want to).
 
I’m serious.  Stop reading go and do it.  I’ll still be here when you’ve finished.
 
—–
 
So what did you come up with?   ‘Magical’?  ‘Violent’? ‘Family’? ‘Backward’? ‘Beautiful?’ ‘Corruption’? ‘Community’? ‘Oppression’?
 
Words are powerful things.  Not least because they reveal how we imagine our world.  And most of our words about Africa spring from two images of this vast continent.
 
Image 1: Africa as the dark and magical continent
This image paints Africa as a place of mystery.  A place of magic and a place of adventure.  A place where values still matter.   A place where the importance of community and family have not been overtaken by love of ipods and colour televisions.  A place where an elder is respected not shouted at by rowdy teenagers.  A place of beautiful children with self-made toys playing outdoors against a backdrop of big skies and endless beautiful sunsets.  
Image 2: Africa as the dark and dangerous continent
This image paints Africa as a place of fear.  A place of instability and violence.  A place where values are unaffordable.  A place where the importance of protecting your tribe and family against all comers has not been overtaken by enlightened self-interest.  A place where an elder is busy organising election fraud, corruption and coups while teenagers sit on the side of streets out of work and out of hope.  A place of sick children with distended stomachs playing outdoors amidst the sewage against a backdrop of slum housing and endless hunger. 
 
Now I don’t want to be the self-righteous ass that delights in pointing out how wrong these perceptions are.  Partly because – like all clichés – there’s actually some truth in them.   I also don’t want to be the pompous traveler who tells you that these are massive oversimplifications, simplifications that remove from people here their human complexity.  For what choice do you have?  How on earth are you meant to hold in your head what life is like for 800 million people living in 53 different countries, speaking countless different languages, remembering countless different histories and praying to countless different gods.  Unless you enroll in a PhD in Africa studies, surely the only choices you have is to simplify.
 
Well, maybe there’s another option. 
For there is a image of life that is highly complex that you hold in your head everyday with ease. An image where you understand that humans – by their very nature – are complicated and contradictory.  An image where no human is reduced to being only magical and pure and no human is completely violent and backward.  It’s the image you hold of your own country and your own friends. 
 
And here’s the controversial bit.  Maybe, just maybe, – once in a while – we’d be better off when we think of Africa and Africans, starting off by thinking of our own country and our own friends.  And then making the dangerous step of assuming that people in Africa aren’t actually that different.  
 
At least that way – whilst we may lose critical cultural, historical and religious differences – at least we don’t remove from the African the most human attribute of all – complexity.

Pak elections: 2008

February 23, 2008

Well, the elections are ‘over’ and the results are out.  The people have spoken, and it seems they are tired of the military running the country. Fortunately, the elections went over quite well–considering the chaos leading up to the big day. 

 People were expecting mass rigging and random bombings.  What actually happened? Minimal rigging and ‘minimal’ bombings!!

What did happen was that voter turnout was extremely low due to the above two assumptions: 1) its all rigged anyways, and 2) it is too dangerous.  This lead to voter turnout of as low as 12% in many areas…so in that sense the election was not too democratic, I suppose.

 Anyhow, what I want to talk about is: How elections are rigged (at least a few of the methods in Pakistan)…the following few incidents are firsthand accounts I heard of the recent election.

1) Police officers (who are under the current regime)  close down an entire voting center and seal doors…then they sit inside drink tea and stamp voter forms for the existing party–all day;

2) Bandits show up with heavy weapons, walk in to the voter center, take the ballot boxes along with voter forms/lists and drive off-site–THEN they return with stuffed ballot boxes at the end of the day!

3) If a voting center has 3000 registered voters, on the actual day, there will only be 1800 that are ‘eligible’ while 1200 voters never get their chance, BUT mysteriously they end up voting that day!…someone else voted for them.

So, why was it not a mass rigging…hmm…well all of the major political parties that were contesting have won elections before…and they are ALL experts at rigging…so they were all ‘on’ to each other and anticipating rigging….thus, everyone had their reps and ‘bandits’ present at the troublesome voting stations.  As well, the attention from the international community (monitors, etc) had a huke impact on how things transpired.

 Now, what remains to be seen is how the next government is formed and what actions they will take against Musharraf.  So we arent out of the rough waters yet.

Gemütlichkeit

February 19, 2008

Gemütlichkeit (pronounced /gəˈmyːtlɪçkaɪt/) is a German abstract noun whose closest English equivalent is “Cosiness.” However, rather than merely describing a place as not too large, well-heated and nicely furnished (a cosy room, a cosy flat), Gemütlichkeit connotes the notion of belonging, social acceptance, cheerfulness, the absence of anything hectic and the opportunity to spend quality time.

Gemütlichkeit is the word the International Herald Tribune describes the feeling of Munich, #1 on it’s list of “the world’s top 10 most liveable cities”. Love this word.

Marketing Speed

February 19, 2008

I was walking up to the corner near my office when I saw a flash of yellow go by on the main road ahead, accompanied by a siren.  It was one of our ambulances—a good sight to see in the heart of Mumbai.  Just after it raced by in one direction, a man went galloping by on a white horse in the other direction.  He was followed by another man walking down the road with 10 large pipes on his shoulder, transporting them to a building site.  There’s a little bit of everything on the roads in Mumbai, and these contrasts are a good reminder that a modern, brightly colored ambulance really stands out on the streets here–especially when it’s moving fast. 

I don’t have any solid evidence, but I imagine that some people may be hesitant to call an ambulance because they so often see them stuck in traffic with their sirens on, no one pulling to the side to let them go past.  How do we help create a culture of making way for ambulances on the roads?  Not only would this allow us to provide better service in emergencies—from a marketing perspective, it will also help people associate ambulances with speed and make them more likely to use one in an emergency.

Back in Kibera, two months later

February 19, 2008

Kibera is relatively quiet on this hot February day, almost 2 months after the Kenyan Presidential election, but the rocks on top of tin rooves and stories of residents reveal what people have been through.

Today is the first time I’ve seen William (a nurse aide at one of our clinics) since we worked together in December, just before the election. At the time he reported: “The biggest challenge for our business in this political era is that there is a lot of insecurity. But I think that is just during this campaign period and after that I think everything will be ok.”

Unfortunately William was wrong in his prediction (along with most of the world). Kibera was one of the hardest hit areas in the post-election violence, which has claimed over 1,000 lives and destroyed parts of the country. “We were all sick, we were afraid all the time,” William describes. Perhaps most telling is William’s three year old son , Meshah, who still won’t leave his his father’s side:

William and his partner Millicent are working hard to keep their business going, but most of their customers have lost their incomes and are unable to pay for services. And though things are calm at the moment, William reminds me that there is a long road ahead: “Everyone is watching the Annan mediation team. Everything depends on what they can do, otherwise things will go right back to chaos.”

Surprise and Delight, Part III

February 18, 2008

Colorful procession

February 17, 2008

Pre-election fears

February 16, 2008

On Monday, February 18th, 2008 the people of Pakistan will decide who they want to lead their country into the future–or so they say!  Election fever is everywhere…I think. 

It was a beautiful Saturday morning with clear blue skies.  We set out to conduct a land survey and ended up passing several towns in the process.  As we passed each town, the roadside stalls were plastered with ‘party flags and banners’ and HUGE pictures of guys seekig votes (mostly with handle-bar moustaches, because we were in rural Pak!).  This is the part where I would stick in a picture, if I had the foresight of John or Catherine 😦

Strangely, with only two days to go, I only saw 2-3 rallies taking place during our six hours of driving around.  This made me start thinking…and asking questions to the people I was meeting today.  The conclusions of my very un-scientific survey are as follows (drum roll, please):

 I classify people into two broad groups: 1) ‘educated’ urban dwellers and 2) ‘not-so-educated’ rural dwellers (there is a 3rd group–diehard party supporters, but they are insignificant in number according to my survey)

When asked, ‘So who are you going to vote for?’

Group 1: ‘Vote?! I am boycotting the elections…there is no one to vote for, they are ALL criminals looking to loot the nation–and besides the entire process is rigged’

Group 2: ‘I am voting for Party X’

Me: ‘Why?’

Group 2: ‘Because my family/caste has always voted for Party X, and my cousin/uncle/nephew is running in the local elections under Party X. Our caste generally competes against the other castes on a very local level–it is an issue of our pride’

Me: ‘But arent all of the national parties led by crooks’ (my ‘unbiased’ survey skills surface!) 

Group 2: ‘What do I care what happens on a national level, it is completley irrelevant to me’

My conclusions: Voter turnout will probably be lower than usual because people are quite frustrated by the entire situation within the country and have lost hope. 

I know, I know…you guys probably want me to do a workshop on ‘surveying’ at Skolls, but I don’t think we will have time.

Anyhow, do pray for the best, as people are quite concerned considering what has been happening here and what happened in Kenya.

Why sleep?

February 15, 2008

I couldn’t. So I went to see what all the noise was about.