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.

*** *** ***

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!


Saturday, July 4th, 2009

Mail-order brides

A little kerfuffle over at Science Blogs brought mail-order brides back to my attention. (Didn’t they have their fifteen minutes of fame in the eighties?)

I commented to Mark that I didn’t see what the fuss was about. He gamely pointed to the fuzzy grey borderline between mail-order brides and prostitution.

Alison: Well, there’s a fuzzy-to-nonexistent borderline between marriage and prostitution generally. The point of marriage is that it recognises sexual relationships as inherently potentially exploitatitve, and confers legal rights and responsibilities on the parties involved.

Mark: Ah, but that doesn’t apply in the US. If they divorce, the mail-order bride has no residency rights and is deported back to her country of origin. It’s not like Canada where a sponsored immigrant spouse has residency rights independent of the status of the relationship.

Oh. Right. I keep forgetting. (Which is odd, because one of my favourite stories about sponsoring Mark under Canada’s Family Reunification Program is how when he went to get his visa exchanged for a residency card, he was sat down and solemnly lectured that if I were to become abusive, he was not to hesitate to Move Out Immediately. Quebec would help him find a place to live and give him welfare if he needed it. He would NOT have to leave the country. Quebec would come after me for reimbursement as necessary. He was NOT to worry about that.)

But does that mean that we should be worried about the institution of mail-order brides, or that we should be protesting the lack of protection the US offers immigrant spouses – exacerbating a situation of potential exploitation where marriage is supposed to alleviate it?

Wednesday, July 18th, 2007


Filed under: naďveté,taxi drivers,the other,women — alison @ 21:21

[Exchange with Mark, on a train in Holland]

We were settling in our seats when a vision of loveliness floated by us in airy layers of black and brown chiffon. I immediately understood the Arabian Nights tales where our hero nearly dies of lovesickness after glimpsing the beautiful princess. How do you know a woman is beautiful enough to develop an adolescent crush on if she is draped in loose clothing that only reveals her eyes? Well, you do.

Mark started to become visibly agitated. I asked him what was wrong and we had the following conversation.

Mark: My friend would be very upset if she saw that.
Alison: What?
Mark: A woman veiled like that.
Alison: Oh. Why would your friend be so upset?
Mark: She would say the woman was oppressed.
Alison: She’s a young woman travelling alone. I’d say that’s a pretty good sign of emancipation in any culture.
Mark: She was married young.
Alison: Who is she? What’s her social background?
Mark: Oh, her husband’s a factory worker or something.
Alison: I don’t think so. She’s extremely stylishly dressed. I don’t think factory workers’ wives swathe themselves in silk to take the train.
Mark: Well anyway, she’s isolated and not integrated. She can’t read. She doesn’t even speak Dutch.
Alison: [Craning to get another look at the woman, now seated a few rows down] She’s reading a book.

Hm. What a veil can hide and reveal are not necessarily what you’d expect.

*** *** ***
[Exchange with a Greek-born taxi driver in Mississauga]

Taxi driver: Immigrants have more rights than Canadians these days. It’s not right.
Alison: You weren’t born in Canada. Do you think you have more rights than I do?
Taxi driver: No, but I’m old school. In my day immigrants came to Canada and adapted. Immigrants these days go too far. Just look at the problems muslims are causing with their veils.
Alison: A veil is a declaration of faith. I see a cross hanging from your rear-view mirror.
Taxi driver: They take it too far. In Quebec they were having all that trouble because the women wouldn’t take off their veils to vote. They had to make a law.
Alison: Well, I’m from Quebec and I can tell you that when I go to vote nobody asks to see my ID. All they want to know is my address. If they don’t need to see my face, then they don’t need to see my muslim neighbour’s face either. It should be the same for everyone.
Taxi driver: That’s right! The same here in Toronto! They just look at my address. No ID. It should be the same for everyone! You’re a really nice person, do you know that?
Taxi driver: You’re such a nice person.
Taxi driver: Well have a good trip home! You’re so nice, I wish you have a really good trip.

I’m trying to imagine what it must be like to have a job where you work for tips by deprecating a group you belong to. It reminds me a little of a scene in Black Like Me where the author witnesses an elevator conductor charging passengers a dollar to kick his ass.

*** *** ***
[Exchange with a Syrian-born taxi driver in Montreal]

Taxi driver: I’m muslim but I don’t like it when women have to wear veils. That makes me angry.
Alison: Aren’t they a statement of faith? Don’t women choose to wear the veil to make themselves visible as Muslims to everyone?
Taxi driver: You know what I hate? When those hypocritical imams get up in front of everyone and say so sweetly that you have to treasure and respect women. And you know exactly why their wives can’t show their faces. They’re hiding the bruises and scars.

Friday, October 3rd, 2003

Movies – breaking the monotony

Filed under: movies,women — alison @ 12:53

I got feedback and help here too, though not as abundantly as for laundry.

My favourite suggestion for breaking the monotony was Irréversible, a movie I actually saw when it came out last year. It’s notorious for its brutal, nine-minute rape/murder scene. Mark had warned me in advance so I kept my eyes closed for that bit, but the soundtrack was pretty gruesome all by itself. Overall what I noticed about the movie was its sophomoric frat-boy obsession with anal sex, and its mysterious (to me) equation of anal sex with sadism. The person who embodied evil was nicknamed La Tenia (tapeworm); he was a gay man who hung out in a gay bath house called Le Rectum; he was a top (sexually dominant in anal sex); which meant, quite naturally in the world of the film, that he was essentially a sadistic rapist; and his essential identity as a sadistic rapist meant that he was a danger to all women everywhere.

Yes, this is a different view of sexual relations than the one shown in Lost in Translation. But, um, not the kind of different I was really looking for.

Other suggestions, more on track:

-The general one to carefully research movies before going to see them. Not really my style. I’m not looking to be protected from bad movie-going experiences, and I like surprises.

-Features a woman in the lead, but from what I can tell there aren’t any others.

Bend It Like Beckham
– Features women and girls in all sorts of interesting relationships. Lots of gorgeous shots of girls practicing on the field. Highly recommended: yes, there is an unfortunate love triangle featuring a man, but it doesn’t dominate the film.

– Two women, unambiguously lovers. Fun to watch, lots of people really like it, but I found it just a teensy bit dull.

Prey for Rock and Roll
– A bisexual rock musician in the lead trying to figure out what life in rock means for her at age forty. A tryst with another woman. Don’t know anyone who’s seen it, but will definitely be giving it a whirl. Thanks for the tip!

White Oleander
– Six women, five of whom stand in parental or quasi-parental relationships to the sixth, so it scores high on the Alison Bechdel rating scale. But the closer the relationship the mothers have with the daughter, the more they fail her. Motherly love is inherently flawed and poisonous and covetous and may not even exist. The three most motherly women are insanely jealous – either sexual jealousy, seeing competition with the man in their lives, or jealousy of other mothers. Our little heroine finally finds herself when her mother lets her go to pursue her future coupled to a safe and bland young man. Gag.

Please keep the tips coming!

[originally transmitted by e-mail October 3, 2003]

Sunday, April 13th, 2003

RE: Help with history, please!

Filed under: history of feminism,movies,sex,women — alison @ 11:56

Alison Cummins wrote fretfully:
>So my question is: what does it mean to Barbara to be
>having sex when birth control is not an option and
>children are not part of the immediate plan?

I knew I could count on my list! Definitive answers from the crones (much shorter and more to the point than the question):

1) You’re confusing fiction with reality. You were watching a movie made by a man, in whose view pregnancy was an irrelevant distraction from the important, essential questions of love and identity. So he just ignored it and it never came up in the movie. Besides, it was the man’s job to get the condoms.

2) Barbara was just doing what unsupervised teenaged girls can pretty much be relied on to do in any culture at any time: run off to have sex with somebody unsuitable. There was no grand theory behind her behaviour. She was horny, pregnancy was something she hoped wouldn’t happen to her, and she may have been hoping that some variation of Vatican Roulette would get her by. Besides, it was the man’s job to get the condoms.

3) Sure, condoms were illegal in Canada in 1963 and people were being busted for possession. Pot’s illegal in 2003 and people are being busted for possession. Your point being? … Besides, it was the man’s job to get them.

[originally transmitted by e-mail April 13, 2003]

Wednesday, April 9th, 2003

Help with history, please!

Filed under: history of feminism,movies,sex,women — alison @ 22:00

Anne and I have just been to a very sweet documentary-style fictional film set and made in 1964 (first in a series of films relating to the lecture we attended last week on themes of identity in Québécois cinema).

Ok, now the two central characters are the enchanting Barbara (18, anglophone and jewish) and her doleful, broody, critical, self-centred boyfriend Claude (20, francophone and pure-laine). They are beats or hipsters, I guess: they and their friends are either unemployed, in theatre or in journalism, they listen to jazz, they smoke a lot and wear black. Anyway, they can’t be hippies because the word was only invented in 1965. They talk earnestly about the bourgeoisie and the Revolution. Barbara’s mother isn’t thrilled about her sleeping with Claude but doesn’t appear to believe there’s anything to do about it.

1) In 1964 the Pill exists but is very new and is illegal in Canada. Condoms and diaphragms are not new but are also illegal. Abortion is very illegal.

Birth control history timeline (west/US):

Birth control history timeline (Canada):

Deduction: Barbara probably isn’t on the Pill. She probably doesn’t have a diaphragm or jelly either, and she certainly can’t walk into a drugstore and buy condoms.

2) Barbara lives with her parents in a nice part of town, and she’s a student. Having children right now would presumably be a problem for her. She isn’t living on a commune with a lot of trippy naked people happily imagining the revolution that will happen when her free children take over the world. (That won’t be a popular option for a few more years, anyway.)

So my question is: what does it mean to Barbara to be having sex when birth control is not an option and children are not part of the immediate plan?

I seem to remember from my British feminist history a lot of grousing by women revolutionaries who put lots of time into marxist studies and who only years later figured out that the free love, marriage-is-a-prison revolutionary philosophy affected them differently from their male comrades. (Consciousness-raising – “the personal is political” – was invented in 1968, but that was around the time that reliable birth control became generally legal and available anyway. A little late.) But I’m afraid that at the time I was investigating feminist history I didn’t have a lot of attention or concern to spare for women feeble-minded enough to be straight.

Am I to understand that Barbara has rejected the bourgeois values of proper deportment without thinking about what that will mean for her? I’m all for Barbara taking control of her own sexuality, but I suspect she hasn’t.

I’m not worried about Barbara in particular. She’s (at least partially) a fictional character. But modern free love has been around and promoted by women since Mary Wollstonecraft (she wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1791), long before the availability of reliable birth control. Mary Wollstonecraft thought that women should have the means to earn their own livings; Barbara doesn’t appear to have many thoughts at all beyond wanting to be free and loved.

Is that what happened? Women just didn’t think? Is my fretting about birth control simply an artifact of my having grown up with it, rather like I grew up with access to education? If it wasn’t around to want, did people just not think of their actions in those terms?

Or do I have this all wrong, and the black market in birth control was thriving nicely, thank you very much?

Or was it a kind of fatalism, that birth wasn’t something you could control so you didn’t think about trying. And rather than confine oneself to one’s parents’ parlour, one would run out and embrace life, embrace the future whatever it held?

(Note that in these questions I have left Claude out completely. He is so self-centred that it probably doesn’t occur to him that Barbara might get pregnant. If she did he would think it was something she did on purpose to bother him. He certainly wouldn’t marry her. At least I hope he wouldn’t: then she’d have both of them to look after…)

[originally transmitted by e-mail April 9, 2003]

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