Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Who Are You When No One's Looking?

How much of how we act is a result of who we are, and how much of it is the result of social pressure exerted by those around us and the norms and regulations imposed upon us?
Most of us like to consider ourselves ethical people.  We like to believe that we would be good people, even if there weren’t any consequences for acting in ways that are contrary to existing laws and norms. For example, I like to believe that I wouldn’t purposefully hurt someone for the heck of it, even if it wasn’t against the law. But, in fact, I think we’ve all seen that this isn’t necessarily true. We often act and speak differently depending upon whom we’re with and where we are. People who make sexist or racist comments in private, but hold their tongue in front of those they don’t know well or who would be offended.

This can also hold true when we travel, when we’re in a place away from ‘our’ culture, norms that hold true at home may not apply. Think of men who travel to other countries to abuse children, and justify it by citing the normalcy of it in the place they are and the availability of children. Or people who would hold their tongue in the US, but have no problem calling entire cultures or countries ‘lazy’ or ‘incompetent’. I’ve noticed that the tendency towards disregarding criteria for acceptable behavior increases when (some) people are traveling or working in the developing world. (I can’t speak about whether this happens in the developed world as I have no experience working abroad there.) Somehow it’s suddenly acceptable to be more ‘ist’ of every sort. Whether this is because of the legacy of colonialism and white men’s superiority is still assumed to a greater extent or because the stereotype of the people in that place as less moral or less deserving of commonly held rights is difficult to say and not necessarily generalizable across diverse contexts.

Alternatively, perhaps it’s that people with those attitudes are more likely to work abroad as participating in things like the diamond industry are less likely offend their scruples. Or maybe my naïveté is showing again, as assuming that people working in the developing world want to work to improve things, when in fact they may be there with the explicit goal of exploiting a country’s wealth of resources. So there’s the question, do more people ‘behave badly’ in developing countries, or do people with the desire to do so seek out those places where they are less likely to be criticized or ostracized and in some cases are effectively above the law or local moral order?

Is it being in Las Vegas or the fact that the city’s ad campaign tells you that you can do anything there because no one will tell the people that respect you at home? 

Happy Holidays and here's to positive situational and personal influences, and to the people who act morally and ethically even in their absence.

Monday, December 12, 2011

What's in a Name?

I have a very common American last name. It just so happens that a former Liberian president has the same last name as me. He was Americo-Liberian, which means he came to Liberia after being enslaved in America before emancipation.

Liberia has been described as America's only outright foray into colonialism. The initial goal was to create a country in Africa of freed American slaves, and this was accomplished through the purchase of land and conquest of the Africans already living in what is Liberia today. The irony doesn't stop there sadly, Americo-Liberians took control of the country, placing themselves in positions of power and excluding native Liberians from many parts of social, economic, and political life. Somewhere in here there must be a lesson about how people who are the victims of abuses of power will come to abuse power, should they be given the chance, rather than treating others as they wish they had been treated. 

Americo-Liberians were, and are, lighter skinned than native Liberians, due to generations of coupling between slaves and slave-owners, whether by force or by choice. This was used as a means to measure their superiority, as they went about creating a society in West Africa that closely mirrored America, but with themselves as the dominant group. Many buildings in Monrovia are similar in style to those in the American south. There are similar holidays, laws, and elements of culture. The Liberian flag obviously is based on the American flag.

And so what's in a name? In the United States, when I meet someone who is African American and has the same last name as me, the issue is largely ignored. It may cross my mind that somewhere in far off history someone with the same last name as me owned slaves. Hopefully not my actual ancestors because I think we're exclusively Northerners, but it's hard to be sure. Then if I meet someone in Liberia with the same last name as I do, I know this person most likely Americo-Liberian and is a descendent of American slaves. I can't quite put my finger on the difference between the two experiences, but they certainly exist. Perhaps it is because the identity of ex-slaves in Liberia is in fact one that garners privilege, as they are the relatives of people who are viewed by some to be 'more civilized' because of their time in American, than members of tribes who have always lived in West Africa. I get the impression that in America we are more reticent to point out our likely roles as relatives of ex-slaves and ex-slave owners, we most often talk about slavery in the abstract, as something that happened, not as something in which our ancestors participated. Whereas every time anyone mentions any sort of Liberian history, slavery is mentioned. There is a slavery museum and historical anecdotes about Americo-Liberian ex-slaves are shared with a kind of pride.

I'm still digesting this part of the experience and welcome any thoughts you all have. Here are a couple of my reflections:
1. Liberia has been a place of clashing interests and cultures for over a hundred years now. From clans to politicians to rebel groups, conquest and violence have been the name of the game. This was supposed to be a place where former slaves could be free and start over, forgetting that they had to take land and power from someone to do that. So how can people in a place born of violence stop the cycle of aggression and retaliation while still allowing members of diverse histories and backgrounds to interact and participate in decision-making?

2. Historical memory is an interesting thing, and it is the winners who write the history. This has made being descendants of former slaves a matter of pride in Liberia and what appears to me (as someone who has an admittedly limited peripheral perception) a source of shame and hurt for many African Americans and caucasians alike. 

3. Why is people's reaction to being dominated to dominate others in return? It's like paying forward pain and vulnerability in exchange for power. I suppose this is not everyone's reaction, but the people who want to treat others fairly and kindly are rarely the ones pursuing power.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Compounds Part II

So I have a follow-up post for you which is a bit of a reflection on the previous post about the prevalence of compounds in Liberia. I'm home safe and sound in San Francisco, but have a list of topics to blog about and am going to do my best to get through them while everything is still fresh in my mind.

Some of my lovely readers offered interesting insight into the world of compound living, the effects it can have on the psyche of those living both inside and outside its tall walls. They also mentioned other places in the world where such things have happened, where people foreign to the environment arrived and built walls to protect themselves from nature/people/animals/the unknown. It fascinates me that people move away from their homes and across the globe only to wall themselves off into places that keep out everything that is different about the place they live.

HOWEVER, I think I neglected to appropriately explain why all these walls exist in Liberia in particular, but rather simply pointed the finger at the expat community for being paranoid and isolationist. I know many of you know a lot more about the civil wars in Liberia than I do (like did you know Charles Taylor escaped from a Massachusetts prison?!), but I'm learning and I welcome your input here. But during the wars, almost back to back, 1989 - 2003, with a one year reprieve in 1996, Monrovia was often the center of conflict. Unlike in many civil wars where most conflict takes place outside the capitol, Monrovia was often at the heart of the violence and fighting (in addition to border areas, and areas with diamond mines etc). And while I can't think of a civil war that didn't involve unnecessary loss of life, this war was particularly brutal for a variety of reasons. 

There were many factions fighting so, for example, one group of young men with guns arrives in a village and demands shelter and food, which the people have no choice but to provide. Then a rival faction arrives, calling all the people in the village supporters of the first faction. Then they take all the young men and (this is one example I heard), first teach them how to shoot a gun, then tell them they need to know how to shoot it blindfolded, so the men practice firing again blindfolded. Then the blindfolds are removed and the boys find that they have killed their parents and brothers and sisters. Then the entire village is burned to the ground and young boys, and often girls as well, become associated with the fighting forces. Or as various factions would try to enter Monrovia to take over the national mansion and kill whoever was the leader at the time, local people would often take refuge in 'neutral' locations. I was informed that the church near the apartment where I stayed had been one of those places. Until one faction decided not to respect the sanctity of the church, locked the doors, and burned it down with everyone inside.

I apologize for the graphic nature of the stories, but I think that they bear sharing, partially because I think the effect of that sort of indiscriminate violence on the psyche of individuals and a nation is both important to remember, and also impossible to forget. Additionally, many of the young people who were associated with fighting forces are unemployed or underemployed, and spent their youth using violence to get what they want. The vast majority of people I met in Monrovia were incredibly friendly and polite and helpful and kind. But the prevalence of petty crime as well as robbery, assault, and sexual assault is astounding and apparently increasing. So while one could look at living in compounds as a way to isolate oneself from reality and maintain a distance from the local population, it also allows international experts in post-conflict redevelopment to remain in the country and continue working "Lift Liberia" as the UNMIL slogan says.

I think that some crime will always exist, as it does in any city, but I also hope that some day violent crime is low enough to decrease the security focused feeling that exists in many parts of Monrovia due to high walls, razor wire, guards, and barred windows. But on the other hand it's always easier to put up walls than to pull them down.

Saturday, November 26, 2011


Have you ever lived in a compound? Worked in a compound? I remember when I was a middle school a friend of mine told me that her father's family in Chile lived in a compound. There was a big house surrounded by high walls, topped with coiling razor wire, with security guards out front. At the time it sounded like a castle, and that her family must have been one of the richest and most powerful in the country. Little did I know how much time I'd be spending in compounds in the future.

Compounds in every country I've been to have a number of similar features: the property is surrounded by high walls. These can vary from 8 feet to 12 feet from what I've seen. For instance when I was in Juba, the walls were 8 feet but were being raised to 8 or 10 after a number of robberies had occurred in the area, so the height of the wall matters. Walls are almost always made of cement, and are invariably topped with coiled barbed or razor wire, or with pieces of broken bottles with the sharp edges sticking up. There is almost always only one way to enter a compound, through large metal gates in the front that are locked at all times unless someone is coming or going. Then there are guards, always one, often more, who open and close the gates and generally stand around watching who comes and goes. Depending on where you are the guards may or may not have guns. In Liberia none of them do because firearms are completely banned, but in much of Latin America the guards do have some pretty intimidating weapons.

At first it feels strange to work and live in compounds, when I was in rural S. Sudan I worked and lived inside the same compound, so while the commute was just a few steps, it makes your world incredibly small. In almost every place I've worked you spend your day going in and out of compounds, greeting guards, occasionally showing ID if you're going into a UN compound. But the idea that what's inside the compound needs to be protected from what lays outside it becomes the norm. Here in Liberia most of the people I've met (who can afford it) live in compounds. Imagine if you've ever lived in an apartment or condo complex, now just surround it with walls and barbed wires, replace your doormen with security guards, and you've got the idea.

I remember when I was younger my family went on vacation with friends, and our friends didn't like the idea that the house we were all staying in was inside a gated community, because it implied the exclusion of the locals. Here there are certainly Liberians who work at businesses and organizations that are located behind high walls, but living within a compound seems to be an exclusively ex-patriate thing to do. On one hand, it's understandable, I've heard stories about a number of robberies and home invasions that have occurred in Monrovia. On the other hand a friend of mine lived on the top floor of an apartment building in Harlem and was constantly being robbed as people would hop from building to building and came down from the roof. It's not just here that crime occurs, and the security standards for the UN and other organizations exist for a reason. But what feels strange, is that it doesn't feel strange any more. I expect it, and though I still occasionally stop to wonder what it must be like to live in a place where the international community has come to "help" and "rebuild", but feels the need to wall themselves off and protect themselves from the people they're ostensibly here for. I think about it sometimes, but it's no longer my first thought when I see the razor wire. It doesn't even phase me.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Just another manic Monday

I realize it’s no longer Monday, but I figure I get a couple of days of wiggle room with the time difference and the holiday and whatnot... right?  Also this is a long one just giving a recap of my day, the short version is that while I’m having a good time I wish I was home spending Thanksgiving with friends and family. I was in Thailand for Thanksgiving last year, and at least this year I’ve got other Americans around to celebrate with, definitely something to be thankful for.
After a good weekend full of work and sunshine and even a little BBQ by the pool I was ready for my second week in Monrovia to begin. I set my alarm, hopped into bed, did a little light reading and called it a night.
I was shocked awake by my phone. It was someone from work, where was I? It was 9:30 and I had overslept by 2.5 hours after getting little sleep during the night itself! While I hate being late in general, I particularly try to avoid it in places where the general trend is to be late. In my mind if I consistently show up to things like meetings on time, maybe everyone else will start to also? It could happen.
I went into the bathroom, only to find that the lightbulb turned on and promptly went out. Fabulous. Dark cold shower. I headed to work soon after, speed walking my way through crowds of people on Tubman Blvd trying to hail taxis. If I could describe the taxis here to you, I’d say to imagine what you’ve heard about Japanese elevators; that there are “elevator packers” who push more and more people in to be sure the elevator is at capacity. All taxis here are shared, and there is no limit to the number of people you can fit inside. If you find a taxi going your direction (you flag them down with different hand signals depending on which of the major roads you want to go down), it will slow down and you open the back or front door, looking in to see who can squeeze over. It is common place for there to be 4 or 5 people in the back seat and 2 in the front seat. Needless to say the competition for taxis is tough.
I arrived at work at about 10, only to find that there was no car to take a colleague and me to a meeting. I suggested we head back out to the main road to find ourselves a taxi, but after a few minutes of watching packed taxis crawl through traffic in the 90+ degree heat, we decided to walk instead. It wasn’t less hot walking, but at least there was a little breeze. We arrived at the government office dripping and a little out of breath, but right on time after a 30 minute walk.
After the meeting we went on to walk to our next meeting. I’m here helping an umbrella body for public health research organize for it’s next project, and the task begins with a meeting with every member of the steering committee. Walking into downtown Monrovia, we found our next meeting which was at the top of a very rickety, very tall, and very steep set of stairs. After our meeting our colleague led us out to the front door, commenting that they were thinking of moving because it was difficult for the disabled children they worked with to make it up the stairs. My eyes opened wide imaging young people on crutches or missing parts of legs (the most common and visibly evident disabilities I’ve seen) trying to make it up 2-3 flights of uneven tiled stairs. Yes, a move seems in order.
My colleague then suggested we go to his house for lunch since it was nearby, and previous people working with this project from my job had also joined him at his house for a meal. On we went, walking through small alleys and across big streets until we reached what looked like a gated driveway.  But as in sloped downwards I saw that, like much of the city, it was actually an interconnected network of paths, unnamed, that you essentially can only get around if you know the area. Children ran up as we approached the house, they had been playing outside and helping to wash dishes. The power in the house was out, but regardless eating at the kitchen table in the pitch black was presented as the only option. My colleague held his cell phone, which has a small flashlight at the end of it with one hand, gesturing for me to serve myself. I took what I consider a good portion of rice, definitely more than a cup, and he acted surprised “That’s it?! That’s all?! Well I am African and I am going to EAT!” and he proceeded to fill his bowl until it was brimming with white rice. We topped this with a spicy mix of dried fish and cassava greens and palm oil. I told him it was the most delicious food I’d had since arriving, and also my first Liberian food, and I meant it.
We walked back out to the main street to wait for someone from our organization to pick us up and drive us back to the office. Enrique Iglesias was blaring from a CD shop and as I started to hum along I saw that every fourth or fifth Liberian was also singing along, some even out loud. I got and gave smiles as we sang along together.
After a long wait a driver pulled up, complaining of the traffic he’d encountered on his way to fetch us. We found out why about a half mile later. Coming from the other direction was the CDC protest that was slated for that day. CDC is a political party that lost the most recent presidential election; there have been protests and right before I came a member of the CDC was killed in one of the protests. Monday was to be his burial. We crawled along through traffic as the crowd of CDC members, mostly young, many wearing leaves and branches in their hair with faces painted, chanted and sang. Then came a truck carrying the coffin of the man who had been killed; they were parading it throughout the city. It was a group of a couple hundred people, many less than I would have expected. Then we continued on, passing the President’s office and UN buildings. Outside were international and national armed forced and police in full riot gear every few yards. Fences were reinforced with sandbags and policemen were directing traffic (a true rarity).
We spent the rest of the day at the office trying to schedule more meetings and working to plan and organize a workshop, which took place today.  Every day I get driven home at 5:30 pm, and today when I got home I realized I needed to go to the grocery store, which is thankfully only a few blocks away. After dropping off my computer I walked over, darting through traffic into the store. Big bottles of water for drinking, two lightbulbs to replace the ones that had burnt out in the apartment where I’m staying, and I tried to buy freshmade hummus but “Is finish, come again”. (Many stores here have Lebanese owners, and I’ve never had such fresh and delicious Lebanese food as in Monrovia!)
As I left the store I was stunned by a huge crowd. The CDC march was still going and the number of participants had increased incredibly, as had the number of people gathered along the street to watch. Rush hour traffic was trying to crawl through, relatively unsuccessfully as people walking, on the backs of trucks and motorbikes passed by, always chanting or singing. I carefully followed a car across the road to ensure I wasn’t the one cutting in front of the protestors. I then went inside my apartment, and pulled up a seat on my balcony, and sat watching them pass by. They passed in clusters, but there were several thousand people participating without a doubt. From my perch on the second floor I got a couple great pictures as well which will have to be shared later.
I then went to install my lightbulbs, the first one didn’t work, the entire socket was burnt out rather than just the bulb. I then went into my bathroom to install the second, the bulb was in a regular box but was red. I sort of threw up my hands and decided to go with it, showering under red light would be new and exciting. It lit at first, off and on, as I wiggled it around in the socket, before glowing and going out, leaving me once again in the dark in the bathroom.
I then went across the street to a restaurant with wifi to eat dinner and get some work done, and the marchers were continuing by, slower now, less of them, but still going. I sat down and started working, then ordered. But the internet soon went down and as every person behind a computer in the place frantically called the waitress, I gave up, enjoyed my dinner and headed home to work on the implementation plan for the research.
Certainly not your average day, but definitely one of the most memorable ones I’ve had so far between protests and riot gear and home visits. If nothing else Monrovia keeps me on my toes.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Welcome to Liberia

Customs Agent: Is this your first time in Liberia?
Me: Yes, it is
Customs Agent: Ah! You are welcome!

I know now, that this is simply a common greeting in Liberia. After the introduction people say “You are welcome!”, whether it is at a restaurant or a government office. It’s quite a nice way to start an interaction.
I was picked up from the airport and driven into Monrovia, and fields slowly turned into small buildings, which turned into slightly larger buildings and the streets got busier. We passed the CDC, the opposition party headquarters where election violence had occurred days earlier. We passed Charles Taylor’s house, then his wife’s house.  It seemed like almost all the billboards we passed were placed by the government, reminding residents to pay their taxes, to share their opinion with the ballot box and not with guns, showing them the changes that had occurred since the last election, with bridges built and roads paved, promoting women and girls’ participation in decision-making. We pulled into a parking lot of a two storey building,  and two men who had been waiting to show me into my guesthouse took my bags. First on unlocked the large padlock, attached to a chain locking a gate at the bottom of the stairs. He explained that I was always to lock it whenever I was entering or leaving. He then used the light on his cellphone (who needs an iPhone when you have a Nokia with a built-in flashlight!) to show me up the stairs, leading to a door with a small balcony in front of it. He then unlocked another padlock, as well as a deadbolt. He showed me inside the apartment, but there was no power. With his flashlight he showed me how to lock the deadbolt on the handle of the door, followed by the sliding deadbolts at the bottom and top of the door. [A post about security is on its way to explain all the locks] He then gave me a tour of the apartment b the light of his phone: the kitchen, leading into a bathroom, the living room, a random room with an ironing board and a stack of mattress, and a large bedroom, with another bathroom attached. It looked lovely through the beam of the light. Before I arrived I was told I’d be staying in a guesthouse, and that if it wasn’t up to my standards I could move to a hotel. After over 24 hours of travel, the one bedroom apartment was more than I could have hoped for.
The next morning things weren’t quite so bright, and after a visit to the Stop & Shop (!) down the street I spent the better part of the day sweeping and scrubbing and mopping. But I’m happy here, with a small kitchen to cook in, a grocery store nearby, a bustling street below, and air conditioners for when the temperature soars. There’s even a café across the street with wi-fi if I get the urge to check my email or chat with all of you.
Any of you who have been following my blog for several years know that while I have had several experiences working in Africa before, I have never felt welcomed in this way before. Once I was taking a picture on one of my first days, and didn’t realize it was a sight owned by the government. A military truck rolled up and a man yelled at me, threatened to arrest me, told me to go back to where I came from. After I convinced him not to throw my entire camera into a field of rubbish, he proceeded to throw only the memory card. On another trip I was told to lie about where I was from because people didn’t take kindly to Americans, and was sat in the middle of the back of UN vehicles whenever possible, so it was harder for people to tell there was a white person in the car. I had good times on those and other trips as well, but it always felt like a struggle. I fall in love with most of the places I travel to, and always wondered why I had yet to fall in love with Africa like I had Latin America, Asia, and the Pacific. I get it now. It’s amazing what a difference people being nice to you can make. It almost makes you want to be nice to all the tourists in Times Square. Almost.
I regret that the only thing I forgot at home is the cable to transfer pictures form my computer. (Okay not the only thing, but brushing my hair is overrated anyway). But I promise to show you everything when I get back.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Basta Ya!

Basta Ya! means  something along the lines of "Enough Already" in Spanish. It was one of the slogans used by protesters in Ecuador when they ousted the President in 2005.
 I was studying abroad there at the time and given that the President had essentially replaced the entire Supreme Court with his cronies then proceeded to start to change the constitution among other things, I thought my participation in the protests and eventual coup d'etat was warranted.
 While the University I attended was closed for several days and my parents were a bit nervous, everything turned out fine and the only casualty occurred when someone fell out of the back of a truck.
 I later used this experience as the basis for my personal essay for graduate school, drawing parallels between group action needed to throw out an unjust leader and the collective action needed to improve health in communities and the population at large.
 Not exactly a radical concept but it made the essay more exciting.

So as some of you may (or may not) know, presidential elections have just occurred in Liberia and there has been some protests and violence. Feel free to click on the links to the right to get more information (or go to kwrwandering@blogspot.com if you received this as an email). The election was a run-off between the current president and her opponent and the protests have already turned violent. Supporters of the incumbent's opponent have called the election fraudulent, with many refusing to participate and protesting instead. To be honest I have no information about the basis or legitimacy of these claims. But I did want everyone to know that while I'm still going ahead with my trip, I will be extremely careful. I also already promised my dad I wouldn't join in the protesting and rioting. Aw man! Ruining all the fun :) I'll keep you updated as things progress and it'll be very interesting. One of my favorite things to do is compare the news and situation on the ground to what is presented by major media outlets. We shall see. I'll have a cell phone there and anyone who is interested can ask me for the number if you'd like to be able to check in.

Off to catch my flight to Monrovia via Atlanta and Accra!

Friday, November 4, 2011

Work-Life Balance

So Wikipedia tells me that  "Work–life balance is a broad concept including proper prioritizing between "work" (career and ambition) on the one hand and "life" (Healthpleasureleisurefamily and spiritual development) on the other. "

How's your work-life balance these days? Mine is sort of one or the other, with no balance. It's interesting, sometimes I'm working and sometimes I've got the whole life thing going on. It has its ups and downs, but for the moment it pays the bills. So on that note, I've had a whole lot of life the past couple months, and now I'm off to work again! I'm heading to Liberia next Thursday, just for a couple weeks. But sadly I'll be missing Thanksgiving again; on the other hand I already celebrated real (Canadian) Thanksgiving with the fam in Portland so that's a plus.

I've never been to West Africa before and have never worked in a country where English is the official language, so this should be a whole new experience. I'm going to do recognizance and to set up for a research project that will begin in January, but hopefully I'll have all sorts of fun things to share with you. Everyone keep in touch and I'll let you know when I make it to Monrovia safe and sound.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Feels like Home

I woke up this morning sleeping on a futon on the floor in my sister's beautiful guestroom. The bed had a top sheet and a bottom sheet. A feather duvet kept me warm during the chilly night (anything under 85 feels cold now). As I lay in bed at 5:30am, amazed that the sun was up, that no one was honking or shouting, I realized it felt like home. I grew up sleeping on futons, in fact I didn't move to a bed with springs until... high school?

I realize that a futon on the floor isn't what typically feels like home to most Americans. Maybe home feels like a specific kind of blanket, or your dog whining to be taken out, or the bird singing outside your window. But a comfortable bed, a top sheet (no top sheets in Indonesia!), and a place where the sun rises and sets at different times depending on the time of year feels comfortable, even though I've never actually lived in this city, and this house is not technically my home.

While contemplating my comfy bed,and what I would do without my luggage, since it got lost in customs limbo, I got to thinking, that even though this is what I'm used to, that doesn't make it better than how anyone else sleeps. In Indonesia a lot of people simply unroll a straw mat, sometimes grab a pillow, and go to sleep, no blankets, no privacy. This has nothing to do with how much money the family has, they are just most comfortable sleeping on a straw mat, often with several other people.

Where am I going with this? It has occurred to me that through my presentations of culture, and the manifestations thereof, in the various places I visit, I may have done you and my friends in those places a bit of a disservice. I was hoping to present my experiences with reverence, to show the differences as well as the similarities, as well as to share my reflections on living and working somewhere so different than where I'm from. But instead, it has occurred to me that some of my posts could simply make someone say "phew! I'm glad I don't live there, those people really are uncivilized/undeveloped/in need of help." And while I could see why someone might feel that way, I think there is a different way to look and understand.

I have argued here and in other arenas against the concept of cultural relativism when those things that some claim are cultural infringe upon the human rights and dignity of people, most often women and children, but also other vulnerable groups. So while you may read my descriptions of whether to wear a jilbob (veil) or discussions with people that show me they have different understandings of the roles and rights of members of their society, it was not my intention to present all aspects of that cultural as inherently less valuable or less correct than those of the West.

I was talking with another Western researcher about how she felt in rural areas of Aceh, and her response was that she felt lucky. Lucky to have been raised by parents in a place where education and self determination were a given. We discussed who we might be if we had been raised in Aceh. I commented that I like to imagine I would be like myself, that I would have moved away to somewhere with more liberal laws, but who knows, maybe I would hold as tightly to Islam as I do to humanism. How do people living in Aceh, for instance, feel when they look at me though? It would be conceited and narrow sighted to imagine that everyone looks at me and thinks I am lucky and developed, something to strive to be like. We all cling to our own cultures and backgrounds, seeing everyone else as different, but often forget to imagine what we look like through their eyes.

I was taking a walk in rural Aceh with a researcher and several girls around 13 years old. They were giving us a tour of their town. They all wore veils and I would be genuinely surprised if any of them had left Aceh province. One girl, through the Bahasa Indonesia and English speaking researcher, told me that I should marry an Acehnese so I could move here. (I often get similar suggestions and marriage proposals, so I've got a bit of an arsenal of responses). I told her that that sounded like a good idea, but in return she would have to marry an American man. She looked at me with a mix of shock and disgust and shook her head. The researcher (who is Indonesian) apologized to me for the girl's response, explaining that it was not meant to be disrespectful of America, or some dislike of American men. But to this girl, who had worn a veil since a young age, rises at 5 am to pray, praying 4 more times throughout the day, was appalled by the notion of marrying someone who was so ignorant and uneducated that he was not Muslim. I just laughed, knowing that the vast majority of Americans would react the same way if I suggested they marry a traditional and strictly religious Muslim man in Indonesia.

And so, we must remember not only to observe the world around us, but also to look in the mirror on occasion, seeing ourselves as others see us. Perhaps you read my blogs and feel sorry for the women in Aceh, forced to wear veils and cover from ankles to wrists to neck, punished if caught engaging in premarital relations, prohibited from praying when menstruating, and who must have a male relative present to consent to their marriage. But look back, they may be looking at you and feeling pity too. Pity because you have not accepted Muhammad as the one true prophet, pity because you think that by showing skin and looking "sexy" you are showing your power, when in fact you are demonstrating your weakness rather than demanding respect from men, pity because your country has forgotten the meaning and value of family, pity because you worship money and power instead helping one another and working together.

And so, never forget that neither you nor I are objective observes of culture, nor can we be. And while you may read about the people in the places I go and feel sorry for them or thank your lucky stars for your freedom, the people I describe may be looking back and thinking exactly the same thing about you.

Monday, July 4, 2011

If I called you a misogynist, would you hold it against me?

Is it just me, or is it more socially acceptable to be a misogynist than a racist?

Most people seem to have heard that being racist, at least openly with people you don't know are also racist, is not socially acceptable. Judging people based on their race, hating them or assuming things about them, is relatively widely known to be unacceptable. But generally people at least look a bit sheepish after saying something racist, they realize they've said something that contradicts social norms, and sometimes even apologize.

Why isn't this also the case with misogyny? Somehow it hasn't gotten quite the same publicity. I've had several experiences over the past few weeks that have shown me that while women here may drive cars and go to university, feelings about their inequality with men not only exist, but are the standard. To start with a light example, I have been driving here, a stick shift on the left side of the road for that matter. But I had, up until this point, only driven myself and a friend, whenever the two men I work with were in the car they drove, in my mind because they know the area better and are used to the different traffic laws (and can read the street signs). But then I drove one morning, and both men sat in the back. One of the men continuously called me lady-driver, calling himself and the other man in the back ladyboys (or transgendered). So my driving feminizes you? It makes you more like a woman when a woman drives? It makes you less of a man? Hmm...

Then we were talking about corporal punishment of children. This is a contentious issue in many places, including in the United States, as parents maintain the right to hit their children to teach them discipline. A group of men voiced their disagreement with the promotion of Child Rights here, as it makes children object to being hit, and leaves parents without a means to teach them right from wrong. I commented that this might be true, but on the other hand, the same excuse has been used for hitting women. "I only hit my wife to teach her a lesson, and never with a closed fist." Ah how kind of you, good thing you know so much and can train your wife to act exactly as you want her to, in a situation where she is essentially powerless. As I said this I glanced into the back seat and saw one of the men I work with nod. Nod. As in a "yes yes, but it's only to teach her" nod.

Then today at dinner we were chatting, and another team member brought up a story of a girl who was raped in a rural area of the province. She expressed shock that a member of our team agreed that in this and other similar incidents of sexual assault, the girl always carried the blame. She should not have worn that, been there, enticed him so, smiled at him like that. Girls are sent away in some rural areas after being raped, partially because they have dishonored their families by having pre-marital sex, and partially as punishment for enticing a man to have pre-marital sex.

I know what I would do if either of these situations occurred when I was in the US. I would express my outrage verbally, focusing on the lack of blame placed on men in either of the last two scenarios, despite the fact that they are the violent aggressors. I would ask the men if it would be similarly acceptable to do such a thing to a man, to hit him to teach him a lesson or to rape him because he smiled and wore his shirt a bit tight. Oh no? Why not? He might hit you back? He is your equal? He doesn't need to be taught a lesson because he already knows the right way to act?

I know no one has ever changed such an ingrained opinion over the course of one conversation. No one will decide that women are victims and survivors of sexual violence, rather than its cause and consequence in a day. But I would also be unwilling to bite my tongue, because I would equate my silence with tacit acceptance.

"All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." - Edmund Burke

But what about when the people you're talking to are of a different culture? I don't believe that violence against and hatred of women can be justified via cultural relativism. Cultural norms are important and necessary, but are not worth preserving when they violate the basic human rights of others. But what about when they are people you work with and must continue working with? How do you balance you personal beliefs and morals while maintaining tranquility among colleagues, who will likely only dismiss what you have to say as Western anyhow, claiming you do not understand the Culture here? Can you keep quiet without feeling guilty?  I don't know.

But I do follow the cultural norms here. I don't shake your hand, we gently touch fingertips and touch our hearts. I am quiet when appropriate, as our local male researchers lead introductions and explanations. I express doubt at their overt and covert misogyny, enough to have expressed how I feel, but just little enough to avoid a debate that I know will go no where. Then I come here. And I tell all of you. And then I get in the driver's seat, and let them fight their own feelings of inadequacy, because those are not mine to fight.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Slap Jack

Have you ever played slapjack? It's a bit like the card game war, but with more hitting. You sit facing your opponent(s), cards in hand, as cards are laid down by players one at a time, you may slap the pile every time you see a jack. If you're the first person to slap the pile, you win the jack and all the cards beneath it. The game ends when one player has all the cards. A player who is "out" because he or she is out of cards can "slap back in" by winning a slap when a jack turns up. It can turn into a bit of a violent game (if you play it right).

Now imagine slapjack with food, and some manners. A lot of the food here is Padang food, it is both a style of serving food, as well as the cuisine that hails from Padang, Indonesia. Each person at the table starts with a heaping bowl of white rice. No, you can't have something else. No they don't have brown rice. Next is when the food is dealt, all hands off the table now, no cheating and jumping your turn. Everyone at the table watches as the waiter brings small bowl after small bowl of food. They are all placed on the table, then as more bowls come a second layer is carefully balanced on top of the first, making a small pyramid of bowls.

Everyone at the table watches as the food is delivered, secretly having their eye on one particular dish or another, as the food is different in each bowl. This dish has fried shrimp, that dish has beef with spicy red sauce, this dish has boiled greens, that dish has fried chicken, this dish has big pieces of fish in yellow sauce, that one has shrimp and potatoes in chili, this one omelette with onion, that one many tiny fish mixed in sauce, this one fried tempeh, that one something you can't quite identify. You only pay for the dishes you eat, each ranging from about 50 cents to 2 dollars USD.

Once all the food has been laid out, everyone dips their right hand into a small bowl of water sitting next to their bowl of rice, washing it by dipping it in and out of the water and rubbing the fingers against the palm. Then people start reaching for bowls. They're small bowls so there may only be enough in a particular bowl to serve one, maybe two people. You see someone lifting that bowl of curried oysters off the top layer, your heart skips a beat, but then they set it down, going for the shark beneath. You politely reach over, bringing the oysters to rest beside you, content that you've slapped your jack.

Then you either pour the contents of your bowl over your rice, or spoon it in, making sure to "wet your rice" with lots of delicious sauce that invariably contains lots of chili, and a little coconut milk too if you're lucky. You ask to a share the mixed veggies that someone else has only taken some of, you add a few shrimp to even out the meal. Then you dig in. Using your right hand (right hand only! I tend to keep my left hand in my lap to make sure I don't use it, just like you have to keep your left hand behind your back in slapjack), reach into your bowl. Mush your rice around a bit to make sure it's wet with sauce. Scoop up a shrimp, still in its shell, and some rice you've squished together, then use the four fingers of your left hand like a little shovel. Raise the shovel to your mouth and slide your lunch in. Crunchy (here shrimp shells are viewed as a good source of calcium), spicy!, chewy, delicious. Have another bite. Yikes a chili! Have a bit of cucumber, desperately sip your hot water (it's hot so you know they've just boiled it). No milk here. No bread here. Just you against the chili oil burning your lips.

But it's addictive. You want more. You keep spooning and mushing. When you finish you rinse your right hand in the bowl of water again. Luckily for you, you eat Padang food at least once every day or two, sometimes twice a day. Plus, if you ask nicely, they'll always bring your table a second dish of whichever is your favorite, but it's not nearly as much fun that way.

Monday, June 27, 2011

In a Barbie World

There are a few words I generally learn very quickly when I am traveling for work, one is the word for foreigner (bule - BOO-lay - in Indonesian) and others are the words for white and pretty (putih - POO-tee, and cantik - chan-TEEK).

So first they call me a foreigner. People everywhere call out to me, people I know, people I don't know. Not in a mean way, just as though to point out to me that I am different. But then I talk a bit more, often with pre-teen and teenage girls, in rural and urban areas in a variety of countries. They like to touch the skin on my arms, they point to it and say "white", followed closely by "pretty". They are simultaneously amazed and disgusted when I show them how you can see the veins in my hands and arms, and tell them that the lines they see are blood. But then they often point to their own skin, and call it black or dark. They motion rubbing it off, they stick their tongues out, they say it's ugly.

When I was young, my parents tried their best to keep me away from Barbies and the like, until at some point I imagine it was inevitable with birthday parties and being surrounded by other children and mass media. I remember asking my mum about why Barbies weren't a good idea, and her telling me about how they create ideas of what we're supposed to look like that aren't real. Everyone has heard that various parts of Barbie's body are disproportionate to her height. In fact, her proportions have been changed since I was a kid, although her feet still point downward at that frightening angle... but if Barbies were bad because they give unrealistic and unnecessary expectations and can put irrational demands themselves and peers about womanhood, then what about girls who don't look even a little like Barbie. What about the girls who call their skin dirty, using endless whitening products and carrying umbrellas and wearing long sleeves in the rice paddies to keep their skin from getting "uglier and darker"?

What is it about girls that leads them to focus so intently on their looks at such a young age? Where do they learn that what they and other women look like is the first thing to be noticed, commented upon, and changed about themselves?

What about the 15 year old girl I met who was 8 months pregnant. She marveled at my nose, touching it then touching her own. She told me that she hoped her baby would be born with my nose instead of her ugly nose. She was beautiful. But all she saw was that her nose was different from mine and she didn't look like any of presentations of beauty she saw all around her on billboards and tv, where models are thin and rich and happy, and look just a little bit Asian, but not too much, and whose skin is impossibly white.

What about the man who told me that all the women in his Latin American country are ugly because they are short and their skin is dark? What about the way he scoffed when I told him that Western constructions aren't the only measure of beauty? What about the girls who giggled when I asked them why they wanted to marry Westerners? Answering that in part, they wanted their babies to be half white, because that was better than being fully of any local ethnicity. What about the girls who grow up believing the skin and noses and lips and legs will never be good enough or pretty enough because they aren't Western or Caucasian or white enough? What about when those girls turn into mothers? Can it be any wonder what they will tell their daughters?

When will we start teaching girls that they are more than their appearance? And when we do discuss their appearance, when will we stop telling them to look like someone else, and start telling them to be who they already are; to pursue something deeper than a small nose, more profound than straight hair, more lasting than smooth white skin. Imagine all the time, energy, effort, and pain that goes into these things; imagine what the world would be like if that energy and passion were redirected.

Lisa Bloom hits the nail on the head in How to Talk to Little Girls, if we call them smart instead of pretty, tell them they look like astronauts, engineers, authors, and artists instead of ballerinas and models, it just might be a step in the right direction.

(I've been wanting to write about this for quite a while, but organizing my thoughts and finding a way to say all this has been a bit confusing, so you'll have to excuse me if this comes across a bit muddled, I did my best, and as always, look forward to hear what you all have to say about it.)

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

My first day in Muekek

Little did you know the title of this post actually rhymes. The name of the sub-district is pronounced like muh-keh or meh-kay, the k at the end is silent with a glottal stop before it, according to my learning indonesian podcast. Anyhow! I just got back from about 9 days in the field. Here's a little bit about my first day in a rural village where we stayed for 5 days. Less deep thought and more "what do you actually do?"

After about a 45 minute drive from Tapak Tuan, we arrived in Meuke, stopping at an intersection in the road to ask which way to go, to find the house where we would stay. Although the town appeared small, the roads were paved and there were power lines visible.

We entered a very large home of the friend of one of our researchers, who is also the elected government representative for this district. Despite the fact that he is in Medan for work currently, his wife received us warmly, offering coffee and a drink made from raspberry syrup. Trying the coffee, it was incredibly sweet, if it had been cold and had had dairy in it, it could have been coffee ice cream. The researchers explained to me that not only to Acenese prefer things to be very sweet, but also if a hostess serves a drink that is not very sweet people will think she is stingy, because offering very sweet drinks is equated with being generous and also with showing that you have the money to give lots of sugar.

We then settled into our rooms, I am sharing a room and a bed downstairs with the other female researcher.  Our room is windowless and contains a bed, a small vanity and a large armoire, full of clothes and other things. The lady of the house moved a fan into our room to help cool us during the coming night (for the parts when the electricity was on).

We then decided to go for a walk around the community to try to get to know people. As we walked around we were greeted by many people of all ages, with a few children wandering along behind us. I saw coffee, nutmeg, and beetlenut laid out on cloths to dry in the sun. The other female researcher and I were soon invited into the home a woman we were chatting with. She invited us into her formal living room where she served us something that tasted like Tang with extra sugar. We chatted and found out she was a teacher as well as a bit of a leader for the women in the community. She offered to help us organize a gathering of women so we could discuss some of our research with them and conduct a focus group.

Our new friend then walked us the Gacheik’s (village leader) house, where we greeted him and let him know about our plans for the 4 days we will be here. He agreed to help us organize a gathering of men so we could also conduct a focus group with them, and ask for their help finding informants for interviews.

The family we are staying with is providing us three meals a day, as is customary here, so we returned for lunch and were served two kinds of fish (as the village is close to the ocean), green beans, shrimp chips, and white rice. That afternoon I watched as the researchers conducted the focus group with women from the village, asking them to brainstorm ideas about children who do not live with their biological parents, but instead with some other family, often relatives. The group was made up of women of various ages, most of whom were eager to participate in the conversation and also seemed used to participating in group activites.

Once we had finished the focus group I had plans to go for a run, but was happy to walk along with the other female researcher, and our friend who was a teacher to see a bit more of the community. We walked past rice paddies that were in bloom, which left the scent of flowers along the road. This village is very near large mountains, where coffee is grown, but where (I’ve been assured) there are no tigers. As we walked many people greeted us, curious about what we were doing and where we were going. Children shouted “Bule!” or foreigner as we passed. We reached the edge of the village, marked by a small bridge, and while my two companions turned around and started back, as it was 6:30 pm and the sun was setting, I picked up my pace to a jog. I continued on through the next village, greeting people and smiling or waving as they tried to speak to be in Indonesian or Acehnese. I turned around and made my way back, passing my former walking partners, and continuing on. At one point a man and woman on a motorcycle who spoke a bit of English drove along beside me asking where I was from, if I spoke Indonesian, where I was from, and where I was staying. I arrived back at the house where I was staying, and quickly bought two bottles of water from the small stand in front of the house next door, as it was still at least in the 80s, despite it being dusk.

As I was stretching and the other female researcher returned, the village leader arrived at the house, looking for either of the male/Acehnese researchers, who were currently out dropping our driver off at his house. We called them, and the village leader informed them that the police would need copies of our identification and permission letter from the organization and university sponsoring us, however, this was only necessary because I was with them. Later we all met up at the village leader’s house, where we made photocopies and met with a member of the police, who are obliged to report the arrival of a foreigner within 24 hours of his/her arrival.

As we went back to the house where we were staying, I commented to the female researcher that I was glad I’d chosen to put on a scarf and wrapped it around myself like a shawl or pashmina before going, considering that both the police and the village leader were there. I also mentioned again that if I was ever wearing something where she thought I should be covered more, she should tell me. “Well actually,” she said slowly “As you were running, someone told me to tell my friend to cover her head. I didn’t know what to make of it, but the woman we were with said it was very rude to have said it.” I explained that I was happy to cover my head if it would be more polite or respectful. Our walking companion had suggested we ask the wife of the house where we were staying. When we returned from the village chief’s house, the wife and several women appeared to be balancing the finances for something, and we politely interrupted, to see what they thought about them covering my head. The female researcher translated the response as “It’s better. If you want to.” But I realize that the mean of that sentence changes, depending on where the pause is placed: “It’s better if you want to.” Regardless, I decided that I should follow their suggestion.

At breakfast the next morning, the two male researchers approved of my head covering, although it does not look Indonesian. They said I looked like I was from Turkey.
One then said “From now on I will introduce you as Turkish; this will get you more respect, I think.”

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Thank You for Smoking

As I went to get dressed this morning I had a bit of a surprise, as I went to put on a shirt, I caught a whiff of something reminiscent of a night out in Atlanta during college, when it was still legal to smoke indoors; my shirt reeked of cigarette smoke. Not just a little, I could smell it when I was holding it. But I don't smoke, in fact women in Aceh aren't allowed to smoke. My clothes smell just from being around so many people here smoking all the time, inside, outside, while eating, while riding motorbikes, while loading and unloading trucks. All the time.

I don't think I have ever been to a place where so many people smoke. It's rare to meet a man here who doesn't smoke, and if he doesn't smoke currently it's likely he did but quit for a specific reason. You can smoke indoors almost anywhere, for instance in my hotel my hotel room smells like cigarette smoke (and mold and room freshener and mint strangely enough) because you can smoke in your own room and in all public spaces of the hotel, so the smell seeps in.

I have found that many men here are what I would consider polite about their smoking: if they are with people who do not smoke they may ask first or move to another table before smoking. On the other hand, it's pretty inescapable, should you want to escape. Also, people here smoke local cigarettes scented with nutmeg or other spices, in addition to your average Marlboros.

I have no grand conclusions about the smoking here, I imagine that launching an anti-smoking public health campaign would be equally as difficult as it was in the United States, given that tobacco is grown here, and I can only imagine that the owners of local cigarette companies have some political power, or at least some pull.

What interests me about smoking here, is that engaging in a hobby that causes chronic diseases, is a bit of a second phase health problem. Indonesia hasn't found its way entirely out of infectious disease outbreaks, but things like lung cancer and emphysema are a far cry from cholera outbreaks. This is an interesting step in development, where a lot of people now have the expendable income to buy cigarettes daily. In India and China the consumption of beef has increased markedly as income has increased. As people's income increases, they do not necessarily make healthy choices with that money.

No grand conclusions today, more of a response to all the people who ask me "what's it like where you are?" "what's different?" Well compared to the US, the only place I've been in Indonesia where I've been told explicitly that smoking wasn't allowed was on an airplane. That's a first step I suppose.

If you're interested in learning more about smoking in Indonesia and how culturally ingrained it is, look no further than the 2 year old boy with a cigarette addiction who made the news recently. A 2 year old can use a lighter?

Friday, June 10, 2011

Not all those who wander are lost

All that is gold does not glitter, not all those who wander are lost; the old that is strong does not wither, deep roots are not reached by the frost. - J.R.R. Tolkein

What is it that draws us to new places and fresh experiences? What is it that makes the desire to experience the unknown stronger than the ease and comfort of remaining in the places and with the people we know? I'm honestly not sure. Maybe it's a natural curiosity or maybe we are seeking the little rush of adrenaline we get each time we are somewhere entirely new and must find our way through, adapting and learning through experiences. I also find that I'm always struck by how similar people are regardless of how they or the place they live or their expressions of culture may appear at first glance. I also love how every place always has the ability to surprise you, if you'll only look and listen, instead of imposing your expectations upon it.

I went to a gym with one of my research team members after work the other day to try to relieve our stiff muscles after a week of sitting and sitting and sitting. At first it was as I expected: the majority of the gym was free weights or weight machines, with men lifting weights wearing shorts and t-shirts and often without shoes on. There were six or seven treadmills with about four women and two men using them, about half the women wore headscarves while walking or running, while the others did not cover their hair but wore pants and t-shirts or long sleeve shirts. It was probably 85 degrees inside, with a few air conditioners on. The music blasting was the choruses from American hip hop or pop, intermixed with techno and Bahasa Indonesian singing. After an intense and hot workout, we went back to the women's locker room to collect our things.

My first thought when seeing that you had to cross through a room where classes took place to get to the women's locker room was that women attending the gym may have been an afterthought. The gym and men's locker room were built first, then women showed interest and a locker room was added on the back of the building. As we opened the door into the room for classes, a dark brown curtain, covering the view of the room from floor to ceiling met us. Thumping music and a wall of heat met us. As we crossed through the curtain we saw the room full of 30 or 40 women in an aerobics class. But at first glance these did not look like Acehnese women. None wore headscarves. Many wore shorts. Some wore shorts and sports bras only. All of them were dancing and sweating, two things I'm not sure I've ever seen an Acehnese woman do (not that they don't, I've just never seen it in public). In many places there are women's groups in the community that one must be initiated into and that are an integral part of participation in community life. What happens in these groups is not spoken about publicly and can range from spiritual to social to rites of initiation. And here I felt we had found something slightly similar, only in an urban setting. A place women come to where men are not invited and they are free to dress and act and speak as they choose. On the other hand, perhaps I was particularly struck by this contradiction to local culture, because it seems to move away from tradition and toward Western practice, rather than towards more traditional practices, which is a difference I might not notice. Thought provoking if nothing else.

I'm on the road again as of Monday. During my last project where I had the privilege of staying with a friend in her beautiful home and moving around to different parts of Jakarta for data collection. This time we've got a bigger data collection team so we'll be splitting into two smaller teams, each of which will depart for the far reaches of this district bright and early on Monday.  I'll be going to Aceh Selatan or South Aceh. The research I'm currently involved in is looking at traditional community child care practices, and given the ethnic and cultural diversity of this district, we're conducting 3/4 data collection periods in very rural areas where members of minority groups live. From what I've read and heard from researchers (all of whom are Indonesian,  and all but one are from Aceh and speak Acehnese as well as the national language of Bahasa Indonesia) is that the area is relatively rural, but also very beautiful as it is by the ocean. Also, it is an area of Aceh that was not hit by the tsunami because the island of Simeulu protected it. I'm excited to get to know another part of Aceh, because on my last work trip here I worked exclusively along the North Aceh coast, which was beautiful and enjoyable, but much of it has a similar culture.

Happy weekend to everyone and fingers crossed for great internet while I'm in the field!

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Selamat Datang Kembali

My Bahasa Indonesian is improving slowly but surely, and each time I mention to someone that I would like to learn more the response is "Oh you should! It's so easy!" Oh really? You think it's easy to speak your language, interesting. In fact Bahasa is relatively easy, there are no verb tenses, there is no masculine-feminine for adjectives, and to make something plural you simply say it twice, for example child = anak, children = anak-anak. So on that note, the title of this post means welcome back.

I'm back in Indonesia after a short two week trip back home. The occurrence of two back-to-back projects in the same country is partly coincidence, partly to do with partnerships involving the group I work for. Regardless, I am now somewhere entirely different from Jakarta; imagine conducting research in New York City, then conducting research along the gulf coast. I'm in Banda Aceh, again. Those of you who have been following this blog for a while will remember that I was here in the fall of 2009 as well. Banda Aceh was the inhabited location closest to the epicenter of the earthquake that caused the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. This time I'm here to do research rather than an evaluation and it has now been 6.5 years since the tsunami, so there are many less expatriates but many more trees.

If you were to google Banda Aceh you would probably come across articles about the tsunami first, but if you were to keep looking you would find information about the civil war that ended in 2005. You would read that Aceh is a semi-autonomous region, a concession of the national government in the peace treaty, and as part of that semi-autonomy Aceh is governed by Sharia law (Islamic religious law) rather than secular law used in the rest of Indonesia. We could talk for hours about whether the law in each region is really religious or secular, to whose benefit each type of law is, and who was really involved in the decision making to implement Sharia law here, but let's save that for another day. Right now let's talk about the practicalities of it.

Aceh recently made headlines for tightening the letter of the law and its enforcement relating to women's dress. Previously the law simply said that Muslim women had to be covered: ankles, wrists, head (hair, neck, ears, not face), and everything in between. However, some women, particularly younger women from my observation, were dressing in covering clothes, but they were very tight, imagine skinny jeans, a tight top and a headscarf tucked into your shirt so it isn't very noticeable. There are "Sharia police" who enforce religious elements of the law, ensuring that women's headscarves do not show any hair, making sure all Muslims are at the mosque on Fridays, and on and on. In response to women's reinterpretation of the dress code, the law was then changed to explicitly state that women must be covered and their clothes may not be tight or explicitly show the outline of her body. In addition, the enforcement of this and other religious laws was increased, with the punishment for the first one or two offenses being a warning, whereas the punishment for multiple offenses is public corporal punishment. You, a long stick, and a man in a hood in front of a crowd, and yes, women are included.

Last time I was here there were more expats. Last time I was here the law was less strict. Last time I was here it was my first time working in a predominantly Muslim place (I had visited the Middle East). And so this all begs the question: Should I wear a headscarf daily? Here are some things to consider: Sharia law technically does not apply to me because I am not Muslim. It is HIGHLY unlikely Sharia police would ever even speak to me about covering my head, otherwise I dress very conservatively. I have scarves with me that I have used in the past to cover head or shoulders when entering a mosque or a religious school. A researcher on our team who is Muslim and never covers her head in Jakarta, put on a headscarf before we got off the plane today. I have lots of complex and mixed feelings about forcing women to cover themselves. But my personal feelings aren't up for debate here. I'm on the job. So what should I do?

It's amazing how much time and thought I spend considering how I dress when I work. I walk into places expecting that people watch American movies and associate me with how women are portrayed in them. Usually people ask me questions that confirm this assumption to be true, so I'm already fighting back against people's assumptions in order to be taken seriously, and respected as a professional, despite the fact that I am female and young. And you thought you had trouble getting dressed for work in the morning.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

But who decides what's best?

When considering the best options for children, we consider where they will be well cared for, where they will have somewhere safe and healthy to live, where they will be able to go to school, and where they will be surrounded by people who have their best interests at heart.
I imagine that if I were to ask ten people where, or with whom, children should live, the overwhelming answer would be with their parents. Studies suggest (citation to come later if I can find it) that children suffer emotional trauma when separated from their parents, confirming the sentiment that children should stay with them. However, living with parents is not always the best place for all children, sometimes parents are willing to care for children, but unable due to limited resources or outside stressors such as war, natural disasters, or the death of one or both of the parents. On the other hand, sometimes parents are able to care for children, but unwilling; they may demonstrate their unwillingness by treating them poorly or harshly, or simply neglecting them.

But, generally speaking, as long as parents do not fall into the “unwilling” category, we imagine that children (here we mean anyone under 18) fare better with their parents than when they live on their own, especially in an urban setting. But I was interested to hear differently from the research team during our end of project debriefing yesterday. We went through all the different “sub-groups” of children we had identified, who were divided by the type of job they did, the amount of time spent in Jakarta, age, gender, and by whether they lived with their parents, among other things. Researchers reported that children in highly vulnerable sub-groups of children, such as those living in temporary shelters, working on the street, and engaging in drug and alcohol use, criminal activities, and transactional sex and sex work, did not appear to be more or less likely to live with their parents than children whose lifestyle presents less vulnerability to harm. I can’t confirm this from our research yet, as the data analysis hasn’t been completed, but the researchers had the strong impression that many children moved to Jakarta with their parents, who then pushed them to earn money, and weren’t particularly concerned about where it came from. In some cases parents even pushed children into high-risk work because there is sometimes opportunity to earn more in such activities.

This might not seem so surprising to some people, there have always been parents who valued the financial survival of the family as a whole over the emotional, mental, and physical well being of one child. But the dominant paradigm of much of child protection often rests upon the fact that family support helps children do well; and while this may be the case in most circumstances, it is essential for organizations (and governments) engaging in programming with this population to remember that keeping (or reuniting) children with their parents may not be in their best interest, and in fact, just because a child is doing something dangerous for money doesn’t necessarily mean the child lacks parental guidance, but that the parent’s interests are not what is best for the child.

I'm home from Indonesia now, and will be here for about two weeks before I head back to Indonesia again, coincidentally, for my next project, so look for more posts soon! 

Sunday, May 8, 2011

You're Uninvited

As the bajaj (tuk tuk or moto rickshaw in other places) dropped us off, we thought we knew where were. "We'll walk from here" we confidently asserted, wary of entering a closed community in such a loud and noticeable way. But then we weren't where we imagined, but in a busy community, tucked in between a cemetery and a highway. The four of us, myself and three Indonesians, were followed by two young girls as we walked down the street, obviously disturbing the usual equilibrium present. We asked for directions and were told we were very far, very very far, but after another ten minutes walking, I recognized a local store and we stopped. We had a quick chat and I suggested everyone approach anyone they saw who looked young and try to start a chat.

We were in an area that we had previously identified as the home of young children involved in sex work, or where the people who were commercially sexually exploiting them kept them. Finding where these children worked wasn't helping us because they were busy and under the careful watch of "guardians", we needed to find them where they lived to be able to approach them for interviews. So here we were, slowly strolling through, already given permission from a community leader to interview any children who consented. Then out of nowhere a door opened. Literally.

A girl walked out, about 16 or 17, and she started chatting with one of our researchers. Then she was leading him inside, and we waved the whole town along with us. The four of us went down a dark, damp hallway, leading up to a slanted ladder. The ladder was in utter darkness, we fumbled ahead of us hoping not to fall. The top of the ladder opened up into a room with cement walls and floor, with laundry hanging out to dry, but nothing hanging on the walls. We followed the young girl into a small room, where two more young people were sitting. One girl was much smaller, thin, pretty, sitting with her knees drawn up to her chest; the boy next to her was also about 16, looking up at us quickly, then looking back at the floor.

We sat with them, introduced ourselves, explained the research. They were visibly nervous, talking quietly amongst themselves. We assured them we would keep their information confidential, showed them exactly what we would write down, told them we'd interviewed over 100 other children in the area. We explained that they could skip any questions they didn't want to answer or end the interview at any time. Glancing up and down at the door, one girl got up and dead-bolted it from the inside.  But they were still nervous, so with the consent of one girl, we started to conduct an interview with one girl, so the others could hear the questions. One question at a time the children relaxed, but then one of them got a text. The chatted quietly. The interview continued, although hesitantly. Another text. More whispering. The other researchers told me they were worried that their boss would know we were there and they would get in trouble. When they said trouble their faces didn't convey worry about getting yelled at, it was fear.

They asked us to sneak out one at a time. My heart beat faster. You can't sneak me out of anywhere on a good day, but tall white lady coming out into a small insular community that houses and exploits children? Not a chance in hell. But the children said we could come back the next day, when their boss was out. They wanted to help us, tell us about their journey from home to Jakarta. After exchanging mobile numbers we scooped up our belongings and quickly walked back out through the darkness and damp concrete. A man in a towel eyed us suspiciously as we walked through the common area, we kept our eyes down and walked past him without a word.
We walked outside, pausing to greet local community members, leaving the area in pairs rather than as a big group. The researchers handed over their research materials once we were out of sight, as I take them home daily to ensure confidentiality. We would come back, but I wasn't invited this time, the two girls and boy agreed that I would draw to much attention and might get them in trouble. But they were happy to invite the other three team members back again. Prioritizing their personal safety while making an effort to have their voices heard. I've never been so happy to be told I wasn't wanted.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Where do you work again?

If you've ever said to yourself... "How did she get her job?" or "I want her job" or "Her job sounds stupid, why would you want a job like that", here's a little number that a friend of mine wrote about the process of applying for jobs with humanitarian organizations and what some of the people who apply may be like. A bit of satire for you on this sunny Friday.

Dear Hiring Manager for [insert International Humanitarian Organization],

I would like to apply for the position of [insert vague sounding job title that has no meaning outside of the given organization]. I believe that my educational background and skills make me uniquely suited to this position. So far in life I have proven myself capable of taking on the challenges required for this position, which I understand pays under $20,000 a year for working in one of the most dangerous countries in the world and undertaking tasks that no one else wants to do.
As you can see from my tiny-font, two page resume, I attended a top level university where I excelled at taking on more than I could possibly handle while maintaining a high GPA, completing 12 internships, and finding opportunities to travel to Western Europe where I was enthralled by the ancient architecture and many art museums. My travels prompted me to do a semester abroad where I discovered a disdain for “tourists” who travel in packs taking pictures of 50 monuments in a single day instead of spending hours at cafes drinking wine and smoking like real Europeans. After my study abroad experience, I completed my senior honors thesis on the topic of [insert esoteric topic of no interest to the majority of the word]. Upon graduation with highest honors, I took a year to backpack around the world to extremely poor countries where I spent most of my time drinking local beers and posing for pictures with street children. This experience led me to want to help alleviate poverty. I therefore obtained a volunteer position in which I dedicated a couple years of my life to living in a mud hut. While I did not have cable television, I was able to use this time to learn curse words in five tribal languages, grow dreadlocks, and learn to drum. These skills will undoubtedly prove essential in my future career.
After this unique experience, I attended graduate school where I obtained a Masters degree in appearing humble while actually making other people feel inadequate and uninformed. From my peers I soon learned that there is a hierarchy to international work, and I became determined to not just help poor people, but to help the poorest and most desperate people, preferably those living in war torn countries under military dictatorships where the chance of being kidnapped, blown up, or summarily executed is very high. Only by working under the very worst of conditions can I prove to myself and my peers that I am in fact as ballsy as they are and just as willing to die for a project that is under-funded, poorly planned and probably has no chance of actually helping anyone. This experience will allow me to live on a permanent adrenaline rush, which will mean that I do not need to use drugs the way my over-privileged peers do. At the same time, it will allow me to become more arrogant and cynical and give me the credibility needed to scoff at anyone who questions the effectiveness of my chosen career. Following this, I intend to return to the States where I will land a cushy job at a university or think tank and get paid an exorbitant amount of money to create policy guidelines that are not possible to carry out in the real world.
As you can see I have spent the past seven years of my life working unpaid for the friends of my semi well-connected parents, and am enormously in debt as a result of my determination to live in the world’s most expensive city while attending the world’s most expensive graduate school. While my high school friends are married with kids, houses, and cars, I am still using my parent’s address and couch surfing in a city where a glass of wine costs $12. However, a position at your organization will enable me to add to the number of visas in my passport, give me stories to tell about being shot at by rebel armies, and imagine that I am helping people by living in poverty with them. Thank you for your consideration, I look forward to hearing from you.

P.S. do not ignore this letter because I have cc’d my professor who used to work for your organization as well as a family friend who is your boss.