Category Archives: Opinion

Death at first contact: Why the world needs vaccinations

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Today I watched a really interesting documentary called “First Contact: Lost Tribe of the Amazon”, which follows a team of Brazilian anthropologists who study isolated indigenous groups living in a stretch of Amazonian jungle straddling Brazil and Peru. In this documentary, they trace the first contact and resettlement of a small tribe of roughly 35 indigenous men, women, and children in Brazil who are fleeing persecution from the Peruvian army.

There was one part of the documentary that was exceptionally moving for me. When the first group of young warriors emerge from the forest and enter a small village, the team of anthropologists stationed there do all they can to dissuade the men from trying to take piles of clothes and blankets. As the narrator explains, the anthropologists know that these clothes and blankets are riddled with germs that the could make the indigenous—who have not developed any antibodies to fight diseases—severely ill, even kill them.

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A young man puts on a blue t-shirt he has taken from the village

Sadly, this is exactly what happens. As one man explains later, they came to the river often to watch the villagers and all they wanted was to wear clothes like they saw the villagers wearing. Another later says, “We like the clothes… we are embarrassed to be naked.” Bringing the clothes back to the other members of the tribe, the man recalls putting them on and soon after feeling a burning. All those who put on the clothes ended up riddled with fevers. Most in the tribe became severely ill. Several died. It was only once this uncontacted group emerged from the jungle for resettlement that the Brazilian government was able to provide them with medicine to combat the fevers that ravaged them as a result of wearing clothes. (Watch part of the footage here)

This is a perfect example—perhaps the perfect example—of the dangers of not receiving vaccinations. Avoiding serious illness is only possible when you are completely isolated, like this tribe in the Amazon. However, the moment you break through this barrier of isolation, you run the risk of contracting deadly diseases that your body cannot fight, even through an act as simple as putting on a shirt. And to be clear, living in the U.S. is not living in isolation. I am just one person and in my travels I’ve been exposed to everything from influenza and polio to typhoid, yellow fever, and malaria. To come into contact with me is to potentially come into contact with these diseases.

ribi-dropsTo echo Melinda Gates, we take vaccinations completely for granted in the U.S. because we’ve forgotten how deadly these diseases truly are. Few people in the U.S. know what death from diseases like measles, yellow fever, or influenza look like. Have you ever seen a polio survivor, unable to work, reduced to begging on the streets with malformed arms and legs? If you have, you are probably like the countless mothers in Asia and Africa who are walking 10 kilometers one-way to get their children life-saving polio vaccination drops. I’ve been lucky so far. I’ve traveled to malaria, yellow fever, and typhoid zones and never contracted the diseases. Friends of mine have not been so lucky. In many cases their health has been irreparably weakened and damaged.

As the vectors for these diseases change, which indeed they already are, people who once never had to worry about getting vaccinated will need to take preventative measures. These diseases are real, they are scary, and we are not safe. For example, in Indiana and Kentucky we are experiencing an outbreak of West Nile Virus. There are already confirmed deaths. So many measures can be taken to avoid these deaths. While there is no vaccine to prevent West Nile Virus, there are vaccines to prevent other related mosquito-borne illnesses.

Protect yourself, protect your children, protect all those around you and get vaccinated! I agree wholeheartedly with Melinda Gates, we are incredibly lucky to have this technology and we ought to take advantage of it!

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Rhodes Fell?

There is a large school group here at UCT today. School groups often come by to take tours of campus and use the facilities. The group today looks to be around middle school age. When I walked up the steps of Jameson Hall to get to the library, they were all assembled on the stairs looking out toward the city. I thought maybe they were getting ready to take a picture, but that wasn’t the case. From the steps of Jameson Hall, you can look out on the University down to where the statue of Rhodes once stood, down past the rugby fields, into the neighborhoods of Rondebosch and Rosebank. Beyond that lies the townships–where thousands of black and coloured families were forced to relocate, and where most still live. In a very real way, from the steps of Jameson Hall you can see the physical manifestation of colonialism, racism, and attempted reconciliation played out on the urban geography of Cape Town.

Jameson Hall

Jameson Hall

As I walked up the steps, I heard the teacher ask the young students to discuss the Rhodes statue. He asked them: “What does the statute represent to YOU?” Some of the students slowly raised their hands and I paused on the steps as I heard them say in small, strong voices words like: apartheidracismhatepoweranger. Symbols are powerful. Some legacies carry long shadows that can morph and change over time. Did Rhodes really “fall” with the removal of his statue? The answer is very clearly no. In fact, even though his statue is removed, the shadow of Rhodes is still felt and seen by all. Literally. Someone painted this on the steps where his statue once stood. It is a powerful reminder that even though the statue is gone, Rhodes is not forgotten.

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The shadow of Rhodes still stretches down from the plinth where he sat.

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A fitting tribute? CJ waz here!

What do you think about the legacy of CJ Rhodes?

Just waiting for a train… any train…

mowbrayI live in the Mowbray neighborhood of Cape Town, which sits between Rondebosch (University of Cape Town) and Observatory (fun nightlife area, popular with college kids). My house sits a stones throw away from the Mowbray Station, which consists of two parts: 1) major bus interchange and 2) metro station. While I have never had occasion to take the bus, I frequently take the metro train from Mowbray Station to Cape Town Civic Station downtown. Mowbray sits on the Southern Line, which runs from Cape Town down along the shores of False Bay to Simon’s Town and back again. The train tracks are built right into the beach. I got to see them last weekend when I went down to Simon’s Town. Check out that view!

train tracks train view

I’ve received varied responses when people find out I take the metro alone. One woman called me adventurous. Another said I was bold. One person even said I was reckless. After pressing some of these people further, I came to find that most had never actually taken the metro themselves; they just knew it to be a dark, dangerous netherworld where the only passengers are “poor” people (let’s get serious, they can couch it in whatever language they want, but they mean black people. Black people take the train). This is the first myth I can now officially bust: all varieties of people take the metro in Cape Town—women with little children, Afrikaner businessmen, school kids in uniforms, young guys wearing big headphones, old men toting fishing gear, families, couples holding hands, individuals, Indians, Blacks, Whites, men, women, and yes, some obviously poor people.

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Interior of the Cape Town Metro

Let me clear the air a bit more for anyone interested in traveling to and around Cape Town. The metro is perfectly safe. I have never once been concerned for my safety and I almost always travel alone. It’s cheap (roughly US$1.00); it’s relatively clean (no better or worse than Paris…. much MUCH worse than Japan), and it’s convenient. I get on at Mowbray and four stops and roughly 12 minutes later I get off at Cape Town. I’ve taken the train in rush hour (where people are packed in and there is standing room only) and I’ve taken it where I am the only passenger in my car. To be completely transparent, I have never taken the metro at night. I only take it during the day. I once flirted with the idea of taking the metro at night from Cape Town back to Mowbray (around 8:30pm), but after only 5 minutes waiting on the platform I was convinced that taking a taxi would be worth it. The crowds at night are heavier and more rowdy on the platform, especially on the weekends. If I hadn’t had some shopping bags I maybe would have chanced it, but why take a chance when a taxi is only about US$7?

I took this picture from the train in India back in 2008. Now that is some serious fog!

I took this picture from a train in India back in 2008. Now that is some serious fog!

There is one thing to keep in mind though if one is considering a journey by train: the train does not always arrive on time…if it arrives at all. For someone like me who is used to commuting every day using the Japanese metro system, the Cape Town system was quite a shock…. to say the absolute least. Trains in Cape Town are often late. If a train timetable says the train will arrive at 11:39, that might mean 11:39, it might mean 11:45, or it might mean 12:20…. and you have NO way to know how late a train will be, so you’ve got to expect it will be on time and just build in enough time to “roll with it” (pun intended). The first time a train was late, a voice came over the intercom and announced the train’s late arrival was due to fog. This made complete sense as you could barely see your hand in front of your face! I remembered taking delayed trains in India when it was exceptionally foggy, so I didn’t mind. And the train arrived within 10 minutes of the scheduled arrival time.

No train

Still waiting………

However, sometimes trains are late for no apparent reason! For example, last weekend I ran to catch a train into town that was due to arrive at Mowbray Station at 2:38. It was a clear, cloudless sunny day. At 2:39 a voice came over the intercom, “Very sorry, this train is delayed….. something something something. Very sorry.” No other explanation given. Five minutes go by… then ten… then fifteen. Twenty, are you kidding me?! By now I am annoyed. I stand on “my” end of the platform (all the blacks seem to have an unspoken rule whereby they don’t come close to me on the platform. If I approach them, it’s fine, but they do not approach me, or sit by me on the train if they can help it. Honestly, it’s discomforting. It reminds me of the culturally enforced “bubble” I was trapped in when I commuted in Japan—everyone looks, no on touches or approaches or speaks to you, but I digress). As I paced back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, I keep waiting. 25 minutes. Wow. I may as well have walked into town! But I’ve already paid for the ticket so I’m now determined to take this damn train. Meanwhile, trains heading to Simon’s Town come and go.

The train finally arrives!!!

The train finally arrives!!!

Pacing over to a where a young black man was standing, I leaned in and asked, “Do you think this train is EVER coming?” He shrugged, smiled, and said, “Yes…. maybe?” Just then we heard the sound of a train…. it was coming from the wrong direction!! This train consisted of an engine and two flattop cars toting a heavy cargo of rusty train tracks. Groaning, I watched the tracks go by and said, “They are probably going to build a new track!” The young guy burst out laughing and said, “Precisely. See, this is the problem when you have to rely on other people.” We sighed together and kept waiting. FINALLY, at 3:20 our train arrived, only 44 minutes late. Gotta love Africa time!

Today was an entirely new experience. I ran to catch the 11:39 train to go into town for a bit of exploring. I was running late so clutching my sides I sprinted into the tiny station only to find that both the ticket windows were closed. Looking around frantically, I went to an older black lady and said, “The train is coming, where can I buy a ticket?” She looked at me curiously and said, “The window is open. Go there.” And she pointed to the two obviously closed windows. “No,” I said, “They are closed.” “No,” she said, “Open.” I look again. She looks again. “Huh,” she said and walks away. Huh. Also, the train didn’t come. I just walked home. It’s just was not worth it today.

Rhodes Must Fall

463px-Punch_Rhodes_ColossusShortly before I arrived here in Cape Town, a group of students from the University of Cape Town (UCT) launched a protest movement called #RhodesMustFall, which was initially aimed at forcing the removal of a large statue of Cecil John Rhodes from UCT’s Upper Campus. This protest movement was just one of many over the years here at UCT and at other universities across the country aimed at removing images and statuary that are seen by many students to be enduring symbols of oppression, social injustice, and colonization.

First, who was Cecil J. Rhodes? Well, where do we even begin? According to his Wikipedia page, Rhodes was a “British businessman, mining magnate, and politician.” He was also an “ardent” believer in British colonialism. You may know him from the fact that he had an entire African colony named after himself, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe and Zambia). You may know him as the founder of the internationally recognized De Beers diamond company (now famous for its monopolistic practices and for trading in blood diamonds). Or you may have heard of him for being the architect of the illustrious Rhodes Scholarship.

Pure philanthropy is very well in its way but philanthropy plus five percent is a good deal better. –Cecil J. Rhodes

RhodesAccording to historian Richard MacFarlane, the history of Rhodes’ involvement on the African continent can be “divided into two broad categories: chauvinistic approval or utter vilification.” For most people I’ve spoken to since arriving, they seem to fall squarely into the latter category. It seems as if Rhodes is the archetype villain. For many UCT students, it is as if he represents every negative thought and emotion still linked to colonization…. and he is everywhere! Rhodes provided the very land on which UCT was built. The Memorial he had commissioned to honor himself stands directly above the campus. From its lofty steps you can survey his “kingdom”. Whether you are on UCTs campus or wandering around downtown Cape Town, you cannot escape the name or, in many cases, the very visage of Rhodes. Here are just some of the photos I’ve taken in the few short weeks I’ve been in Cape Town.

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So why do UCT students see Cecil J. Rhodes as the embodiment of colonialism? Well, let’s just take a quick look at one passage from his last will and testament where he mentions the British people: “I contend that we are the finest race in the world and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race. Just fancy those parts that are at present inhabited by the most despicable specimens of human beings what an alteration there would be if they were brought under Anglo-Saxon influence, look again at the extra employment a new country added to our dominions gives.”

statueReading this, is it so hard to understand why UCT students–regardless of race–might find it difficult–if not morally impossible–to appreciate the influence of Rhodes and his lifetime of work shaping modern southern Africa? For them, to promote a man who believed so ardently in the subjugation of races, a man who saw them as “despicable specimens”, is unconscionable. And can you blame them? Even the Vice Chancellor of UCT, Max Price, found common ground with the rhodes girlstudents, admitting in an interview that while Rhodes was considered a “great man” and a “great politician”, the attitudes and means he used “were not right.” Price concluded, “He was racist. He used power and money to oppress others. So on balance he was a villain.” After weeks of protesting, the University voted in April to remove the statue and the vote PASSED! The next day at 5pm, the statue was removed. Watch the video here:

capitalismHOWEVER, removing the statue of Rhodes is only the beginning of a conversation that–in the minds of many African students on UCTs campus–has never taken place. What the removal of this statue will hopefully spark is an honest, open conversation about how the very structure of the UCT system promotes social inequality, injustice, and enduring colonialism. Watch the video below to hear the opinions of some UCT students about why it is so important that the statue come down, but ALSO why it is vital that the #RhodesMustFall movement should continue to move the conversation on issues like South Africa’s enduring colonial past and UCT’s entrenched system of inequality. Finally, the conversation must focus on where UCT as a community can go from here to promote an institution that is free and equal:

What do YOU think about Rhodes colonial legacy and the removal of the Rhodes statue from UCT’s campus? Leave a reply below!

Homophobia in Uganda

I am so glad that the homophobia-inspired violence and hatred that is currently spreading through Uganda like a wildfire is finally catching the attention of the West. It should, since we are the ones responsible for creating such an environment of hate, fear, and mistrust. Western evangelicals have gone into Uganda and spread truly malicious hate, couched in ridiculous lies and blatantly false accusations about the LGBT community and lifestyle. They are instigating violence, discrimination, and mob violence and it is despicable.

Take a look at a recent conversation John Oliver had with Ugandan LGBT rights activist Pepe Julian Onziema to see just how dangerous the situation on the ground is for LGBT people in Uganda:

And don’t forget to watch the extended interview in Part II:

A Farewell to TOMS

TOMSAs I prepare to embark on three weeks of volunteering in Africa, I can’t help but reflect on some of the ongoing issues with providing aid to the continent. An analysis of the cause and effects of various aid schemes is vitally important if organizations are to understand whether their programs help or harm local people and economies. This article, published by the Matador Network, looks at SEVEN terrible international aid ideas, including the largely touted TOMS one-for-one shoe program. Built on the business model of manufacturing two cheap pairs of shoes for the price of one good pair (using labor and materials from China), author Richard Stupart argues that TOMS has the potential to completely destroy the market for shoes in the towns and villages where truckloads of free shoes are shipped and delivered. Journalist Amy Costello and host of Tiny Spark makes a great point here:

We think that by simply giving people things that we enjoy – like soccer balls or shoes – that we are somehow doing good…And I think that we really need to start questioning that a lot more, and figuring out is there something we can do that is a lot more effective? [Are] consumer products what a impoverished community needs?

Here is what I think….

Like Stupart and Costello argue, giving someone a free pair of shoes does not end their poverty, or provide them a job, it just provides shoes. Yes, I freely admit that shoes are vitally important for improving health standards and cutting down on a number of health issues from communicable diseases to infections that are usually spread by cuts and wounds suffered by exposed feet. And yes, in some areas of the world children are denied access to school without a pair of shoes, so providing them with a pair gets them one step closer to an education. And YES, if you look in my closet I have a pair of well-worn, well-traveled TOMS.

HOWEVER after learning more about the company and the ways in which free “stuff-we-don’t-want” can devastate local economies that are in desperate need of their citizens to invest money and BUY local, I will never buy another pair of TOMS. In all my travels to “developing” countries, the message is loud and clear: “please buy local!” Don’t give to beggars on the street because it disincentives them to go seek real work. Don’t buy $60 worth of school supplies at the Dollar Store and ship them to your orphanage in Tanzania, buy these supplies in town and support the local economy.

buy localEven here in Louisville you see everywhere the huge push to buy local. Places like NuLu actively promote the use of local produce and community gardens have spread across the city. Keep Louisville Weird is another popular initiative for Louisvillians to eat/buy/sell/stay local. Everywhere the message is the same–why pay to have things imported when we can make it/buy it/grow it/ manufacture it here?! And why should it be any different in other cities and towns across the world? If I can buy school supplies from a Zambian market to give to Zambian children to be used in a Zambian school, isn’t that better than importing my cheap Dollar Store crap made in China bought in Louisville?

Regarding the issue of shoes and school– shoes are not the only barrier keeping children from going to school. In countries around the world, particularly African countries like Uganda and Zambia, the school fees charged by government schools are far above what the average family living below the poverty line can afford. In these cases, it’s not a matter of if a child has shoes to go to school, the families cannot pay the fees either way.

So you can buy a pair of TOMS Blue Basket Weave Women’s Desert Wedges for $185.00 and tell yourself you are at the same time in some way abstractly helping a shoeless child, or you can take that money, donate it to an on-the-ground organization like Dream Livingstone Zambia that works directly with orphaned and poor children, and pay over SEVEN months of school fees for a very real, very needy child.