26 April 2008

Regular folk can make a difference


Anthroplogist Margaret Mead once said "A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." And in the past couple of weeks, southern Africa is experiencing the phenomena.

A bunch of my friends and family have been asking about Zimbabwe. What is going on? Why doesn't South Africa do anything? That sort of thing. I can't give good answers. I'm not South African and I don't live in Zimbabwe, but the papers here and the BBC give better coverage than the US media.

It is four weeks since the election and still no "official" word on who is president. I doubt that there will ever be official word, since Mugabe is in charge and doesn't want to give up his power. In the meantime, vote recounts continue for the parliamentary elections. Here, Zanu-PF's opposition, MDC (Movement for Democratic Change), is gaining ground and keeping it. Zimbabweans have resoundingly had enough. One can only hope that the current government takes heed before there is even more of a bloodbath.

BBC Africa

China has also seen fit to involve itself by selling arms to the Zanu-PF government. That's a terrific sign. So the Chinese tanker ship landed in Durban. The South African government gave permission for a legal unloading of arms and ammunition. Then, the South African people had their say. Union dock workers refused to handle the cargo, a judge ruled that it would be illegal to transit the arms through the country and thousands of regular citizens showed up to protest and block roads to prevent transit. That's what regular people can do. Good on them. Maybe their action can embarrass their government into doing something.

Now Angola has let the Chinese ship dock. However, it will not be allowed to unload its cargo of weapons. The Zambian president has called on other African countries to not allow this ship to dock and unload its deadly cargo.

Yesterday, 400 people were arrested in Harare by riot police as they were taking refuge from violence in MDC offices. The name Operation Mavhoterapapi (Who did you vote for?) says it all.

For further reading:

Civil Society's Triumph on Zimbabwe

Angola Allows Arms Ship to Dock
(note: they will not be allowed to unload arms)

Police Swoop on Injured MDC Supporters

Zimbabwe Opposition Retains Gains

All Africa News - Zimbabwe Page

07 April 2008

Good People

Where’d all the good people go?
I’ve been changing channels and I don’t see them on the tv shows.
Where’d all the good people go?
We’ve got heaps and heaps of what we sow.

- Jack Johnson, Good People
The United States doesn't exactly have the best of reputations in the world right now. I frequently find myself cringing when people bring up the war in Iraq, and sometimes even apologizing for the stupidity of my government (for various reasons). But I am always quick to point out that the people of the United States, it's citizens, are not the government. At least not anymore. I am really proud to say that good people do still exist in the United States and I wanted to devote a little space here to point out a couple.

A number of people read my blog and have sent enquiries about helping out the communities where I work. This blog is devoted to them.

First there is Kesshi. I don't know his real name, but I met him online at a news conglomeration site. We may not always see eye to eye, but he has a good heart. At Christmas, he dropped me an email to see if I needed a laptop. He was buying one of the "One Child, One Laptop" computers and the company was offering a deal. Buy one, get a second for reduced price sent anywhere in the world. It hasn't yet arrived, but when it does the computer will go to the primary school in Madjadjane. I wish I had a second one to give to the primary school in Gala, but maybe by the time I return for more research I will have another to donate.
Children of Escola Primaria de Madjadjane with Professor Adriano

The next group I would like to give a shout out to is the Stone Street Presbyterian Church of Watertown, NY. This is my parents' church. I gave a presentation to the church about my research and the communities where I work this past January. Many of the people in the church are farmers or retired farmers, and they were very interested in the farming done in southern Mozambique. The congregation regularly raises and donates money for famine and disaster relief, but this time they decided to donate some money to learning. They sent me money enough to buy notebooks, pencils, pens, maps, and other school supplies to give to both the primary schools in Gala and Madjadjane. I have already given the school directors the maps and some books which they were really happy to get. At Gala, the world map was at least 25 years old - the USSR was still shown as a country. Tomorrow I am off to buy some books and general classroom equipment.

As a side historical note, the Presbyterian Church (and other church groups) has always taken an interest in Mozambican education. Some of the revolutionary leaders that fought for Independence were educated in Presbyterian schools. The state education system prior to Independence offered education to black Mozambicans up to grade 3 and no classes were taught in local languages - unlike the church supported schools.
Class in Escola Primaria de Gala

Finally, I want to thank my parents. Both taught school for a combined (minimum) 70+ years and are now retired. However, they still are very concerned with education and learning and children. Education and learning has always been a priority in my family. It was always "When you go to university..." not "If you go to university...". Learning opens the doors to many opportunities and cannot be taken away from you. When they heard about the conditions of teachers and schools in the communities where I work AND that my field assistant was working so that he could pay to finish high school, they decided to send me some money to help out. Their donation will help with buying classroom books and equipment, repairing the teacher's house and school roof, and send my assistant on to finish his final year of high school. I already put money in the community bank for my assistant, Salema, to continue school for the next 3 years, but this last bit will help him attend the final year of school in Maputo. As for the teacher's house and school roof, both roofs leak and there are no windows, so hopefully they will be able to make some repairs. As a former teacher myself, I know how difficult it can be to teach if you aren't sleeping well or are living in poor conditions.

Good people do still exist, but many times they don't know where or how to help others. Many times their donations don't end up with those who need it most. The chief of Madjadjane spent over an hour explaining to me how monies donated to charity often end up lining the pockets of people in Maputo or the money is just used to help the poor in Maputo and never makes it out to the provinces. He told me that it is better when people donate directly and the brancos come and deliver the materials themselves - so no one is taking a cut. Despite all the running around I have done in the past couple of days, I am happy that I could facilitate the donations.

I want to end with one of my favorite quotes about learning and education. School is not free in Mozambique and many parents save up to send their children to school - all the while earning less than $1 USD per day. They want their children to have choices in the future.

You have to study and learn so that you can make up your own mind about history and everything else, but you can't make up an empty mind. Stock your mind, stock your mind. It is your house of treasure and no one in the world can interfere with it. You might be poor, your shoes might be broken, but your mind is a palace.
- Frank McCourt, Angela's Ashes

06 April 2008

Confronting a Prejudice

I have finally finished all my interview work (for now). I return to Madjadjane on Wednesday to give a presentation on my research - purpose, preliminary results, and photos of the community.

Catharanthus roseus

This last week of interviews was really difficult. I am burnt out on interviews, much of the interview was devoted to saying good-bye (for now), and I was physically exhausted. Many people that I didn't interview, but passed on the road or passed by their homes, stopped me for a chat and said that they will really miss me. I will really miss them too.

Madjadjane, and Gala, are the type of communities that just don't seem to exist in the United States anymore. People make jokes about "it takes a village to raise a child" but this really happens. So does Ubunto, and knowing all your neighbors, and sharing what you have even if it isn't much, and pooling resources to get a bigger project accomplished.

One of my good friends, Sr. Mateus (who loves to talk) told me this week that he was glad I came and stayed, and hopes that I can return soon. But besides that, he told me that my questions about how people and culture and landscape are tied together opened many people's minds. He felt pride in where he came from and his community. That made me feel good - like I had accomplished something tangible and useful.

So what does this have to do with prejudice? During the interviews this past week I spent a significant amount of time asking about plant identification and use. Over the past 9 months I took photos of plants people mentioned during interviews and plants that caught my eye or were common in the community. A couple of the plants were very pretty flowers (photos in this blog). During the interview, people mentioned how beautiful these flowers were. They might not know the names, but they all said that people planted these flowers in their yards to make their homes beautiful.

I was surprised that people would plant flowers to make their homes beautiful. These flowers have no other utility for most people (specialists did mention that one species could be used as a medicine). I had assumed that residents didn't have the time or the space to plant anything around their home that had no utility as a food or a medicine. Or that they would even care about making their homes beautiful. They do talk about different trees being beautiful, but most trees around homes were already growing when the homes were built. Also, these trees usually provide fruits, medicines, or construction materials.

When I realized the depth of the assumption I had made, I felt horrible. Why wouldn't poor people/African farmers care about making their homes beautiful? Why wouldn't they see beauty in their surroundings? Why should brancos corner the market on landscaping?

I think that my prejudice stems from the fact that the landscaping in cities like Maputo, Pretoria, and other African cities I've visited is modeled on a Western ideal. The people I see landscaping are low level workers, usually black. I never thought that they might take an interest in the work other than that it was a job that paid the bills. I also think that some of my horror in the discovery comes from my own research and reactions to Westerners who describe agriculture in southern Mozambique as messy, wasteful, and inefficient. I always answer that multi-cropping milho (maize), squash, bean, and peanut helps keep soil fertility and conserves biodiversity. And all those "weeds" are medicines or wild foods.

The African landscape is different in many respects from an American or European landscape. I find the African landscape very beautiful, but at the African household scale I still carried some baggage. I'm glad that my mind was opened, and I was forced to rethink my point of view.

I would identify the plants in this blog, unfortunately I have already mailed home all my plant identification guides. I'll post the species if anyone is interested when I return to the States.