Saturday, 17 March 2012

Social Activism and Transnationalism in African Development

Four women live together in a house in Pretoria along with five young children. Their husbands are nowhere to be seen - one had his shop robbed at gunpoint for the fifth time about three months back, and unable to keep a business to support his wife and two children, he disappeared without a trace. The three other women do know where their husbands are, but fear daily for their lives. The most outspoken of the ladies (probably because she speaks nearly perfect English) pulls a color photo from her folder and hands it to me. It is of a man sprawled on a cement floor, soaked in a six-foot wide pool of blood centered on his head. "It's my brother-in-law," she says. "He was running a shop with my husband. The thieves came in through the window; my husband went under the bed and they didn't see him. They didn't even rob the shop - just shot his brother in the head and left."

Another instance of why some political refugees refer to life in South Africa as "out of the fire, into the frying pan."

Now I do not want to paint a picture of South Africa as a purely xenophobic country, as the American and British media have done in the past (look up the May 2008 xenophobic riots if you're not familiar with the issue); in fact, many refugees do not directly blame South Africans for their violence towards immigrants. For one, it is by no means a majority of South Africans who have acted violently toward foreigners. Those targeted by these kinds of attacks usually point to a lack of education as a large factor behind anti-immigrant violence. Many South Africans don't know why refugees are there - what famines and wars they have fled just to find a place where they can scrape by and send money back to their families.

Questions surrounding immigration are not only pressing in South Africa; it is a massive political issue in the US as well, as anyone who has watched political debates over the last decade has seen (although illegal immigration dropped during the recession in 2008). There are a few questions at stake in both instances: Do immigrants contribute economically or simply take jobs and money from locals? To what extent do integration measures produce the desired results? And overall, what can and should be done about immigration? These questions can (and should) take us back to a discussion of the drivers of immigration - some of the topics we've covered when discussing Kony 2012 issues are certainly factors (economic exploitation, arms proliferation, active rebel movements). But if you're asking what you can do to help with problems in the developing world, don't just join an internet social movement or plaster posters around town at midnight to try to take down a ghost of an African warlord. Make friends with an immigrant and talk to them about what they left behind. These are the people that have much more power than you do to begin shaping policy and promoting economic development in their home countries.

Perceptions in South Africa highlight immigrants draining the economy and stealing local jobs (similar to anti-immigrant rhetoric in the US). The problem is that the more anti-immigrant policy is adopted and the more social exclusion immigrants suffer, the more this has the potential to come true since feelings of exclusion discourage reinvestment and philanthropy in the host country, and exclusive policies can contribute to more permanent immigration (and thus more job competition in the long term). Anti-immigrant policies in the US have led to a dichotomy of immigrant outcomes. Again, I'll use illegal immigration from Mexico as my example: Since it is harder for immigrants to get to the US with increased border protection, either they decline to come at all, or they bring their whole families with them to settle in the US. Before the border was so securitized, it was relatively easy for Mexican labor migrants to travel back and forth in a circular pattern that benefitted American agriculture (and helped you pay less for your food) as well as providing developmental benefits to the home communities in Mexico. So anti-immigration policies actually have the potential to raise the numbers of permanent immigrants that will "compete" with Americans for jobs. Of course, people don't talk much about that aspect of things because border security is creating some American jobs and also is an area of investment for certain technological industries.

I'm not necessarily arguing for completely free migration, but let's at least think about the outcomes of the policies we're promoting in the political arena. So back to the South African case: The questions I asked above are topics I would like to come back to over the next series of posts that I will write, and I will try to examine them in light of social activism and where American college students should direct their impulse to "save Africa" or whatever it is that made everybody post about Kony 2012 on their facebook. As an immigration researcher, my studies so far have pointed to a mixed economic effect of immigrants in South Africa - providing good services and social investments but also taking some money out of the economy - and most of the money they send home does not go to productive investment, but instead to mere survival. Can we develop models that provide mutual benefits and develop businesses both in south Africa and in the country of origin? I would really like your views on this, so if you have some ideas, please speak up. My friends and I are specifically researching investment models and developing business ideas that bring together immigrants and locals in (initially small-scale) entrepreneurship that will generate benefits for the community as well as profits for those involved. Part of this will be through educational programs geared toward computer skills (following the computer literacy classes, Henok will be teaching programming and I will be teaching GIS).

One thing I hate about all this Kony 2012 debate is the stagnancy that seems to grip such politicized issues: Some people are all for it and actively participating; others have berated it to such an extent that many people stuck in the middle simply drop the issue because they don't know which side to believe. For all of those who have pointed out Kony 2012's flaws, thank you for your reality check; now let's talk about what can be done. For all of those who have jumped on the Kony 2012 bandwagon, thank you for your activism; now let's listen to some local voices, do some research on what the real problems are, and get crackin'. Now, you might be thinking to yourself, "man, where is this crazy guy going with all this talk? I'm not following the train of thought." Well, what I would like to highlight is the idea of transnationalism and the role it can play in social activism. Transnationalism consists partly of personal networks between people in developing and those in developed countries. I don't think you should promote US military involvement in Uganda until you talk to some Ugandans and get their perspective on the whole deal (not saying you should just follow them, but they probably have more insight than you). If you want to be a social activist for developing countries, make friends with people from those countries and work together with them. Of course I don't mean you should stop engaging in politics, but let's build a network promoting justice and social responsibility and see where it goes from there. Personally, my perspectives on Somalia, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Uganda, and South Africa have completely changed because of the stories I hear from people. And when you meet someone face to face and give them your phone number after hearing their story, then you're much more likely to begin trying to make a real difference in the lives of individuals than if you just repost a youtube video on facebook.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Development and Conflict in Africa: What can we do?

As controversy continues to surround Kony 2012 and Invisible Children, I would like to take advantage of the opportunity (and the momentum I have in my blogging - twice in a week is unheard of) to encourage a little more critical reflection on the subject of conflict resolution in Africa. First, let's see what are NOT the fundamental issues, before we move onto what are. I think several points that have been raised are not the fundamental issues, although they may have some bearing on the course of events. Among these are:

1. The financial habits of Invisible Children (specifically). Why is this not the issue? While invisible children has suddenly come under scrutiny for giving only about 25-30% of their budget to people on the ground in Uganda and spending the rest on travel and filmmaking, this budget follows directly from their stated purpose. They are an advocacy organization, creating awareness of issues surrounding child soldiers, particularly in Uganda - although their awareness campaign does touch other countries due to the subject matter. Furthermore, 30% may sound like a small number, but this is more than most international NGOs actually dole out to people on the ground. If you went to work for an international organization, would you want them to pay you, and would you want them to pay you according to the standard of living where you currently reside? Uganda's GNI per capita based on purchasing power parity is about 1/40 that of the US, meaning that a dollar goes a lot farther in Uganda than in the US. Go there - you'll see. What this does lead us to is first, the income differential that casts some doubts upon the economic efficiency of Westerners working for NGOs in Africa in general (and just to clear this up, I'm one of those people and thus I am questioning the source of my own income); and second, the proper way of donating money if you have money to donate.

2. The geographical location of Joseph Kony - namely, whether or not he is in Uganda. Whether or not Joseph Kony is within Uganda's borders does matter to the extent that the US military is assisting the Ugandan military, but it does not have a whole lot of bearing on the overall dynamic of conflict in the upper Nile/upper Congo watershed. Why? Because Joseph Kony himself is not the driver of conflict, although he is an effective mobilizer because he forces children to join his ranks. Furthermore, if he is not in Uganda, then he is terrorizing children somewhere else. So why would this make you criticize the invisible children movement? The campaign isn't "Uganda military 2012"; it's "Kony 2012". Theoretically, this should mean that if he's in the DRC, the US should support the DRC in stopping Kony. Of course, you might point out that there are issues with assisting the Ugandan military - their incursions that have violated the sovereignty of South Sudan and DRC in recent times have been denounced but not widely publicized. It was after the US arrived that Sudanese warlord George Athor died under dubious circumstances after a visit to Uganda. But if you really want to stop Joseph Kony, why not back a military that's not afraid to step across its own borders and violate the sovereignty of other states? It's more effective than them staying home!

3. The fact that the video is "too late". The video is 15 years too late to stop major bloodshed in Uganda; but why is this not an issue? Warfare persists in many parts of central and East Africa. Militias that were expelled from Rwanda in 1994 are still active in eastern Congo; Ethiopia - an American ally - continues to see conflict in the Ogaden; in South Sudan, ethnic strife has actually increased in the months since independence, and 2011 saw a lot of conflict during the wet season, which is somewhat atypical; and half of all Somalis have left their own country - imagine 150 million people simply walking out of the US - because of clan conflict there. The attention on Kony 2012 has the potential to draw more attention to these other issues, some of which the US government has been implicated in (how many of you were following when the US attacked Somali militants in 2011 or backed the Ethiopian invasion in 2006?).

Okay, so for now let's just look a little deeper at these three. Regarding the financial habits of NGOs, it is common knowledge that international organizations generally pay American employees (or workers from other Western countries) more than they pay locals, because the American employees tend to be more highly trained and thus have higher positions. But think about this: NGOs also often pay hazard pay, grant paid R&R time (generally 1-3 weeks after 6-8 weeks of work), and also give a per diem to workers in the field. Would you want to get that if you left the comfort of your American home and slept in a hut in South Sudan with the possibility of contracting malaria or being kidnapped by a rebel group or even by the national army? I'd say probably. But you're getting paid more to go to a place where people are paid less - and to deal with dangers that exist partially because people are paid less. So don't single out Invisible Children for criticism - criticize the whole NGO funding scheme if you don't like it, but if you don't like it, then do something to change it.

What can you do to change it? Rethink your whole non-profit giving model. Don't get me wrong - non-profit organizations do a lot of good and will continue to do good things, both in America and elsewhere. And there are certain sectors that should be non-profit, definitely. But you don't "save Africa" by giving to a nonprofit organization. It just extends the period of time until a for-profit model is developed that really allows Africa to take off economically and provide for its people. Save your dollars and cents (personally I refuse to donate my "bag credit" and other small sums) and either give money to something that is going to create sustainable livelihoods - meaning profitable employment - to people in Africa. Give it to educational bodies after doing research to make sure it's going to be spent well, because education will create sustainable livelihoods. Or save some money and invest in a business in Africa. The innovation that created the modern capitalist system and started America on the path to what it is was not driven by nonprofits - it was driven by people getting creative because they would receive something in return that would allow them to generate more creativity. As the world is constantly changing and markets are shifting, there are continual opportunities for innovation. Who would've thought ten years ago that blockbuster stores across North America would suddenly shut down because of a little red box in front of a 7-11? So that's my first point. "Non-profit" sounds nice, but somebody is making a profit off of it, meaning the employees - and it is not a sustainable model for locally-driven economic growth. So invest in socially responsible and innovative businesses. Don't just give people money and expect Africa to generate livelihoods - give them the accountability of making them pay it back and then reinvest. On the other hand, in order to create these productive opportunities and social/market innovators, we need to give money to education and philanthropic programs such as community festivals and the arts. So if you want to give money, education is a good place to start. You might say "yeah, well kids cannot go to school if Joseph Kony is kidnapping them." Sure, that's true. But there are millions of kids who are not threatened by Joseph Kony, and they want to go to school and then find a productive job, and if they do, they can take care of the future Joseph Konys (Konies?) themselves - that way you don't marginalize the Africans, as Ugandans are accusing us of doing.

Secondly, regarding whether or not Joseph Kony is in Uganda. Possibly IC should simply open up the possibility of US support for the area where Kony might be - somewhere in the DRC, most likely, or in Chad, or along the disputed border of South Sudan. The direct result of the Kony 2012 movement, if it is achieved, will be to prop up a government that does not meet our standards of democracy, by assisting the military branch of that government. There is relative peace in northern Uganda these days - that has been pointed out. But is Yoweri Museveni still president after 26 years and 2 months? Yes. Undoubtedly Museveni has done a lot for the country and his policies have brought Uganda a far cry from the days of Amin or Obote, but if you want to change Africa, I would say it's dangerous business propping up "presidents" who have been around since the 1980s. We criticize Robert Mugabe all day long, but one thing I can say for Zimbabwe is that its citizens are relatively well-educated due to a relatively good school system, and thus even though the world has crushed Zimbabwe's economy, aided along the way by Mugabe himself, at least Zimbabweans can find work in South Africa and elsewhere and have hope for a post-Mugabe future. I don't think Museveni's a bad guy - but once you get too comfortable in power, it is hard to do anything else. That is why America did a great thing by not letting its presidents get too comfortable as the executive.

Finally, the fact that this Kony 2012 video should have been "Kony 1997", or even "Kony 2000" is not a fundamental issue with what it is trying to get across. If you are reading this, you are interested in the subject, and so Kony 2012 has served its first purpose - to raise awareness. Now, I would like to point you to the conflicts that are currently serving up the highest death tolls in Africa - South Sudan and Somalia. I think in the future if you are interested (and please let me know if you are interested), we could post a short history of these conflicts on this blog. Suffice it for now to say that these conflicts are caused at least partially by a lack of livelihood opportunities and markets that provide for innovation - what we talked about above - that drive people to competition through warfare rather than through market means.

A major problem for South Sudan is the hemming in of its historically migratory population within defined borders, which creates population pressure on the pastoralist cattle economy, which is the only economy in much of the country. Many people here don't have money - their wealth is in their cows and in the crops grown around their villages. So what happens when you have a bunch of youth whose only job is to keep cattle and who would in the past have moved off to find their own grazing land? They start stealing each other's cows. Then they kill each other for the cows, so there's no one to come and reclaim them. Then they join a local militia group to get a gun so they can protect their cows, and they use that gun to steal other cows. Then militia groups start stealing the cows from political figures who have accumulated massive herds. You see where this goes. The point is that the pastoralist economy is now geographically limited and hemmed in by a global market that excludes these youth because they have no other skills than cattle keeping, so they buy guns to hold their own in this environment and this trend has led to the death of thousands of people - yes, thousands - since the beginning of 2012. You don't hear much about it in the American media, do you?

Likewise, few people talk about the drivers of piracy in Somalia - the nuclear waste that was dumped offshore and the hazard containers that broke open during an indian ocean tsunami a few years go, contaminating local waters; or the twenty years of illegal fishing that have decimated fish populations and pushed fishermen to piracy. I'm not saying piracy is okay or the answer by any means. But you should know why some groups of pirates call themselves "the Somali Coast Guard" and things like that. They started out by levying fines on illegal European fishing boats. And as for the Somali conflict, I know firsthand that the Somalis are an unruly lot, but Somalis are also generally some of the nicest people I know. I would say they are certainly among the most democratic in the world, and they will argue about politics for hours because politics is a central facet of modern Somali life. Now a Cold War-era rebellion against a dictator has turned into a self-sustaining clan conflict in which kids are psychologically traumatized at such a young age that war is all they have ever known. The guns and ammunition that flow into the region, produced in the developed world, don't help.

By no means am I saying that taking away guns and bullets will solve the world's problems - I am a proponent of the right to bear arms, albeit in a regulated manner. But I bet you everything I have that if every home in the US had an AK-47 and a box of bullets, neighborly conflicts and bar brawls would take on a much more sinister aspect, especially if a significant percentage of American kids had watched firsthand as family members were shot.

Apologies for the length; I will try to keep future posts somewhat shorter. If you are interested in Global Venture and the educational opportunities and socially responsible business models that we are attempting to begin spreading across Africa as we begin programming this year, please let me know. And before you accuse me of being just another American starting an NGO, ask me some questions and let's talk about it. I didn't start the organization - I'm just the best at typing.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Conflict and Economics in the Great Lakes of Africa

Okay, so it has been a while since I updated. I have spent the past month catching up with my work back in Miami, where I am based for the time being. I am planning to start updating on a weekly basis now that I am back on track.

Firstly, our computer training classes in Johannesburg have continued for the past month, run by some Somali friends and a couple of students from the University of the Free State. From my phone discussions with friends in Mayfair, it seems as if things are going quite well.

The primary issue I would like to approach in today's blog is this Kony 2012 business. Several people have asked me for my opinion on the subject, as I have spent some time in East Africa and conducted now several years of research on religion and conflict in the area. First, let me say that this is a very difficult issue for several reasons: 1) the controversial nature of the ICC with regard to state sovereignty; 2) the issue of charities and their use of funds in general; and 3) whether or not stopping Joseph Kony will solve the problem that it is trying to solve.

In my opinion, Joseph Kony is a bad dude. I think most of us feel that way. So I would say that stopping his campaign that has ravaged areas of Uganda, South Sudan, the DRC, and even touched southern Chad would be a good thing. U.S. support for the Ugandan military will likely help catch Kony - or at least significantly raise the Ugandans' chance of catching him - even though the density of the bush in the areas the LRA has hidden in for the past 10 years will make the task of capturing him extremely difficult.

However, another question is whether catching Kony himself is the answer to the issues. Putting aside peoples' potential problems with the Invisible Children campaign in general, will stopping Kony stop violence in northern Uganda? My answer: it seems unlikely. Why? Well, before you started reading about Joseph Kony (a name many of my fellow students have likely only began to hear over the past three years), there was another movement that came out of Gulu District with many similarities: The Holy Spirit Mobile Forces, led by Alice Lakwena, who claimed to be channeling several spirits of various international and local personalities. In fact, Kony claims to be related to Ms. Lakwena and even (at least in the movement's nascency) claimed to channel a couple of the same spirits that Alice did, as these personalities had gained some legitimacy among the local population who were mobilized against the government (first Obote's and then Museveni's) in Kampala. It appears that some trend toward religiously motivated armed movements arose in the marginalized Gulu District, not simply a cult of personality around Joseph Kony or a single-man fanatic movement led by Kony.

The issue that made both the HSMF and the LRA dangerous was not primarily the leader, but the leader's ability to collect forces. It seems like it would be fairly easy to dismiss a religious fanatic who wanted you to pick up a gun and forcibly recruit children; however, high unemployment and a growing segment of dissatisfied youth joined the movement, and when they began terrorizing and psychologically distressing children so much that they could not figure out what was right and wrong, the movement became self-sustaining. Seeing the wrong that was being done to these children, Americans began to flock to the cause, led by Invisible Children movement, which has largely achieved its goal of making people aware of the problem.

Unfortunately, it appears that the LRA is not one unified group of soldiers led by Kony; nor is it the only armed group fighting in the Great Lakes/Upper Nile region. When the LRA moved into South Sudan periodically between 2005 and 2009, it seems that smaller groups of armed soldiers were raiding settlements, often independent of Kony's leadership for weeks at a time. So it seems possible that the movement could sustain itself without Kony's leadership. In fact, what would be needed would be social (not military, please) reintegration of all members of the LRA, not just apprehension of their leader - but this social reintegration may start with Kony's apprehension. It would also require capturing the other leaders of the movement - if not, the LRA could follow the SSLA in South Sudan, which simply declared a new leadership when Peter Gadet accepted amnesty from the government in Juba and continued to fight.

The prevalence of armed conflict in the region as a whole is another issue, pointing to several trends: again, unemployed youth, a lack of opportunities for livelihoods in general, and the proliferation of small arms in the area. So all of you social activists listen up: In my opinion, if you want to begin stopping the general tendency toward armed conflict in central Africa, it starts with your consumption habits and your conceptions of charity. Sure, giving things away feels good and sometimes it's a good thing to do. That's why companies like TOMS shoes have done well - people like feeling good about donating a pair of shoes to an African kid whenever they buy a pair. Unfortunately, this model is an African economy killer. Why buy shoes produced in Asia to give to unemployed Africans instead of paying Africans to produce their own shoes (and maybe yours too), and therefore creating employment opportunities? In order to solve this type of problem, you would probably have to be willing to pay more for your goods and look very closely at the source. But if you're an American, it is fairly likely that you can afford to pay marginally more, because you spend a much lower percentage of your income on necessities than do individuals in most of the rest of the world. If this idea makes you a little uncomfortable, you're not alone. But the first answer I would say is actually seeking to promote economic development in war-torn areas through consumption habits that target job creation in these areas.

The second thing I would say is similar: Africa has become huge on the international travel agenda for those seeking to "help" people. I think many people are beginning to see that often they are the ones benefiting from this travel more than the people they go to help. This is not a bad thing: Many people return to the U.S. to tell people of their experiences and develop a very necessary awareness of what is going on in the developing world, and often find ways to benefit the populations there. Furthermore, people educated in the U.S. are able to use their skills to help in ways that locals are not able to (e.g., public health, medical missions, engineering, etc.). But if you want to really "help Africa" (as people tend to generalize it), don't plan a one-week mission trip to work at an orphanage and think this is something that Africans need you to do. It would probably be better for them if you sent the money you spent on the plane ticket. Now that just makes sense. However, if you would like to use your education to help people in undereducated regions or to create opportunities for sustained engagement that would help long-term human development, by all means, please go for it and see what opportunities are out there.

Finally, please recognize that unlike the IC seemed to suggest in the Kony2012 video, the LRA's weapons don't come from nowhere in particular. They come from places like the U.S. and the U.K. So if you want to get involved in a political campaign, why not approach senators and congresspeople about arms export laws and reigning in a wild international arms trade? For the past ten years, the U.S. has featured at the top of the list of arms exporting countries. Of course, this is generally to ally governments like Israel and Ethiopia, but come on... where do you think the weapons come from? It's probably Russia, the U.S., or the U.K., all of which keep manufacturing more. While the LRA probably doesn't buy directly from these sources, there are always allegations of arms aid from governments in neighboring states who do. All I'm saying is look at the numbers and think about how guns and bullets get where they do. And for those of you who have read Romeo Dallaire's book, Shake Hands with the Devil, about the Rwandan genocide (highly recommended, although depressing), remember that the pangas (machetes) used in Rwanda in 1994 arrived from the U.S. as "agricultural" tools, although there were certainly warnings of an impending RPF invasion from the north. Hey, that's supply and demand.

I hope this does not come off as an extended rant regarding this issue. To those of you who support Kony 2012, I say go for it, but please consider the deeper issues and don't use Kony as a scapegoat or IC as a panacea for your desire to change the world. I don't have all the answers and I think there is room for debate; if you want to know more, stop reading this blog and read some history.

Reading list:
Niels Kastfelt, Religion and African Civil Wars
Romeo Dallaire, Shake Hands with the Devil
Heike Behrend, Alice Lakwena and the Holy Spirits
James Ferguson, Global Shadows

Monday, 23 January 2012

A grain of rice in the mouth is worth two on the floor

I realized the other day while I was sitting on someone's floor eating spaghetti with my hand out of a bowl shared with five other men that Mom would have a heart attack if she saw me. If I had started this blog in 2010 I suppose I could have written about this as a novel situation, but at the time it just struck me as comical that it has become an everyday occurrence. At first it was a challenge to roll the spaghetti into a ball with one hand (you don't touch food with your left - ask a Muslim about it) but now people here laugh at me because I've become Somali at it. Eating rice with your hands is a little messier, but still surprisingly doable. My friend Blacky claims to have never used a fork or spoon in his life. Okay, I'll admit it... when I eat rice I do leave a few grains on the floor. But that's why I eat over a towel or a mat.

I would really like the object of this blog to be other peoples' stories, but I am sifting through which stories are appropriate and which might put those involved in danger. As a disclaimer, most of my research has been among Somalis, and most of my close friends are Somalis, so the initial stories will probably focus on them. I'm working on making other friends and building connections between the different communities here. I'll tell you one thing: I have never met so many people who have been shot or stabbed. I met a Somali man the other day who was shot six times during a robbery. They dug his grave while he was in a coma in the hospital three years ago. Two of his neighbors at the shop on the next block weren't so lucky... 11 bullets each put them two meters underground, just because they are Somalis. Sometimes I'm amazed that people keep saying, "it's the same everywhere: some people are good, some are bad, it's like that."

Mayfair is full of people who have been shot or stabbed and now are too scared to go back and work in the locations. I saw a guy the other day who I had met two years ago, at which point he had told me the story of how some thieves poured gasoline on him and burned him alive. I'll tell you right now that I don't know how to even begin to tackle these issues, so if you have any ideas, maybe you can help me. It's not just the Somalis either... many people here are suffering. Apartheid and the lack of even economic development that leaves about 40% of Gauteng Province unemployed have created incredible social tensions. Many of the youths here have taken up drugs and gang involvement as an escape from the harsh realities of street life.

Global Venture Community Development Association is kicking off with our first computer skills training class this Saturday, at an internet cafe in Mayfair. We will be teaching typing and basic Microsoft Office. We hope to build the classes over the next year to the point where we can branch into database management, programming, and GIS applications, since we have expertise in those types of skills and since they can help people get jobs. GVCDA is planning to run classes every Saturday, and to branch from Mayfair to Yeoville or somewhere else in the city in the next couple months. As for me, I'm heading back to Miami next week, right on time to be three weeks late for class (my parents have encouraged this type of pattern since middle school; I'm not the one to blame). While I'm gone, we're hoping to also begin a small business development project in which we'll be purchasing equipment for small-scale street vendors that helps them do their job more effectively. If you would like to contribute or know somebody who would (funds, volunteer time, equipment, whatever), please let me know. Don't sweat it if you can't or if you just don't want to... I won't think any less of you.

Pictures and sound clips of our work here will hopefully follow soon, whenever I am able to access the internet from my own computer. As for now, I am off to read and sleep.

Blessings to all,

Friday, 20 January 2012


When I tell people I am finishing my MA in geography, I usually get a response that goes something like: "oh, that's great! I bet you know all your state capitals!" Or maybe: "So what can you do with that? Teach?" (for other geographers, please read Ken Jennings' Maphead if you feel that you're the only one).

Yes, teaching is a possibility. But there is a lot more to the discipline and a lot more to the world of possibilities than staying in the US and following what people expect. Firstly, I would like to encourage all readers who are still in school - university or otherwise - to consider creatively what you can do with your degree, and perhaps more importantly, whether your degree is the most important part of your education. For me, the answer to the second consideration is definitely negative. I now know quite a bit about geography, but more than that, I've had the opportunity to read a lot of literature that has made me think, and reconsider how I think and how I approach the world. I've also had the opportunity to travel for significant periods of time and conduct research with people far away from home sweet America (thank you particularly to University of Miami, Adrienne Arsht, and National Geographic for sending me to where I am now).

So I find myself in Johannesburg, South Africa, at the start of something new. The only time I ever blogged in my life was during my five-month stay in Australia in 2008, and then I only submitted to the exercise of posting my innermost thoughts (you wish!) to the world wide web because it was a requirement for a travel scholarship I received. Now I am involved in something a bit bigger. 

If any of you live in or have visited Johannesburg you may have noticed the social separations here. It's a remnant of historical facts that South Africa remains divided - now economically more than racially, although race certainly still plays a large role. Last year I met some guys about my age who were planning to start an organization, and I sat with them as we developed ideas about how to go about bridging the gaps that exist between Johannesburg's communities. Part of the equation was finding ways for immigrants to give back to the South African community. Xenophobia remains pervasive here although no large-scale events have occurred since the massive riots of May 2008. The other part is to build something bigger - an organization conducting community development through collaborative activities that are initiated by and involve people from all different sectors and walks of life, and to do this in a smart way - using research and pulling experience from academia to inform skills training, job provision, and community programming activities.

Since Johannesburg is home to people from every part of Africa (and much of the rest of the world), it is an ideal place to start something that will hopefully spread across international borders. We are looking to invest in socially responsible businesses that bring people from various ethnicities, social backgrounds, and walks of life together in ways that have not been tried before - to use the opportunities of a free market and good business environment to reward creativity and entrepreneurship that fulfils needs and generates benefits to the whole community in which activities take place, first in South Africa and then elsewhere.

So here we go. This blog is henceforth both an agent from which to disseminate news about our organization - tentatively called Global Venture Community Development Association (GVCDA, pending official registration as an NGO) - and a forum for me to field my stories and thoughts about geography and the possibilities it brings to conduct interesting research, to advise socially responsible businesses on market openings, and generally to help people fulfil their desires and needs in creative ways. I won't make any promises here, but it is likely that I will post in the future about my past work in South Sudan, events in the Horn of Africa, and mostly about life in Johannesburg and the stories of refugees here. I can say that if you live in the US it is unlikely that you have heard as many crazy stories as I have - stories that make you wonder about humanity and about the will to survive. 

I hope to inspire you to join me and support those who need your help in any way you can. If you find yourself with some free time, please read up on South Africa if you haven't already. Look up the May 2008 xenophobic riots, current news on the South African economy and South African politics, and also political news for the rest of Africa. If you're interested, I recommend Nelson Mandela's Long Walk to Freedom, Alan Paton's Cry the Beloved Country, and The Power of One (someone remind me who the author is) as easy-to-read stories about the rainbow nation (get off facebook and put your nose in a real book - it's better for you). For readers from the US or elsewhere, feel free to ask about travel advice in South Africa and I can connect you with good people and good places to stay, in Joburg, Capetown, PE, Durban, or elsewhere. It is an absolutely spectacular country, a pleasant place to visit, and perhaps the most fascinating social environment (or multiplicity of environments) I have ever encountered - highly recommended. Also, if you want to be involved in service projects, mission trips, or anything of that sort, I can tell you that there is great need here and I would like you to consider coming to take part in what the people of Joburg are doing.

All of my best to all of my readers (very few at this point - thank you for reading, and I do promise more interesting posts in the future; consider this an introduction/author's note). At least a few future posts will also delve a bit more into geographic research, if that is the reason you're visiting.