TB continued…

Last week I was in Uganda, travelling into some of the poorest communities around Kampala, to speak with parents and children who have been affected by Tuberculosis, and often HIV as well.

I met kids as young as two, who are being treated for TB and in many cases HIV. I met families and single parents, widows and widowers to both diseases, and listened to them tell me of the struggles of their lives.

Two Ugandan children in Wakiso districtI could write that I have been humbled or inspired by the people I have met, but that would be gauche and inappropriate; these people don’t exist as instruments of my self-realisation.

And anyway, we all know the world is cruel; we all know that most people in it are poor; we all know that children are dying for lack of education, lack of medication, lack of care. I was just put in a position where I couldn’t let it slip from my mind – where instead I was face to face with these truths.

I would accept the kind hospitality of people struggling to survive, and be introduced to their children living with HIV and being treated for TB, behaving as you would expect any children to: with playfulness; cheekiness; shyness; inquisitiveness; sulkiness.

To put them at ease I might smile or pull a stupid face, or hand them a pencil and a piece of paper so they could write and to draw. I would ask them what they have experienced, and what they hope for the future. It was my job to learn about their lives, and those of their families, and how the programmes introduced by the NGO I work for has affected them.

No, they aren’t objects of pity, or symbols of inspiration. They are just people, many of them very friendly and interesting, living trying lives under the yoke of a corrupt, parasitic government that is sucking the life from them and growing ever fat in doing so.

They are people like you and I, but mired in a poverty that oppresses them ever further. TB is a disease of poverty, it thrives in the poorly ventilated and crowded homes that the poorest people in the world must live in, and the costs of treating it are crippling to these people.

A farmer weakened by TB cannot plough the earth, cannot then pay his rent for the year, the great and unrelenting weight crushes them further, even as the disease wastes them and they are made weaker.

I learned about the realities of treating TB, of poverty, which I knew on paper, but understand better having seen first hand the real lives involved.

At times it hurt to hear the stories of how a child is born with HIV, to a mother that will die soon after because there are not the resources to save her, or how a mother abandoned to become the sole source of support for her family struggles every day to feed her ailing child and herself.

A child being treated for TB in the Wakiso district of UgandaOr to hear how the hope of a bright little boy in a torn school uniform is simply to one day drive a car – and how his face lights up, casting away the shadows of his previous shyness, when he imagines this; I remembered how when I was his age, the same simple dream was so exciting and I understood and we smiled at the thought together.

The father of another child expressed to me only the hope that their children can one day be well, and just like other children.

No, they aren’t objects of pity, or symbols of inspiration. No more or less than any child. They are just like other children and they should be able to live their lives like any other children, free from treatable diseases like TB.

The DETECT TB programme has saved 1000 children in the two years it has been in place in two districts in Uganda: providing education to communities; training for health workers; testing and screening; and free medication to treat children. It desperately needs funding in order to continue.

You can donate to help the DETECT TB programme save children’s lives

Horror scope

Avijit Roy, atheist and advocate of secularism, was hacked to death by a mob of murderers wielding meat cleavers, in Bangladesh, after threats from Islamist hardliners.

This is a post from his daughter:

Avijit Roy

She talks of not being afraid to say what you think, and that is damn right. So this is what I think: Religion is like star signs – an erroneous folly that people cling to, to make them feel special.

It would be harmless enough if it had not been granted any power over the reality in which we all must exist. But unfortunately there are entire dynasties of wealth and power based entirely on the beliefs of people of the past more ignorant, or more deluded, or more cunning than we, perhaps. These dynasties are mighty and ruthless, they reign over and own notable chunks of the Earth

In these dynasties one of the worst crimes you can commit is to question the lies from which the great power is drawn. People are killed for doing so. But as long as you don’t question the lie, you can be assured that you are special – a member of the true believers, and will be granted a posthumous splendour to make up for the tyranny you must endure in life.

Unfortunately, feeling special is the underpinning concept of all fascistic movements, as well as all psychopathic notions of superiority. This superiority is defined by, and in turn decrees, the belief that others are inferior and therefore no more than meat or animals for exploitation and death(see the Koran for explicit description of the ‘kuffar’ or non-believers as lower than animals), so it is no surprise that inhumane acts like this murder, or the almost endless sickening parade of barbarism, subjugation and mutilation of women and general inhumanity perpetuate while stupid, self-serving ideas go unchallenged or revered.

You aren’t any star-sign. Those stars are illusions, many are long dead, as dead as many of the gods ancient peoples populated the same black and twinkling sky with.

You are not preferred by the creator of the universe, if there is one, simply because you submit to the will of an imagined tyrant and his earthly storm troopers. You are just a human being, equal in worth to all others. You are not superior and it does not matter how many thinking people you hack down with your weapons. You will never be so. Instead be equal with us all, we brothers and sisters in being and in thought, who wish to live in peace. Who don’t claim that we know all there is to know, but love the capacity to think and to question as a means to navigate those mysterious stars. Stars that don’t spell out your destiny, but that illuminate the darkness, as thought does ignorance.

Tiananmen Square: 25 years on

I was in China in 1994. I was acting over there, in the Shanghai International Shakespeare festival. I was young and wide-eyed. I still have quite big eyes.

Anyway, with my companions, I went to Tiananmen square, and had a small experience, about which I wrote a poem, that evening.

It isn’t very good, it approaches doggerel in fact, but I remembered that I had written it today, on this anniversary of the massacre that the Chinese government still refuses officially to acknowledge.

I reproduce the poem faithfully – doggedly – below:

There are pockmarks in the paving of
Tiananmen square
There are the young and the old
as the sun sets
behind the Forbidden City

We are tourists, with our votes
and our dollars
the bicycles fly past us, and

the soldiers march
across The Square

We met two young men,
by the flowers

built to depict a rising Phoenix.

Students, like ourselves,
at “the Peoples’ University”

We sat on the ground, cross legged
Louisa joked, it was “a sit down protest”

We all thought of tanks.

We sat and we talked
of our different worlds met there
and the crowds milled past

‘as westerners you will have heard of the massacre here no doubt, in 1989’

We looked into his eyes.

Two men in suits refused to mill
they stood nearby
listening and watching

He broke off and looked at the men.
Stopped speaking,

turned back.

‘It was not as bad as it was reported as being’ he said.

I looked down at the fresh paving stones,
at the pockmarks
on the old.

The men in suits and sunglasses conversed with a soldier

We offered to buy our new found friends lunch, and we walked the Beijing streets.

I saw a three year old girl
fall off her father’s bicycle
to the street below,

watched her get up without a tear, back onto the bike.

At McDonald’s they took their first bites
of Mcfreedom.

Both their first bites were their last.

‘This isn’t food’, they stated, matter of factly.

We said goodbye, outside.
With a plastic effigy of Ronald McDonald grinning from a bench.

They went off to unlock their bikes.

The two men in suits and sunglasses
were waiting.

 

Black and white

Nelson Mandela has died. As the world reflects on his life and mourns his passing some people, not all of them vicious racists and/or rabid right-wingers, denounce Mandela as ‘a terrorist’ because of the violent actions of the armed wing of the ANC, and while I think it is right to condemn acts which led to innocent lives being lost, I think it is important to do so in context.

The context of course is that of a country divided by racial segregation officially brought into being in 1948 by the National Party that ruled ’til 1994. Apartheid denied many rights to non-white South Africans, such as the right to vote or the right to love freely. In 1960, after the ANC organised protests against the pass laws the South African government made the ANC illegal. Those peaceful protests turned into a massacre of unarmed civilians by the police. 69 deaths were recorded. 50 of whom were women and children.  It was after this state sanctioned mass killing of civilians and the outlawing of the non-violent political party, that the MK, the armed wing of the ANC  came into being.

“[I]t would be wrong and unrealistic for African leaders to continue preaching peace and nonviolence at a time when the government met our peaceful demands with force. It was only when all else had failed, when all channels of peaceful protest had been barred to us, that the decision was made to embark on violent forms of political struggle.”

Nelson Mandela

Contextually we should remember that, as well as the assassinations and deaths in custody of ANC members like Joe Qgabi and Steve Biko, the South African government killed women, like Ruth First, and children, like six year old Katryn Schoon with letter bombs.  To do so they employed people such as the South African secret policeman responsible for that child’s murder, Craig Williamson, and shotgun wielding hit men like Ferdi Barnard. Of course it is a stark truth that every government has its killers and thugs, but just because actions are state sanctioned does not mean that they should be accepted as just.

Bear in mind that the same police whose statistics we rely on to measure the violent actions of the MK, shot civilian men, women and children in the back as they fled. Bear in mind the government death squads, such as the sinisterly named The Civil Co-operation Bureau, and the campaigns of violence and murder they undertook.

I don’t condone violence, but I understand how it might become a desperate person’s or people’s seeming best option against impossible odds, against violence and repression.

To look at the comments barked out across the globe on social media, you might be forgiven for wondering whether Mandela was a saint or a terrorist, as if those are the only definitions possible. Whereas he was a man, a man who struggled in difficult times to bring equality to his people when they faced terrible injustice.

It’s easy, and facile, to impose black and white distinctions of absolute good or absolute evil to situations and the people therein. It is meaningless to do so. Reality is painted in many more colours. Pure white and pure black are actually very rare, if present at all, in nature, the same is true not just of human flesh, but also of human nature:

“I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” —Rivonia trial, 1964

RIP Nelson Mandela.

Give sorrow words

A boy cries as he plays violin at the funeral of his mentor, who helped him escape poverty
Diego Frazão Torquato, photo credit Mark Tristan

Okay. Be prepared for this, it may make you cry, I write ‘may’ because there is a chance you are an internet connected washing machine or something.

The other day I chanced upon this image with the caption ‘a 12 year old boy plays violin at the funeral of his mentor, who helped him escape poverty and violence through music’.

Because I am not a washing machine this was enough to move me, the story within that sentence and the photo of the young boy’s tears, brought a lump to my fabric softener drawer. But then I decided to look into the story further.

I found out that his mentor was Evandro Joao da Silva, a man who co-ordinated a hopeful charity group called Afroreggae that encourages young people from all over Brazil to take part in activities such as football, music and capoeira to help avoid their descent into the world of drug-trafficking.

It is heartening to know there are people like this in the world, people struggling to fight the encroaching shadows with whatever light they can generate, whatever love they can muster against the vast indifference of a cruel world.

But this inspiring man, Evandro, was murdered in a robbery in Rio in October 2009.

The details of the robbery, captured in CCTV footage, add insult to injury:

The footage shows two men approaching Evandro and throwing him to the ground before shooting him. They then proceed to remove his jacket and flee the scene.

A military police car then passes the scene, with a full view of Evandro lying on the ground.

The officers do not assist Evandro but chase the thieves. On catching them, they do not arrest them but let them go.

The footage shows one of the thieves walking away just a few minutes later and afterwards, one of the officers putting Evandro’s belongings into the police car.

The police drive off, and Evandro is left to bleed to death.

Source: Rio Times 2009

So there you have it, a tragic and terrible story, a dark stone flecked with golden slivers of  the hope and kindness of people pitted against the grinding and constant gloom of greed and poverty. Upsetting, right?

But it doesn’t end there.

Within a year of playing the violin and weeping at the funeral of his murdered mentor, Diego was diagnosed with Leukemia.

This came shortly after his mother was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour.

Diego died aged 12 after slipping into a coma and an unsuccessful operation.

Here, at his funeral, his friends, other children from the Afroreggae program, play a final homage to him – the song Asa Branca.

What is the world, with all its indignity and suffering?

There are not words fit to say.

But there is, at least, music that tenderly, furiously, fills the abject silence.

Epilogue: I was going through a box of personal items the other day when I came upon a ticket  from 2003, when I was working in International Politics and had been sent to Brazil.

I was able to take a few days in Rio as holiday and while there I went to see Public Enemy (and the Streets) play live,  I remember very much enjoying the other Brazillian bands I saw supporting them, one of which was Afro Reggae.

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Raw

Asa Kusa, Mornington Crescent, is my favourite Japanese restaurant in London.

Maybe it is the pokey nature of the interior layout, the shabby decor, the service which is often inattentive. Or maybe it is just the excellent, delicious, food.

Whatever it is, I like it.

Anyway, if you ever go there, I recommend the deep fried oysters and…well…everything else.

Sushi is seemingly healthy, although I’ve been told it damages your liver. (Further reading suggests that this seems to be a problem relevant specifically to South East Asia)

Boo hoo.

Sushi is great.

Except when it is DESTROYING THE WORLD like a big fishy Godzilla.  Make sure your Sushi is sustainable.

Bluefin tuna is particularly eco-unfriendly, and swanky Sushi chain Nobu is being boycotted by fish and Earth lovers alike because of its bluefin desecrating menu.

Crazy things people believe: 1. Young Earth

Faith.  It is like when you know something, except without any proof. Also, if there is proof that shows that what you think is wrong (like Dinosaur bones) you still don’t change your mind.  That is why faith is better than science.  It doesn’t allow for being wrong, even when it is proved to be so.angel

So, what are some of the craziest…I mean best…things that people of faith believe?

1. Creationists (mainly Christian) maintain that the Earth is less than 7,000 years old.

Science, using measurement and calculation puts the rough age of the Earth at about 4.54 billion years old (45,400,000,000).  This is based on the radiometric dating of rocks.  Zircon crystals in Australia have been dated at about 4.4 billion years old, they are the oldest known Earthly material.  Light spectrum analysis of the stars shows that they are also about the same age.

Balderdash! Cry the creationists.  The Bible is the literal word of God, so all you need to do to know how old the Earth is, is to add up all the dates.

Luckily, the Anglican Primate (not a concession to Darwin, some term for an Archbishop) James Ussher did so in the 17th Century, and found that the Earth was created at nightfall preceding Sunday October 23, 4004 BC.

In the course of his studies, he also found that Herod died in 4BC so Christ must have been born anytime between 37 BC and 4BC.

There now exists in America a Creation Museum. On their website the fact that they believe the Earth to be 6000 years old is elusive, but insinuated: ‘Biblical history is the key to understanding dinosaurs’.  It is what they, as evangelical creationists, believe.  Apparently there were Dinosaurs on Noah’s ark.

Other people who had previously come to similar approximate conclusions (the Earth being about 6000 years old) include the Astronomer Johannes Kepler, and Isaac Newton.

Incidentally, Newton had all sorts of far-fetched ideas, he was an avid Bible scholar and he even predicted (using the Bible as his source) that the world would end (Christ would return) in 2060 or thereabouts.  He had a passion for Alchemy, and in particular the ability to turn base lead into gold.  After his death, his body was found to be riddled with mercury, probably from his alchemical pursuits, which suggests that he may well have been suffering from mercury poisoning in his later years.

Here are some ‘Young Earth’ arguments and responses, from Tim Thompson

Gorillas in the midst

In 1994 I was fortunate enough to see, in the mountains of Rwanda and Uganda, a family of silverback Gorillas, before they were fully acclimatised to human contact.  I would like to avoid anthropomorphism, or unwarranted sentiment, but it was a very touching experience, my impression was that they were strikingly peaceful, beautiful creatures. I found their simplicity in direct contrast to us, their complex neighbours. Human beings had recently perpetrated a horrific genocide amongst themselves in Rwanda, and we, humans, have brought that genocide to the Gorillas too.

What can you do?

The New Scientist has some sound advice

 

Without the hot air

If you get annoyed by vague ‘area the size of Wales’ statistics then ‘Without hot air’ is well worth a read.  Professor David Mackay has done the calculations and provides detailed models for how Britain could become sustainable in terms of energy production and consumption.

There is lots of useful information in the book, all of it with a practical and pragmatic perspective.

Don’t kid yourself that you can stop at switching your phone charger off and think you are doing your bit for the environment, for instance:

“All the energy saved in switching off your charger for one day
is used up in one second of car-driving.

The energy saved in switching off the charger for one year is
equal to the energy in a single hot bath.”

Read it online here