Tuesday, August 10th, 2010

Twitter: messages in bottles from stranded naufragés

A very dear friend Twittered last night that he might be dying.*

Depuis 15 h, ma température est passée de 99,3 à 100,7. Je suis conscient que ma vie peut se jouer dans les heures à venir. Sentiment d’aventure…

He’s worried about the folks he’d leave behind.

Il y a des gens ici qui ont besoin de moi. Je ne dis pas émotionnellement, bien que cette dimension soit évidemment présente, mais directement, de manière très concrète, parce que leur vie est imbriquée dans la mienne. Je ne connais pas de tristesse plus profonde que ce sentiment de devoir, peut-être, abandonner ces gens qui m’ont donné leur confiance. À nouveau se battre.

He has a form of muscular dystrophy. Ten years ago he weighed 56 pounds, including the three steel rods in his spine; today he probably weighs less. He has trouble breathing because of his muscle wasting and he has just caught some sort of nasty cold from one of his staff. She was really really sick, so he is expecting to get really really sick, and when someone in his condition gets that sick they don’t always get better. He was watching his temperature go up last night and wondering whether to call an ambulance to be taken to the Montreal Chest Hospital. I’ll be making calls later this morning to find out the outcome.

He and his sister (who has the same genetic condition and lives in an adjacent apartment) do some wonderful, intensive work for people who are marginal in our society. They have employed illiterate people, drug addicts, people without family, and immigrants – particularly from Haiti. They employed me. They don’t pay much: they receive an allowance from the government to hire staff for a little over minimum wage, so the staff they hire are people who are unable to find better-paying work. They teach them french, they coach them in relationships, they explain Québec culture and help people figure out how to cope with their new situations. They have shared their living space. Whatever they can do to help someone develop their full potential. Most of all, they offer profound, unjudging friendship.

My friend is a disabled man without paid employment, but far from being a burden on society he is a householder who will leave behind people who will be poorer for his loss.

We all know he is going to die. We first met in the late eighties, when he was seventeen. He thought he might have ten years left then, for the last five of which he wouldn’t have the strength to lift a pencil. He’s outlived everyone’s expectations. But we all hope… not yet. Please.

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A friend responds, “What an incredible opportunity to thank him for all that he has meant to you and the world.” Wise advice, and I will follow it.

* If you’re wondering why these tweets are longer than 140 characters, it’s called Twitlonger.

Monday, June 28th, 2010

Notes from Liberia – third trip

My father has just returned from another trip to Liberia. The danger pay isn’t what it used to be, but he still loves his work.

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Dear Family and Friends,

I came back from Liberia in early June after three weeks of field work on a mid-term evaluation for a USAID-funded education program.

Liberia is putting itself together… with help from NGOs and International Organizations whose signs are on every corner.

When I was there in 2004, there was still tension. People weren’t confident that the wars were over. Young people who had been fighters and young people who had not been fighters were uneasily moving back together in their old villages – though many former child soldiers, ashamed to return home, stayed in Monrovia, the capital, with no trades except the ones they learned in war. Market women sat in front of the home of a warlord/minister, silently holding up signs that said No More Fighting. My danger bonus was 25%.

In 2009 I visited teachers’ colleges. The students were from all fifteen of the country’s ethnic groups. You could still see wariness, but mainly they were working well together as Liberians. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was President and was respected. My danger bonus had dropped to 15%, and applied only when I was in the countryside.

This year, the streets of Monrovia are livelier; the towns in the hinterlands are more prosperous; and ‘Ellen’ is running confidently for a second term. We once ran into a roving band of ‘commandos’ who were doing a poor job at intimidation, since they no longer carried guns. To [my wife] Vivian’s chagrin, the danger bonus had been eliminated.

I took pictures and am attaching three for flavour.

The owner of the hotel and the founder and patron of Zorzor Rural Women Literacy School.

The first is the front office of the hotel where I had just spent the night. The woman in the yellow dress is the owner of the hotel and the founder and patron of Zorzor Rural Women Literacy School. She, herself, began school after having three children. With the encouragement of her husband, she eventually earned a high school diploma.

Stop Early Marriage!

Stop Early Marriage!

The second is on a door of a mud house in a village a long way off the main road. We talked with townspeople. Different generations are back at school making up for years of lost education during the wars. Three of the young people who talked with us walk 40 kilometres to school at the beginning of the week and 40 kilometres back on the weekend. Others attend night classes at the local evangelical church. These are the survivors.

The class is full, so we know that the teacher teaches and the children learn.

The third picture speaks for itself. The class is full, so we know that the teacher teaches and the children learn. Children and parents judge the quality of schools; if the school doesn’t provide value, the children go to work on the farm.

My email misbehaved during most of the trip. When I eventually understood what was happening, Vivian hadn’t heard form me for ten days and was contacting the embassy to learn whether I was lost. Soon I started getting urgent messages saying “Please Contact your wife!” (One of the education team opposed getting involved, reasoning that I might not want my wife to know where I was. She was over-ruled.)

My assistant, Frank, and I spent three weeks, mostly on bombed-out or mudded-out roads, in a four wheel drive Toyota whose multiple breakdowns effectively randomized the communities we observed. I stayed in a different bush hotel every night, usually paying extra to have the generator turned on in the morning so I could type up the previous day’s notes. Eating was good – eggs and bread in the morning; bananas, plantain chips, and roast corn on the road; foofoo or rice and goat pepper soup in the evening. Liberia is a Christian country, so there was beer with supper. In Monrovia I ate grilled barracuda on the beach or Lebanese tabbouleh, hummus, and kibbee at a rooftop restaurant run by Indians.

In the capital, Frank found me a well-run local hotel on the main commercial strip, which I preferred to the beachfront expatriate hotels where I had previously stayed. I may have been a disappointment at the hotel, however. The first evening, while I waited for my pepper soup, the bar filled up – an attractive young woman on every second stool. Each one winked prettily as I walked out. The second night, they weren’t there.

It was a thirty-six hour trip back – through Accra, Addis Ababa, Rome, and Washington. Quicker though than the trip over, when we were diverted through Dakar to avoid the volcano in Iceland.

On my return there was two weeks of report writing – now over. And then the excitement began: First a 5.5 earthquake that felt like a ghost train running through the house. Two days later, the police invaded our quiet agricultural neighbourhood and removed plants and occupants from houses on our nearby corner.

Happy Canada Day and Fourth of July!


Friday, March 6th, 2009

Wealth, class and dysfunction.

Filed under: class,dysfunction,ignorance,money — alison @ 07:47

An old draft. I’m not sure why I didn’t post it at the time – possibly too emotional, possibly revealing myself as too ignorant, too judgemental, too pretenious, but mostly too ignorant. Maybe I felt that it was too apologetic, protesting too much. But ok, I am ignorant. Might as well post it now.

I was called out recently for referring to ‘the dysfunctional poor.’ It was suggested that I really meant ‘the working class.’ I didn’t think so, but I realised that I didn’t know what ‘the working class’ means. I looked it up in Wikipedia and it turns out that ‘working class’ can mean so many different things in informal speech that it’s pretty much useless. (Wikipedia suggests that ‘the underclass’ is more like what I really meant, but… so monolithic?) Academics have various definitions for ‘the working class’ based on income or marxian theory, but as I am not an academic I’m not going to try to use them.

It’s interesting that poverty still carries the stench of shame, that calling someone poor generates a reprimand.

Trying to identify what dysfunction means to me I have been thinking about people I have known (some better than others, but I’ve met them all in person).

*** *** ***
I think violent sociopaths are dysfunctional, but that’s a purely personal feeling. You can be a violent sociopath millionaire corporate lawyer and lots of people will think that’s just peachy. You will probably spend less time in jail than if you are a violent sociopath pimp, and the spending time in jail part is usually what gets considered dysfunction.

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Doing time in prison more than once is dysfunctional – that is, if it’s not part of a conscious protest.

There are lots of things that will increase your chances of doing time, like being poor or Native (or in the US, African-American) none of which are inherently dysfunctional. But most people have staying out of prison somewhere on their agenda, and if you are unable to manage that for yourself… there’s a problem somewhere, and it’s manifesting itself in your life.

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A family dynamic that includes filicide is dysfunctional.

If as you enter your teen years you realise that your violent sociopath father will end up murdering you if you stick around, money means you can be sent to private boarding schools. Poverty means you’ll have to run away and live on the street.

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Alcoholism is dysfunctional.

Again, a personal prejudice. Perhaps the things for which alcoholism increases the risk – road accidents, fights, FAS, cirrhosis, too many children, suicide – are the actual problems and alcoholism merely a convenient target for finger-pointing. Whichever, even a little money makes things better. Remember the Temperance movement, and Demon Rum, and Taking the Pledge? People drink just as much as they did in the 1920s but Demon Rum isn’t taking the rap it used to. Breadwinners get paid more and are less likely to spend the entire week’s paycheque in one evening at the local pub. Families are less likely to be dependent on a single breadwinner. Even if they are, welfare means that a parent can leave a violent partner who spends all their money getting drunk or high. We have Al-Anon to replace the WCTU because those social changes don’t make all the crummy stuff associated with alcoholism go away. Welfare isn’t enough either, so the ex-wife on the top of the hill in Westmount getting both alimony and child support has easier choices to make.

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Sexual assault of kids by family members is dysfunctional. Money doesn’t change that, but it affects a parent’s child care choices.

If you don’t have money for a babysitter, it’s possible you would leave your toddler with your creepy brother-in-law when you go out for the day and tell yourself he isn’t that creepy because you don’t have a choice. And you might come back to find your toddler dead and sodomised in the dumpster behind your apartment building.

If you don’t have money for a babysitter, it’s possible you might let your mother look after your six-year-old daughter after school. Recalling what your father did to you when you were that age, you would warn your daughter not to let herself be in a room alone with her grandfather. And when you saw her bruises in the bathtub in the evening, you would know what she had done and you would whip her for having disobeyed your instructions.

Not being able to pay for childcare when you need it – that’s poverty, and it sucks. Whipping your child for getting herself raped – that’s dysfunction. But you wouldn’t see that particular dysfunction if appropriate childcare were available.

*** *** ***
Keeping your kids out of primary and secondary school so that they can keep you company is dysfunctional. Money doesn’t seem to have much impact either way.

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Preventing your kids from attending university is dysfunctional.

Parents may refuse to fill out financial statements for aid applications and/or decline to fund any aspect of their children’s university education. Either way the children aren’t eligible for financial aid and will have a very hard time. The student in this situation who receives an inheritance – even a small one – will be greatly helped.

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Repeatedly beating your school-age children into unconsciousness is dysfunctional.

If you live in a single family home, you can shut the windows and the neighbours won’t hear the screams. If you live in an apartment, you’ll upset the neighbours. They’ll have to figure out how to cope. They might or might not interfere, but either way relations will be tense.

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Setting fire to animals is dysfunctional.

If you live in a single-family home and set fire to your parents’ $800 show pekinese in the basement, your parents may discreetly take the animal to the vet for treatment and leave it there for placement somewhere gentler. Your neighbours will be none the wiser. If you set fire to one of the many cats trying to make a living in your traditional working class neighbourhood alley, your neighbours know who you are. One of them might retrieve the animal and take it to the vet, thus starting a career as a cat lady.

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So, that’s what I mean by dysfunction. Violence, spite and alcoholism. Universal, sure, but money can absorb some of the mess and limit the damage – even if only cosmetically. It’s a middle-class list that will offend many people because it labels individuals and not the societies they are a part of. But that’s my point: violence, spite and alcoholism are not themselves the domain of any particular sector of society. When I referred to the ‘dysfunctional poor,’ I was thinking of people caught up in dysfunction who don’t have access to money to mitigate the damage – so it’s out there hurting for all too see.

What do you mean by dysfunction?

Thursday, February 12th, 2009

Tidy Conundrum 1

Filed under: culture,fallacies,housekeeping,how to,naïveté,tidy conundrum — alison @ 21:41

(Possibly the first in a series.)

In my previous post I said that being tidy is hard for me because it’s complicated. For most people it’s the opposite. Trying to live and work in an unordered heap is complicated. Wandering through life quietly restoring objects to their rightful places is both obvious and rewarding.

So I thought I’d post about the things that my disorderly little mind struggles with so unsuccessfully. To start off: nail clippings.

I was brought up to clip my nails in such a way that the clippings would fly through the air and fall randomly to the ground. This always seemed a little odd to me. Breadcrumbs and sand are not disposed of by sprinkling them over the floorboards or the bedclothes, but apparently nail clippings are a special exception.

I thought I would be clever and cup my hand over the clipper to catch clippings before they flew off and collect them so they could be tidily thrown out. Well. It turns out that this is Gross and Disgusting. Approximately on the order of pooping on the table. I have been shrieked at for my little piles of clippings, and my first boyfriend almost broke up with me, shaking with rage, when I forgot to throw out my tiny heap and he came home and saw it. This is fairly easy to resolve, of course: only clip nails when utterly alone and with a waste-paper basket within your field of vision. But I was curious. I could imagine that social convention dictates that a piece of nail, once separated from the digit that produced it, becomes so revolting that it may not be looked at or touched. Social convention dictates a lot of things that don’t necessarily make sense. But do all my friends and relatives truly believe that these repugnant objects dissolve into the air or melt into the linoleum?

I asked around, and apparently it’s true. Those horrible nail clippings evaporate if you don’t look at them. And you shouldn’t look at them. They are abhorrent.

Okey-dokey. Nail clipping and disposal in secrecy it is.

It was one of the first things I asked Mark when we met. He has lots of strong ideas about waste disposal and I thought he would be able to resolve the conundrum of simultaneously acknowledging both social convention and object persistence with respect to nail clippings. My confidence was well-founded.

Mark’s answer: clip nails into the bathtub where they will scatter randomly and… provide invisible traction for your feet when you take a shower.

I actually think this solution is a little gross, but I am so relieved to be living with someone who has a rule about nail clippings that makes any sense at all that I don’t quibble.

So. You see why tidying is so complicated for me? Every individual item could get a whole blog post.


Tuesday, January 20th, 2009

Back in Liberia

Filed under: Africa,family,Notes from Liberia,Patrick,US politics,war — alison @ 07:10

After returning from Bangladesh and a too-short stay with family, my father is back in Liberia.

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Dear Family and Friends,

Back in Liberia. I spent this afternoon with the Minister for Education and his deputies. They all say they will be up most of tomorrow night watching the inauguration and the balls. All over the world – or at least in my small sampling – people are joyful about the new direction they see in America.

My previous time in Liberia (2004), there was a short break in the war that had lasted fourteen years. My assignment took me to villages where people were rebuilding homes, shops, bridges, wells, roads, and whatever other infrastructure competing armies, often made up of children, had taken into their heads to destroy. The villages were doing their best to reintegrate their ‘lost’ young people, many of whom had done terrible things. The returnees were doing what they could to be accepted back. There were three short, intense wars in 2005, but now there is a stable and reasonably competent government headed by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. There is hope again… sort of. USAID is helping rebuild teacher education. Our team of three is spending six weeks to evaluate this effort and suggest improvements.

We’ve been in Monrovia since Wednesday. The attached pictures may give you some of the flavour. We’re off tomorrow for two days to see schools and teacher training colleges in the countryside. We’ll come back to sharpen our survey instruments then head back out for more intensive interviews and observations for the next four weeks.

Lunch today was cassava leaf stew with fish, chicken, and shrimp… and rice.

Update on Beli: She’s bought a rickshaw and some rice. She rents out the rickshaw and will sell the rice in small packets. Her life as a businesswoman has begun.


Vivian's Fashion Butik Salon

Liberia 2

Liberia 3

Liberia 4

P on the beach

Thursday, October 16th, 2008

Tell me I’m wrong.

Filed under: children,consuming,fallacies,naïveté — alison @ 06:43

I’m fed up with all the pious concern about greenhouse gases. Really.

Most or all the remaining fossil fuel underneath the earth is going to end up as C02 in the atmosphere. The question is when: are we going to move it all from the earth to the air in the next 50 years? Or 200? But we are going to move it. So what’s the fuss?

No, we can’t compensate for fossil fuels in the air by replanting the forests we’ve cut down. The carbon that was in the forests is now in the air. If we replanted all the forests we cut down, they would suck up all the CO2 released by cutting down the original forests. The fossil CO2 would still be out there.

Besides, we can’t significantly replant the forests. Not without reducing the human population to below a million (and keeping it there). The land the forests used to occupy is needed for human habitation and agriculture.

It’s too late anyway. Does anyone remember when the Kyoto accord was signed? And how we were all so disappointed because it was too little, too late, and anyone who thought that Kyoto targets were meaningful had missed the point? Well. We’ve missed our Kyoto targets. And if they were too little, too late, then we are up shit creek, aren’t we.

I know it’s not polite to say, because having children is what people do and for most parents is the most (difficult but) satisfying part of their lives, but I honestly don’t know what people think they are accomplishing when they reproduce.

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