Thursday, September 24, 2009

New Blog

I'm sure no one's checking here anymore, but since I left SL in May, I'm not writing here anymore. My new blog is over at

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Required Reading

I majored in African history* in college, partly because it was a soft major with more flexible requirements, and after dabbling in film, French, and English, I was a bit stuck, but more importantly, because the classes I took sparked a passion for discovering a history that I had never learned in school or through the news or independently. People ask me why I chose my major, or what drove me to want to do NGO work on the continent, or how I came to study in Senegal, volunteer in Sierra Leone, and work in South Africa, and I can't answer. I don't know.

I've always loved traveling, and when I was younger I certainly held a romanticized notion of "Africa," but when I decided to go to Senegal, I'd had learned enough at my pinko anarchist-fascist university, or whatever Fox News calls it, to know that my preconceived notions were 100% wrong. But I still wanted to go. And when I came back, I didn't call it "Mama Africa" or feel like I had some special connection to "Africa"--I loved Senegal, but it never felt like the home I'd never had. I used to collect masks, mostly of African origin, as a child/young teenager...I can't even tell you why this was a fascination for me. Perhaps, when it comes down to it, I like to learn about things that other people don't and I like to share that knowledge (often obnoxiously, I apologize). I've always felt that it's vital to know the forgotten things, the unknown things, to witness them.

Perhaps I'll come back to this sometime, but this post had a point before I tried to answer questions I still can't answer. In a seminar my senior year, I read the article "How to Write about Africa" by the Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina, and I ran across it again this morning. It's fantastic. Takes me down a peg or two every time I read it and think about what I've written about Senegal, Sierra Leone, and South Africa. Wainaina's article and the first article I ever had to read for my very first lecture in Main Currents in African History (talk about a broad topic...) on the word "tribe" should be required reading for anyone who is not from the African continent but is doing something in some way related to it, such as traveling, studying, or working. Funnily enough, these two articles were the first and last that I ever read for my major, both assigned by the same professor. Good bookends.

How to Write about Africa, Binyavanga Wainaina
Talking About Tribe: Moving from Stereotypes to Analysis, Chris Lowe et al.

*I realize that calling it "African history" is in itself sort of counter to what Wainaina is writing, but I wasn't allowed to specify my concentration below "African" because there were not enough classes offered in, say, Senegalese or pre/post colonial or even West African history to complete my major.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Watching Whales Watching Us

Being from Southern California and a short drive to the part of the Pacific that houses the Channel Islands (San Clemente, Santa Catalina, San Nicolas, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, Anacapa, Santa Rosa, San Miguel—the one from Island of the Blue Dolphins), I’ve been whale watching more than once as a kid, spotting the smooth circular “footprints” left by gray and blue whales (and possibly humpbacks? I was young) on the water’s surface, watching dolphins play at the bow of the boat, and getting spectacularly seasick to the point of immobility (never a lot of throwing up, but lots and lots of debilitating nausea). In fact, my sharpest memory of whale watching occurred during a hurricane in Mexico that whipped the Californian reaches of the Pacific into mountainous swells and peaks that spilled over the bow of the boat—always a good day for surfers and never for landlubbers like me (as an aside, I’ve always known my secret dream of being a pirate captain would be trumped by my inability to wield a cutlass or even stand up in high seas, but I tried to ignore this fact as a child). My cousin Peter was visiting, and the two of us spent the entirety of the boat ride lying in the stern and moaning while clutching our bellies and eating saltines. I remember not caring in the least when we found whales.

Somehow, I thought that I’d be all right in a boat off the coast at Hermanus, which is one of the premier whale watching spots in the world. It seemed strange when my guidebook talked little of boat-based whale watching and instead spent more than a few pages on coastal whale watching—standing on the rocks overlooking Walker Bay, which is a breeding site for Southern Right Whales, though Humpbacks, Orcas, and Bryde’s Whales also range here. Only twice before had I seen whales from the coast—once while driving back from Malibu on the Pacific Coast Highway, though it seemed as if the whale had been lost, and once at Mossel Bay in South Africa, but it was far away.

And so, we booked a somewhat expensive whale watching tour (it’s much cheaper in California) and drove out along the coast to Hermanus in my new car, a 1993 baby blue BMW, which is in good shape but still makes some interesting noises and has a few quirks. Fortunately it’s an automatic, which is why I got it, and so I only have to learn how to drive on the wrong side of the road. The drive was absolutely stunning from the flashes that I could see, though I spent most of my time trying to stay centered on the incredibly narrow roads while attempting to navigate World Cup-related highway construction, not collide with cars weaving back and forth and cutting corners and tailgating, avoid people jaywalking on the freeway (on the way back, we saw a man who had been hit by a car while he crossed in the dark surrounded by cop cars and ambulances), and continue driving in the right direction. I’m a nervous driver as it is, so this was a bit of a trial by fire. But we got there without incident, parked, and found a good but unfortunately long lunch—we waited about an hour to get our food.

Finally, we were free to explore Hermanus, and as Morgan and Heather (a new fellow at m2m) looked at souvenirs and Wenli bought a giant slice of delicious looking cake, I wandered down to Walker Bay to look at the ocean. As I approached, I saw a few whales in the distance, but once I came to the edge of the cliff overlooking the water, where tons of people were gathered, I looked down and saw Southern Right Whales, identifiable by the callosities on their heads and lack of dorsal fin, herding their babies around the bay within swimming distance of the shore. Whales were breaching (lifting out of the water), spyholing (sticking their heads out to see), lobtailing (lifting their flukes, or tails), logging (resting at the surface of the water with their backs out—looks exactly like it sounds), and rolling on their backs to stick their squarish fins out of the water. I’ve never seen whales more active or closer to shore. I had to fight an urge to throw myself headlong into the water and swim out to them. There’s no other way to describe it other than awe-some, in the classic dictionary definition of being filled with awe.

We had to tear ourselves away after a while to catch our boat, and we were anticipating something even more amazing—if we could almost touch the whales from the shore, then we should have basically been able to ride the whales we encountered from the boat or at least pet them, I thought—and we paid our money and looked at the dinky boat upon which we were about to embark for a two-hour trip with about ten other people (the guys said it could hold 90 people, but I think that may have been in a refugees-fleeing-across-the-ocean kind of capacity). The bay had looked calm, and there wasn’t a lot of wind, and so I was optimistic that I’d be OK, especially if there were whales to distract me. The second we were out of the marina and onto the sea proper (no boats are allowed in Walker Bay so as not to disturb breeding and calving), I knew there was going to be trouble. The swells were huge, and we were glugging right into them, and the boat, shuddering and rolling, almost felt as if it were about to capsize, which became even more of a worry upon recalling the assurances of one of the tour guides that we would be brought home “no matter what.” I was fine for about fifteen minutes. Luckily, we found a mother and calf fairly quickly.

The rules say that you must stay 50 meters from the whales, which can approach if they want to, and that you can only stay with the whales for 20 minutes. We didn’t exactly follow either of these rules as the boat fought the swells and the whales circled us, the mother nudging along her calf, who played with a piece of seaweed, spyholed and stuck out its tongue. At one point, I thought they’d come close enough to touch, but the sea was too rough. We stayed with them for a while (I lost track of time because once I become seasick, a minute is an eternity), and I stayed on the bottom deck, following the whales around the bow and sides of the boat, after one ill-advised run up to the top with the majority of the other people that felt a bit like being on a Tilt-A-Whirl. The whales were beautiful.

We stayed out for about an hour (the tour guides seemed a bit anxious to get to something, probably a Saturday braai or party or whatever) and even though we did not get the full two-hour experience, I was more than ready to get off the boat. By the last ten minutes or so, I couldn’t even lift my head I felt so sick.

When I think about the boat ride and the cost, it feels as if it weren’t worth it, as if we’d have been better off sitting on the rocks and watching from land. When I think about the whales, about how close we were, it was worth every stomach churning, head throbbing second. I wouldn’t get on a boat at Hermanus again, and I probably wouldn’t recommend it, but I’m glad that I did it. It was an unforgettable experience, one that makes me wonder at the heartlessness of whalers—how could one kill something so gentle and playful, so curious, so obviously intelligent—and at how easy it must have been to catch and kill “Right Whales,” named as such because they are slow swimmers, tend to float on the water once harpooned, and stay close to shore. The whales that we saw from land and from sea saw us and seemed interested in us, people watching us as we were whale watching them. They showed off, spinning in the water, breaching, and playing. There were other places less populated with human beings where mothers could nurse their calves, but they came right up to the rocks where people stood, displaying their babies to us. To steal from a recent New Yorker article on whales, despite the terrible history surrounding our two species, there seems to be some kind of gentle connection between us, as we watch each other from solid ground or boat deck and from the ocean.

Photos, from top: the Southern Right Whale calf spyholing (the top of the head is cut off in the photo because the sea was so rough); the view over Walker Bay--no whales visible; a random man on the rocks at Walker Bay to give you an idea of how close the whales were to shore; Morgan, Wenli, and Heather in front of the boat; the baby whale sticking out its tongue.

I tried to post a not-so-great video of the whales in Walker Bay, but the Internet is impossible today. I'll try again later--the video is much better at capturing what was going on, since it was hard to anticipate when one of the many whales would breach or lobtail and get the camera around in time to capture it.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Moral Value of Volunteerism and Other Myths

As I settle into my job, I read more and more about other NGOs and programs that tout the use of local volunteers. m2m always pays local staff members, despite the fact that this is often controversial, can be a big fight in budget negotiations and is repeatedly the first thing funders and governments try to cross off the expenditures list. m2m insists on paying Mentor Mothers, the new mothers living with HIV who counsel pregnant women and new mothers about prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV, and Site Coordinators, who are also mothers living with HIV that manage the m2m sites at clinics and hospitals. The reason for this is that, to quote Paul Farmer (or paraphrase; I hear it often here but have not come across the original quotation): “volunteerism is a tax on the poor.” Asking locals to volunteer means that they are taken away from performing tasks and jobs that contribute to household income. Furthermore, providing a Mentor Mother with a salary identifies her as a professionalized peer counselor and (with hope) can empower her. Many MMs have never held a paying job, and their income from m2m supports their families, gives them access to better living and dietary conditions, and trickles through the community, as MMs support local businesses.

This, for me, is one of the great strengths of m2m. We treat our staff as professionals and are able to hold them accountable for their work. The MMs are seen as part of the healthcare system and not below it (though admittedly there are occasional problems related to HIV-status-based discrimination at some clinics or just snobby healthcare workers who see the MMs as lower, even though they often do the work of trained nurses). Furthermore, the MMs are role models for pregnant women and new mothers living with HIV, since they went through the same situation in terms of being HIV-positive in pregnancy, going through PMTCT care, or disclosing their status to their families and communities, and now have jobs and live positively and successfully.

So, when I read these blurbs about how great it is to recruit volunteers instead of paying staff a wage, I don’t understand. It makes the most sense in terms of cost cutting—asking locals to do jobs that benefit their communities for free. It seems that NGOs, however, seem to know that promoting local volunteerism is on shaky ground because they always seem to go further, to try for an extra justification, which usually boils down to this: volunteerism promotes responsibility, sustainability, and self-reliance. I don’t particularly understand the whole “sustainability” and “self-reliance” argument. It’s not sustainable because volunteers are by nature transitory—very few people can volunteer for their whole lives. Volunteerism can give someone skills and training, but down the road, self-reliance goes out the window: if people do not have jobs, they cannot rely on themselves to provide for their families. It’s a vicious cycle, and a cynic might say that promoting volunteerism also promotes dependence and cements the NGO as a fixture in the community: refuse to pay the local person a wage but give them the medicines and food they cannot afford to buy (this is a topic that I find a bit uncomfortable because I believe in providing free medicines, food, and other support, and I certainly don’t want to undermine NGO work or state-sponsored welfare, but sometimes aid workers have to admit that NGO practices create cycles of dependence that deepen and worsen over time).

Now, I volunteered in Sierra Leone for nine months, but I considered that a luxury, just as when I used to be a vegetarian, I knew that it was a luxury to refuse to eat something. I was lucky enough to be able to choose to be a volunteer. For those of us who are fortunate enough to be able to afford to volunteer, it almost becomes a duty: I should give back for all that I have been given (again, uncomfortable territory—if you haven’t read Rudyard Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden” go do so and you’ll see why). But those same notions of volunteerism should not apply to low income countries. If people are so poor that they cannot get food on the table or buy a bed net for their children, then it is immoral to ask them to volunteer, even if the service provided will better their community. NGOs need to learn to stand up to donors and funders and say that the people they serve will be infinitely better off if they are hired as paid or compensated staff.

And NGOs also need to understand that the NGO world should be fundamentally unsustainable, that NGOs should work themselves out of a job. I’m not saying that all organizations should leave a particular country to fend for itself or that devolution to national governments is going to happen overnight, but we in the NGO sector should hope to be unemployed in our lifetimes, should hope that the jobs that we set out to do—seeing an HIV-free generation, eradicating malaria, ending violence against women, eliminating land mines—should also be eliminated because they have been completed. NGO work should not be a business, which is not to say that aid workers should not be paid or have good working conditions or that we should work on a shoestring (the old colonial approach, by the way) and do without the overhead or operational/administrative costs that support programs. But that is a larger discussion. More important, first and foremost, is that NGOs should pay local staff members instead of demanding that they work as volunteers. This is the first step towards helping build more prosperous, self-reliant, and innovative communities, a way to build empowerment for the future. Because without economic prosperity, good health is hard to find.

Further Reading:
I've linked it above, but The Nonprofit Starvation Cycle by Ann Goggins Gregory and Don Howard in The Standford Social Innovation Review is a good read about why overhead cost restrictions for nonprofits is not a great idea...If you want to give to a nonprofit, please make sure your donations are unrestricted.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

A Quick Comment

I don't want to inject too much political stuff in here, but since I see this as a place for me to talk about the things that are on my mind while I'm in South Africa, and since I'm a tad opinionated, I don't think I'll be able to avoid it all the time.

So, here's the thing: when we spoke about getting rid of Bush, it was generally about impeachment. Even the far, far, FAR lefties, the ones who waved "Down With the Bush Regime" signs at anti-war protests, were talking about impeaching him, about bringing his administration to justice for war crimes. Our fantasies involved photographed orgies in the White House that included the President, Vice President, most of the Cabinet, and several members of Congress that would bring shame to the Bush administration (and...gross). We did not speak, or joke, of assassination. And if we did, we were brought to task.

Now I read about people, including politicians on the right, members of the Republican Party, who have made comments (I won't call them jokes) alluding to assassinating President Obama. And I'm shocked that we allow these kinds of comments to stand, that the GOP has not risen up against these people and brought them to task.

There's something ugly brewing in my country.