Friday, December 30, 2011

The Palestinian Circus School

 
Circus school in Palestine? Yup! I read about the Palestinian Circus School on the blog ePalestine. 

The school, founded in 2006, is a non-profit, non-governmental organization registered with the Palestinian Authority since February 2007. In the their own words:

We believe a future Palestine is possible, with people who dream of a better life and invest positive energies in their society. The occupation is devastating our lives, as individuals and as a nation. Trust, unity, dignity, respect and hope are under threat. With our circus school, we want to develop the creative potential of young people in Palestine to engage them, empowering them to strengthen their identity, and enter into a constructive and positive dialogue with each other, in order to become positive actors in their society. We offer a safe space where people meet in equality and by working together we achieve the most meaningful result.

Our goal is to overcome the divisions within our society by working with everybody, everywhere. By bringing people together in our trainings and traveling all over the country with our shows, we challenge the multiple boundaries that have been imposed on us for far too long: political, geographical, economical, religious and gender.  

They have circus clubs for boys and girls in the West Bank, in Ramallah, Hebron and Jenin. In October 2011, the school started new circus clubs for beginners in Bethlehem, Al Faraa Camp and Birzeit. The Palestinian Circus school also has a summer camp and entertains people with their mobile circus and street parades.  What could be more healing for a people whose ethnic identity most often conjures the word 'occupation' or worse, 'terrorist'? Check out their web site, read about their mission, look over their photos and I think you too will be inspired - smiling.

For related blogs, check out:


Friday, December 2, 2011

Dalits of India Place Hopes in the Goddess of English


The other day I started watching "The Sound of Mumbai," seen in a video clip here from Youtube. As I travel to Kolkata, India each year to volunteer with slum children I was drawn of course to this film. In my time with Indian children, I always feel I learn and gain in many ways much more from the experience than what I give, so I was intrigued by this effort to showcase Indian children singing the much-loved songs from "The Sound of Music." I will admit that it seemed rather ethnocentric that foreigners would find it useful to teach poor children English songs that have nothing to do with their background, ethnicity or environment. But I guess I was wrong.

In An "English goddess" for India's down-trodden, BBC News reported that the dalits of India are "building a temple in Banka village in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh to worship the Goddess of the English language, which they believe will help them climb up the social and economic ladder."

The dalits, known as untouchables, are so low and vile that they perform the most polluted, menial tasks in Indian society, working with animals skins, waste and tending pigs and buffaloes. Ghandhi called them harijan, or "children of God." While discrimination based on caste is illegal in India, and has been since independence in 1947, many of the country's 200 million dalits face injustices daily, living in slums and squalor, attending school but made to sit and eat separately and suffering violence perpetrated by higher caste Hindus whose actions often go unnoticed or are disregarded.  Indeed, the Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) charity has stated that while some crimes are reported, much caste-based discrimination and violence in India goes unrecorded.

Just this week, an Indian dalit boy was killed because he had the same name as that of high caste man's son. The boys father, Ram Sumer, had been given several warnings by Jawahar Chaudhary to change the names of two sons whose names were the same as his own, Neeraj and Dheeraj. The body of Neeraj, 14, was found in a field by two friends: he had been strangled. Chaudhary denies involvement saying he was framed, but two acquaintances of his have been arrested.

But hope springs eternal, and for the dalits of Banka, action means change. About two-feet tall and made of bronze, the newly 'minted' Goddess of English is modeled after the Statue of Liberty. According to Chandra Bhan Prasad, a dalit writer who came up with the idea:

She is the symbol of Dalit renaissance. She holds a pen in her right hand which shows she is literate. She is dressed well and sports a huge hat - it's a symbol of defiance that she is rejecting the old traditional dress code. In her left hand, she holds a book which is the constitution of India which gave Dalits equal rights. She stands on top of a computer which means we will use English to rise up the ladder and become free for ever.



Dr Chandra Bhan Prasad with the statue of the English goddess
The goddess of English
While Hindi is the most widely spoken, there are dozens of languages regularly used in India with hundreds more in use in rural areas. To communicate, Indians often use English as their lingua franca. In Banka, Nalanda school principal Shiv Shankar Lal Nigam says that "It's not possible to get by in today's world without English. Even to communicate with people in other Indian states, you need to know either the local language or English. Since you cannot learn multiple Indian languages, English has to be used as the link language."

To succeed in medicine, education, engineering, IT, virtually any job of consequence, it is important to know English. Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar, a Dalit thinker and architect of the Indian constitution, is quoted by Chandra Bhan Prasad as stating that "English was the milk of a lioness, only those who drink it will roar."

To avoid discrimination, some dalits converted to Christianity, but some found even this unsatisfactory (read Indian Dalits find no refuge from Caste in Christianity) . The government of Indian passed legislation decades ago to remove and make punishable prejudice and wrongdoings aimed at dalits to no avail. Perhaps the Goddess of English will help dalits combat caste inequality: after all, the origins of caste discrimination are embedded in Hinduism, perhaps it necessary to fight centuries old religious beliefs with an equally imposing supernatural 'force.'

Kamlesh was pushed for walking on the 'wrong' road
Kamlesh was pushed on to a pile of burning rubbish for walking on the "wrong" road

Sunday, November 27, 2011

"Officially" Transgendered

While in the US attitudes towards gays, lesbians and transgendered people are changing, there is still a stigma present that makes it difficult for many young people exploring their sexuality to do so freely and safely. While on the one hand there is the tragic story of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi,  who committed suicide after his roommate used a webcam to spy on him in an intimate encounter with another man, on the other there are movements such as The Trevor Project and It Gets Better that speak
Anna Grodzka - Poland's first transsexual MP
Anna Grodzka
against hate and intolerance aimed at gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered individuals.

Moreover, it is still in the fashion (see Designer's Choice: Transsexual Models) and entertainment segments of American society and elsewhere that people who see themselves as other than heterosexual seem to be most visible (think Chaz Bono on Dancing With the Stars). While worldwide countries such as Nepal and Pakistan are legalizing third gender roles, in the US gender diversity is still a contested topic. But, there are stories of professionally successful transgendered people who are clearly accepted in mainstream society here and in other Western nations.

Recently, Poland's first transsexual member of parliament, fifty-seven-year-old Anna Grodzka, was sworn in following the general election in October.  Grodzka was previously a man, known as Krzysztof, before having surgery in Thailand. While Poland has been a traditionally socially conservative country, Grodzka's Palikot Movement has taken a strong anti-clerical stance, criticizing Roman Catholic priests involved in politics. This coupled with the waning influence of the church allowed Grozka to win 10% of the vote and make the Palikot Movement the third largest political party in Poland.

Georgina Beyer in 1993, the newest councillor on the Carterton District Council
Georgina Beyer, 1993
Long before Anna Grodzka, however, New Zealand's Georgina Beyer, neé George Bertrand, was very likely the first transsexual in the world to win a seat in a national office; Beyer was elected to the New Zealand Parliament by a mostly white, rural, conservative constituency that was perfectly aware of her background.

Of Maori heritage, Georgina grew up on a rural farm, an indigenous young man coming of age in a society dominated by white privilege. Georgina's story only begins here; she was 'educated' in the streets and clubs of urban New Zealand, spending time in prostitution and using drugs, working as a singer and dancer in the transvestite nightclubs of Wellington and Auckland. After a brutal rape, Georgina retreated to the "remote" town of Carterton for drug rehabilitation, became a community organizer, was elected mayor of the town in 1999, and eventually made her way to the national stage as a member of parliament. Her story is told in all of its elegance, humor and irony in the documentary, Georgie Girl. I saw the New York premier of this film at the Asia Society and was both entertained and inspired. Especially when the film showed a clip of Georgina's elderly, rural white constituents talking about "our Georgie."



Amanda Simpson
Amanda Simpson
In the United States, in 2010, President Barack Obama appointed Amanda Simpson, 49, senior technical adviser at the commerce department in the bureau of industry of security. Simpson changed from a man to a woman in the late 1990s while working in Arizona at the missile firm Raytheon. A former test pilot for Raytheon, the Telegraph reported that Simpson persuaded the company "to adopt a policy protecting employees from discrimination and abuse based on gender identity." In her governmental position, Simpson is in charge of protecting national security through the management of international trade, enforcement of treaties as well as the promotion of homeland, economic and cyber security. In regards to her new employment status Simpson said:

I'm truly honored to have received this appointment and am eager and excited about this opportunity that is before me . . .  But as one of the first transgender presidential appointees to the federal government, I hope that I will soon be one of hundreds, and that this appointment opens future opportunities for many others.

 I find it interesting that while Chaz Bono's stint on DWTS was plastered on every major newspaper and celebrity magazine in the US, I found Simpson's announcement in the The Telegraph.

In November, 2010, Alameda County elected 49-year-old California patent lawyer Victoria Kolakowski as the United States first openly transgender trial judge. Kolakowski beat prosecutor John Creighton 51 to 48 percent, a margin of nearly 10,000 votes, to become a member of California's Superior Court. Previously, Kolakowski was an administrative law judge for three years working on energy contract and compliance disputes for the California Public Utilities Commission.

As I write this, I wonder if it is a coincidence that both Simpson and Kolakowski were both 49 years-old at the time of their appointments. At this age biological women would be going through menopause and entering obscurity in the American public eye as 'gendered women,' by which I mean they would no longer draw attention for their beauty or ugliness, their fertility or lack there of.

Indeed, historically and worldwide, postmenopausal women have often gained positions of importance normally reserved for men in politics. Remember Margaret Thatcher, Gold Meir and Indira Ghandi? Currently serving are Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany; Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, Prime Minister of Iceland; Pratibha Devisingh Patil, President of India; Julia Gillard, Prime Minister of Australia; Sheikh Hasina, Prime Minister of Bangladesh; Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia and many more in Brazil, Finland, Kyrgystan, Slovakia and Switzerland (for a little insight on this read Gender and the Company We Keep). Perhaps because middle-aged, menopausal women become invisible in the sexual/youth-centered American psyche, accomplished transgendered women can succeed minus the fanfare, both pro and con, as we seem to either applaud or bash a person's appearance according to prevalent norms. But I digress!

Victoria Kolakowski
Victoria Kolakowski
In their coverage of the November 2010 elections in the US, the New York Times published an provided an overview of transgendered candidates running for office in California, Oklahoma, Oregon and Maryland entitled, "Advocates Hope Transgender Identity is not a Defining One." 

This article states that "gay rights activists hope that the visibility of the candidates will help normalize people’s relations with people who are transgender — a broad category that includes heterosexual cross-dressers, homosexual drag queens and kings, and those who believe that they were born in the wrong body."

Yes, I look forward to the day when people can just be people, not referenced by race/ethnicity, gender/sexual preference, age or any other qualifier, seen simply as a person good at their job.

Also of interest: Third Gender Legalized in Pakistan, In Nepal: Third Gender Citizens Recognized
Also related: the story of Zuni 'princess' We'wha, a two-spirit 'man-woman' who represented the Zuni nation to leaders in Washington, DC, in 1886.


Friday, November 18, 2011

Voodoo 'and/or' Catholicism




Pope Benedict XVI is touring Benin in West Africa. While in Europe Catholics are leaving the church in record numbers, West Africa's Catholic population is thriving and Benin boasts the world's fasted growing Catholic population. Indeed, the next Pope may be African as high ranking bishops and monsignors from this region move into important leadership positions in the Catholic Church.

However, Benin also recognizes Voudoo as its official religion and high ranking Voodoo priests were invited to meet the Pope on his current visit. While 22% of the people in Benin identify themselves as Muslims and 27% as Christians, 40% follow Voodoo. In Benin as well as in Ghana, Nigeria and Togo, people have no problem syncretizing Voodoo with Islam or Christianity, especially during times of stress. Voodoo is however, more than a religion. It comprises culture, philosophy, language, art, dance, music and medicine. Ordinary people ask Voodoo priests to intervene for them with the gods. These divinities are specialized, similar to Catholic saints, who intervene for people in times of need. For example, there are over 5,000 saints and some examples include: Saint Christopher, patron of travel; Saint Francis of Assisi, patron of animals; and Marie Bernadette, patron of the sick. In Voodoo, Gou is associated with war and blacksmiths, Sakpata with illness, healing and earth, Heviosso with storms, lightning and justice and Mama Wata-with water. Locals in Africa insist their religion has nothing to do with sorcery or black magic.

West Africans brought Voodoo to Haiti where it continues to blend alongside French colonial Catholicism. Some of the 100 Voodoo gods and goddesses have mirrors in particular saints who, while similar, are not exactly the same in their myths and abilities. For example, Mary is Ezili the Voodoo love spirit, Saint Patrick is Danbala the serpent spirit, the peasant farmer Azaka is Saint Isidore and Saint James is the warrior Ogou. On the altars in priestesses' homes one can see images of these Catholic saints side-by-side with candles, powders, herbs, oils, roots, perfume and a variety of liquors, all important elements of Voodoo ceremonies.

And in New York, you can also find a Voodoo priestess in Brooklyn - Mama Lola. For an in depth look at this contemporary Voodoo healer, read Karen McCarthy Brown's fascinating ethnography of Mama Lola.

As a Catholic by birth but not by practice, I find it interesting that the fastest growing populations of new Catholics reside in Africa, emerging from peoples whose own Voodoo beliefs involve the literal sacrifice of animals, theatrical ceremonies filled with pageantry, the consumption of alcohol and the worship of supreme beings. While I found the guilt and patriarchy of my own childhood Catholicism overbearing and frightful, I may be willing to sit with Mama Lola in her home and see if her approach to the gods feels more welcoming.

Worshippers carry oil lanterns and dance during a night time procession through the streets of Benin"s main city of Cotonou, 17 November 2011
Africa has the Roman Catholic church's fastest growing congregation.
 

Saturday, November 5, 2011

'Mining' Trash


Guatemala Trash Miners
In this photo taken Thursday Oct. 6, 2011, a man holds up a gold ring he found as he was searching for scrap metal in contaminated water at the bottom of one of the biggest trash dumps in the city, known as "The Mine," in Guatemala City.

Last month  in "Working at the Dump" I wrote about people around the world who work and sometimes live in their city's waste. Here, in the Huffington Post, "Guatemala Trash 'Miners'," everyday people descend 300 feet into a ravine below a landfill and amid "foul odors, the danger of unstable piles of garbage collapsing and the chance for heavy rain to suddenly raise the water level" dozens search for jewelry and other metal scraps that remain behind when the lighter garbage washes away. They can make the equivalent of $20 a day or more, as good as a regular job for the poor of this country. Though illegal and dangerous - some 'miners' have died while others have suffered broken bones in flash floods in the ravine - the work can be lucrative.

These 'miners' are modern day hunters and gatherers, finding opportunity and resources wherever they can. If you are !Kung, you can roam the Kalahari desert, hunting giraffe and other wild beasts and gathering wild fruits and high protein mongongo nuts. Urban dwellers however need cash to purchase their food and pay for housing. So, if you live in Guatemala City, you head to the landfill hoping to find jewelry or to "collect screws, faucets and other recyclable metal items that" you can sell for 85 cents a pound, eraning twice the minimum wage on average per 'scavenger trip.'

Cultural adaptation for the poor?

 Click here to view the photo essay from the Huffington Post.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Music as Medicine


turkish-doctors-musical-cures
Anaesthetist Dr Erol Can (left), playing a yayli tanbur, an Ottoman violin with Professor Bingur Sönmez holding a flute. Doctors in the Istanbul hospital are reviving ancient musical therapy for a variety of illnesses. Photograph: Jonathan Lewis
Anyone working in an operating room during surgery is familiar with the fact that doctors bring their own music to "work." While not a doctor or nurse, I have traveled as a medical coordinator with surgical teams to under-served countries on three continents and I can vouch for the fact that everyone puts iPods and speakers on the list along with surgical supplies and instruments when planning a trip. While here I am describing music as perhaps an aid to the operating room staff (to help keep focus?), much research is now being done on the role of music as a mechanism to heal.
In 2010, Claudius Conrad from the Harvard Medical School and Harvard Stem Cell Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital, Department of Surgery, in Boston published a perspective in The Lancet, a health journal, entitled "Music for healing: from magic to medicine." Conrad provided an overview of the magical, ritual and mystical origins of music as a healing modality from Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal times till now. He pondered the evolution of music therapy despite the fact that "a fundamental question underlying the role of music in health is also to ask why music developed in the first place and why it produces an emotional reaction and attenuation of the human stress response in the listener despite serving no essential biological need." He further states:
The oldest example of the contextual use of music for healing may be the depiction of harp-playing priests and musicians in frescos from 4000 BCE. During this era, a Codex haburami (hallelujah to the healer), was performed as sonorous reimbursement for medicinal services rendered. In 2000 BCE, the cuneiform writings of Assyrians depict the use of music to circumvent the path of evil spirits. In later centuries, the first specific application of music as therapy developed in ancient Greece, with Aesculapius recommending the use of music to conquer passion. Perhaps not until the 6th and 5th centuries BCE, did an interest develop in trying to understand the effects of music on human beings.
Continuing to the Middle Ages, "the alternating sound of the flute and the harp served as a remedy for gout." Contemporary shamans and other healers actively use drumming, stringed instruments, dance and trance to heal the sick, keep the healthy well, welcome newborns to humanity and send spirits to their final homes at funerals. Research institutions and hospitals are examining the benefits of music in the fields of mental health (including autism), dentistry and surgery. 


The Guardian recently published a piece entitled, "Turkish doctors call the tune with traditional musical cures." A hospital in Istanbul is using complementary therapy for a range of illnesses by playing ancient Arabesque scales and patterns (see photo above). Stressing that music and healing is not new, the doctors explain how different pitches and patterns produce varying effects. For example, Dr. Sonmez says that "Without having to prescribe additional drugs, five to 10 minutes of a certain musical piece lowers the heart rate and blood pressure." He further states, "We are not doing anything new, and we are not reinventing the wheel . . . The positive effects of music therapy have been known for well over 900 years." According to the article, the use of musical instruments "was integrated into medieval Islamic medicine as early as the 9th century, when scholar and philosopher Al Farabi discussed and cataloged the effect of different musical modes on body and psyche." Dr. Somnez says the staff sometimes play music for each other on break so that everyone is "cared for." 

To read the full article from the Guardian click here.

And for another look at the healing power of music, watch The Story of the Weeping Camel from national Geographic. "When a Mongolian nomadic family's newest camel colt is rejected by its mother, a musician is needed for a ritual to change her mind" from IMDB. Trailer below.

Ending FGM

The Fight Against Female Genital Cutting: New York Times reporter Celia Dugger reports from West Africa on progress in community-based efforts to eradicate female genital cutting.

This week the New York Times published, "Senegal Curbs a Bloody Rite for Girls and Women," a report about female genital mutilation (FGM) and successful efforts to stop the practice in this West African nation. Performed out of love and respect for their daughters, mothers continue the practice to shield their girls from abuse by other women and to ensure they will be suitable for marriage. However, through education and by persuading young people living in villages that intermarry (as young people must marry outside of their clan/village) to abandon the practice, gains have been made in ending this ancient rite of womanhood. Many mothers, emotionally and physically scarred by FGM have sworn not to cut their daughters. To learn more, visit The Female Genital Cutting Education and Networking Project.
To read more on efforts to stop female genital mutilation in Africa, read Educating About Female Circumcision in Africa. In that post one can see the rudimentary instruments used to cut the girls - often two, four or eight years old - who suffer the surgery without anesthetic. To read the full article from New York Times on Senegal click here.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Our Forests, Ourselves



This week in class we discussed horticulture: not the gardening you do around your house, but the lifestyle of indigenous peoples in the rain forest who plant using hand tools only, supplementing their crops with hunting and the gathering of fruits from forests surrounding their villages. They grow or protect not only plants and trees used for food and drink, but other useful species such as trees that provide leaves for shelter and plants that have a poison used to stun fish, making them easy to catch.

Specifically, we looked at the Guarani of Paraguay and the Runa of Ecuador. Both are traditional peoples whose self concept is intertwined with the forest. They practice forest management techniques that disallow over use of their territories. People fish only in rivers near their homes. With swidden agriculture, useful trees are left standing while the rest is burned and root crops planted amidst the cooled soil. Villages are camouflaged by forest canopies, hidden down winding, overgrown paths, almost invisible to outsiders. For the Guarani and the Runa, their only wish is that their children live just as they do, in the forest, building canoes and houses and gardening just as their ancestors did centuries ago. Moreover, myths and everyday speech are peppered with stories and phrases elaborating on the human characteristics of natural phenomena. In their world view, nature and humanity depend on each other and there is no room for laziness or greed on either side.

While the Runa have formed communas to protect their way of life, the Guarani have seen their lands shrink through encroachment by colonos. These outsiders clear cut the forest, use fertilizers and over use the lands. Unable to practice their traditional lifestyle because their territories have been planted with monocrops, the Gurani now depend on wage labor and must buy their foodstuffs. Their nutrition has suffered. Families must relocate for work. Traditional relationships - personal and spiritual - are unsustainable. The Guarani now suffer high rates of suicide among males between 15 and 24, high rates of depression and a lowered self concept, referring to themselves now as "indios" a perjorative term, instead of "the people of the forest." When the forest dies, people die. This is not a metaphor.

Unfortunately, forests all around the world today are dying. Both climate change, where cold seasons give way now to warmer temperatures that fail to destroy invasive insects, and corporate interests, whose efforts clear cut forests for logging, ranching and agriculture, are destroying the trees. If this continues, humans will not be able breathe.

Recently, at the same time I was lecturing on the Runa and the Guarani, I saw two articles addressing the death of the forests. One approached the subject from a scientific (Western?) point of view, taking a global look at how humans are harmed by the loss of natural forests. The other provided an insiders perspective, an intimate look, at the human cost of greed.

The New York Times article, With Deaths of Forests, a Loss of Key Climate Protectors, states that "while a majority of the world’s people now live in cities, they depend more than ever on forests, in a way that few of them understand." The article further says that forests have absorb more than a quarter of the carbon dioxide that people are putting into the air by burning fossil fuels and other activities, "an amount so large that trees are effectively absorbing the emissions from all the world’s cars and trucks." The article details:


If forests were to die on a sufficient scale, they would not only stop absorbing carbon dioxide, they might also start to burn up or decay at such a rate that they would spew huge amounts of the gas back into the air — as is already happening in some regions. That, in turn, could speed the warming of the planet, unlocking yet more carbon stored in once-cold places like the Arctic. 

Deforestation through human efforts and through forest fires warm the climate. In turn, an environment friendly to the proliferation of harmful insects is created. These insects kill trees whose decay spews carbon dioxide back into the forest in a loop of despair! And this is only one example leading to the death of forests on every continent, from the American Southwest to Siberia to the Amazon.  It is as though, in contrast to forest management practiced by the Indians whose worldview aims to maintain the Earth for future generations, current economic and technological activities are destroying the very hand that feeds them.


Balancing this presentation of scientific research and environmental efforts is a piece in Al Jazeera, The Crying Forest. This article highlights a documentary that investigates the life and death of Ze Claudio Ribeiro da Silva, an Amazon rainforest activist well known for standing up to loggers, ranchers and agriculturalists and their corporate interests. He was gunned down, alongside his wife Maria, on May 24, 2011 in a remote corner of the Brazilian Amazon. Six months earlier he had predicted his own death saying, "I will protect the forest at all costs. That is why I could get a bullet in my head at any moment."  Since 1996, at least 212 Amazonian activists have been murdered because of the battle to preserve nature or over land disputes with wealthy loggers. These deaths, a crying forest, humanity and nature.

One story, two perspectives. Either way, it affects us all.

To read the New York Times article click here.
For Al Jazeera, click here.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Safe Haven in Chicago





Last month I wrote about 'baby bins' in Saving Baby.  Around for centuries, baby bins and baby hatches allow mothers to abandon their newborns without consequences to agencies and hospitals that will care for them. All over the world and throughout the United States, newborns discarded by mothers who cannot for myriad reasons take care of them are saved from certain death through safe haven policies.
 Here is an article from the New York Times that highlights a woman in Chicago working to save abandoned infants and snippets of the lives of those who, once thrown away, are now thriving in loving homes. In the photo above is Illinois couple Kevin and Tracy who adopted 'Baby 49,' now a 2-year-old named Molly (photo by Jose More/Chicago News Cooperative).  


Friday, September 23, 2011

Gender and the Company We Keep

A recent study cited in the New York Times showed that testosterone in human males dropped after fatherhood. Further, the study noted that the hormone dip accelerated the more time men spent in child-rearing activities. The New York Times editorial mulled over implications of manhood and masculinity as currently debated in these changing times here in America, where more mothers are working and more dads are delving into the diaper-changing, car-pooling, bath-time, bed-time arenas once reserved for stay-at-home moms. But let's take a broader view.

Research conducted by Anna Meigs in the 1970s among the Hua of Papua New Guinea suggest a characterization of masculinity and femininity that mirrors this study of fathers and their changing testosterone levels. I will summarize here, but the whole concept made me think that the Hua, who numbered between 100 and 300 people at the time of the study, were light years ahead of our rigid Western ideas of gender and sex.

The Hua believe that all humans possess a real life-giving force called nu that can be transferred person-to-person. Nu helps people age and mature. As females have lots of nu they are moist and grow fast while males have smaller amounts and are dry and need assistance to grow-up. So one's masculinity and feminity is characterized both by genitalia and by one's amount of nu.

One can get nu from someone's breath, women's bodily secretions, eating particular foods that are high in nu qualities and generally by being married to or hanging around women. Those with little nu include boys getting ready for puberty ceremonies who avoid women and nu rich foods to make themselves dry, hard and fierce. People with high amounts of nu include children of both sexes (because they spend so much time with their mothers), married women with children and - here we hark back to the aforementioned study - old married men! With a lifetime spent having intercourse with women (who are considered polluting) and eating nu rich foods, middle aged and older men become more 'like women.' Conversely, post-menopausal women have lost nu by having children, through menstruation and by handling and preparing food - they are more 'like men,' entitled to live in the men's house. They are no longer a threat.

In thinking of the Hua, I would like to know if pre-menopausal women who spend no time with children, little time with women and more time with men (such as women in corporate or managerial positions with high ratios of men to women) have lower levels of estrogen and progesterone and higher levels of testosterone? I think about women in their thirties and forties who marry then quit their jobs or work part-time in order to start families and then find it difficult to get pregnant. After years of trying, sometimes infertile couples choose to adopt. Once they become mothers, some women then find it possible to have a biological child. Does having a child/hanging around children and other women by participating in play groups, PTO, etc., influence estrogen and progesterone levels? After all, women who cohabit find that their menstrual cycles get somewhat synchronized - maybe hanging around men does the reverse?

I think the Hua are on to something with their concept of nu, just not yet sure how it applies.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Working at the Dump


Outside of Siem Reap in Cambodia, the city where literally hoards of people from around the world arrive to visit the ancient ruins of Angkor Wat, sits a unique income generating opportunity for the underclass in this region, the dump. Due to its distance from the city, Siem Reap's dump receives little aid from NGOs. Everyday 140 children and many more adults sort through the smelly paper, glass and plastic. Their schedules are dictated by the arrival of twenty garbage trucks a day from Siem Reap. The location of the dump makes access by NGOs difficult but some are trying to help. According to the article ""Life on the Margins" in the Siem Reap Insider/ Phnom Penh Post:

At the nearby Kaliyann Mitt Centre operated by NGO Friends International, group monitor Kem Phalla said there were 145 children living in the dump according to a survey this year, with 42 attending local schools.  “This is the last place that people come to when they need work,” she said. “Some days the mothers go to the dump and leave their babies for someone to find and take care of, and then go and find a job farming or something else.”  Phalla, who coined the “dirty little secret” moniker for the dump, said casualties from working in its disease-filled environment trickle into the centre’s clinic every few days, with broken bones and infected cuts among the most common injuries.  “Usually if a wound is bad it’s become infected from handling glass bottles. At the centre we mostly try to divert children away from working in the dump towards other jobs. We send the children who want to find skills to our education centre in Siem Reap where they can learn tailoring, cooking and other trades.”

Siem Reap dump, photo: Michael Sloan
However, another dump exists outside of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, the Stung Meanchey. For intrepid visitors, HotelTravel.com says, “If you ever wanted to remind your children how lucky they are, this is the place to bring them.” Dump tourism, who'd have thought. On a visit to Phnom Penh in 2006 a friend and frequent visitor to the city first made me aware of this unique travel opportunity when she told me about the dump and offered to arrange a visit. The Stung Meanchey dump is even mentioned in a two-page photo essay in a university textbook for introduction to sociology courses by James M. Henslin. But Cambodia is not the only place where the poor can scrap out a living on garbage.

While visiting India to volunteer for Empower the Children,
Garbage sorting, Dakshindari slum
I accompanied some children on a tour of their 'slum' in Kolkata called Dakshindari. Throughout the lanes people could be seen methodically separating the waste into metal, plastic, glass, etc., both in the street and in their yards. Old and young were at work. Some women looked to be in their 80s as they sat bent over with gnarled hands working quickly as they looked nimbly for 'treasures.'

The Global Post recently ran a photo essay titled, "Disposable Communities: living and working in the world's largest trash dumps (see below). These workers help countries recycle their garbage cheaply. However, the dangers of this activity are horrific: the health hazards associated with picking through medical waste, getting crushed by the huge machinery disposing of and moving around the waste, and the menace of disease and ailments from parasites and bacteria found in decaying food sometimes consumed on the spot by hungry workers. It's not a career of choice, but for hundreds of thousands of people around the world it holds both a means of survival and a daily threat of death.

Click here for the entire photo essay from Global Post or continue below to view the photos only.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Babel in New York City

I have a particular fascination with how we use language in this big world of ours. At school, I hear students on campus joking with their friends saying things like, "Oh yeah, she's my b*tch!" (this is one girl referring to another) which translates into "we are best friends." Now, "stupid b*tch" would mean the opposite, so the same word can have different applications depending on not only the adjective but the gender of the speaker (boys can never use the word in a positive way). The f-word is used freely as both an adverb and an adjective, punctuating everyday conversation among friends. If you listen to rap or hip hop you can hear a whole new vocabulary (the urban dictionary online can be very helpful in deciphering the meaning of "stacks" and "boo:). Of course, I believe there is an age cut-off at which time these words can never be used by any speaker of any gender (according to my children, I am in this category).

Then, there are world languages. It is difficult to know how many languages ever existed in the world but experts estimate that between 4,000 and 9,000 have disappeared since the 15th century. Others say that a language disappears on average every two weeks as native speakers die and their children assimilate. Today about 6,800 languages exist with approximately 4,800 spoken in Africa and Asia (and of those, about half have less than 10,000 native speakers). In Papua New Guinea alone there are 830 distinct languages! In Papua New Guinea, pidgin is the lingua franca spoken across the country, comprised of words from English, French and other sources. It is not a hodge podge of phrases but follows particular rules of grammar as do more 'formal' languages.

Linguists are very interested in coding languages before extinction and guess where they are looking? New York City. According to a recent article in the Economist, the five boroughs host speakers of 800 languages, many of them endangered. A group of academic linguists called the Endangered Language Alliance are trying to make a record of those most vulnerable before they are gone and have codified 12 so far including "Garifuna, which is spoken by descendants of African slaves who made their homes on St Vincent after a shipwreck unexpectedly liberated them; Mamuju, from Sulawesi in Indonesia; Mahongwe, a language from Gabon; Shughni, from the Pamirian region of Tajikistan; and an unusual variant of a Mexican language called Totonac." Along with the language, these researchers are collecting stories and cultural artifacts unique to the participants.

Right here in New York City! Fascinating. Can't wait for the online dictionary.

To read the entire article from the Economist, click here.

For more on language and culture read:
Nigeria: pidgin and culture 
Female Bloggers in India: the importance of language.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Saving Baby




A mother walks past the Door of Hope orphanage in Berea, central Johannesburg
A Johannesburg orphanage says its baby hatch gives desperate mothers an alternative to dumping their babies in rubbish bins
I saw this article in BBC News, "'Baby bin' to save South Africa's unwanted children. Mothers in Johannesburg's Berea suburb can anonymously leave their newborns in this 'Door of Hope.' Also referred to as 'baby hatches,' this method of allowing mothers to place their unwanted children in institutional care is not new. Italy established the first foundling wheels in 1198. In Florence, foundling homes were accepting newborns in the thirteenth century. The Innocenti Foundling Hospital was designed by Renaissance architect Filippo Brunelleschini which opened its doors in 1445. It is still in operation. Mothers who did not want to directly hand their babies to the hospital could place them in a basin to the right of the front portico beneath a window that opened to a space where a woman was always on duty to attend to the abandoned infant.

Throughout Europe, foundling wheels have existed since the 17th and 18th centuries. Today, in many European countries (Germany, Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic and Hungary to name a few) as well as in Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur, Japan, Brazil, Canada and the US, it is legal for mothers to anonymously abandon their babies via the baby hatch in hospitals and social welfare agencies, though the details vary by country and state. In the US, all 50 states have a type of 'Safe Haven' law that permits mothers who choose not to keep their infants to legally leave them in official care. In South Asia, Pakistan has over 300 baby hatches. In both Pakistan and India, this practice provides an alternative to female infanticide. This killing of infant girls is motivated by the pressure of providing dowries for daughters among the poor as well as the traditional preference for boys (see the Economist's, Missing Girls in India and Bangladesh and India: violence against women ). 


In the 17th an 18th centuries, these infants were adopted, fostered out to families as farm labor or conscripted by the state into the military or into work programs. Today, many will find new homes or be cared for as sons as daughters if not in families at least by the state or social welfare agencies. At the very least baby bins can provide hope to replace the despair heaped upon children brought into the world under circumstances that cannot sustain them.

To read the full article on baby bins in BBC news click here.
http://komunitikini.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/Photo578.jpg
Baby hatch Kuala Lumpur
Your baby will be cared for here
Baby hatch, Germany
Baby hatch in Japan     

Monday, September 5, 2011

Serbia: helping love along

This was just too cute to resist re-posting. Many European nations are not replacing their members as family size gets smaller and people move away for better jobs in other countries. The population of Serbia has been declining over the last 20 years and has now reached 25,000 people annually. Particularly hard hit are rural areas. Recent wars, poverty and a low standard of living are all part of the problem. To help, one mayor is trying something new.

But in the nearest town, Jagodina, there is a new and unusual attempt to reverse the tide: Mayor Dragan Markovic has introduced a scheme in which 150 single men and 150 single women, all over the age of 38, are being given a free holiday to the Greek coast in September in the hope that sparks might fly and a few more babies emerge. The venture is funded by the municipality and, he says, private sponsors. 

According to a BBC article, "Serbia tries singles nights to fight population decline" incentives to marry and have children include "free bus passes and stationery for schoolchildren, generous maternity leave and cash bonuses for new parents."

To read the full article, click here.

Hospital Donations Overseas

In her post in the New York Times, Making Medical Donations Work, Tina Rosenberg discusses ways to maximize and make sustainable humanitarian aid. The article specifically targets the ups and downs of sending expensive equipment and medicines abroad. In my experience conducting site visits in foreign hospitals in advance of medical teams and as a manager of surgical missions, I'd like to share a few things I've learned along the way.

To begin, and this is mentioned in the article, don't donate expired medicines or equipment or send along equipment that barely functions. It will just end up trashed, taking up space or eroding your goodwill.

All humans are opportunists. If you are giving something away, people will take it, even if it is not what they need. Let's say the hospital needs an x-ray machine but you have an anesthesia machine to donate. They'll take it - perhaps it will be used someday, perhaps not. I've seen a lot of expensive machinery sitting unused because no one has been trained to use it, parts are broken, there is intermittent electricity, film/ink/whatever needs to be replaced and is unavailable, etc. etc. The same is true of drugs: supplies of medicines sitting on shelves and used sparingly if at all as the supply is finite and the clinic/hospital/health center doesn't want to run out.

If you give, be sure you can train people to use and/or maintain the equipment. If you send a dermatome machine, they are going to need blades eventually, keep that in mind.

When I tour operating rooms examining the equipment so that our doctors will know how to prepare for their missions, I often see very nice equipment. I have learned to ask a basic question: does it work? I cannot tell you how many times the answer is 'no.' Perhaps there are three operating rooms that will be available to the team, but only one or two working anesthesia machines. Or, I will ask if the electricity ever cuts out (this happened on a trip in Vietnam in the middle of an open-heart operation). Is there a generator? How long till it kicks in? What can it support?

At this end, when  we hear the word "hospital" (or "doctor" or "nurse") we have certain expectations and assumptions. Best not to assume. I always say you have to stop thinking like an American on these trips. Doctors and other medical staff are doing their best under circumstances most medical personnel here would find not only challenging but debilitating. They see severely ill and injured patients they are at times unable to provide care for because they lack a few basic items. Which brings me to this: donations do not have to be huge to be effective. Everyday over-the-counter medicines have their place too. Hospitals always need supplies, like sutures - you don't have to think big and expensive to be helpful.

If you want to help, I believe it is important to have someone on the ground you can trust to facilitate your work overseas. Follow-up, visit and be sure you get accountability. Sometimes the best you can do is get close to the truth - and sometimes that is enough.

Click on the title to read Making Medical Donations Work from the New York Times.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Female Bloggers in India: the importance of language

In my blog post, Nigeria: pidgin and culture I described the social, political and even economic aspects of language. To conquer a people, take away their language and impose your own, as the US did with Native Americans, along with the British in India, the French in Indochina and the Australians and the Aboriginals. One can be fluent in a second language, but it is the speech of home, the nuanced way we learn our expressions that help us create identity.

In India, their are women who blog in English and those who write in any number of other languages spoken throughout that country. According to a recent article in the the New York Times, "Indian Women Bloggers Find Their Voice, In their Own Language," author Nilanjana S. Roy describes how women who blog in English tend to be in their 20s and write about "city life, dating and relationships, and workplace issues" while those who blog in Tamil, Hindi or other languages in South Asia are older and steer towards more personal issues and keep politics local.  Very interesting read. For the full article from the New York Times click here or continue reading below.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Sex and Citizenship

In Jordan, the foreign born husbands of Jordanian women and their children can never be Jordanian citizens. Even if they live their entire lives in Jordan, they will always be 'outsiders,' unable to enjoy basic social rights. Conversely, the foreign born wives and children of Jordanian men automatically receive citizenship. Jordanian law also states that the children of male Jordanians inherit their father’s nationality no matter where they are born, even if they’ve never set foot in Jordan. Unfair? In the past, similar views on women, race/ethnicity, citizenship and marriage existed in the US - but here, I will briefly address only women.

In 1855, the US Congress declared that foreign born women married to US citizens or naturalized aliens automatically acquired US citizenship, but only if they were qualified as white. Indeed, the Supreme Court in 1868 held that only white women be allowed to gain citizenship upon marriage to a US citizen. If they did not meet racial restrictions, men too were denied naturalization, which meant that even if they were white, foreign born women married to men not considered white could not gain citizenship for themselves, regardless of their qualifications.

Congress legislated in 1907 that any woman married to an alien would have her citizenship terminated. In 1922, Congress partially repealed the act, but continued to strip citizenship from any woman married to a non-citizen racially barred from naturalization. Also in 1922, Congress ended automatic citizenship for women upon marriage to a citizen or naturalized alien. Moreover, many courts in the US took away a woman's citizenship if she married a foreigner. This law was repealed in 1931.

While non-white women faced restrictions on citizenship based on their sex and race, it should be noted that others too were unfairly subjected to US citizenship laws. It was not until 1924 that Congress passed an act granting US citizenship to all Native Americans in the US. (This meant, interestingly, that legendary all-American athlete and Native American Jim Thorpe was not legally a US citizen when he successfully competed in the 1912 Olympics in Sweden.) Additionally, it was not until 1940 and the Nationality Act that all persons born in the US automatically became citizens of the US. Of course, the racial component of citizenship is still alive and well in states (AZ, CA, TX for example) with large numbers of illegal/undocumented immigrants. But that's another blog.

For the full article by Laurent Zecchini, "Jordan: Mixed Marriages, Geopolitics And A Gender Double Standard" printed in Worldcrunch from Le Monde, click here.

(Information for this blog was taken from, "Racial Restrictions in the Law of Citizenship" by Ian E. Haney Lopez in "White by Law: the legal construction of race," NYU Press, 2006.

Bangladesh: Rights of Indigenous People



Members of indigenous communities demanded their recognition in the constitution as “indigenous people” instead of tribal or proposed “minority ethnic group” at central Shahidminar in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Image by Abu Ala, Copyright Demotix, 29 April 2011.
I found the following post from the blog, Third World View. The 1972 constitution names Bangladesh the land of Bengalis with no mention of traditional or indigenous peoples. These indigenous communities want to be recognized as such, but government officials feel that rewriting the constitution to include their indigenous status may lead to the idea that 'Bengalis' are "invaders" or "intruders" to Bangladesh. The ethnic minorities who mainly reside in the hill tracts of Bangladesh have been subject to human rights abuses for many years. This classification has great importance in the eyes of the indigenous peoples in terms of their cultural identity, rights and status in Bangladesh. Read their history and their words (in English and Bangla) in the original post "Bangladesh: Indigenous or Not Indigenous, That is the Question" here.
 

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

International Day of the World's Indigenous People

In honor of all indigenous people today, representing 5% of the Earth's population but 15% of those living in poverty, speaking 4,000 of the 7,000 languages in use worldwide and often suffering injustices simply because of where they live, I am posting a one-minute video about K'iche' Rigoberto Menchu from Guatemala, winner of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize.


You can find her autobiography, "I, Rigoberta Menchu" on Amazon.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

'The Interrupters:' Stop the Violence




I have three words, 'watch this trailer.' Then - this is important - go see the movie.

The Interrupters is a documentary about the efforts of CeaseFire to stop the violence on Chicago's streets by enlisting the aid of people from the community. The movie was directed and produced by Steve James, director of "Hoop Dreams" and produced by Alex Kotlowitz, writer and author of There Are No Children Here who first wrote about CeaseFire for the New York Times Magazine in 2009. CeaseFire's founder and executive director is Dr. Gary Slutkin, an epidemiologist for almost 30 years who began his work on the U.S. violence epidemic in 1995.

With histories similar to those of the people they are trying to help - associations with gangs, familiarity with jail, drugs and interpersonal violence - the interrupters go to street corners, they go door-to-door, they speak with authority in a voice that cuts through the anger, they tell people who feel invisible that they are worth something, that they can change.  As reported by Amy Lee of the Huffington Post, Tio Hardiman, the Director of CeaseFire Illinois and a former drug addict and hustler, remembers early skepticism from whose who questioned whether such an organization could possibly make a difference. "You got to talk as if, 'Man, I know, I been there," he says of the interrupters. "Save yourself brother -- I'm not preaching to you."

Click here to read the Amy Lee's review, "The Interrupters:" Documentary Deals with Violence on the Streets of Chicago.

The Interrupters Documentary
The "interrupters"


In Brazil: Surfing Away from Favelas


Some members of the FSC at their Cantagalo headquarters
The Favela Surf Club aims to make a real difference to its members' lives
 In Rio de Janeiro, some young favela residents are using their skills as surfers to not only earn money but to help other children growing up in the favelas have a sense of purpose and accomplishment - and hope. Living in shantytowns rife with drugs and crime, the Favela Surf Club provides children with boards and lessons for free, offering an alternative to the violence they see everyday. Living far from Rio's beaches in hillside slums, kids practice their surfing on skateboards. Competitions also give them a sense of pride.

Alternatives
Some instructors also grew up in the favelas, like Jefferson Cardoso da Silva who joined the Favela Surf Club as a child. Now 21 years old and a college student, Jefferson earns money by giving tourists surfing lessons saying "Bad things were going on in the favela so I would come down to the beach and go surfing instead." Many of his friends are dead or in prison. He feels good about helping other kids "ride the wave of hope." I admire their entrepreneurial spirit: home grown sustainable aid to the poor!
To read the full article from BBC News, "Rio Surf Club Gives Hope to Shantytown Children," click here.

Related posts:  

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Brazil: Radio Mulher

After a year of training local women, Radio Mulher aired its first programme on July 2 [IPS]
I've become a major fan of Al Jazeera news.  They recently posted an article about a female-run radio station whose messages, delivered by women, focus on gender issues, social and health matters, local environmental problems, employment and women's rights. While the police have been aggressively trying to empty the favelas or shantytowns of gangs and drug dealers and stifle crime and violence, women still face sexual abuse and limited employment options. They women want to bring these issues to the forefront. One woman is Ivanir Toledo, who left home at the age of nine and suffered homelessness and sexual violence. Now married with a grown daughter and an active member of Women of Peace, Toledo says: 

"If you ask a man for a plate of food, you know the first thing that will pop into his mind. I started suffering violence as soon as I left home (at age nine). I'm talking about rape and abuse. And not just at the hands of one or two or three guys, but more. You're there against your will, at that person's mercy." 

Toledo's husband has pride in his wife's work and states she is happier than before. Women of Peace also want to address employment opportunities for women who most often serve as heads of households in their poor communities. 

I urge you to read the entire article, "Women in favelas broadcast peace," here.




World Breast Feeding Week

This week newspaper headlines are filled with tragic stories of people dying of hunger in Somalia. Caused by droughts but exacerbated by politics, in southern Somalia the Al-ShaBab insurgent Islamist group is blocking the escape of starving people to feeding camps. The Al-ShaBab leadership feels it is better to starve than accept food aid from the West, distrusting aid workers as spies. Those who have escaped to refugee camps in Kenya face overcrowding conditions and even violence. More than 800,000 Somalis are now living outside Somalia, while nearly 1.5 million are internally displaced. Having stopped Western humanitarian aid to the region, they are widely blamed for the scope of the current devastation where tens of thousands have died and 500,000 children are on the brink of starvation.

Last month, Nicholas Kristoff wrote about the role of breastfeeding as a part of the cure for global poverty in his post, The Breast Milk Cure, in the New York Times. He reported that a 2008 study in Lancet said 1.4 million child deaths could be averted each year if babies were breast-fed properly. That’s one child dying unnecessarily every 22 seconds.

A low-cost solution?
This is World Breastfeeding Week. Begun in 1991, WBW is now celebrating 10 years August 1 - 7. When mothers breastfeed their children they promote good health by passing on antibodies, stave off malnutrition and diarrhea in poor countries and create social and psychological bonds beneficial to survival. However, it is not just the mother's who need to be educated about breastfeeding. The website states it best:

When we look at breastfeeding support, we tend to see it in two-dimensions: time (from pre-pregnancy to weaning) and place (the home, community, health care system, etc). But neither has much impact without a THIRD dimension - communication! Communication is an essential part of protecting, promoting and supporting breastfeeding. We live in a world where individuals and global communities connect across small and great distances at an instant's notice. New lines of communication are being created every day, and we have the ability to use these information channels to broaden our horizons and spread breastfeeding information beyond our immediate time and place to activate important dialogue. This third dimension includes cross-generation, cross-sector, cross-gender, and cross-culture communication and encourages the sharing of knowledge and experience, thus enabling wider outreach. 

Certainly, in an ideal scenario (as in the case with Somalia), it is imperative first that mothers be cared for, then their babies can have increased odds of survival.

 Related posts:
Improving Infant Survival: Midwives and Mother's Milk
The Culture of Breastfeeding.