when conflict health becomes military tactic?

From refugee situations to border disputes, health crises that arise as a result of conflict are unfortunately quite common. Conflict health disrupts the ways that people access resources like food, water, and medicine. On the other hand, conflict health creates the circumstances where diseases spread, people are needlessly killed, and others are critically injured. These horrible results of conflict health are compounded by the destruction of infrastructure: roads, hospitals, etc.

What happens when conflict health becomes a military tactic? Since Medieval times (and before) armies attacking opposing castles would launch disease infested animal carcasses over the walls. In the 1800s, the US military gave smallpox blankets to indigenous North American groups in order to destroy their health and kill their populations. During apartheid in southern Africa, South African forces supporting RENAMO in Mozambique targeted health clinics and hospitals to cripple the health and infrastructure of the population.

During the World Wars, medics and vehicles with a red cross weren’t supposed to be targeted because they weren’t carrying out military actions. I had thought this idea was fairly widespread and that mercy was shown to health providers in times of conflict.

Recently, we have seen the complete opposite during the Libyan conflict. Libya’s pro-Gadhafi forces have targeted those attempting to provide health services to protestors and the population. In the early days of the protests it was reported that the military was entering the hospital to dump out blood supplies so that injured protestors could not be saved. In similar actions, Red Crescent medics and ambulances have been shot at, Colm O’Gorman, executive director of Amnesty International Ireland, said:

“This was a deliberate attack on medical professionals, who were wearing full medical uniform and arrived in two clearly marked Red Crescent ambulances.”

Ambulances have been bombed, The rebel spokesman confirmed that

“Gaddafi’s forces shoot three ambulances, killing two drivers.”

The Misrata hospital has been a flash point of intense shelling and fighting by Libyan forces. The hospital has been bombed from the air, shelled by tanks, and overrun by pro-Gadhafi troops.One person inside said,

“heavy tanks for Gadhafi troops start attacking the hospital – the bombs falling here 20 meters (66 feet) around us.”

The health of the Libyan people is under seige as much as the repressive dictatorship of Gadhafi. Many countries including Egypt, Morocco, and the UAE have established military field hospitals to be able to help the wounded who are leaving Libya. UNICEF is deeply concerned about the impact of the conflict on children and has distributed emergency health kits which contain enough drugs, medical supplies and basic medical equipment to cover the needs of 60,000 persons.

The conflict in Libya, through the blatant attacks on health providers and facilities, has demonstrated a new level of disregard for the basic health of a population. This is an obvious example that Gadhafi must be removed from power if the Libyan people are to regain their health and livelihoods.

Featured on the Americans for Informed Democracy Blog, where I’m writing as a Global Health Analyst.

privilege is a key determinant of health

In our world of abundance there are growing areas of scarcity, our urban cities. These growing areas of scarcity once used to be bastions of wealth, but are now best known for their decaying infrastructures and lack of resources.

In some cases urban cities have faced industrial decline, in others its an issue of poor residents being marginalized. Either way, the health disparities that accompany low-income and minority communities is abhorrent.

One of the top health indicators related to privilege that can be seen in these communities is access to healthy food options. From Los Angeles to Detroit to Philadelphia, various communities lack basic nutritional resources like fresh produce and as a result have been disproportionately hit by health conditions related to lifestyle such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity.

In the Ramona Gardens projects of Los Angeles, residents have to travel 3 miles by bus to reach the closest supermarket for fresh produce. The other small shops in the community just can’t stock as much as larger stores because they don’t sell the same quantities or they would have to charge higher prices. The health impacts such as hypertension and childhood obesity noted by a free clinic in the community show how critical access to healthy food options can be. The Ramona Gardens project is a great example of privilege playing a role in the health of low-income and minority communities by way of accessibility of resources.

photo credit: Dr. Hillier (NPR)

Similar issues have been found in black, low-income communities of Philadelphia. Like many urban areas, grocery stores fled to the suburbs where there was more space for larger stores and safer neighborhoods, not to mention higher paying customers. As a result of a community mapping survey, almost 20 supermarkets have opened in Philadelphia with the help of state funding. This brought access to healthy food for many low-income communities in the city.

As recently as 2007, large grocery stores have pulled out of Detroit. Not many have attempted to stay and Farmer Jack was the last standing. Detroit is often called a “food desert” because it lacks a major chain supermarket. The problem is not necessarily a lack of supermarkets, but rather the scarcity of healthy food options. Martin Manna, the Executive Director of the Chaldean American Chamber of Commerce of Southfield said,

“There usually is a market within walking distance of nearly every area of Detroit. It might not be a supermarket. That might be why there are so many people eating potato chips rather than wholesome foods in Detroit.”

Other Detroit residents have noted the lack of options at Detroit stores. Some stores claim to be serving a “black clientèle,” but  Gordon Alexander, who lives on the East side, says its just an excuse for stocking bad quality goods. This is a perfect example of racial privilege compounding income disparities when it comes to healthy food options in Detroit.

Our world of abundance needs to be able to serve everyone. There should be no reason that low-income communities struggle to purchase fresh produce or healthier foods. We can’t allow fast-food chains to make profits in the “marketplace of the poor” and add to the health disparities of minority communities. If anything, we should be able to find a way to offer healthy food to all citizens of our country regardless of race, income level, or location.

Featured on Americans for Informed Democracy Blog where I’m contributing as a Global Health Analyst.

bicycles are for global health

In many cities across the US, cycling is growing in popularity and local governments are working to implement bike-friendly urban planning initiatives, but is it growing fast enough? The US ranks first in the world for percentage of population that is obese (34% for adults age 20 and older). Not surprisingly, the US also ranks near the low end for bicycle usage with 1% or less of its population using a bicycle.
Graph (above, Figure 2) from: Bassett, Jr., et al.,

Walking, cycling, and obesity rates in Europe, North America, and Australia, Journal of Physical Activity and Health, 5, 795-814

Bicycles have been around for a long time. There is a sketch for an early bicycle design in one of Leonardo da Vinci’s pupils’ notebooks from 1493. Over the years bicycles have been upgraded and modified, moving from being a luxury of the wealthy to the transportation of the masses. The advent of cars slowed bicycle usage in industrialized countries, but in less economically developed countries bicycles are still a primary mode of transporting people and goods. Likewise the production of bicycles has remained nearly double that of cars.

For many countries bicycles are at the front lines of public health, they just may not realize it. The US has been watching a steady rise in obesity rates as a result of inactivity and unhealthy diet choices. Many states and cities are working to implement programs to increase bike usage including: Rails to Trails projects, Bike sharing in Washington DC and Nashville, as well as increased bike lanes linking residential areas to commercial zones. These programs will all have a big impact of the health of the US population. The CDC states that the number on strategy for increasing physical activity is shifting from car trips to walking or biking. Bicycling Magazine notes that new bicycle commuters can expect to lose up to 13 pounds their first year of biking to work.

Graph (above, Figure 4) from: Pucher, J., et al., 2010

Walking and cycling to health: A comparative analysis of city, state, and international data, American Journal of Public Health, published online ahead of print

The benefits are huge, but that doesn’t always make it easy for people to jump right on a bike. A recent study led by Dr. John Pucher of Rutgers University found a direct correlation between percentages of adults with diabetes and percentages of commuters biking or walking to work in 47 of the 50 largest US cities (Walking and Cycling for Health, August 2010). To state the obvious, the increase in programs that promote bike usage and the increase in people biking will have a very positive effect on the health of populations

However, the US isn’t the only country working to get its citizens moving. Copenhagen (Denmark), known for being a biking city, launched “You won’t believe it… You’re safer on the bicycle than on the sofa!” A campaign run by the city’s Public Health office, their goal was to get more people biking to work instead of taking their car for a short trip. The campaign told Copenhagen residents, “Lack of movement in everyday life is harmful to health, while physical activity keeps the body healthy. Daily exercise for at least 30 minutes prolongs life by up to 5 years, and cycling can thus help to prolong life.” Even as a strong biking city even Copenhagen felt the need to better educate and mobilize its population. As can easily be guessed Denmark has a low rate of obesity at 9.5%.

In “developing” countries of the world obesity rates aren’t the greatest health risk, nor is low physical activity often a common unhealthy lifestyle. The health risks in “developing” countries are often related to access to health services and emergency transportation. Surely this isn’t an area where bicycles can have an impact!

In many low resource setting around the world, Community Health Workers (CHWs) travel from village to village, home to home to deliver health education and services. In many places CHWs rely on bicycles as their only means of getting from one place to another. Bikes Without Borders highlights the work of CHWs in Malawi utilizing bikes to increase their effectiveness and to help more people. Bicycles for Humanity collects almost 50,000 bikes a year and sends them to organizations that distribute them most often to healthcare workers and women. Since women do a majority of traveling in “developing” countries, a bike can help them to transport themselves, water containers, and goods to market.

Bicycles have even been modified to serve as ambulances in areas where there is no emergency transportation. The Bicycle Empowerment Network (BEN) in Namibia has implemented a very effective model for faster transportation where there is none. Drivers of the bicycle ambulances come from local organization and they receive training on use and maintenance.

Whether it is in the post-industrial cities of the US, modern cities of Europe, or in some of the world’s poorest regions, the simplest transportation technology can have huge impacts on the future health of our population.

Featured on the Americans for Informed Democracy Blog, where I’m blogging as a Global Health Analyst.

young, white, and in detroit: gentrification implications

http://current.com/e/88996181/en_US
Video from: Feministing – Detroit, Gentrification and Good-ass Political Hip-hop

“First-stage gentrifiers” are economically- and socially-marginal “trend setters”. Sociologically, these people are young and have low incomes while possessing the cultural capital (education and a job), characteristic of the suburban bourgeois. They often reside in communal (room-mate) households, and are more tolerant of the perceived evils of the city—crime, poor schools, insufficient public services, and few shops.

Am I a gentrifier? I’m young, educated, low-income, and living in a house with 3 other young people. Uh oh! Since moving to Detroit I have considered what socio-economic consequences I could have on the current population and cityscape. My fiance and I have had many discussions about gentrification and what it means for Detroit. The definition I will be using:

Gentrification denotes the socio-cultural changes in an area resulting from wealthier people buying housing property in a less prosperous community. Consequent to gentrification, the average income increases and average family size decreases in the community, which may result in the informal economic eviction of the lower-income residents, because of increased rents, house prices, and property taxes. This type of population change reduces industrial land use when it is redeveloped for commerce and housing. In addition, new businesses, catering to a more affluent base of consumers, tend to move into formerly blighted areas, further increasing the appeal to more affluent migrants and decreasing the accessibility to less wealthy natives.

I live in the University District, which like most of Detroit is now a majority black community, but that wasn’t always the case. The District has a long history from farmland to annexation with the city, to development as a model community where, “homes could never be sold to or used by persons other than ‘of white or Caucasian race.'” Following the riots of 1967 and full blown white flight to suburban areas, black families began moving into the neighborhood. I live in a home who’s family has a long history of living in the area, contributing to the community, and working with the labor movement.

Being a gentrifier in Detroit has a serious implication when tied to the city’s past. That implication is born of the history of racial segregation and violence in the city of Detroit and the Detroit metro area. Public policy and popular perception of black people systematically marginalized and segregated populations based on race. The extended outcome of those causes can be seen with Michigan’s “blackest” city: Detroit residing a stone’s throw away from its “whitest” city: Livonia. Because of this historical disenfranchisement of the black community in Detroit, gentrification is all that much more a hard topic in a city facing difficult economic development.

Young Detroit

Recently NPR carried a story from Model D, an online news magazine that seeks to create a new narrative for Detroit (they also wrote about gentrification in 2005). The story was about a Detroit neighborhood soccer (futbol) league. Initially I thought it was incredible, but then realized that this was a snapshot of the growing gentrification of Detroit as I noticed in the video that nearly all of the participants were young and white. Many were there for the excitement of working in Detroit for non-profits and other social ventures. A band of “first-stage” gentrifiers? On the flipside how is Detroit supposed to innovate and grow without an influx of young and creative people? How can Detroit bring in excited youth, who are often white and more established, without fueling gentrification or the continued disenfranchisement of the majority black population?

Gentrification is happening mostly in areas around Wayne State University, the historic Corktown neighborhood, and neighborhoods near the Riverfront. The argument that these empty places in Detroit aren’t displacing anyone lacks a long-term vision. The city is beginning to see an increase in the number of “first-stage” gentrifiers and simply what follows is a second and third stage where eventually the first and second stage gentrifiers are displaced themselves by lawyers, physicians, and bankers. While all stages of gentrifiers are displacing the “native” populations of these areas by way of their socio-economic power. Is gentrification a natural fluctuation of the urban landscape? Can gentrification do any good?

Is Gentrification Growth?

No, if you look at the face value of gentrification and its broad economic impact, then sure gentrification is growth. However, when you factor in community and the effects on people – gentrification never equals growth, rather displacement.

Nothing good can come of gentrification. There is a minimal increase in tax dollars being sent to the city government, but that has little impact when (for now) the business dollars are being invested and collected in the suburbs surrounding Detroit. Communities don’t grow and get stronger, communities are changed by economic force through gentrification.

Looking Forward

The important step for Detroit now is to strengthen its community organizations and engage would be gentrifiers to support neighborhood development. Downtown redevelopment only benefits those with social mobility and that is not the majority of the Detroit population. Detroit’s black community has seen years of oppression and gentrifiers come in with a load of unearned privilege and resources.

First-stage gentrifiers (young, white, educated) can change the course for Detroit and instead work to be “allies in development” – partnering for stronger community organizations in black communities and actively engaging in local community efforts: shopping locally, attending block club meetings, and utilizing their privilege to highlight the progress that has been happening by native Detroiters as opposed to outsiders coming in with grand ideas for development.

If Detroit (and Michigan) is going to make it there can no longer be a black and white divide. There needs to be engagement from both populations where black communities have strong neighborhoods and white migrants recognize their privilege and work to assist community development that is already getting started. Get to know your neighbors and community, don’t create enclaves of white privilege, and support your community leaders!

“Detroit’s future is its neighborhoods” – Reframe Detroit

reporting from "ground zero" (live blogging US Social Forum #USSF)

The United States Social Forum launched in 2007 based on the successes and excitement of the World Social Forums. The year 2010 is being marked by various regional events like the US Social Forum to take the place of the World Social Forum. So the fact that Detroit was chosen to host the US Social Forum (USSF) is very exciting.

As exciting as it is, it also happens to enable numerous aspects of privilege. As over 10,000 people converge on Detroit, people often to refer to the city as “ground zero” for the economic crisis. The weekend before the USSF, Young People For (YP4) held their regional training at the Renaissance Center for their Midwest fellows. I attended the opening event with alumni and partners to meet the new class of fellows. Like the World Social Forum, YP4 is breaking their national training into regionally based events. Many of the fellows noted that before they came to Detroit they had thought of the city as a place NOT to visit. With a view over the riverfront, looking across at Canada, many mentioned that they had no idea Detroit was so beautiful. Others commented that they had no idea Detroit had a downtown and tall buildings.

These large convergences of people bring Detroit into a brighter light and change the perceptions of many. There are plenty of things to be worried about in Detroit, but not just because it is “Detroit.” Likewise, as the city fills with activists and radicals of all shades, the majority of Detroit residents are unaware of what is even happening. YP4 Director, Rebecca Thompson, informed us that many of her family members in Detroit and friends had no idea that the USSF was happening the next day. I’ve worked with a few local Detroit organizations that canvassed some neighborhoods to let people know about the USSF, but the impact was minimal at best. How can this happen? How can residents of a city, businesses, and even some government not know that 10,000 people are coming to their city to infuse it with new ideas, people, and solutions to social problems?

This could be a result of the slightly disorganized activities of the USSF organizing committee. I won’t go into the stories that I have heard of the power struggles between organizations working to put this event together, but it is worth noting that thoughtful improvement can be made. A thought that occurred to me the other day was: What if the USSF was organized with local groups tackling specific issues host a topic and organize like-minded groups across the nation so that this conference is less focused on talking and more on building potential solutions that Detroit organizations can use and others can take home?

After hanging around, surveying the organizations tables with my girlfriend (Nichole :-D), we headed about 2 miles away for the march. We were a bit behind and stopped in the shade to watch the chanting crowd go by. At the length of almost 8 city blocks (or more) it was an incredible sight to see in a city often referred to as a “ghost town.” And yet privilege came out again as local Detroiters asked, “What is going on?!” and the Detroit Red Cross asked me, “Do you know what all these people are doing?” YP4 staffer, William noted that if this was in DC, everyone would know with posters, twitter updates like crazy, and just the general buzz.

Unfortunately residents of Detroit are not as privileged to be as connected as those in DC. Likewise, residents, in the case of the USSF, have not been a focus of organizing or informing. This has become a common theme that I have noted within government and other activities to rebuild Detroit. Focus on the people who are actually in Detroit! The activists who come for this weekend may hold some new ideas about the city, but in the end they will leave and what will be left for the city of Detroit?

the coming revolution in african health care

 

african power fist Pictures, Images and Photos

Before you have anything else, you have your health. Hopefully if you have nothing else, at least you have your health. Unfortunately, for millions across the African continent this is not an absolute fact. Even more unfortunate is the fact that many Africans have no ability to change their health status. They are trapped in a system that is driven by Western market based, profit driven health care systems. As the failures of Western development practices come to light, alternatives to what has been are becoming increasingly visible. These alternatives will form a revolution in African health care delivery. This revolution will be fueled by health care delivery models that will give local communities agency in the provision of their own health care. Community-based models involving cooperative financing, proven para-professional training, new information technology, and social enterprise for the social good will drive the revolution in African health care. People will be able to determine for themselves, their level of health.

What does “Health” mean anyway?
This is a question often left to remain ambiguous. For the purposes of my writing I will provide a comprehensive view of “health” and all that is entailed in sustaining and maintaining health. “Health” in all instances will refer directly to the “basic needs” of a person in regards to health care.

Healing, like health, is obviously rooted in the social and cultural order. […] To define dangerous behavior, and to define evil, is to define some causes of illness. As the definition of evil changes, so does the interpretation of illness. To understand change in healing, we must understand what it is that leads people to alter the definition of dangerous social behavior. It can easily be accepted that health and healing in Africa are shaped by broad social forces.

As Feierman and Janzen state, health (and healing for that matter) are directly linked to social forces. If a comprehensive understanding of health is to be understood, it must be studied in the context of politics, economics, and other societal structures.

Health is defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as, “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” The WHO and many other international organizations recognize that this broad and encompassing definition of health. Where this definition becomes ambiguous is what qualifiers meet, “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being.” In 1978 the WHO made primary health care its number one objective with the Declaration of Alma Ata. However, even this statement had no clear definition of health or its qualifiers.

Feierman and Janzen provide a more clear definition of the qualifiers of health in the preface to their volume: The Social Basis of Health and Healing in Africa,

[…] it [health] is maintained by a cushion of adequate nutrition, social support, water supply, housing, sanitation, and continued collective defense against contagious and degenerative disease. Such a view is necessary if we are to understand those contexts in today’s Africa where health levels deteriorate, and where they improve.

These authors provide a complete set of qualifiers, or “basic needs,” of health that can be researched further to understand where political, economic, and social structures interfere with sustaining and maintaining health and where health care is inadequate.

Health care should thus be understood as the system and structure that works to provide the above defined “basic needs” to each individual. Often this role falls to governments, but sometimes is taken up by communities and organizations when government’s fail to provide these basic needs.

This blog series will cover four key areas identified that will fuel this revolution in African health care: cooperative financing, para-professional training, information technology, and social enterprise. SCOUT BANANA works to tackle social medicine (social, economic, structures) while enabling others to provide medical services. Be sure to follow closely to learn more!

Written for the SCOUT BANANA blog.

between first and third: conflicting world desires


(photo: Global Worship Center Vosloorus, South Africa – home to the black elites and british neo-missionary colonizers)

This is a topic that I have been thinking about for a very long time in relation to my development studies. While in South Africa this became extremely evident as I sought a more simplified life closer to people and many of the people I encountered sought a life that could be had in the country I had just left. What follows will be based on the noted and bullet points that I made on 2 June 2008.

First’s desire to return to simplicity:
– be unburdened by technology, communication, and fast-paced life
– experience difference that is removed
– leave 1st behind/ out of mind for some time (vacation)
– something missing from 1st –> true community, self-discovery

Third’s desire to gain complication?
– technology, materials, cars, Ipod
– false ideas of US –> “nigger,” media, hip hop, gangsterism
– leave 3rd behind in pursuit of new opportunity/ life (forget past)
– something missing (adequate schools, health, family, country)

13 October 2008 Reflections

Those to travel to ‘developing’ countries, who experience poverty, and who realize that there is a better way seek to simplify their lives, this is the goal of a conscious ‘first’ worlder. I sought to be unburdened by technology and communication and the fast-paced life. In the ‘third’ world I have experienced a difference that is all but removed from the ‘first’ – or rather attempts are made to hide the difference: poverty, lack of, etc. I wanted to leave the ‘first’ behind, put it out of mind for a time. In the ‘first’ I always feel as if something is missing; true sense of community is gone and what else. In the ‘first’ it is so easy to be wrapped up in society and systems and just the way things are, that opportunity for self-discovery is negated.

So if the goal of the ‘first’ is to achieve simplicity. Is it the goal of the ‘third’ to gain complication? This is a long running debate within the development field among other fields of study. The ‘third’ seeks technology, cars, MP3 players, and the material things that I tend to leave behind. The ‘third’ holds false ideas of the ‘first’ (and vice versa), but the ‘third’ does not have the opportunity as the ‘first’ does to engage in world discovery. Many people in the ‘third’ world want to leave it all behind in pursuit of new opportunity offered by the ‘first.’ There is also something that is missing in the ‘third,’ but that tends to come at a higher cost, it is much more than self-actualization and discovery. What is lacking is health care systems, schools, infrastructure, family structure (orphans of disease and war), and adequate living necessities.

The conflicting world desires between the ‘first’ and the ‘third’ leave a hole unfilled. Many argue that through development world desires are made to conform as everyone seeks a life of happiness and wealth through materials.

3 June 2008
Sunday we went to church with Thuli, a friend of Celumusa’s, who she met at the Library. Thuli is a wealthy South African, went to University and her husband works for the UN or the government or something. We were to meet some good people to help the center at her church and a social worker.

We entered an incredibly live [musical] arrangement with a very vibrant choir. The Global Worship Center; the first thing I noticed was that everyone had a BMW, Mercedes, new Toyota, etc. This was the secluded enclave of wealthy South Africans; the nu-riche of South Africa. The pastor and founder was there this Sunday “out of his busy schedule” and he said, “I like to show-off at church!” Church is where you must show-off. It seems he founded this wealthy enterprise on his own love of music and dance (and fame). We learned at the invitation only lunch with him afterwards that he studied Chemistry at USC in the US – why start a church in South Africa after that? His sermon was taking Bible passages out of context and applying them to owning a credit card now. He spoke of the poor using credit cards, denouncing materials and working for others in his own new suit, probably a fancy car out back, he has a second home in Pretoria, a daughter studying at UNISA and just loves the US.

We had met the black African elites of South Africa. Very educated, knowledgable – debates on politics and world oil in the economy – and very taken aback that we lived and worked in Zonke – “Oooo, what an experience, huh?” Was this the real South Africa? At any rate the church is a great place to make connections in-country. The social worker, Christine, is a great NGO asset, even if the church promotes hypocrisy – nothing new. They even had their own bottled water and were indoctrinating their children to be “soldiers for christ.”

On Monday we planned the drama. Headed to the Library where internet happened to work very well and found a great assortment of books. The Library here is full of books on important people and events in South African history and social justice. The Librarian tried to get me a girl friend, but he failed – mostly because he was a shady character. Later we ran drama/ acting exercises with the students which was great fun.

Today we headed back to Germiston – again – to take care of some business. I was able to blog, SCOUT BANANA is growing and staff is working well during summer. We went to a stationary store that had a white (British?) shopkeeper and almost all white management staff. He treated Celumusa as our “girl” instead of the Executive Director of an NPO that she was. We will be working on coaching her so that she has the confidence to command the room from her past days as a domestic worker. Mostly a successful trip – field day tomorrow.

Notes:
Today was also Pension Day, when the government gives out all the checks for the elderly, children, orphans, and the disabled. It is like a massive market day all over the country and it is very difficult to get around in Germiston or Zonke. In Zonke the main street is filled with street vendors with everything and anything to sell.

There are municipal strikes happening because the Mayor was caught by his wife with another woman. He used government money to cover the cost of the lawsuit, etc.

Yet another rainstorm complete with thunder and lightning today. “It never rains in Zonke,” said Rachel (retracted statement) The rains are nice though and remind me of Michigan summer weather.

4 June 2008
I very much desire and long for the style of community and human interaction of many African countries, which is greatly missing in the US – there is a cold, calculated contempt for all others born on the beauty of self-advancement and a wanton individualism. [bred by a false exceptionalism] It is too often forgotten that you can never get anywhere alone and through working with and for others that you gain greater meaning and association in life.

The best example of this dream community I have found mirrored in African history and my own personal experiences. You always greet everyone on the street, neighbors are extremely well known that property lines really don’t matter, most everyone knows everyone in the community and help each other when needed – but the plagues of modernity and globalization threaten to tear that apart. Crime, materialism, drugs, self-advancement, personal over community – but who am I to speak against the oldest running practice in the world, globalization can be good. Who am I to say that desires for modern life, convenience and technology are not good?

The gap between the “1st” and “3rd” world desires hinge on privilege. I seek a simplified life, a sense of community, an absence of technological wonder, for a human face, to leave America behind for some self-discovery. At the same time I see the African communities I visit caught up in popular culture, music, media, movies, slang, technology, and wealth – do they just not see or know the complications this all brings?

I often dream of denouncing the system, backpacking my days on the generosity of others, and not worrying about the ills of structure. So privileged that I can even think of this, I know the communities I visit have no ability to even fathom this dream – burn my money, take almost nothing, and live in the natural world – seeking seclusion in a shrinking world. And as I have stated before, my travels to African communities are short lived and I can easily pick up and leave, whereas the people here have no choice and no privilege to do anything of the sort.

Yet this still does not deter me from continuing this dream quest of seclusion from society structure that shames me to meet real people and experience the world without the weight of America or anything its ‘culture’ brings. But is that something that can really be avoided? Am I not just running from my own rendezvous with my own ‘harsh’ reality? Is it so despised as to run from it?

history channel perpetuates misperceptions of africa

Reminiscent of the 1800s, a new History Channel show describes a team of explorers, dressed in their colonial khaki, set out to discover the perils of the African continent.

Four modern-day explorers retrace the most famous search in history through 970 miles of hell. They face countless dangers from predators and insects to disease and nature’s own fury. Check out the television event of the summer!

Miles of hell in Africa, oh my! Don’t forget the natural danger!

Between Zanzibar and Ujiji, there are 970 miles of high seas, steep hillsides, scorching plains, fast-moving rivers and mud-filled swamps. Danger lurks around every corner, and any step could be their last.
(Expedition Africa, History Channel)

The webpage for the expedition show describes how the explorers will be following in the footsteps of the great explorers, “heroes” to some of these ‘modern-day’ explorers, Sir Henry Morton Stanley and Dr. David Livingstone.

Stanley a Welsh journalist, who spent a number of years of his life in the US, is best known for finding Dr. Livingstone after he was thought lost in the African bush. Regarded as one of the premier African explorers, a little known fact about Stanley’s African exploration is that he laid the foundation, through his exploration, for the takeover of the Congo (now DRC) by King Leopold II of Belgium. The King was interested in spreading Western civilization and religion to the region as well as claim land. This has led to a still destabilized region where some of the longest running African conflicts are located. Allegedly his expeditions were marked by violence and brutality. He is quoted, “the savage only respects force, power, boldness, and decision.” On a health related note for the central African region, the spread of trypanosomiasis is attributed to the movements of Stanley’s enormous baggage train.

Livingstone’s African exploratory era was marked by the greatest European penetration of the continent. He began his African explorations as a Protestant missionary, but supposedly did not force his preaching on unwilling ears as his main interest was exploring. He was known to travel lightly and was able to negotiate with local chiefs. Livingstone was a man in love with the continent and popularized the search for the source of the Nile. After being ‘found’ by Stanley he refused to return without completing his mission. Just 50 years after his death, colonialism exploded across the continent and was able to penetrate further into the interior due to his work. However, this also allowed missionaries to provide education and health care services to more central Africans. Livingstone was also a staunch abolitionist and made many friends among the African chiefs and populations.

Both men are examples of the Western colonial mindset scarring the African continent. While Livingstone was perhaps a step forward in Western engagement of Africans, Stanley is far from a figure to emulate. The History Channel fails to take note of the important contributions these men made to the destruction of the continent. Instead they focus on the meeting of the two in a popular media tale of discovery in the African wilderness.

Four Westerners with varying experience with the African continent will be followed on their journey that will pit them against the harsh natural environments of Africa. But, this show isn’t about Africa, learning about African peoples, remembering African history or highlighting the difficulties faced in Africa. The show makes generalizations about the continent and perpetuates the myths of Africa as primarily a place of danger. It focuses on Africa as “the unknown, the interior of Tanzania.” If I’m not mistaken people have been living on the African continent longer than any other place on earth. It may be a dangerous, unknown hell full of nature to outsiders, but it is far from a mystery to those who live there. The show seems to be all about these four privileged individuals and the story of their personal journeys. The explorers are worried about mosquitos, disease, death, and surviving. Rightly so in some regards, but what if the story included the people that actually live there?

When will Africa cease to be represented solely by its nature, its dangers and its forgotten history?

Written for the SCOUT BANANA blog.

changing human behaviors: sexual and social

Review of AIDS in Africa: a perspective on the epidemic
by: Michael C. Latham

Africa is a continent wrought with many pressing issues, these issues are often not natural or specific to the continent, but they have been forced and applied to the people and so become a burden of near epic proportions. One of these pressing issues is the epidemic of HIV/AIDS. Responses to HIV/AIDS are based in human behaviors, both sexual and social.

Michael Latham noted that many accounts, “may suggest that the virus originated in Africa, and therefore it is Africans who are blamed for this human scourge.” (39) However, as many know, HIV/AIDS is not solely an African problem, uncontrolled and spreading like wildfire. These accounts springboard off of old myths of a ‘dark continent’ into new myths of dirt, death, and disease. This new myth is of a continent ravaged by disease inside and out, you can’t run from all the disease in Africa. It is also important to note that there is still no solid proof or knowledge of the origin of HIV/AIDS.

If the world is to blame Africa for HIV/AIDS, then Latham writes,

[…] but does it matter that syphilis was probably spread to the rest of the world from cases brought back to Europe from the Americas, to that cholera originated in the Ganga Delta of India and eventually reached East Africa from the middle east only in the mid twentieth century. Should Africans flagellate North Americans and Asians for spreading highly infectious diseases to Africa? (39)

Here we are at the historical spread of diseases and also, more notably, the social implications of associating one area or group of people with a disease. The social implications of chalking AIDS up to African causes becomes especially problematic in the medical community. Latham writes about when one potentially useful drug in the treatment of AIDS [HIV] waa described by the Kenya Medical Research Institute in 1990, it was largely ignored by the world press and […] the west.” (40) This proves a strong disdain and indifferent to Africa as well as a lack of respect for African doctors.

A key feature of HIV/AIDS is that it places all segments of society at risk: mother and father, child and grandparent, youth and elderly. Latham decries the lack of adequately funded research on HIV/AIDS in Africa, or anywhere (42).

We should have African anthropologists and sociologists in the bars and on the truck routes, in the urban slums and rural villages, gathering data on human behaviours, including sexual behavior, that may influence the spread of the disease. We need local epidemiological sleuths conducting the kinds of studies which led us to understand how cholera was spread and how pellagra could be controlled. (42)

Comprehensive understandings of HIV/AIDS and sexual behaviors in Africa will only be more helpful, but the social behaviors of the West and its institutions create a serious roadblock. The Kenyan discovery of Kemron was shown to reduce the effects of full-blown AIDS, but the announcement by the Kenyan president didn’t even make headlines. If a Western doctor had made the discovery the coverage would have been entirely different (46).

Another well-known fact about HIV/AIDS is that it is highly preventable. The only thing that needs to be changed or taught is human behavior: both sexual and social. There needs to be adequate health education for female members of a community. Female members also need more control in those communities, socially and sexually. Very often there is a strong gendered focus on women, but men also need serious engagement and education if their mindsets are going to change about women.

HIV/AIDS is an illness that requires changes in human behaviors: socially and sexually. There needs to be more comprehensive education on sexual prevention as well as a shift in the minds of Western organizations and institutions. There cannot only be a call for changed sexual behaviors in Africa, there must also be a concurrent change in the social behaviors of the West.