Sunday, December 16, 2012



The blue skies are glorious. From my place at a sidewalk café, I let my gaze lazily sweep over the zocalo. I am delighted by the apparently happy mix of local merchants displaying their wares and gringo tourists taking in the scene. Some indigenous women wear brilliant crimson and white garments woven in the traditional backstrap manner. Vendors spread out pots, colorful textiles, carved wooden animals, tape recorders, dishes and can openers and every imaginable household trinket that might attract a shopper. Every now and then a twinkle-eyed troubadour sidles up to my table, pausing to strum his guitar, gently, seductively. When I smile, he responds with a romantic ballad.
But, beyond him, a different scene grabs my attention. An elderly waiter has rushed from the kitchen, and is snapping a large white napkin at an old woman. The woman is so wizened that only the top of her head is visible above a table laden with taco soup, guacamole, and other delectable edibles. She tilts her head up toward the waiter, and I think I catch a glimpse of a glower. But she scuttles off the terrace. The waiter’s voice follows her, shouting, “Vete!” Get out! I watch her bent back, as she grudgingly moves off the terrace. But then she stops, and hovers at the edge of a crowd of gringos waiting for a table. Her eyes dart from table to table. I notice a small motion of her head, and a child of about seven emerges from the crowd and takes her arm.  The two figures inch their way back toward us brunch eaters, their hands held out for bread. It seems wrong for the waiter to deprive them of an opportunity to cadge a few rolls from us well-off tourists and locals. I am on the side of the woman and child. 
The troubadour has given up on me.  A moment earlier he had professed his love and faithfulness, but now he drifts to a more promising table.
I break my bulillo─the best bread roll in the worldand mop up the remaining egg and salsa on my plate, then reach for my coffee cup.  The old woman and the child are moving closer to my table, and I see that the girl’s checkered dress is grimy. The woman’s hair is matted. I squirm, wondering why I am suddenly feeling uncomfortable; why my coffee suddenly tastes stale. I don’t even feel like taking the last few bites of my succulent fresh strawberries and pineapple. The colorful scene that just moments ago I treasured is now fading into gray. As the old woman comes closer, I look toward the kitchen door, expecting the waiter to appear. I’m not the sort of person who would shoo the beggars away, as if they were stray dogs. Yet….
Yet, what? Have I changed my tune? Do I want the waiter to rescue me from these sorrowful supplicants? Worse, yet, have I been secretly waiting for him to do exactly that, so I don’t have to take responsibility? I tell myself, it isn’t that I mind giving the woman money or one of my rolls; I just don’t like people intruding into my space. Besides, I understand, as well as the waiter does, that if I give money to beggars, hordes more will descend on all of us. We will not be able to enjoy our meal in peace.
The most expedient choice at the moment is to give in, so I search my purse for change. But I am saved.  My waiter appears, and again sends the beggars on their way.  Once they are out my line of sight, I can revel again in the guitar strumming and the laughter emanating from other tables. I glance at my American newspaper, and phrases jump up at me: “49 Children Illegally Bound for U.S.” ”U.S. Begins Crackdowns.” It looks as if everyone is clamoring for a place at the U.S. table.

Friday, December 7, 2012




I’m still mulling over the question asked at my reading: What, if anything, should we do to mitigate the serious harm done to women subjected to FGM and other forms of torture or slavery, such as forced child marriages and battery? I spoke rather adamantly about the importance of not imposing our ideas about what people in other cultures want. Instead, I said, we should ask what kind of support, if any, local people want. We should ask what they believe they need to achieve their goals. That approach, I thought, should apply to all forms of aid. But as I reflected on that rule of thumb, I detected some hazards. All three of the books reviewed on this blog led to second thoughts about the principles I suggested, so let me begin with a situation from the grandmother book.
Grandmothers in many villages and countries have traditionally been excluded from discussions and decisions about serious health hazards. They may be excluded because of bias against the aged, or because it is true that many old women are ignorant of modern information about HIV/AIDS, FGM and other common problems. But Judi Aubel was one woman who was convinced that the grandmothers could learn and change. Founder of The Grandmother Project in Senegal, Aubel is trained in medical anthropology, public health, and adult education. The Project is devoted to educating grandmothers about the best health practices for women, who then combine their traditional wisdom with an understanding of modern medical practices, and pass on their knowledge to young women.
I had just begun to think that perhaps small, local projects are peculiarly able to resist corruption and foster transparency, whereas large NGOs are more prone to corruption. But The Grandmother Project put a hole in that theory. It is an American nonprofit, and it has cooperative relationships with many other NGOs, such as the Red Cross, USAID, The World Bank UNICEF, World Vision and relationships with organizations in a number of other countries. As far as I know there is no sign of corruption in it.
Another grandmother story exemplifies the complexity of donating to severely disadvantaged people. GAPA, Grandmothers Against Poverty and AIDS, is a South African organization run by and for grandmothers. Kathleen Brodrick, GAPA’s founder, is a white Zimbabwean, and an occupational therapist experienced in working with older people. She set up a workshop in South Africa to discuss the AIDS crisis with grandmothers, and asked what they wanted to know about the topic. They were silent. “Nobody knew what they wanted to know,” Brodrick said, “because nobody new anything. So I said, ‘Next week we’ll start and I’ll have this program for you.’”
Here we have another outsider offering help to women who didn’t understand the dire need, because the government had kept the entire subject of AIDS under wraps. The approximately 500 members of GAPA were each caring for grandchildren orphaned by parents who died of AIDS and often nursing and supporting other relatives who had HIV/AIDS, as well. Yet they were shushed from speaking of the disease. Now they have access to the best information to maximize the benefits of that care. All of it was brought to them by an outsider before the locals understood what they needed.
Here’s an example of help not being requested, yet enthusiastically embraced. It’s from the book, War Is Not Over When It’s Over. Working as a volunteer for International Rescue Committee, Ann Jones traveled to villages in several countries with a few cameras that she offered to lend to small groups of women who volunteered to take photos of whatever they chose. She asked them to “include a few shots that illustrated some blessings and some problems in their lives.” It quickly became evident that violence in intimate relationships was a major problem. The women’s stories vary widely, but in at least one village the women persuaded the elders to mandate that men stop beating their wives. As Jones put it, the project, named “A Global Crescendo,” was about “women, who speak for themselves and go on speaking long after their cameras have left town.”
In my review of Women Empowered I describe the actions of Abay, an Ethiopian young women, who photographed a genital cutting ritual, and showed the film to a committee of elders who voted to ban the practice. As the story is related, it seems as if Abay accomplished all that on her own. But she had worked for CARE for several years, and it may be that the organization offered encouragement and even practical help to her. CARE has many projects, including teaching the most productive methods of farming – techniques local people often don’t know about without outside help.  
These ruminations have led me to retract the idea that westerners should only give aid that is asked for. That position implies that people deprived of basic education, and who have been living scarcely above survival mode, are able to name what they need most. In many cases they have no idea what is available.
We in the West have much, and much of the world’s population is without basic nutrition, safety and health care. A case can be made that the foreign policies of the U.S. and other westerners have often caused or exacerbated the ills endured by other people. I am assuming I’m not the only person fretting over which organization to give to among the appeals I just pulled from my mailbox, and I’m left wondering how we can identify the best kinds of aid to offer.

Students at a school partially supported by
             foreign aid.

These two women are proud of their work
    supported by micro-loans. 
How can we find out whether a “charitable” organization is corrupt? Does it responsibly distributes its money or its hands-on aid? How much are administrators gaining from the project? Is it providing an endless supply of food, rather than teaching the people “to fish” for their own? Has it asked people what they want? Has it provided enough information to them to make decisions about what they need most? How reliably and accurately does it evaluate its programs?
Is it even reasonable to believe we can find out those things? As nearly as I can tell, there is no corruption in any of the projects I’ve read about recently. But how would I know? I’m sure there are lots of other questions we could ask, but I leave it to readers to carry on from here. Please let me know what you think.

Thursday, December 6, 2012


Phil Borges

In the introduction to this handsome book, Madeleine Albright says, “This is a book about hope, based on reality.” It surely is exactly that.  

Borges’ photographs of women (and a few men) living in mostly impoverished villages in several parts of the globe show people who are nevertheless rich in spirit. They are rich in courage, and the capacity to innovate. The stories related in Women Empowered are short, some little more than snippets. But those snippets introduce readers to women whose courageous acts make us say, “That’s incredible!”

I’m tempted to describe each women’s experience here, but will settle for just one that seems too amazing to be true, yet I believe it.

When Abay was eleven years old, she ran away from her Ethiopian village when her mother insisted she follow the custom of being circumcised. Abay found shelter with a relative and eight years later returned. After another five years she persuaded a woman to let her photograph a circumcision ceremony, and then somehow got a committee of elders to watch it. Horrified, they called a special meeting, and after a vote of fifteen to one, they banned the ceremony.

One elder said, “Now that I have seen this film, I could never let my granddaughter go through this ceremony.” A woman who had performed the ceremonies hundreds of times, now supports the change. She says, “We did the circumcisions because that is what had always been done. we were in the dark house and did not know.”

“Abay’s story” no longer belongs just to her. The ramifications are wide and not all of them are cited here. There are many more stories in this beautiful book, and each shoes the power of one person and her or his supporters changing the world.

Anyone who longs for a lift in her spirits will find it in this book.


WAR IS NOT OVER WHEN IT’S OVER: Women Speak Out from the Ruins of War
Ann Jones
Metropolitan Books

Working as a volunteer for International Rescue Committee, Ann Jones traveled in Africa, East Asia and the Middle East. In War Is Not Over she tells individual women’s stories, but also fills us in with the back story of U.N. Security Council resolution, beginning with 1325 in 2000. It mandated that women be full participants in decision making in every step of conflict resolution and peace building. In 2008, Jones reminds us, “SCR 1820 demands “the immediate and complete cessation by all parties to armed conflict of all acts of sexual violence against civilians with immediate effect.” How grand it would be if women’s safety could be guaranteed by resolutions. Nevertheless, sometimes it’s good for the camel to stick it’s nose in the tent, and these resolutions are important steps to assuring women’s safety.

As part of her planning for her trips, Jones met with Heidi Lehmann, the head of the UN Gender-Based Violence (GBV) technical unit, and asked her what she thought would be useful to do. “Unlike other aid workers,” Jones says, Heidi had questions. ‘We see all these statistics about the numbers of women raped and captured or displaced,’ she said, ‘but we don’t know much about who they are.’” Lehmann wanted to know about their hopes and problems and “what international assistance might actually be of help….And she wanted to find a way to break the silence, to help them speak up for themselves.” “Women,” Jones says, “need more than the world’s sympathy. They need the world’s ear.”

Jones was not quite alone when she set out on her year-long journey. She carried with her a goodly supply of guts, empathy, creativity, and a willing ear. But she also took with her a few digital cameras. The book begins with her experience in Cote D’Ivoire, one of several African countries she visited. In villages in each country she visited she asked a small group of women volunteers to document their lives in photographs. Then they met to discuss their photos. Few of the women had ever seen a camera before, and most had never spoken publicly. But soon they were organizing the “First-Ever All-women’s Photography Exhibition and Celebration” and they invited local “bigwigs” to view it. Each women showed two of her photographs that documented a problem. Next she described the action needed to bring about change.

Jones makes the point that the purpose of the project was to help women develop skills in “observation, analysis, articulation” and the “confidence needed to advocate for themselves.” Those goals were achieved, yet Jones had some misgivings. “…some opened up,” she says, “and told us their stories, several on videotape, wanting the world to know. But the stories were so awful, I wondered if the world could bear to hear them.”

I forced myself to “hear” those stories in the pages that follow. Photos in the book record some of the hard-to-see events in the women’s lives. One shows a woman sprawled on the ground, and the man who apparently knocked her there is headed toward her again. It is almost a duplicate of a poster against domestic violence I saw in Kabul in 2005, and for me it illustrated the universality of women’s plight.

Among the horrors that Jones does tell readers about are “more than ten thousand rape victims, (needing) the surgical repair of thousands of fistulae, most caused by brutal multiple rapes, some with the insertion of other foreign objects. The oldest patient was eighty-three, the youngest nine months.” Some never reached a hospital until about a year after the rape. A hospital admitted six or seven women a day, “when the consequences, STDs, HIV and fistula became harder to bear than the shame.” Sometimes it was too late.

But the book is not all bad news. After the “First-Ever” photo exhibit, Jones collected the cameras to take to the next village. “They didn’t need them any more,” she says. “They could look around, spot problems and speak up….The impact varied…but the changes in the way communities looked at women, and women looked at themselves, were real and often dramatic.” In one village, after a month of photographing and discussing the images, “the women had somehow learned to generalized. They had begun to talk about “women,” and not just that one individual in the photo. They had begun to talk in terms of fairness and justice.” The women learned to photograph what was important, and to speak up for what they wanted. In at least one case they challenged tradition by looking their chief straight in the eye.

It was surely painful for Jones to listen to the women’s stories, and it is hard to read about them. It will be even more challenging for the U.N., village elders, and people throughout the world to create serious, permanent, fundamental reforms. But the process begins with people in all cultures understanding the pervasiveness and depth of the damage done. It will take all of us who care about women and children to support what the women have started. I can’t think of a better way to begin than by reading this book.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012


“What should we in the U.S. be doing to stop horrible practices against women in other countries?”
That provocative question was posed at my recent reading from Seeing for Myself: A Political Traveler’s Memoir. I had talked about Female Genital Mutilation, or FGM, the ritual cutting of a woman’s for girl’s labia or clitoris. Most westerners find it abhorrent but the practice is defended by women as well as men in many cultures. It’s not easy to see what we in the West should do about it – if anything. Before my trips to Africa, I supported the United Nations label of FGM as “torture.” But as I interacted with the Maasai people in their Kenyan village, I began to identify with their problems, and unexpectedly asked myself, “Is FGM a core Maasai tradition that is none of the United Nations’ business?” “Or is it a violation of internationally recognized Human Rights?”  

The quick answer to my question was “both.” The U.N. was certainly right to identify the practice as a form of torture. And, like the scarring of men in coming of age rites, FGM did appear to be an important traditional Maasai ritual. But my next argument with myself was that my phrase “Maasai tradition” is inaccurate. Created and enforced by Maasai leaders who are males, the ritual can only be accurately labeled a “male tradition.” No one knows what a traditional women’s culture would look like. These contradictory concerns of mine were not new when I landed in Africa. But, when I personally met Maasai women and their male leader my feelings deepened, and my appreciation of the complexities of the question grew.

As a child I had identified with the call of a missionary who enchanted me and my classmates with tales of baptizing African babies to save them from an eternity in Limbo. Inspired by the priest, and already incensed at the unfairness of life, a desire to put the world to rights took hold of me. However absurd my self-assigned task appears now, my self-righteous anger at unfairness later morphed into fighting for social justice. So it’s not surprising that I’ve continued to wrestle with the rights and wrongs of questions about human rights. Is it ever justifiable to impose western values on people of other cultures? What should the United Nations role be? What is the obligation of the U.S., for instance, especially in countries where we have wreaked havoc? Can NGOs help without hindering?

I’m still mulling over that question asked at my reading. At the time, I said we should not impose our ideas about what people in other countries need. We should find out what kind of support, if any, they would like that might help them achieve what they believe they need. This approach to foreign aid should apply to reducing poverty, furthering human rights, or other forms of aid, as well as dealing with FGM. But what if half the population wanted to be freed from unjust tribal or cultural mandates? I give myself an incomplete for that answer. It more or less deals with the what, but the how is much more complex. What exactly should our standards be for giving aid? How can we know whether programs are free of corruption?

I looked for answers in several books I’ve reviewed on this blog, and found more questions, which I’ll write about here next time. Meanwhile, I’m interested in seeing readers’ responses to questions I’ve posed so far.