Archive for June, 2011

Mwalimu Masake and MEPERI: Teacher vs. Tradition

Thursday, June 30th, 2011

Mwalimu (teacher) Simon K. Masake, MEPERI founder
Mwalimu (teacher) Simon K. Masake, MEPERI founder
This week Cleia and I were fortunate enough to accidentally meet the subject of this profile, Simon K. Masake. No one had yet mentioned him during my investigations into who are the real loudmouths or leaders in criticizing FGM, but as the head teacher at Nkararo Primary public school he is a community leader and staunch advocate for changing the oppressive Maasai traditions towards girls. During an impromptu visit to his school, a conversation about cultural threats to young girls led to the revelation that actually he also had an NGO on the side. As a founder of the recently formed MEPERI (Menno Peace and Reconciliation Initiative), he is making some of the first “anti-FGM inroads” in Enoosaen’s neighboring Nkararo division.

Founded in the end of 2010, MEPERI’s mission is to “facilitate communities’ efforts to desist from unnecessary practices through education, preventative health, peace building initiatives and engagment in sustainable economic activities,” with the objectives of economically empowering the poor (especially women), “advocating against repugnant cultural practices,” and promoting peace and reconciliation. Simon’s initial motivation was a reaction to female circumcision and early marriage, but he wants to take a holistic approach, empowering women from every angle. He even trains women about the dangers of predatory lenders, as certain women’s microloan companies seem to be causing a lot of strife for some poorly prepared female loan recipients. MEPERI will operate in 5 districts: Transmara West, Kuria East, Nyando, Kisumu, and Nandi South.

Women in the community praise MEPERI for having been the first organization to actually come to the grassroots level in Nkararo, and for having hosted the first seminars in Nkararo for local women about women’s issues, including FGM. The brainchild of Mr. Masake, MEPERI has already held three seminars, reaching over 30 opinion leaders and 200 women in the first half of 2011 alone, and they plan to host more this year. In a lovely serendipitous twist, Mr. Masake dropped all this information into our conversation in a matter-of-fact manner as we dropped in for a quiet and brief observational visit to his school.

MEPERI came about over the course of two years of talking and planning. As a head teacher watching young Maasai girls steadily drop out of school for their rite to womanhood and subsequent marriage, Simon says he saw the need for someone to take action in his community. He began reaching out to likeminded community members he knew so they could join forces. Over a number of cups of Chai, and another 6-8 months of bureaucratic obstacle courses, the idea was born and the NGO registered.

Class 2 at Nkararo Primary School. With over 70 students, how are they supposed to learn?
Class 2 at Nkararo Primary School. With over 70 students, how are they supposed to learn?

Class 8 at Nkararo Primary School. Comparing this to the younger classes (with up to 70 or 80 students in one class), it's not hard to see why drop out rates concerned Mr. Masake.
Class 8 at Nkararo Primary School. Comparing this to the younger classes (with up to 70 or 80 students in one class), it's not hard to see why drop out rates concerned Mr. Masake.

MEPERI is currently composed of six members, of whom two are women, and the members are based in Nkararo, Nairobi, and Kisumu. For now they operate without an office space, a small grouping of motivated individuals working with a hodgepodge of small funds from one German NGO and one Nairobi-based NGO.

In February 2011, they hosted a two day retreat for chiefs, assistant chiefs, head teachers, and village elders in Kisumu. The target of that meeting was to sensitize male leaders about the issues and consequences of FGM and early marriage, notably including the consequences on the sexual relationship between a man and woman. In April, MEPERI hosted two gatherings of local women in Nkararo and a neighboring isolated community, Enemasi. Although they only sent out 30 invitation letters and anticipated the same number for each of their seminars, the invited women brought others, and the others brought more, and ultimately around 100 women attended each of the two seminars. What better way could these women signal how eager they are to learn and incorporate new ideas into their lives?

Another impressive thing about these seminars is that they included 9 women known within the community as the traditional circumcisers. Simon says they managed to draw these women in not by directly targeting them, but by inviting them along with other women for a seminar they billed as a general “women’s issues” training. Yet Simon recognizes the importance of not just cutting off the supply, but also the demand. That is why he hopes to host another seminar for youth (both boys and girls) by the end of the year – this is where he feels he can build demand to stop the practice. “Boys can stand for themselves,” he explains, “but if girls complete school, who is going to marry them if the boys don’t complete?”

Women at MEPERI training. The attentive woman in a shuka at the front also happens to be a traditional circumciser in Nkararo. Photo by Simon K. Masake
Women at MEPERI training. The attentive woman in a shuka at the front also happens to be a traditional circumciser in Nkararo. Photo by Simon K. Masake

I asked Simon if he had considered the context of other NGOs in the area as he designed his. Yes, he said, he had but he didn’t have their contacts, so instead he just considered them based on hearsay and observation.

So, when I asked if he would like to be connected to other likeminded groups, he was over the moon. He loves the idea of exchanging ideas and experiences, and in this part of the world having someone to call in a town/hill or two away is almost a necessity to get things done. Walking around town with him, I commented that he seemed to know everybody. His response was a dually proud and embarrassed acknowledgement that many people come to him with problems and concerns, especially about female children – and he has become known for taking a ferocious stance against cases of forced marriage and abuses of female students in the area. I would like to see him equally connected to other FGC critics in the area, and to host some sort of networking for him and other agents of change like him. How great would it be if we could host monthly or quarterly gatherings of this network of people in our someday-soon-to-be-community centre?

MEPERI does not yet have a website up, but I will post the link as soon as they do.

Spotted in The Times of India

Thursday, June 30th, 2011

For better of worse the media in India seems to latch onto stories that are, or even just seem to be, about anything involving the LGBT community. Last weekend we went to a screening of I am by Sonali Gulati. You can read more about the film and the issue of coming out in India in Meredith’s recent blog. I just wanted to share this fun item quickly. Here I am in the “Baroda Times” section of The Times of India. The caption under my photo reads “European guest looks on.”

Independence Day

Thursday, June 30th, 2011

Happy Independence Day! Today, on June 30th, Congo is celebrating 51 years of independence from Belgium. In light of this national holiday, I thought I’d write up a little history of the African territory today known as the Democratic Republic of Congo, particularly its political history and how it relates to the state of the Kivus today.

At the Berlin Conference, King Leopold II of Belgium consolidates control over a massive chunk of central Africa. The Congo Free State, as the colony is known, is created ostensibly to encourage free trade and wipe out slavery. However, the true goal of the colony was for the personal profit of the king, who quite literally owned the colony all to himself. Tribes were given quotas of ivory, rubber, and other natural resources; the quotas were enforced through a brutal system of executions, floggings, and torture. It is estimated that anywhere from 10 to 13 million people were killed or forced to flee during the period of Belgian colonization.

On June 30, Congo declares itself independent from Belgian rule, creating the Republic of Congo. Leading the fledgling government is President Joseph Kasavubu, charismatic Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, and army chief of staff Joseph Désiré Mobutu. Almost immediately, the mineral-rich provinces of Katanga and Kasai secede. When Lumumba turns to the Soviets to quell the rebellion to the disagreement of Kasavubu, Mobutu seizes control of the government from both politicians on September 14th. Lumumba is subsequently imprisoned. It is probable that the CIA was involved in Mobutu’s “peaceful revolution”, as Washington cables from mid-1960 indicate approval for CIA agents in Kinshasa for an operation “replacing Lumumba with a pro-Western group”.

Patrice Lumumba is taken to Katanga and executed, with Belgian collaboration.

Joseph Désiré Mobutu mounts a coup and becomes the supreme leader of the Congo, declaring a one-party state.

Mobutu renames the country “Zaire” in a campaign of “authenticity” to diminish the colonial legacy hanging over the country. He also encourages Zairian citizens to drop European names, dress, and customs and adopt more African traditions; Mobutu himself adopts the name Mobutu Sese Seko.

Mobutu confiscates all foreign-owned enterprises (farms, plantations, industries, commercial enterprises) and turns them over to himself and the Zairian elite, who subsequently loot these enterprises to support lives of exorbitant luxury. The Zairian economy, which beforehand was experiencing on average 7 percent growth per annum, begins to rapidly decline.

Mobutu bows to international and domestic pressure and ends the one-party system in Zaire. However, despite having driven the country into massive poverty with his lavish lifestyle, Mobutu manages to stay in power through masterful manipulation of opposition forces.

Thousands of Hutu refugees flee to Zaire in wake of the Rwandan genocide and the victory of the RPF. Among the refugees are the remnants of the Interahamwe, the Hutu militia that performed much of the genocide, and also Hutu elements of the military that assisted in the genocide. Mobutu plays a tug-of-war with the refugee situation, welcoming the exiled génocidaires. International organizations (such as UNHCR) rush to provide assistance in the refugee camps, but do nothing to suppress extremist elements in the camps or move them farther away from the Rwandan border.

Rwanda invades Zaire, in order to hunt the exiled génocidaires rebuilding their forces in refugee camps just across the border. In the process, thousands of refugees are killed and the génocidaires flee further into the Zairian interior. The AFDL (Alliance des Forces Democratiques pour la Liberation), a coalition of 4 rebel groups in eastern Congo, forms and challenges Mobutu’s government in Kinshasa. Laurent-Desire Kabila, an old foe of Mobutu’s, emerges as the leader of the rebellion.

The AFDL, with support from several African governments, routes the Zairian army and marches triumphantly on Kinshasa on May 17. Mobutu, already ailing from prostate cancer, flees to Morocco in exile and dies several months later. Kabila is sworn in as president, and the country is renamed the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Conflict continues in eastern Congo as ethnic tensions boil to a head, with fighting between the escaped Hutu extremists, the new Congolese military (made up largely of Kabila’s former rebel force), Burundian FDD rebels, Rwandan troops, Ugandan troops, and the Mai Mai (grassroots militia resenting any Rwandophone ethnic groups in the region). Kabila starts to lose the support of crucial allies with his erratic behavior. In 1998, Kabila orders all Rwandan troops to leave the Congo; very soon afterward, a new rebel movement, the RCD (Rassemblée Congolaise pour la Démocratie) forms in the east to challenge Kabila’s authority, again with backing from several African governments. Only an intervention from Angola and Zimbabwe prevents the rebel movement from duplicating Kabila’s own victorious march on Kinshasa. Despite failing to secure Kinshasa, RCD still controls much of eastern Congo. The warfare between the different armed factions continues to toll heavily upon the civilian population, with massacres being committed by troops from all sides.

The first observers from MONUC (Mission de l’Organisation des Nations Unies au Congo) arrive in the Congo

Laurent-Desire Kabila is assassinated by one of his own ex-child soldiers. His son, Joseph Kabila, succeeds his father as President of the DR Congo. Kabila fils immediately starts courting international support in order to de-legitimize the various rebel factions laying claim to the Congo.

Kabila fils signs power-sharing agreements with the MLC (Mouvement pour la Libération du Congo) and the RCD, the two most formidable rebel groups in the Congo. Rwanda begins to withdraw troops from eastern Congo.

In its first-ever national election, the DR Congo elects Joseph Kabila as president. Running against Kabila is Jean-Pierre Bemba, leader of the MLC. Today, Bemba is imprisoned at The Hague on trial for war crimes.

Laurent Nkunda, a former FAC/RCD commander, forms a new rebel faction, the CNDP (Congres National pour la Défense du Peuple), in North Kivu. The CNDP gains much ground in the Kivus and ignites more conflict, but eventually the movement is subdued through political negotiations with the Rwandan government. Nkunda is taken prisoner by Rwanda, and the CNDP units integrate into the FARDC.

The FARDC (Forces Armees de la Republique du Congo) carry out Operation Kimia II in eastern Congo. The goal of Kimia II was to wipe out the FDLR and other armed groups operating outside of state authority. The FDLR sustains heavy losses and is forced farther into the interior, but civilians pay a heavy toll in human rights abuses committed by members of all armed groups involved.

The FARDC carries out Operation Amani Leo in eastern Congo, an effort to further dislodge the FDLR and other rebel groups in eastern Congo.

Congo’s second national election is scheduled for this fall.

So, what is going on in Uvira today? Well, people tell me there used to be a parade, but there isn’t one this year. President Kabila is in Lubumbashi for a large military parade, and it is being broadcasted all across the country; I watched some of it this morning at the little boutique where I buy bread. However, there is sure to be a big party tonight. When I was walking past the Esperanza (a popular local restaurant), a group of men were unloading case after case of beer from a car with Burundian plates. A large banner on the wall proclaimed a big June 30 party at the Esperanza tonight, if you are willing to fork over the hefty $5 entry fee.

Fortunately, the streets are quiet. With the upcoming elections, many people are worrying about political demonstrations that may turn violent, but in the past week or so there haven’t been any major manifestations in Uvira.

Let the festivities begin!

Congolese woman in Baraka preparing chapati
Congolese woman in Baraka preparing chapati

Congolese woman in Baraka preparing chapati

First Day of School

Thursday, June 30th, 2011

Last week I had the pleasure of attending a ribbon cutting for one of Chintan’s schools. The school is the most recent addition to Chintan’s “No Child in Trash” program, and is made from entirely re-usable materials. The school itself is beautiful and is a beacon of hope for the community, not to mention one of the only buildings with electric fans on the premises.

When I talked to the 3 teachers for some 60 students, some of the challenges that the No Child in Trash (NCIT) initiative confronts daily became evident. For instance, the children are all extremely different - they are different ages, they speak different languages, and they have had different levels of exposure to education - which complicates the single classroom setup. Many of the waste-pickers are immigrants and only speak Bengali or another regional language, so the students find themselves learning Hindi and English at the Chintan schools. Further, while this school itself is wonderful, the facilities are still extremely basic. Specifically, there are no floors. The children and teachers alike sit on thin carpets that barely contain the dirt beneath them. Remember how hard it was to pay attention to the teacher in school? Now try image paying attention with a rock sticking into your behind.

Here is a short video that includes some community reactions to the new school

At the event, I had way too much fun pretending to be a professional photographer; here are some of the most powerful images from the afternoon; to view the abridged set of photos, click through to my Flickr page here!

You would never realize it from the number of photos I ended with, but I was very hesitant to take pictures. It was my first time with the community and I didn’t want to intrude by taking photos of people’s homes and children. I was also extremely uncomfortable about potentially promoting my own version of “slum tourism” after reading an insightful and articulate blog by Kristen Maryn, an AP Fellow in Nairobi, Kenya. However, after a few hours and some rough translation, the camera came out and stayed. Parents actually asked me to take pictures with their children, and the kids were giddy when they saw their picture on the digital screen. Many of the residents actually took out their cell phones and started taking pictures of me! If it goes both ways, it can’t be that bad? Right?

What do you think, would you ever be a “slum tourist” and pay to see poverty? Would it matter if you became a “better” person after the experience? I highly recommend Kristen’s blog, and the articles that she linked, for some interesting perspectives. Here are the links again for your convenience: Kristen’s blog, “Slumdog Tousism” - NYT, “Rich, Famous, and Living in a Slum” -Wall Street Journal, and “Poverty as Entertainment” - Daily Nation.

Adventures in Cooking

Wednesday, June 29th, 2011

At home in the US, I pride myself on being a fairly good cook and I generally enjoy doing it, from the grocery shopping to the prep work, to trying new vegetables, to re-imagining recipes based on my personal tastes, to sharing my cooking with friends and family. Not surprisingly, the cleanup is my least favorite part, but even that I don’t mind so much. However, I realized even before I came to India that I am really only comfortable cooking in my kitchen, where I have everything set up just the way I like it (provided my roommates haven’t moved things around on me).

When we visited in April, and since returning, I have been both intrigued and intimidated by cooking in India. The food that we eat here is amazing, especially the meals prepared by Maya, Indira, and their friends, and I would love to be able to replicate some of those recipes. But I am also intimidated by how labor intensive the cooking is and how much they seem to be able to accomplish with appliances and utensils that I need a lesson to use. For instance, we have a hot plate with gas burners in our kitchen, which is actually pretty standard in India, but when I tried to light a burner with the “igniter-thingie” (that’s a technical term) to make tea, I couldn’t seem to get it to work and had to have Indira show me the next day. Even now, a week later, it usually takes me 5-6 tries to get a burner lit, while Maya and Indira seem to do it effortlessly in one try.

Then there is the intimidation of the Indian produce. In the Indian equivalent to 7-11, Reliance Fresh, which is the closest grocery store to our office, I have probably heard of/used half of the produce there. The other half, while usually coming from similar food families (such as squash) is still completely new. Meanwhile, I’ve watched Indira buy a sack of produce from the vegetable lolly man near her house, open it, and instantly know how to prep and cook everything inside. It’ll take me more than a summer to be that comfortable. Without Indira by my side during the shopping and cooking, I’m sure pick the wrong vegetable for the dish or prep it incorrectly, but I’ve always been an experimenter when it comes to cooking.

This past Monday, Sam and I decided to face our fears head-on and give cooking a try. While the food that Maya and Indira serve us for lunch and most evenings is amazing, we feel badly for always relying on them for our sustenance. So, we queried Indira on how to prepare some Indian vegetables that we had eaten, gathered our courage, and headed to Reliance Fresh. What happened next is best summed up by this little video on YouTube, with photo credits going to Sam.

embedded by Embedded Video

YouTube DirektAdventures in Indian Cooking, Episode 1

Barranco and the National Park

Wednesday, June 29th, 2011

Temash River
Temash River

Last week I was getting pretty antsy. I had been in Belize, working at SATIIM’s headquarters in Punta Gorda, for more than a week and still hadn’t made it out to any of the five ‘buffer zone’ villages near the National Park that SATIIM represents, nor had I made it to the park itself. How could I talk about the work of the organization when I hadn’t experienced its elements and, well, its reason for being?

So when I was offered a ride to Barranco, the one Garifuna buffer community, and home of the late world-famous musician Andy Palacio, I said, ‘Yes!’

I would spend a couple of days there, run around with my cameras and audio recorder and do a ton of interviews. I would have all the material for a Barranco multimedia profile. That was the plan.

‘Not so fast,’ said Barranco.

Barrancans are quite friendly and polite, but this is a small village (160 people or less). What’s more, they don’t know me from an oil company rep who wants to despoil their park or an environmentalist who wants to tell them what to do with their park. Do I have an agenda? Yes, to learn what people there think about the prospect of drilling in the park, and, more broadly, what they want for their village and their people. Pretty innocent, right? But I have the power to manipulate people’s words and images when a touchy debate is quietly going on in a village with an uncertain future.

So desperate measures like house calls didn’t work. One young mother of five smiled sweetly as I stood on her porch and told me she doesn’t talk to strangers.

Deflated, I walked around the village, through the grassy paths that wove between houses, making friends with chickens, dogs, and sheep, until I finally turned back and headed for the village bus stop/store/bar. With the Friday afternoon sun still blazing, men sat in the shade of the small blue porch drinking ‘bitters’ (locally-made greenish-yellow ‘rum’ flavored with a vine so bitter it can make you mouth numb). They were speaking in puns and watching giant grasshoppers mate on a power line.

When I announced what I was doing there, the conversation turned to oil and the national park. It was a fluid mix of English Kriol and what I call plain English, so I picked up on some.

“They have so much money,” I heard. “And they’re making more off of you,” one bitters drinker said to another. “Couldn’t they give you a dime of it?”

The group was teasing one of the men for having been caught on camera signing an anti-drilling proposal backed by a US-based environmental organization. Their beef was that his image was being used by the ‘wealthy’ NGO for its own benefit.

The teased man was unperturbed. But the primary teaser, who now lives outside of Barranco, went on: Who do they think they are, coming in and telling us we can’t develop?

SATIIM, which occasionally works with international environmental groups, is often painted with a similar brush. SATIIM was once strictly a conservation organization, but more and more its focus is on sustainable development, along with indigenous rights. It is not anti-development or even anti-drilling. It’s for giving indigenous people the right to control their own land – and that includes the right to make an informed choice about drilling.

The oversimplification of the oil debate as ‘for or against’ has some shrugging off their own rights under international laws and norms, like informed prior consent, community consultation, and the environmental impact assessment process. The woman who served me fried snapper that night at her ‘restaurant’ (a single chair at a single table on her porch), said she knows drilling will hurt the environment, but it’s worth it because ‘we need jobs.’

Another woman told me later that most people in the village say they’re against drilling, but when company reps come around, they all want to be first in line for a job.

I spent the night at a small soap factory (Barranco Botanicals), run by an American woman who’s lived in the area for 20 years. And the next morning Alvin Loredo, a tour guide and head of a local development organization, took me by motor boat into the Sarstoon Temash National Park.

We zipped down the coast and into the mouth of the Temash River.

It was breathtakingly beautiful, and, for me, exotic, with black and red mangroves lining the river, their bleached stilts thrusting down and leaves grazing the surface of the water. And orchids dangled from branches above. Alvin pointed out Comfra Palms, which exist nowhere else in Belize, and which Barrancans use as a building material. He also pointed out about a dozen varieties of bird he saw and heard.

And then we were there, at the seismic testing site. It was so close to a creek that runs into the river, where Barrancans fish, and which runs into the oceans, where Barrancans fish and swim. It was also close to a sign that read, ‘Slow no wake manatee area.’ I couldn’t help but think, ‘Are you kidding??’

At last…Kisoro, Uganda!

Wednesday, June 29th, 2011

Muraho (hello)!  My husband, Tyler, and I arrived safely in Kisoro late on the 23rd.  This is my third time here, and Tyler’s second.  Upon arrival, we were introduced to our one bedroom unit in a lovely little neighborhood near Mutolere Hospital some 5k outside of Kisoro proper that’s surrounded by mature eucalyptus trees, and flowering bushes and gardens.  Needless to say, our place is much more than we expected.  We have a living room, and bedroom/kitchen with a small refrigerator, hot plate, sink and, perhaps most importantly, a French Press with which to make coffee in the mornings (hallelujah!!!!).  And the water from the taps in our place is drinkable because the volcanic rock here filters it, and the pipes to the house are sound, so no need to buy endless bottled water.  How nice is that?

Tyler will be substitute teaching for Chris’ wife, Heather, while she visits family and friends in Scotland and Canada.  She, like Tyler, is a high school literature and composition teacher, so that works out amazingly well.  We immediately started to learn the new ropes of our life here, with me starting work at UOBDU the day after arrival, and Ty getting a feel for class subject matter, and meeting some of the staff and students at the schools (a high school, and a primary school) he’ll be teaching at.

At UOBDU, I’m helping their new Land Rights Officer, Winfred, organize and categorize documents and materials on the Batwa and their struggle for land.  UOBDU itself has been busy, not just with land rights issues, but also mapping the Batwa’s knowledge of forest features and characteristics onto a 3-D topographical map they made out of layers of cardboard (e.g., locations of flora and fauna, areas of worship, areas they used to consider taboo for hunting, etc.).  The map is huge, and covers Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, and the surrounding area.  I’ll give more detail and post pictures soon.

All in all, it’s really good to be back.  More very soon…

The "Welcome to Uganda" large spider, and a caterpillar that gives you prickers if you pick it up, in our shower
The "Welcome to Uganda" large spider, and a caterpillar that gives you prickers if you pick it up, in our shower
UOBDU Office (I'll get a better photo up later)
UOBDU Office (I'll get a better photo up later)
Taken this last Dec.  Muhuvura volcano (Kisoro is somewhere down there in the distance).
Taken this last Dec. Muhuvura volcano (Kisoro is somewhere down there in the distance).

The 20th International Steering Committee Meeting: Reactions from a Peace Fellow

Wednesday, June 29th, 2011

On 27 and 28 June, 2011 The Decade of Roma Inclusion held the 20th International Steering Committee Meeting in Prague, Czech Republic. This event heralded the end of the Czech Presidency of the Decade and formalized the beginning of the Presidency of the Republic of Macedonia.

Translations were provided in English, Czech, and Romany
Translations were provided in English, Czech, and Romany

Enjoying my first Meeting of International Roma Leaders

It was quite the experience. As a young, inexperienced intern I found myself quickly overwhelmed with the number of people there and their influence: The Prime Ministers of the Czech Republic  (Petr Nečas) and Macedonia (Nikola Gruevski), George Soros of the  Open Society Foundations, government officials from all the Decade countries, representatives from high levels of the European Commission, the World Bank, and the Council of Europe. In addition, representatives of civil society were abundant, and I settled myself in the back of the room to observe the proceedings. (Not by choice – the rest of the seats were taken!)

The first panel discussion was titled “ Synergies between the Decade of Roma Inclusion 2005-2015 and the EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies.” I found this particularly interesting, as Ivan had me completing a comparison of the efforts and what the Czech Republic has (and has not done) to address these recommendations. The recommendations were all good, but I found myself thinking back to the previous blog post about rhetoric. Yes, the recommendations are valid, but what action is going to be taken to address such recommendations?

L-R: Katarina Mathernova, Gabriela Hrabanova, Lenia Samuel, George Soros, Aurel Ciobanu-Dordea
L-R: Katarina Mathernova, Gabriela Hrabanova, Lenia Samuel, George Soros, Aurel Ciobanu-Dordea

Katarina Mathernova (Senior Advisor, World Bank), Gabriela Hrabanova (Director, Office of Government Council for Roma Minority Affairs, Czech Republic), Lenia Samuel (Deputy-Director, DG Employment Social Affairs and Inclusion, European Commission), George Soros (Chairman and Founder of the Open Society Foundations), Aurel Ciobanu-Dordea (Director, DG Justice, European Commission)

Cooperation, monitoring, compatibility, policy. Buzz words were abundant throughout this panel. Perhaps it is my inexperience in such international meetings, but I felt let down. Where was the Decade? What had been DONE? What ACTIONS need to still be taken? This feeling was present throughout the presentations of the Czech Republic and its conclusions and the goals of Macedonia.

Then Kalman Mizsei of the Open Society Foundation presented. He spoke of the need to re-address what qualifies as a “strategy.” Not only should these strategies have goals, but they should have action plans included, quantifiable targets, a concrete budget, and a change from “business as usual.” Policies should not just be approved by Roma civil society, but they should be created by Roma Civil Society in a partnership with governments. He spoke of the need for someone to take responsibility – and pointed at the European Commission. That there needs to be a monitoring process and the European Commission should be responsible for giving feedback to governments about what they’re doing and what they need to improve upon.

Kalman Mizsei, Co-Chair Roma Policy Board, Chair Making the Most of EU Funds for Roma
Kalman Mizsei, Co-Chair Roma Policy Board, Chair Making the Most of EU Funds for Roma

Kalman Mizsei presenting at the 20th ISC Meeting of the Decade of Roma Inclusion

Of course I realize that this is more rhetoric, but it was something other than giving each other pats on the back for merely saying that things need to change. It was a criticism of the fact that things haven’t changed despite such rhetoric. Mr. Mizsei’s presentation was followed by numerous examples of good practices which have occurred throughout member countries.

In Macedonia education has been addressed with a scholarship program as part of the Roma Education Fund – Roma children are encouraged to compete with each other to get good grades and thus funding to go to secondary school. Students were present to talk about the effectiveness of the program – it provided an incentive to do well, it was a method of empowerment and independence for the students. Mentors are available for students, and have been seen to be especially effective in being a bridge between parents and students in navigating the educational system.

In Serbia 60 female health mediators have been trained to become a bridge between Roma communities and health institutions. They have been responsible for a significant improvement in health  – more children are getting vaccinated, women are getting pre natal care, and documents have been supplied to families so they can access health care. The health mediators found that there is nothing inherently unhealthy or dirty about the population – the commonly encountered diseases were almost identical to that of the general population. These health mediators were able to not only educate the Roma community, but dispel stereotypes which are often the most damaging aspects of a marginalized society.

Looking at the Czech Republic, I find myself disappointed in the lack of action. The lack of good practices. The fact that children are still routinely put in special schools. The fact that there are no policies for implementation. There are no groups to enforce action. The Czech Republic is still enabling the vicious cycle of discrimination and prejudice which have afflicted the Roma community for thousands of years. This is not to say the other Decade countries are perfect. (On the second day when the Romanian government presented I thought there might be a fight between Romanian Roma civil society and the government representative…but that is neither here nor there.) But as I have fallen in love with the Czech Republic, I find their failings particularly disappointing.

It is time for them to do something about it. The time for planning has ended, the time for action is upon us.

Does “coming out” exist in India?

Wednesday, June 29th, 2011

This past Sunday, Sam and I went with Maya and Indira to a private screening of the documentary “I am.” I highly recommend this movie, even if you do not have a particular interest in LGBTI issues, because the storytelling is extraordinarily powerful. The movie was made by Sonali Gulati, an Indian lesbian filmmaker, who returned to Delhi eleven years after her mother passed away to pack up the family house, but also to tell the coming out story of gays and lesbians in India around the time that Section 377, the Indian law that criminalizes sodomy, was being read down by the Delhi High Court.

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YouTube DirektTrailer for "I am" on YouTube

While coming to terms with the fact that she never came out to her own mother, Sonali interviews gay, lesbian and transgender individuals, and often their mothers, to hear the diversity of perspectives and experiences of coming out to family. One thing that struck me in the movie was how different these coming out experiences were from the experiences of the people that Parma works with. Working with Parma, we had been told that the idea of coming out doesn’t really exist in India, and the best that most non-heterosexual/gender non-conforming people can hope for is that their families will just ignore the issue. However, the stories of the people in the documentary were mainly positive. Even if a family’s reaction wasn’t immediately supportive, most of the stories ended with the families coming to accept the individuals and their sexual orientation.

While the documentary showed that coming out in India is not always a negative experience, I think this is largely due to the fact that the individuals interviewed were mostly from a middle-to-upper class, urban environment. In general, most people that we meet through Parma are from rural or tribal areas and have either run away from home or been pushed out, usually after they made their identity explicit by having a female partner. This has made one of our Advocacy Project responsibilities incredibly complex and complicated. Because of previous experiences of or threats of violence, most of the transgender individuals that Parma works with are not comfortable “coming out” to their families and close friends, much less to the world at large via the internet. Therefore, gathering “personal profiles” of the people that we work with is not simply a matter of determining who has a powerful story to tell (they all do), but finding a way to let them tell a story in a way that makes them comfortable, hiding their identity visually and possibly even changing their name. Even then, many of the transgender people are not comfortable sharing their story with strangers, period.

Sharing these stories is incredibly important – hearing them has helped us to understand the roadblocks, discrimination, and mistreatment that they have endured because of the gender identity in a way that we would not have been able to otherwise, so we are working hard to find a way to share these stories with a broader audience. Over the past week or so, we have been brainstorming with Maya and Indira to generate a list of people who are more “out” and who may be more comfortable sharing their stories, and we hope to get their consent and possibly begin the process at their next group meeting.

Tupananchikkama, Ayacucho

Tuesday, June 28th, 2011

Huamanquiquia, Sacsamarca and Hualla. These are the names of the three communities of the Pampas-Qaracha region of Ayacucho that I visited that week, along with EPAF staff and a delegation of Canadian professors from the University of Northern British Columbia. In prevision of a future collaboration between UNBC and EPAF, the professors were there to learn about the history of the armed conflict in the region, as well as obtain a better understanding of the current post-conflict situation in the different communities.

Musical performers in Huamanquiquia
Musical performers in Huamanquiquia

Despite the long hours of driving separating them, and their distinctive clothing and musical styles, Huamanquiquia, Sacsamarca and Hualla have a lot in common. In fact, like the majority of conflict-affected communities in Peru—many of which are to be found in this region as it was the main location of the confrontation between the Shining Path, the Peruvian Armed Forces, and self-defence groups—they share similarities that far outweigh their differences.

Huamanquiquia locals
Huamanquiquia locals

The three communities are part of an on-going  EPAF project to empower the relatives of the disappeared to become the main promoters of the search for their loved ones, through the recuperation of memory, psychosocial counselling, and support and juridical assistance in the organization of associations of victims’ relatives. One of the main reasons for our visit was to sign agreements with local authorities to formalize the collaboration between EPAF each of the communities.

Sunset in Sacsamarca
Sunset in Sacsamarca

As I am becoming more immersed in this work and the more of these communities I visit, certain patterns are becoming hard to miss. This time around, I was particularly struck by two elements that came up again and again, whether in official speeches and discussions or in conversations with local people. First was how much people were moved by the interest showed by outsiders—whether they EPAF staff or visiting Canadian professors—in learning about their stories.

Sacsamarca locals
Sacsamarca locals

These are remote, extremely isolated communities that were deeply wounded by the internal conflict, and they have had to live with the weight of their memories ever since. The overwhelming impression I got was that communities feeling abandoned—abandoned by the State, and abandoned by a Peruvian society that cares little about the horrors that took place in this part of the country during the 1980s and 1990s. But also of people feeling trapped with their memories, their suffering and their wounds—and being thankful for any kind of outlet. Memory can be a burden as much as a liberation, and I have a feeling that some level of external recognition is crucial in the transition from one to the other.

Huamanquiquia locals and EPAF
Huamanquiquia locals and EPAF

The second thread that seemed to crop up again and again was that of the various linkages between the history of violence and the present difficulties in the communities. Local people clearly understand their present as the logical continuation of the past, and many associate their current state of poverty as the consequence of the violence suffered in the 1980s and 1990s. For instance, people in Hualla repeatedly emphasized the progress achieved by the community before the conflict.  When violence came, it was reduced to a fraction of its population when the majority had to flee to cities—Huamanga, Ica, Lima—to preserve their lives.

Woman watching EPAF staff at work
Woman watching EPAF staff at work

The fact that people themselves associate what I would broadly call “development” issues with their memories and lived experiences of the violence has many possible implications, which I will be sure to take up in future posts. For now, I will focus on one:  the limits of memory and the true meaning of justice. What does justice mean for the relatives of victims of enforced disappearance? Surely, establishing the truth over what happened and recuperating the remains of their deceased loved ones is a step in the right direction.

Members of AFAVIPOSS
Members of AFAVIPOSS

But what happens after the truth has been established, after the dead have been returned and properly buried? The collective memory of what happened may live on, but the people directly affected by the violence still remain as poor and marginalized from society, preventing any real possibility of a full reconciliation. This directly feeds into questions over reparations for the violence and losses suffered. What sort of reparation is appropriate in such cases? What is the responsibility of the government in this matter? I will address this issue in my next post, as I believe it is quite fitting with what I have witnessed on this recent trip, but also with recent events in Peru.

Welcome to Sacsamarca
Welcome to Sacsamarca

Before ending this post, I need to mention the incredible way we were welcomed in Huamanquiquia, Sacsamarca and Hualla. EPAF has managed to build a relationship of trust and respect with these communities, and this was evidenced by the extremely warm welcome we received. It is difficult to express the emotion felt after hours spent travelling on hair-raising roads to find an entire community waiting in the middle of the road to welcome your group with banners, music, and flowers. The hospitality of the people was truly humbling, and left many of us without the words to express our gratitude.

Post-ceremony group shot in Huamanquiquia
Post-ceremony group shot in Huamanquiquia

There would be much more for me to say about this trip to Ayacucho, but in the interest of keeping this post short I will simply say: “Tupananchikkama, Ayacucho!” (Quechua for see you soon, Ayacucho!)

Group pose at the highest pass of the trip
Group pose at the highest pass of the trip

The rest of my photos of Ayacucho are available on my Flickr set.

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