Monthly Archives: June 2011

Academics at War

In my junior year at ASU I was awarded a fellowship to work with a professor on a research project. His research project was particularly interesting because of the framework: he was researching counter-insurgent discourse in Southeast Asia, West Africa and Western Europe. His research was diverse, but boiled down to trying to figure out who was on “our side” in contested regions, and how to connect with them. It was one of a small group of projects that comprised The Minverva Initiative, a program funded by the Department of Defense to help better understand the conflicts in which the United States is involved.

A couple years removed from this, I’m wondering if I would still choose the same fellowship (we each chose from a list of potential projects on which we would work, I ended up landing on this one, researching the background of the rebellion in southern Thailand). The Minerva Project, being fully funded by the DoD through the Office for Naval Research, uses academics to assist the military in its work around the world. There’s a lot to be said about the pros and cons of such a relationship, and I find myself wavering a bit in whether or not academics should really be so involved in the military’s operations. One – well, four – points made by the Network of Concerned Anthropologists was this:

The US university system is already highly militarized, that is, many universities take in a large proportion of their research funding from military sources.  This is problematic for four reasons:

  1. The fields so supported are distorted by focus on issues of utility to warmaking.  Whole fields of study hypertrophy and others shrink or are never developed as researchers are drawn from one field into the other, Pentagon-desired ones.  Nuclear and other weapons research related areas grow, at the expense of environmental research, for example.  Moreover, theory, methodology, and research goals in such fields as physics, computer science, and engineering after decades of military funding now operate on assumptions that knowledge about force is paramount.
  2. These research foci begin to structure what gets taught to students and what research projects students themselves see as the best options for their own work. A brain drain from other research directions occurs.
  3. The dependence on single sources of funding with their own agenda tends to reduce intellectual autonomy in ways that go beyond the selection of subject matter for research.
  4. The University becomes an instrument rather than a critic of war-making, and spaces for critical discussion of militarism within the university shrink.

And if you find this program a little too cozy of a relationship, you’ll shiver at the thought of Human Terrain Mapping. A couple of years ago the Army unveiled a new program called Human Terrain Systems which dwarfs the involvement of academia that programs like Minerva created.

HTS Researcher in Afghanistan, via army.mil

The program, as described by the Army, places small Human Terrain Teams (HTTs) with Army and USMC combat teams on the ground in conflict zones. HTTs conduct research on the ground to help create “human terrain” maps that influence combat decisions, including “planning, preparation, execution and assessment of operations.” The teams are a mixture of military and civilian, including social scientists, researchers and analysts. Some have argued that HTS is “weaponizing” disciplines such as anthropology, and the debate has continued over the last couple of years. It’s hard to argue against the fact that universities are being funded more and more by the military, and that this does alter how universities operate – whether you think it’s good or bad.

Life as an Academic and a Mentor

This morning there was a really good post by Apini over at PhD Octopus in honor of the end of term at Oxford. Most of the post is about the quick ending of term there, but a lot of it struck a pretty deep chord with me. I’ve always lived by the academic calendar – having just finished my undergrad, I guess that’s not unique – but I’ve always expected to. I keep track of time based on when school starts and stops. My photo albums are arranged by academic year instead of calendar year. Having been somewhere between teacher-track and professor-track in my career aspirations, I’ve pretty much sold myself on living a teaching sort of life. But living by a calendar starting in the fall isn’t that intriguing, this bit of the blog was what hit me:

I remember that there are newspaper deadlines, and orchestra rehearsals, and plays, and JCR committee elections, and important varsity matches, and internship interviews, and figuring out what you want to do with your life.  I remember walking through the dining hall in senior week and thinking how sad it was that it would never be ‘my’ dining hall again.  I remember a party on the roof of our house.  I remember the panicked feeling of being nostalgic at the same time that the thing you’re being nostalgic for is happening.

And I remember that another reason I became an academic is because I like to operate on that calendar too.  I like to see successive generations do all of those things, and make decisions about their lives, and make silly mistakes along the way, and grow up from scared first years to confident (and scared) finalists.

This is exactly what I love about teaching. I love history and human rights and development, enough to be a professional historian or researcher or development worker. The only reason I would rather teach is for that interaction with students. I love interacting with pupils and watching them grow, both academically and socially. This year I had the privilege of being with 190 students during my four month stint back at high school.

People don’t always talk about this, but teaching is pretty isolating, at least professionally. There are other teachers in your department and you have the daily prep hour to maybe see the colleagues in your hall. There’s the occasional professional development seminar you can attend. But most of the time you’re the only one of your kind. When I was teaching, I started my day with a prep hour either alone or with a couple of other teachers in vicinity, I (sometimes) spent lunch with the same gang, and I usually spent about an hour, maybe more, alone in my room working after the day ended. The rest of the time, I was alone in the company of 35-40 high schoolers. When you spend hours with your students, you’ve got to enjoy it. I have to say, I truly loved seeing all of my students every day throughout the year, and that last paragraph from Apini reminded me why.

Caine Blog: “In the Spirit of McPhineas Lata” by Lauri Kubuitsile

This is the fourth review from the Caine Prize blog-athon, and I’m glad you’re still with me. The story the crew is reading/reviewing this week is “In the Spirit of McPhineas Lata” by Lauri Kubuitsile from Botswana. You can and should find the story as a pdf here, and you can find the other bloggers’ thoughts at the bottom of the post.

This story is, when it’s all said and done, a really fun read. It’s a very interesting set-up and a fun story with comedic characters doing absurd things. It’s fun. The story is about sex, but it’s also about society and sex’s role in that society. It’s a pretty interesting take on the whole thing, providing an interesting and fun look at how men and women interact in this village. Plot summary: the village ladykiller dies (while performing one of his duties, fittingly), and the village responds in probably the weirdest way possible.

What’s interesting is the way the society had been set up in the first place. The men spend all of their time working in order to give their wives better lives, and the women are all greedy and mean to their husbands. While the men work a lot and are not good at pleasing their wives, McPhineas Lata doesn’t really have a job (nor a wife for whom to provide), but he’s mighty good at pleasing everyone else’s wives. Somehow, the town has adapted to this fact – it’s how the society works. Lata’s actions kept women satisfied so that men could keep working. The first lines of the story explain this: it’s not the rampant adultery that is causing a strain in relationships between couples, it’s the death of Lata that causes a rift between the two sexes.

And so, with Lata’s death, the story begins. After the burial, the women decide to go about humping his grave while the men commiserate over beer and try to figure out how to have sex right. The men’s decision is one of the more out-of-place reactions: they turn it into a science experiment – or, if you want to, they turn it into work. The men divide the labor amongst them and start trying things out when the women aren’t mourning Lata’s death, discussing successes (like three-minute massage of the shoulder) and failures (like attempting to milk a breast) at the local bar. The men methodically figure out how to please their wives and replace the vibrant memory of McPhineas Lata. It’s also worth noting that sex is continually referred to as “the business,” another reference to the men’s affinity for doing work instead of sex. In a similar vein, throughout the story no one is ever seen… working.

If the men’s response to use the scientific method to improve sex is funny, what’s even funnier is that the women immediately know that something is afoot when their husbands begin to try things, and many simply play along to see where it’s going. Their final response is to see that their old lover is continuing his tricks through their husbands, and the women take it in stride. Lata’s lifestyle was what held the society together, and his death caused a huge problem for the men and the women. Interestingly, the men and women find the silliest ways to reshape their relationships to make things work. And you can finish the story with a laugh, reassured that everything was okay.

Other co-bloggers:

The Oncoming Hope

Zungu Zungu

Method to the Madness

Mumpsimus

Sky, Soil & Everything in Between

The Reading Life

Drug War Turns 40

So, last week was the fortieth anniversary of the infamous War on Drugs. The internet was abuzz with people talking about all sorts of aspects of how much of a failure it’s been. Instead of giving anything anecdotal or analytical, I figured I’d just share one of the most effective infographics I’ve seen on it, via Colorlines:

Caine Blog: “What Molly Said” by Timothy Keegan

So, here is blog post number three of the Caine Prize series. This week the group is reviewing “What Molly Said” by Timothy Keegan of South Africa. If interested, you can download and read it here. We’ve got two more stories to review before the award is announced, so this post brings us past the halfway point.

For starters, this story was really good. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, and I hope the last two Caine Prize readings continue on this trajectory. The story didn’t read like it was a story about Africa written for Westerners, it read like a story written for readers. Quick set-up: the story is about a woman and her reactions and actions following the news that her estranged daughter has been killed. The story follows her, but includes her angry brute of a husband to whom she is devoted and the inspector who is investigating her daughter’s murder.

A few things struck me in this story. The relationship between Molly and her daughter Sarah is strained at best, but the unrelenting conflict between the two is described as the glue that held them together. In trying to cope with the loss, Molly wonders “why should you change the habits of a lifetime just because your reason for being had come to an end?” It hits at how important Sarah was to Molly, despite repeated mentions of how difficult their relationship was. The story does a good job of driving home the type of relationship they had.

And it was two men that caused, or at least added to this strain. One is the son-in-law, Tommie, whom Molly resents for two reasons. She sees Tommie as the reason for Sarah’s estrangement. She believes that he filled her head with reasons to hate Molly and her husband, reasons to never go back, which leads Molly to believe that he is a bad person. She also sees Tommie as an outsider in every way. Not only is he black, but he is a Mozambican, an activist, a radical, a thug. With the story set in South Africa, it has special meaning to see the ever-present existence of an “other.” Because of her disdain for him (telling the inspector that she hates it when he refers to Tommie as her son-in-law), she eventually comes to the conclusion that her daughter’s no-good husband was also her murderer.

What’s interesting is that you never really get to know Tommie. You understand Molly’s opinion of him. Because of the type of person he is (black and foreign) you see both the inspector and Molly’s husband treat him with the same regard. But he’s the type of character I would have liked to learn more about. He’s Mozambican, but he’s half-Portugese. He’s an immigrant to South Africa, but he’s very involved in the anti-aparthied movement and is involved with the ANC. He’s a psychologist, and his wife was killed in their home. Everything else is left up to the reader to invent.

The only other character of any depth in the story is Molly’s husband, Rollo. He is a devil of a man – an aggressive drunk with a side of philandering. It’s clear that he beat Molly after spending evenings at bars, and that his presence drove a wedge between Molly and Sarah. His control of his home is so absolute that Molly wonders to herself whether or not he will want to go to her daughter’s funeral (and as a result, whether or not she will be able to go). He has no real redeeming qualities. When made aware of his step-daughter’s death, he shrugs it off and finishes his day at work instead of consoling his wife. When confronted with his upset wife, he tells her that, once she gets over the “shock” of her daughter’s death she’ll realize that she’s better off.

His devlish ways extend even further when Molly find a letter Sarah wrote to him, threatening to come forwards with what he had done to her – giving the reader and Molly a motive for him to be Sarah’s killer. The reader simultaneously realizes why Rollo was so quick to say that their lives would be better off without her and just how powerless Molly is in her own life. His control of Molly, and her dependence on him, lead to her turning a blind eye to his multiple sins – sins including drunkeness, infidelity, aggression, battery and probably rape and murder. But it’s not just him having control over her, it’s her full submission to the life she’s living. In the beginning of the story it is explained that she married him in order to find support and live a good life. But she’s not living so much as surviving, holed up in the house she never leaves, being beat and berated by her husband, not talking to her daughter (mostly because of the abusive husband). She’s forsaken any hope of agency or independence in the story, which makes the reader (or me, at least) want to shake this woman and make her realize what she’s doing. In the end, the story is about Sarah’s murder, but the focus is how Molly deals with everything, and it is that story which is really fascinating.

Two other themes occurred in the story that drew my attention. One is race. Race is a huge part of the story, but it’s very subtle. From the get-go you get the impression that Sarah is white and she left her family for Tommie, who is black. But this isn’t in writing until much later in the story. Not only is this kind of a metaphor for Sarah leaving the abusive white family for an activist black community (in which she was an activist), but it’s also a metaphor for South Africa at the time. Rollo says that Sarah had it coming, getting involved with those types of people – surrounded by radicalism and drugs, the comment seems to really be about race. The inspector talks about how people in the new South Africa are supposed to be equal, but he still views two types of victims: the ones that live sordid lives and get what they deserve and the ones that are innocent and quiet and should never encounter such crimes. You can probably figure out which is which. Molly’s hairdresser also makes comments on the interracial anti-aparthied couple living in a white neighborhood. And the pinnacle of the race theme is when Molly, Rollo, and the inspector attend Sarah’s funeral. The speaker draws attention to them, and the audience of black radicals turn to face the older, white people in the back of the room. While the reader doesn’t know how the eyes treated these characters, one does know that Molly becomes anxious and Rollo angry.

Another theme is memory. While I’m not any sort of expert on South Africa, I can imagine that this takes place before or in the beginning stages of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The TRC’s main focus was to provide amnesty (in some cases) in exchange for testimony. It was seen more important to create a national history – a national memory of the tragedies – than to bring justice to criminals. And so memory has since become a foundation of South Africa’s state. With this in mind, there are two references to memory. In the beginning, the reader is made aware of why Molly dislikes Tommie. In doing his part to “turn” Sarah against her mother, Tommie helped Sarah face issues that she had in her past. Issues that she had repressed. Issues having to do with her family, and Rollo in particular. And so Molly sees this as turning her daughter against her, when really Tommie was trying to help Sarah face her memories. Meanwhile, the inspector tells Molly that he is beginning to get news about whether or not Tommie was involved in Sarah’s death because witnesses are beginning to come forwards. He tells her that the neighbors are beginning to remember more since he gave them a few days. A few days to dream up how to pin everything on the local black radical. Lastly, you see throughout the story that Molly has decided not to suppress memories so much as ignore them. Rollo’s sins are mentioned multiple times, and Molly clearly is aware of them, but instead of addressing them she puts all of the blame on Tommie. She takes her memories and turns them away. When faced with even more grave incidents in her family’s past, she destroys them completely.

So, in summary, the story about Molly really revolves around the type of person she is and how that changes given the circumstances. She begins as a woman you should pity who is stuck in a series of motions rather than life. She ends as a woman who not only rejected her daughter’s pleas but in the end even rejected any chance for justice, independence, or even satisfaction. The story was incredibly well-written, and I really enjoyed following the other themes as they went and watching the characters develop (or stay assholes), and this is definitely my front runner so far.  Because, you know, I’m qualified to award prizes in literature.

For the co-blogging experience!

The Oncoming Hope

Method to the Madness

Mumpsimus

Africa is a Country

Zungu Zungu

The Reading Life

Caine Blog: “Butterfly Dreams” by Beatrice Lamwaka

Here is part two of my five-review Caine Blog series. This review is of the short story “Butterfly Dreams” by Beatrice Lamwaka from Uganda. You can download and read the story yourself here.

Let’s start by pointing out that this story is by a Ugandan, about northern Uganda. Beyond that, let’s get to the first thing I liked about this story: it’s written in second person. I always felt that there was something alluring about writing in the second person – it really puts the story onto the reader in a way that I don’t think is really possible without using “you.”

The story is told from the perspective of what I presume to be a family member, to you, the recently returned victim of a Sudanese rebel group’s abduction – (the region and descriptions lead me to think that it’s more than likely the LRA). You were a little girl when you were abducted, but you didn’t return home until five years later – where you were welcomed home with open arms – once you were cleansed.

What I found interesting in this story was the struggle for the narrator and the rest of the family as they navigate through rehabilitation of the reader. The reader doesn’t speak, doesn’t smile, doesn’t really show any recognition of the family. Having buried her spirit while she was still missing, the family worries that they’re left with a shell of the girl who was taken, and there are quite a few short scenes that show her dealing with her demons alone. On top of this, though, the family struggles with their own circumstances in an IDP camp. One of the more memorable descriptions about the camps was this:

Our children no longer know how to hold a hoe. They have forgotten how the ground nut plant looks. Now, our land buries our children. Our gardens grow huts. We now live in a camp.

It’s a cruel revelation, that the reader has returned from abduction to see her family in a camp, with their livelihood ruined. This family wasn’t forced to leave their land behind like thousands of displaced in northern Uganda – they had their land taken from them by the displaced, as the government declared their land an IDP camp.  The narrator describes the “empty huts with empty people” who had lost their spirits – just like the reader, whose spirit had been buried.

We see ourselves – as the reader – go from a freshly returned abductee to being slowly rehabilitated in an IDP camp and eventually going back to school. We see the family struggle through rehabilitation and living in the crisis of displacement. There was little literal progression of the story line, but the narrator revealed more and more about the predicaments of both the family and the abducted girl as the pages went on, which gave a deeper dimension to me, but still it seemed like something was lacking. The writing toggled between past and present several times, which sometimes worked, sometimes made it feel disjointed; the writing also changed form a bit here and there along with the setting, sometimes as story-telling and sometimes as a sort of testimony. Maybe I just don’t have a soft spot for short stories?

In the end, the tone of the writing was what separated this piece from other “poverty porn” types of stories for me. Even then I’m kind of torn. The story is about a family’s struggle to cope with a crisis as much as it is about showing you how bad children have it in the North. While I would hardly expect a writer born in Gulu to shed the atmosphere in which she grew up, it is interesting to see how many of these Caine Prize stories will cater to the troubled-dark-continent narrative. At the outset of this co-blogging experience, Aaron pointed to this, a critique that the Caine Prize was judging African writing based on stereotypical Africa (as viewed by more developed, Western countries). The argument is that, over the last ten years, the Caine Prize has guided African writing into exactly what people here think about Africa already – ignoring the greatest satire on how not to write about Africa. (Props to my friend Heidi for first showing me that piece last month, by the way). Bulawayo’s and Lamwaka’s stories seem to fit that genre of look-what-happens-to-children-in-Africa. At least this story didn’t have a stereotypical Westerner in it too, plus it had a radio in the beginning!

Co-Blog!

Africa is a Country

The Oncoming Hope

Zungu Zungu

Method to the Madness

The Mumpsimus

Sky, Soil and Everything in Between

The Reading Life

The Next Chapter of TOMS Reads Like the Last One

So, this week TOMS made a huge announcement with a coordinated, nation-wide reveal: their expanding beyond shoes. The idea is to expand the One for One model to fit everyone’s needs – not everyone is in need of shoes, but some need eyeglasses, for instance. And, as one might guess, with TOMS revealing a new campaign I thought about revealing a new blog post about it.

The One for One model has spread around, despite TOMS having trademarked the phrase. There are many companies that match purchases through giving, but TOMS still feels like a rock in my Converse. While others have contacted partners in developing areas to work with, TOMS continues the shoe-drop model. As before, my main gripe about TOMS is the lack of sustainability involved in handing out shoes to tons of people who need them. It does nothing to buttress the economy or to help recipients improve their livelihoods – save adding shoes to their wardrobe.

If the next chapter for TOMS included opening manufacturing centers in developing countries and employing people to build and sell the shoes instead of handing them out, that’d be an improvement. Training local people to become business leaders allows them to rise up by their own bootstraps and it provides a new service to the community (if there is a gap in that sector, which there isn’t always). If you decide to add finance training, micro-loans, and other services you’d really be in business.

But the next chapter of TOMS included eyewear. The One for One model shifted slightly with this expansion. Instead of just glasses-for-glasses, it’s eyesight-for-eyesight. You buy a pair of shades and TOMS will either give out glasses, provide prescription medication, or perform eye surgery on those in need. Pretty sweet, right? Well, only kind of. I see some improvement in providing health services, but TOMS isn’t building anything sustainable here. They say that giving people sight will improve education, health, and economy but really, it’s only improving eye sight. The members of these communities will only be impacted in that they can see better and that they will depend more on the next development NGO to roll into town.

Back to that paragraph about sustainability: if you want to buy glasses that do something more than help you see better, try Warby Parker. It’s a company I only recently heard about, so I am not endorsing it, mostly because in some instances they give glasses at the conclusion of a free eye exam, which isn’t really sustainable. But their partner is. VisionSpring does more than provide the glasses – they also train low-income women to sell glasses to people in their communities for $4, even providing them with a eye-care-business-in-a-bag.

The co-founder of Warby Parker used to direct VisionSpring, where he first put together the idea that you can avoid aid dependence if A. the recipient makes the decision to get glasses, and doesn’t just have them given to him or her, and B. the recipient gains ownership over the glasses literally by paying for them. On top of all of that, they help train and employ women who are in need of income. Win, win!

Warby Parker partners with VisionSpring, which is an amazing group – so if you feel like making an impact with your glasses that seems like a better option. If you’re feeling good you can even donate directly to VisionSpring! And – as usual – if you’re going to try to make a difference in others’ lives, make sure it’s a positive difference.

Caine Blog: “Hitting Budapest” by NoViolet Bulawayo

This is the first of five reviews of the stories that were shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African Writing. This post is about “Hitting Budapest” by NoViolet Bulawayo from Zimbabwe. You can download the story here if you’re interested.

So, it has literally been a couple of years since I have read anything literature. My reading has been dominated by academic non-fiction, and my downtime has miraculously been spent reading the same. This is my first foray into African literature (besides Beasts of No Nation a few years back), and I’m excited to see where these five stories will take me. If you want to read more reviews, scroll on down to the bottom where I’m compiling the list.

I would start with a summary of this short story, except I don’t really know what to tell you. Because not a lot happened in this story. It is told by a girl named Darling and it is about a group of children who head from their slum-neighborhood (ironically called Paradise) to the nice part of town (called Budapest) to steal guavas. They meet a British expat who takes their pictures, they steal guavas, and they find a dead woman in the jungle. They scream at the expat, they eat said guavas, and they steal the shoes off of the dead woman. But there’s no progression in the story, and no real conflict beyond what seems to be the normal bickering among children and some tension when the children’s regard for the British woman goes from curiosity to anger. The story isn’t really all that eventful.

There are interesting things in the story. For starters, the character Chipo is described as being slower than everyone else “because her grandfather made her pregnant.” That’s a heavy piece of information to be dropping mid-sentence a few paragraphs in, and nothing comes of it. It just becomes part of the setting. In the middle of discussing how to leave Paradise and become rich, one of the children argues that “I don’t need school to make money. What Bible did you read that from huh?” which presented an interesting dynamic of prosperity and proselytism in these kid’s lives, I suppose.

When they ask the British person what she has (asking about the food she is eating) she assumes they are asking about her camera, which they really don’t care about but which she must think separates her from them, but nothing really happens with that either. In the same scene she tosses what’s left of her food in the trash and it sets a stark contrast, as Darling explains that “we have never seen anyone throw food away,” followed by rebuking her for acting as if “she had never seen anybody pregnant,” referring of course to ten-year-old Chipo. What’s normal for one’s life is not normal for the other, but again – nothing comes of it. They let the woman take pictures of them and then they leave and scream at her for, apparently, throwing away food.

Maybe I’ve been away from literature for too long and I’m missing something. The uneventfulness of the story reminds me of the worst summer reading I ever did, A Separate Peace. But that’s about where the similarities end beyond children arguing and the story going nowhere. But, maybe this is how it’s supposed to be. The story is very much a-day-in-the-lives-of-us, so I guess it shows that their lives are rather uneventful. At the same time, I feel like it’s attempting to show the ruin of Paradise – the kids aren’t going to school and living in good homes, they’re stealing food and they only have one set of clothes and one of them was raped and they find a dead woman on the road home, all while being the slum tourist photo op for the British woman. But I feel like a story needs to do more than show children being children or poverty being poverty. Overall, I’m not too impressed with this story, but maybe it’s just not my type of writing.

As for the co-blogging experience. Check out these awesome bloggers and their analysis of “Hitting Budapest:”

Zungu Zungu

The Oncoming Hope

Sky, Soil and Everything in Between

The Mumpsimus

Method to the Madness

Africa is a Country

The Reading Life