Sunday, October 28, 2007

America on the edge, Part B: Voices. Echoes?

(continued from previous post) ... like the fact that 8 year-olds openly talk about shooting.

If this statement is shocking to you (as it was to me), I am sorry to report that it actually gets worse. "Shooting" was not a random thing a young boy brought up and I happened to hear. Nor it was, of course, the subject matter of a discussion in which the little one happened to be present. It was not even a discussion about the "evils" of society. The young boy provided this response when he was asked to name a negative quality that he did not want his best friend to possess.

And now picture this: the incident happened in the local elementary school where the little one is a student. His friends and classmates were naturally present - in fact many of them were sitting just next to him as they were all participating in an activity, which was asking them to name, precisely, "the good qualities they wanted their best friends to possess" and "the bad qualities they did not wish their friends to possess".

Along with such common and anticipated answers like "I want my friend to be kind", "I want my friend to be polite", "I don't want my friend to be jealous of me" - I hear this young boy talking about shooting. And naturally I lose my voice...

I have no knowledge of or training in psychology and yet it seems bewilderingly scary to me that a young boy gave such an answer, to such a question, in a school and in the aftermath of the deadly shooting incidents that have claimed the lives of so many students and others in the United States. Again, I will refrain from taking this point further; but I must admit that I take nothing to be a more serious warning of the urgent need to delve into the issue of "shooting" as well as to dig the ground around it than the response of that 8 year old. Not next month, not next week. Today.

On a more positive now, I must mention that the children were participating in an after-school program the purpose of which is to foster peace in schools. By playing games young children learn peaceful ways to manage their anger and to resolve conflict. This excellent initiative is is the fruit of a non-governmental organization based in Boston, MA called "Peace Games".

The website of "Peace Games"

Sunday, October 21, 2007

America on the edge, Part A: Facing a dead-end?

An open wound that has proved difficult to heal in America is the plight of widespread private weapon ownership - specifically high crime rates resulting from guns put into use against targeted individuals or the wide public. In fact it appears that the wound has become gravely affected; two of the most deathly incidents involving indiscriminate public shootings have occurred within the past twelve months, the first in Pennsylvania, the second in Virginia. And while the Amish killings and the Virginia Tech massacre respectively haunt our individual and collective memories, a Cleveland teenager came very close to lengthening the list of gruesome incidents: on Wednesday, October 10, he opened fire at his former high school wounding four before killling himself.

That no band-aid exists to stop the excessive bleeding and that no pill can cure the wound from inside-out is of course alarming; it is also a testimony to the fact that the ill is much more serious and complex than it is often made appear. Last week's edition of the British "Observer" features staggering statistics about deaths from shootings as well as a comprehensive analysis of the root causes of gun violence in the United States -including political, sociological, historic, legal arguments- only to conclude that weapons are intertwined with American culture and hence almost impossible to combat.

The political response to the shootings of last year centers around a Bill passed by the US House of Representatives which stipulated among others that there must be rigorous background check of prospective gun holders to reduce the probability of weapons reaching people not fit to use them. Still, the Bill is at an early stage and must go through the Senate before it reaches the President.

Of course I do not claim to have the solution to this complex problem. On the other hand, I feel extremely uncomfortable with the "hands-off" approach or the quiescence of many who refuse to even bring up the question. I am also very skeptical of the thesis that gun possession serves their owners as a means of self-defense. Is this the way to go about solving violence? Is arming people making America more safe? I highly doubt it. Not only that, but I believe that the argument is in its core flawed: suppose momentarily the proposition was correct - what about all the people that cannot afford a weapon? Would they not have the right to feel safe in their country?

It is true that weapons alone cannot be held responsible for the form of urban violence one sees today. But they do trigger some very nasty situations - and this should concern people. It should not take another tragedy in some other state to take serious action. When we speak of safety in America, it should not involve terrorism discourse only. Threats need not result from the outside, they can very much originate inside America.

Sadly, the answers seem no longer/not anymore [pending your perspective] satisfactory. Worse still, there are a number of other things that should concern like... (to be continued...)


Guns take pride of place in US family values

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Back to basics

Water, water, everywhere
nor any drop to drink.

S.T. Coleridge, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"

In S.T. Coleridge's famous poem a Mariner and his crew undergo a series of hardships, the most important being that they have no access to drinking water; this is no doubt a great irony considering that they are surrounded by water as they are cruising the ocean. In modern Bangladesh today, at least 20% of the population is in the very same position, lacking access to safe water. Equally ironically, if not more, Bangladesh suffers from deluges which claim the lives of hundreds every year and indirectly affect tens of thousands.

Vivid as the imagery may be in Coleridge's masterpiece, one will ultimately be reminded of the fact that the poem is a work of literature, not an account of real life. Sadly, this does not apply to the Bangladeshi who die in scores because there is "no drop to drink".

Tragedy in real life, it seems, strikes so hard that transcends human imagination. For, it is not the lack of access to our mundane "tap water" -which is so often mismanaged and wasted in our western countries- or to any decent-quality water the only calamity that plagues the Bangladeshi; it is the fact that many are exposed to water that is contaminated; water polluted with arsenic, a lethal chemical element that is perilous for humans.

And, there is more. Arsenic pollution is not a phenomenon of few weeks or months. This "drama" is on stage for the past 25 years.

"Mégacontamination", which roughly translates into "super contamination", is the word that Quebec daily "La Presse" uses in its first page this past Sunday, October 7th, to launch a survey of the catastrophe that plagues Bangladesh and the neighboring Indian province of Bengal. Without resorting to embellishments of any sort, the paper's correspondent in Rajarampur, Emilie Côté reports the facts: 35 million people are directly affected; 40,000 thousand cases of arsenic contamination have been reported to date. The journalist also states that the government knew for four years (1993-1997) about the presence of arsenic, but would not disclose it to the people. As information became available, she notes, uncertainty and insecurity prevailed: how were people supposed to know which source of water was contaminated and which not?

And this is just one way of looking into the problem. The repercussions here are multifold: environmental; economic, as the Bangladeshi rely heavily on agriculture; social, for the social stigma, the disruption of family patterns...

For what constitutes a major disaster in our modern times, the World Health Organization has published extensively on the matter, releasing numerous studies on the detrimental effects of arsenic. Promisingly, water testing spreads, and presumably the contamination rate decreases. Yet, the problem persists, and shall continue to ravage the Bangladeshis since it is known that arsenic kills "slowly"...

In "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" the calamity inflicted upon the sailors is a punishment for their hubris; rather than condemning the Mariner who killed the Albatross (the good omen/shield) for no reason, the sailors render his act righteous. What is the share of responsibility for the Bangladeshi? What could possibly justify the magnitude of such an (ongoing) tragedy? Given that arsenic pollution seems to result naturally, one could point to fate as being responsible. Such an answer however is simplistic and fails to convince. While it is true that the process of pollution could not have been fully thwarted, it is certain that its consequences would have been mitigated - had there been not for the four year "silence" period of the government or the low levels of public awareness or the lack of vital equipment for arsenic detection that were long absent or...



The article in "La Presse": Mégacontamination à l'arsenic au Bangladesh

World Health Organization reports Arsenic in drinking water

Thursday, October 04, 2007

African tales

Despite the light that postcolonial writings have been shedding on Africa in the past few decades, the truth remains that by and large the continent lives, still, in shadow; Africa makes only "rare appearances" in the public scene since the latter continues to be dominated by Western, and to a lesser extent Asian and other, "actors". Hence our entrenched ignorance about the lands, the people, the culture; suffice here to point to the international media for instance - Africa appears almost like a tautology for disaster and grief: Darfur - Rwanda - Apartheid.

This is both wrong and unjust for a continent that is home to over a quarter of the world's countries. But it is also highly misleading, since Africa is far from being drained - that is, despite our consistent efforts to deprive it of all its resources, whether human, animal or natural.

But I wish to go no further with general comments; instead it is a personal experience I wish to share - the feelings of guilt and frustration I experienced earlier this evening in the well-stocked neighboring bookstore. Scrutinizing what was a temporary display of African literature, I was chagrined as I realized that I possess only a handful of books and I have read just a few more; I felt deeply ashamed as I was reading the synopses of all the great books that were lying in front of my eyes and some I had not heard of.

A big splash of extra cold ocean water woke me up to a reality that extends beyond Soyinka's literary and non-fiction writings, Achebe's poetry and Appiah's lucid descriptions of Asante life in Ghana. There I had it all; in front of my eyes there was such a wonderful display of books that spanned from Algeria and Djebar's "Children of the New World" to Kenya and Thiongo's 1964 account of Mau Mau atrocities ("Weep not Child") to Zimbabwe and Dangarembga's "Nervous Conditions". South African accounts of Apartheid and "Truth and Reconciliation" proceedings were not absent either; nor were, of course, horrific accounts of atrocities in Darfur, enough to fill quite a few books and volumes - and, note, the real-life drama of the people has yet to end...

I did not want to leave; at least not until I had sucked in summaries, pages and characters, not until I had jotted down titles and authors. Was I less frustrated? Yes - I must admit. Was I more optimistic? No - much as I did appreciate the book display it did not take me much to realize that beautifully stacked albeit lonely books cannot do much. Plus, most of them have no flashy or glossy clovers... To believe otherwise, seems to me quixotic at best, foolish at worst.. I claim to be neither. But I would love to be proven wrong. I seriously do.

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