Thursday, August 16, 2012

Utterly me

I'm an ordinary Cambodian girl, but I can be anything. I read books, I write novels, I paint pictures, I compose poems, I take photographs, I make comics, I'm a part-time vegetarian . So this place is all about me. I hope you enjoy it (",)
Sovathary Bon is a 23-year-old student who lives in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. In her Utterly me blog, she writes about her friends, her daily doings, and presents her excellent comics.

She shows us her room – or her studio as she playfully calls it. She and her friends love to take photos and the blog fills with sunny pictures of girls smiling at cafes and parks. In August a group of young bloggers got to visit a USNS Mercy ship, which resulted in a lot of photos from there.

This is a warm and friendly blog community with lots of comments to blog posts from the bloggers’ friends, and with some very skilful use of new technology. (Also notice the Asian smileys - (“,) -  they are different from those that us Finns are used to using.)
I'm the kind of person who believes a person should have only one best friend, but I realize it does me a lot of good to have so many friends as I do now. My friends are either normal, ridiculous, or even semi-crazy like I am, and I feel lucky that I have known them all. 

Friendships are important for Sovathary.  So is creativity. She draws her own comic strip Ginger The Kindergartener, which is inspired by her mother’s childhood. She also has (self) published a fantasy novel The Half Blood about a gifted teenage girl who finds out that she is a hybrid between human and vampire!

Sovathary’s life seems happy and pretty carefree. Phnom Penh looks like any modern city, only more beautiful with the Royal Palace and the pagodas.

When I read blogs like this one, I feel I can’t wait for the next generation to take over. When these educated and energetic  young people such as Sovathary will take the over in a country like Cambodia, I’m sure things will start changing.

When I started to write Southern Blogosphere, my idea was to write about ordinary people’s lives and thoughts. However, I have noticed that instead of presenting people – bloggers – I have more than once presented a problem or a topic that has interested or annoyed me at the time. But I promise I will not forget my original idea – because people and their everyday life are so fascinating.   


Monday, June 4, 2012

Is finding oil ever a good thing?

I am going to write about an absurdity. Wouldn’t you think that when oil is found in a country, that country will become rich and the future of its citizens will be secured forever?

Well, that is what you would think. But Africans are afraid of oil.

Following the news that oil had been found in northwestern Kenya, in the Turkana area, (a very recommendable blog by a group of Kenyan writers) expressed serious concern about it:
"Out of sheer curiosity, when has finding oil in an African country EVER been a good thing?"
Diasporadical suspects that although the oil will boost economy, it will also leave Kenya at prey for Western influence. And corruption will reap the economic benefits:
"Ignoring the obvious western influence – you know, how certain countries may decide that it’s the right time to attack certain terrorist groups as they drill and pump our mother Kenya shamelessly – there’s a more…local threat. Our government is a lot more shameless than those aforementioned warmongers. If we found 3 billion barrels worth for example, it’s safe to assume we’d only report 2 and only sell one, and 70% of that money would get lost through some nimble accounting.
I’m not proclaiming to be some sort of expert. Far from it. All I do is read books and occasionally watch the news. And from that cursory stance, the history of abuse of natural resources and the violence that follows the discovery of such seems like great cause for concern."

The comments for Diasporadical’s blog are worth reading, for example this one:
"I wish (fervently) that we will not end up like our brothers and sisters in Nigeria and Angola. I don’t know how Ghana is fairing, it may take a few years to see the effects of oil there but preliminary reports: not so good.
I get the trepidation, after all western multi-nationals and China (check Sudan) swoop in knowing we have weak checks and balances in our governments and very corrupt officials, much to the detriment of African citizens. BUT, let us not be defeatist. Kenya is a country with a reasonably well educated population, it is our raia duty to look out for our brothers and sisters in Turkana and make sure they are not taken advantage of, our environment is not degraded and the money is well spent.
Is this not what we have been screaming about during this whole #kony2012 scenario? Give us a chance to change ourselves before you pretty white boys come and “save” us? Well here is our chance." (by Chepng'eno)
Too often, oil has meant violence and destruction of nature. We all love nature. But for subsistence farmers in developing countries, the destruction of natural environment will literally mean that there will be no food or water.

For example, Angola and Nigeria have oil – are they rich and peaceful countries? No, they are poor. In Angola, civil war lasted for 27 years, and Nigeria… I could write pages about it, but this satirical video Live with it! iPhone app by Friends of the Earth Netherlands says it all in just 2 minutes.

Let us hope this will not happen in Kenya.

I am sorry I am writing about such a sad topic at the beginning of the beautiful Finnish summer. To lighten up this blog, I’ve decided to include a playlist. The idea is stolen from a blog that presented earlier on, Koranteng’s Toli.
  • We found love (OIL) in a hopeless place spoof (Turkana dedicated, also found in the Disporadical blog)  
  • Salif Keita: Folon (Such a beautiful song, please read the English translation, too. You can find it by scrolling down a bit.) 
  • Jukka Poika: Kiitollisuutta /Gratitude (if someone has not heard of Finnish reggae yet, now is a good time to start. Non-Finnish readers, you will miss the great lyrics but can enjoy the rhythm and the voice) 
  • Suvivirsi / Summer Hymn  (a modern version of probably the most-loved Finnish hymn about summer) 
  • Suvivirsi / Summer Hymn (traditional version)
Have a beautiful summer,

Monday, April 2, 2012

Can aid worker swim in a pool?

I found a poignantly funny blog in which an aid worker asked his readers’ opinion on whether an NGO could run a swimming pool in Africa.

The Head of Research for the British NGO Oxfam, Duncan Green, told in his (very recommendable) blog From Poverty to Power that Oxfam’s regional office in Nairobi, Kenya, had realized some years ago that they could save money by running  their own guesthouse, rather than parking the numerous visitors in hotels.
“As a large converted house in a nice part of town, and like most such houses in Nairobi, it has a swimming pool. But the swimming pool is covered over and closed, even though it would be cheap to keep it open. Why? Reputational risk – back in the UK, where swimming pools are luxury items, Oxfam’s big cheeses saw a tabloid scandal in the making and closed it."
This was the most popular poll ever on Green’s blog andOpen the pool, provided it operates at zero cost to Oxfam”  got 59 per cent and ‘Open the pool right away got 26 in Wrapping up the great Nairobi guesthouse pool debate. (Some of the comments are pretty witty such as "Use the pool but don’t enjoy it.") 

The arguments included the fact that swimming is good exercise and exercise is difficult to get in a big city like Nairobi or out on the field. Good argument, but hey, I am in the aid business so declare an interest here.

The pool blog sparked a discussion on aid workers and luxury, and the discussion extended to the current state of the development  and emergency work.

By googling “swimming pool” and “Oxfam”, I found Spectator magazine’s very good and extremely critical story on aid industry and media. The main point of the “Big charity”  story is that media is not critical enough when dealing with charitable organizations.  

Perhaps it isn’t. And several of the grievances in the story are exactly the same things that go round my tired head when I wonder about the state of aid. E.g. that some countries receiving a lot of aid become poorer. 
"As Gaetan Drossart, the searingly honest head of mission for Médicins Sans Frontières, told … there is a failure in the development model — we do not know why it is not working.’
Many say that development aid makes recipients passive and helpless. But what if development cooperation is not working because of the stupid arrangement of this world of ours? Aidwork alone can not save the world; fair politics, just trade and good laws are needed as well.

Inequality is wasteful

But back to the pool. Although it really is no longer just about the pool. The pool was simply a telling example of not only the state of the aid industry and its public image, but also about the state of inequality in this world.

Some of us have access to a pool, some don’t.

You can substitute the word “pool” by e.g. “school” or "clean water", or “job with sufficient income to support the family”.

All men (and women) are created equal and blaah blaah blaah – but in reality we are shockingly unequal. Out of all the things that I find are wrong in this world, inequality is the thing that angers me the most. Angers, sickens and saddens. The gulf between rich and poor is enormous.

During work visits I have conducted interviews at people’s homes, aware of the fact that I had more stuff in my suitcase than there was in the whole house. And these were no refugee shelters but real homes where people had lived for years.

According to Green, the current level of inequality and injustice is wasteful. If women are not involved in the workforce, half of the potential of the workforce is wasted. As poor people lack not only money or food but power, they cannot change anything about their lives. Green has also written a book called From Poverty to Power – I watched his fine video introduction to the book here:

Development cooperation also develops, as it should. For me, the most motivational aspects in the work of Finn Church Aid are found in advocacy work and in the empowerment of people to defend their own rights. This kind of work can start to change the world towards a more equal direction.


P.S. I swam in a pool on my last work trip. Bye-bye credibility?

Monday, February 20, 2012

Mama Says So

Greetings from India – real greetings, not virtual. We were there on vacation, enjoying the relaxed athmosphere of Goa, riding the tuk-tuks in the bustle of Delhi, and admiring the magnificent Amber Fort in Jaipur. Visiting India fulfilled a long term dream of mine. I really liked it there. India is a fascinating country. And my little daughters traveled so well.

However, this blog is not about me, but about much more interesting people writing from the southern hemisphere, so let us move on.
After the trip, I am of course even more interested in blogs from India. And there are so many of them! I chose to present a real pearl:  Mama Says So. Mama is Rohini, the mother of the schoolboy Ayaan and the toddler Tarana. In her own words, she is “flirting with stay at home motherhood after 11 years as a corporate slave”.

I really like the name of this blog, it is really nice and descriptive of the tone of the blog. The subtitle is "Not just motherhood statements". Despite being a SAHM (stay at home mother), Rohini is well able to think beyond the house walls – which at times is not easy, I can tell you.

This blog also conveys some differences of being a stay at home mother in India and in Finland. For example, in India, middle class families have a maid or two, unlike in Finland.
However, many feelings such as the intensity of being at home, the insecurity, even the guilt of the mother are very similar to my own experiences from the years I stayed home with my children.
On most days, everything just seems almost unbearably intense. Ayaan has always been a demanding child, trying to soak up every bit of the time and attention that I had to give and even that I didn't. I never minded all that much before because I was spending a fair amount of time away from him so I thought it was only normal that he would want his pound of flesh when I was around. I really expected a big change on this front once I quit my job. I thought he would become more secure and independent, but that has not happened. Add Tarana and her acute separation anxiety to the mix and it's mama-time all the freaking time! Despite the fact that there are two maids in the house at any given point of time, they both seem to want to hang out mostly with me.
Following the husband’s new job, the family moved from Mumbai to Hyderabad. There, language became a problem.
The language barrier is also quite substantial. Before I got here, I was labouring under the misconception that most people here spoke at least a passable degree of Hindi but that is far from the case. Most of the employees at the chain supermarkets can communicate in Hindi and/ or English but dealing with the smaller shopkeepers can be quite frustrating. One of the two receptionists at our paediatrician's office also can't speak a word of Hindi so I have to pray like hell every time I call that the other lady will attend to the phone.
To me, coming from the tiny Finland with about 5 million inhabitants, India seems like a country that has a lot of just about everything: so many people, so much beauty, wealth, poverty, carbage, ancient cultures, stray dogs. And sorry about this cliché, but abundance and poverty truly exist side by side in India. Indians surely are used to it, I found it surprising.

Class became a concern for Rohini when her son started to prefer playing with the kids of the servants living in the housing complex’s servant’s quarters. Firstly Rohini found Ayaan's ignorance of class boundaries utterly charming. But as “word got around about the stash of toys and the unlimited snacks”, the situation developed to a chaos.
With a very dodgy maid situation and another baby (if I can still get away with calling Tarana that) in the house, it all got a bit too much. So I cut off the snacks and lo and behold, most of them disappeared.
In the end, the bossiness of her own son was what bothered Rohini the most, as it often is with us mothers, I guess.
Then there are the behavioural implications. While Ayaan might be blissfully unaware of class boundaries and hierarchies, these kids clearly are not. So that automatically makes it an unequal relationship and when they are playing together, Ayaan has no trouble donning his Alpha male avatar and giving free rein to his bossiness. Kids from a similar background are more likely to put him in his place and that's why Ayaan has stopped hanging out with the kids from the other flats.
The discussion which followed this post was also very interesting. Many readers had firsthand experience from their own childhoods about playing with servants’ children. Most advised Rohini to take it easy. After all, you cannot choose your child’s friends. What you can do is e.g. arrange play dates with school firends after the school year has started, and hope that new friendships start to form.

I recommend reading the posts on the choices in a family with two religions  and ”sins against gender stereotype”. Rohini is not the traditional saree clad Indian lady. She simply is herself.
And finally, as many of us know, dealing with children, it is good to have yours answers ready: 
Brat: I don't like you.
: You don't have to like me. I just need you to listen to me.

: You are not my friend.
: Yes, I know. I am your mother.

: I know everything.
: Name all of Jupiter's moons.
: I don't know them all.
: See! You don't know everything.

: Why does he get to bring chips in his tiffin?
: Because I am not his mother.

: I am not talking to you.
: Don't talk. Just listen.

: I want to win this game.
: So do I.

When can I choose the hotel to stay in?
: When you are paying for it.
Special greetings for all stay at home mothers, as well as for those who once have been one and those who sometimes want to become one,

Friday, October 21, 2011

A window to the beauty of Africa

We all crave for beauty, don’t we? Amidst all the sad news of famine and floods that I look at every day on my computer screen, I need to look at something beautiful, too.

When you think about photos and Africa, what is the first thing you see in your mind’s eye? Right now what I see, is starving people, but I don’t want that.   

I fight against that by looking at the stunning photographs by Ghanaian photographer Nana Kofi Acquah:

One of my favorites is this one about the woman with the snake around her neck. Wow! And  there are many other wonderful, colorful portraits, as well as the most beautiful street scenes.
Acquah writes that his blog is “where he rants”. He writes poems – the most recent of which is about Steve Jobs – and talks about e.g. photography in Africa
Photographs, just for the sake of photographs is a totally new concept currently being embraced by a relatively younger generation, most of whom have never owned or used an analogue camera. 

and passion and success
The only thing that beats passion is wisdom. And by wisdom, I mean knowing exactly what is worth being passionate about and what isn’t ... What we need to succeed is not OUT there. It is IN us. You need to block out all the noise and passionately follow where your heart leads you.

Acquah “rants” about bad quality education:  
It’s heart breaking to watch very brilliant minds go to waste due to the horrible foundation they received. The saddest part is, most of these kids were as useful as a half-baked bread. You can’t eat it… and yet you’ve wasted your flour, butter and time. Quality Education is the single, most important gift any government can give its populace.
and shares his realization about how hard Ghanaian people are working:
Sometime last year, I was supposed to make portraits of two successful Ghanaians for the Financial Times. Their office is very close to this market. I wanted to use the early morning light so I told them I will arrive at 6am. Now, please understand that I’m rather slow in the mornings so for me, 6am was an amazing feat. I was shocked to get stuck in traffic at that time and if that was not surprising enough, I saw people hopping out of “trotros” and taxis and rushing towards the market. A few of them nearly knocked me over. On that day, it dawned on me how hard working Ghanaians are.
The average Ghanaian wakes up at 4am. Yes, 4:00 AM to sweep the house, clean, cook bath and feed the children before going to work. Now, the question is, if they’re that hardworking, why are they poor?

If you have even one minute, do check out this energizing blog. In these photos, you get a glimpse of how beautiful life could and should be all around Africa.


Friday, September 16, 2011

Ushahidi – technology that saves lives

Sometimes I feel technology is just making my life more complicated. It is tiresome learning how to use a new mobile phone. The digibox is again acting irregularly. And the work phone wakes me up from my sweetest dreams at 6 a.m. Sunday morning reminding me of the planning day on Monday. (The person who invented that function must hate humankind.)

But then there is new technology that saves lives, puts the above mentioned grievances in perspective and reminds us that technology exists for the purpose of helping us.

Imagine a way for people all over the world to tell the story of what was happening to them or around them during a disaster or emergency situation. It would have to be easy to use, accessible to anyone and deployable worldwide.

The way already exists: Ushahidi.

Ushahidi, which means "testimony" in Swahili, is a platform that was initially developed to map reports of violence in Kenya after the post-election fallout at the beginning of 2008. Its roots are in the collaboration of Kenyan citizen journalists during a time of crisis. The original website was used to map incidents of violence and peace efforts throughout the country based on reports submitted via the web and mobile phones.

Anybody can contribute information, a simple text message from a mobile phone, a photo or a video from a smart phone, or a report submitted online. Twitter works, too. Ushahidi can gather information from any device with a digital data connection. After information is submitted, it is posted in near real time to an interactive map that can be viewed on any computer or smart phone.  Ushahidi is open source and anyone can improve it or use the service.

Ushahidi has been used in humanitarian response situations such as the earthquake in Haiti and the floods in Pakistan. In Haiti, Ushahidi helped to save lives of people trapped under collapsed buildings by quickly delivering the information about their locations to the rescuers. See the video! 

During the first phase of a humanitarian situation, it is vital to get exact information of what has happened, what kinds of assistance people need and where are the people who need assistance. And here lies the beauty of Ushahidi. If people on the location of the emergency can send information to the aid agencies, and that information can be accessed by all, a lot of time is saved and help can reach people much faster.

It was used to gather information of what was happening during the Arab spring. It was used to gather reports globally about the swine flu, too. Ushahidi has been utilized in several elections, and it is going to be utilized e.g. during Liberian elections this year. 

Often people seem to think that with computers, internet and web communications, things just magically happen. However, that is certainly not the case. A lot of tapping the keyboard, time and thinking is needed there! Therefore, let us not forget the people behind Ushahidi.
The non-profit organization is comprised of individuals with a wide span of experience ranging from human rights work to software development, with a strong team of volunteer developers primarily in Africa, and also in Europe, South America and the U.S.

This was the third technology-blog of my series (here are first and second).

Have a sunny autumn!


Thursday, August 4, 2011

What the real story should be

It’s been a while… Since my last blog, I’ve been on my (happy and relaxing, thanks for asking) summer vacation. And after returning to work, I have spent all my time on the East Africa drought crisis. The third technology-blog I promised can wait, I want to write about East Africa.

Exept, I have very little to say. I feel sad. We are not equal. Some of us have too much, some of us have nothing. I have also been thinking about this a lot: the life or death of an African person is not as interesting in the media as that of a person from Europe or USA.

But I present two bloggers who have something interesting to say.

This crisis has finally become a story, but not as big – huge – as it should be. And it’s largely been simplified into the pictures of starving children (as seen above...). In her brilliant post Starvation pornography: How many skinny babies can you show me? AlertNet’s Nairobi correspondent Katy Migiro writes about journalists' behaviour and about what the real story should be.  

Migiro describes the horrid way a group of journalists are "racing around" the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya. There is no time for sensitivity there:
It was excruciating watching two TV journalists shouting at an exhausted woman who had just arrived at the camp.
“Tell her to look at me, not you,” the producer barked at the translator.
“Get her to say what the arm tag means to her.”
The poor woman – who had probably walked across the desert with her children for days to reach the camp – clearly had no idea what the piece of paper around her wrist meant.
 Katy Migiro has been writing about the worsening situation since the beginning of this year.
I’m happy that the drought has finally become a story. 
But it’s also frustrating, knowing that this is their five minutes of fame on the global news agenda.
“I want to visit a hospital next Wednesday and see lots of skinny babies. Can you set that up for me?” a television producer in London told a British aid worker who has been working here for years.
The real untold story is that the skinny babies are always there. It’s just that there are a few less of them.
In Wajir Hospital, 32 malnourished children were admitted in May, the highest number so far this year.
Yet a chart on the wall shows that 40 children were admitted for malnutrition in December 2008.
No wonder people look bewildered when we constantly ask: “Is this the worst drought in 60 years?”
“Last year, the average was 15. But it never drops below 10,” said the nutritionist.
Shouldn't that story be told too?
Yes, Absolutely!

However, I do not envy the journalists covering this crisis (and there are also those who do that in a decent way), it can't be easy. The situation is complex. The drought certainly is not the only reason for the famine.

"Vultures and Fat cats wont help. Will you?"

Kenya is one of the countries hard hit by the drought. But Kenya is also one of the African countries with a middle class population, and the wealthier Kenyans have now started to help the starving. 

I went to read if SavvyKenya, who I wrote about in my first Southern Blogosphere blog, would have something to say about the situation and indeed, I found a reblogged post about the Kenyans’ response by a blogger called Crazy Nairobian.

Crazy Nairobian is VERY critical of the government:  
Kenya is such a beautiful country. We have amazing wildlife in our national parks like the Big Five (the most famous Kenya animals are known as 'The Big 5': Lions, Leopards, Elephants, Buffalos and Rhinos)
and an even better offering of beasts in parliament which include vultures, fat cats (fat cat, term. a wealthy person, originally one who contributes to a political campaign) and snakes. And what makes parliament even more interesting is the presence of clowns in the midst of all the animals I mentioned above...

My grandmother (who passed on earlier this year) told me the most challenging words some time back regarding food and sharing. She told me that if you have something in your plate, then you have something to share...She said the beauty of giving away food to the hungry is, while you will be filling their stomach with food, they will be filling your heart with joy and your life with blessings.

And so today, I send out a passionate appeal to each and everyone of you. It does not matter who you are or what you do. If you have food in your plate, you have something to give. Lets share the little we have with the hungry children whose smiles and laughter has been masked by the hunger pangs they feel. Lets share with the desperate mothers and fathers who have no idea where the next meal to feed their families will come from. Let no Kenyan die when you and I can help. 

Soon after reading this, my colleague told us during a meeting about East Africa that Kenyans have started to raise funds. It is the same fundraiser! I checked; they have raised about four million euros. Isn't that great news?

(Photo: Katy Migiro/AlertNet)