Thursday, February 27, 2014

My Log 411 Feb 27 2014: London binman Wilbur has a dramatic impact on a Jakarta alleyway in Indonesia, as it does on him, as shown in a BBC documentary feature

English: Slum life, Jakarta Indonesia.
English: Slum life, Jakarta Indonesia. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Jakarta slumlife34
Jakarta slumlife34 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Jakarta has long been a destination for rural ...
Jakarta has long been a destination for rural poor, many of whom end up living in slums. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
A young boy living on an East Cipinang garbage...
A young boy living on an East Cipinang garbage dump, Jakarta Indonesia. Picture taken by Jonathan McIntosh, 2004. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Much of the commentary about poverty that passes for wisdom in the information outlets of the Western world (most of them controlled by big capitalist firms) seems to be based on a vague assumption that poverty is something essential to human life that just, sort of, exists….  An attitude that was summed up in a statement of Mother Teresa that “we would be lost without the poor…. What would we do without them?”  Or words to that effect.
It has long been my contention, based on having visited the poorest of human habitations in countries such as India, China, Kenya, Ecuador, Jamaica and other Latin American countries, that poverty is, first and last, man-made; and being so, it could also be man-fixed. In other words, men create poverty, and men can abolish it.
These reflections were stimulated by a BBC TV programme I saw today which, apparently, is part of a long series the BBC as been running in Britain under the generic title “The Toughest Place to be a….” The particular episode was about the toughest place to be a binman.  The idea was that a binman (or garbage man, as he is more usually called) from London was chosen to visit Jakarta, Indonesia, where he would undertake exactly the same work he does in London, allowing the network to film the results.
The man chosen, Wilbur Ramirez, turned out to be a gregarious, thoughtful, cheerful, and hard-working fellow who was tailor-made for this job. He arrived in the district of Gantur in the immense metropolis that is now Jakarta, with its population of 28 million people, who generate some 6,000 tonnes of waste every day, which is deposited in a huge landfill site, with another 20 per cent  simply dumped into rivers, thus despoiling them for human use.
Wilbur’s contact was to be with a small binman called Iman Syaffi who had a contract with the residents’ association for 100 palatial homes, who paid him $22 for a six-day working week that seemed to go on from morning to night. The father of a small child, he was born in a long line of improvised wooden shacks lining an alleyway, and now  lives nearby in a tiny house the rent for which is just covered by his weekly earnings, meaning that in the evenings Imam and his wife have to pick over the garbage he has collected, so that they can sell for  recycling anything that might be of use, for which work they receive $3, after working into the night for three nights.
The alleyway in which Wilbur found Imam working was strewn with garbage when he arrived, and when he set out with Imam to pull his hand-drawn cart he embarked on a task that he certainly had never envisaged when operating his air-conditioned high-technology truck in London. The people in the houses simply threw their garbage into the alleyway through a hole in the wall at the bottom of their garden, allowing it to clog the drainage channels, into which Imam had to plunge in bare feet as he tried to clear a way for the water and effluent to escape. “He’s down in there with bare feet,”Wilbur said, admiringly. “He has no idea what’s down there. It could be glass….It could be anything.”
To make matters worse other garbage men, having collected their rubbish elsewhere, had gotten into the habit of throwing bags of garbage over the wall into Imam’s alleyway, whose garbage collectors never protested for fear that if they did, a complaint would be made to the residents’ association and they could be fired with countless other people ready to take their job at any time.
Wilbur, however, had no such inhibitions: he yelled at the miscreants as they were getting rid of their surplus garbage in this way, and eventually they slunk off.
This show of defiance inspired the local collectors into becoming more vocal in their own defence.  Towards the end of his 10 days Wilbur undertook to make Imam’s total round to pick up the garbage by hand. He said he had no idea the job was so tough, he was beaten long before he finished, and indeed he didn’t get the round finished that day.
So, amid protestations of undying affection on both sides, Wilbur left his new friends, and went home. Back at his old job, he and his wife tried to raise money that could possibly make the Jakarta workers’ lives somewhat easier, and when he returned after a year he did so with  3000 pounds so collected.  But he returned to a transformed alleyway.
The local council, embarrassed by the negative publicity generated from Wilbur’s visit, had bought Imam a small power-driven cart capable of pulling two large bins. This had transformed his working day to the extent that he now sometimes had an afternoon free to go and do some fishing. All of the garbage collectors, also inspired by Wilbur’s visit, had had the first meeting in their history as workers, and had so banded together as to demand and receive better treatment from their employers.  Wilbur, working with a local agency,  decided that some of his money should be spent on educational materials for a primary school. But some more of it he decided should go to providing the binmen with uniforms, a decision that gave them immediate pride in their work and how they went about it. At last they felt they were in a position to demand some respect.
As the camera swung along the   alleyway, once so untidy and clogged with garbage, now so clean and rubbish-free, one could not help but be impressed with the power of example, and of persuasion.
It may be true that the transfer of resources from the richer countries to the poorer in this way can be interpreted as an act of charity, and therefore hardly a good example of how to overcome the problems caused by intense poverty. But in this case there was an essential difference: Wilbur did not arrive as a social worker flaunting a high salary and superior technology: not at all, he arrived as a binman, did the work on the ground as it was done locally, and so established such an intimate relationship with the local binmen as to have set about the beginnings of a social change.
This result confirms something that I have observed repeatedly from visiting places of extreme poverty in different parts of the world.  I have written it many times: the poorest place in terms of income that I was ever in was a Chinese commune that we filmed in 1978. On the basis of six weeks of intensive research, asking questions of everyone I met, I arrived at the conclusion that the average income in that place was the equivalent of a mere $60 a year per capita. Yet with that income, matters had been so organized that every one of the 15,000 who lived in the four villages of that commune had a house, everyone had a job, every child was in school, and every citizen had consistent availability to medical treatment from men known as “barefoot doctors” whose entire training consisted of a six-months course.  The health  standards in these villages appeared to be about equivalent to our own. Put it like that, and what was being achieved there was close to a miracle. 
A few years later I visited Kibera, the immense slum alongside Nairobi in Kenya. Here the garbage was piled so high along the streets, which were pitted also with immense holes, that it took a four-wheel drive jeep even to negotiate the road.  I talked to people working with the citizens of this town and was told they had every social problem known to man.  Many huts were occupied by women with their small children, usually with a mother, her daughters and grandchildren, but with no men in sight, the mother trying to keep things going by selling matches on the street in Nairobi downtown, and many of the daughters selling themselves into prostitution.
I couldn’t help asking myself: what kind of society allows such conditions to fester without making a serious effort to improve them? W.hat kind of political party occupies this place and has been unable even to organize to pick up the garbage?  The experience made me question seriously the meaning of the freedom we so often prate about in the Western world. Which were the freer in their lives and their prospects in life: the citizens of the Chinese commune, obedient to the dictates of their Communist bosses; or the deprived, unemployed homeless, impoverished citizens of the African slum, whose total income, if it were possible to calculate it, was almost certainly slightly higher than that in the commune?
Wilbur’s example lay not so much in the 3000 pounds he collected for distribution among his friends in Jakarta, as in the 10 days of back-breaking work he did with them, work that transformed not only their attitudes, but his own view of life.

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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

My Log 410 Feb 26 2014: Film God Loves Uganda features American right-wing evangelicals who, to judge by their rants, seem to love nobody, but rather to peddle hatred

Students in Uganda
Students in Uganda: the target of the evangelicals (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, Entebbe, Ju...
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, Entebbe, July 2003 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: Uganda (orthographic projection) Port...
English: Uganda (orthographic projection)

If I thought there was too much religion in the film about Haiti that I wrote about yesterday, imagine how I feel about the film on Uganda that I saw last night!
Cinema Politica Concordia, that is living up to its reputation for producing timely information on matters of importance, managed (by happenstance, I imagine) to screen a film about the American-induced hatred of homosexuals imposed on and in Uganda, just one day after the Parliament there passed a homophobic law that would imprison homosexual practitioners for up to ten years.
The film God Loves Uganda, was screened in the context of a parallel  festival of films of LGBT Afro-Caribbean interest by a group called Massimadi. The reference to Love in the title of Roger Ross Williams’ film is ironic, of course, since there is nothing about love either in the film, nor in the attitude of the American evangelists towards their fellow human beings.
In fact, these people, who have all sorts of totally absurd beliefs, such as that the Bible contains the literal truth, actually pour out hatred for anyone who doesn’t believe them, and they call it Love. The film is ostensibly about the homophobia that has seized Uganda, but the story is told by concentrating attention on the Kansas-based International House of Prayer that has taken unto itself the duty of imposing their ridiculous views on the rest of the world. So, they train young people as missionaries and send them out to establish beachheads from which to preach their disgusting beliefs. That they seem to believe what they say doesn’t make their activity any more praiseworthy.
The film used spokesmen from both sides of this war, and those on the side of tolerance and decency expressed themselves as ineffably saddened by what they have seen happening in their country, while on the homophobic side the preachers, even the homegrown Ugandan preachers, have grown  prosperous and disgustingly wealthy, as they divide their time between palatial homes they own in various American cities and Kampala, capital of Uganda.
I have always had an interest in the fate of Uganda, arising from a time I spent in London unemployed during seven months in 1951. At the time, desperate for a job, I wrote to places and people around Britain, and around the world. One of the places I wrote to was Uganda. I had worked in Invercargill, New Zealand in my first job as a journalist with a man whose brother had been one of many Rhodes Scholars produced by the High School I went to. This man had come out of his studies  at Oxford with distinction, and subsequently joined the British colonial service. He was getting close to retiring after a 20 year career in Uganda, which at that time was believed in Britain to have a model colonial administration, forward-looking and progressive (so long as one could say that about any colonial administration), under the guidance of Sir Andrew Cohen, the governor, who arrived in Uganda after a much-praised career in several British colonies.
The man to whom I wrote in search of a job did write me a friendly letter in return: I remember he remarked on how they seemed to be progressing well under a masterly leader who, it seems, had been mandated to prepare the colony for self-government.
How ironic that when the  transition to independence did arrive in 1962, Uganda should have almost immediately have become the poster-boy for failed African self-governing administrations. Indeed they were not just failed governments, these governments of the newly independent colony, they were governments of almost indescribable horror, especially that of Idi Amin, the semi-literate soldier who took over from the failing government headed by Milton Obote. Amin was eventually removed from office by the army of neighbouring Tanzania, who re-installed Obote, whose second administration turned out to be almost as disastrous as that of his predecessor. Out of the chaos  of these changes, in which Obote was also removed by a coup, after fighting a guerrilla uprising in which an estimated 800,000 people were killed, the present president of Uganda Musaveni emerged from the bush to establish order and set the country on a ore correct path. But, having been in power since 1986 --- a mere 28 years --- this model reformer is now himself hanging on to power like a limpet. And he is the president who signed the anti-homosexual law this week. Thus he appears to have long outlived the hero status he acquired from his success in rescuing Uganda from its decades of lower-depths grovelling under a series of squalid  dictators.
I have one other personal anecdote that might add a little flavour to this account: in the mid=fifties, when I was for a year a student at an adult education school in Scotland, we received one day a visit from a distinguished (and very impressive) African woman whose name somehow has stuck with me to this day. Pumla Kisosonkole carried with her all the dignity one associates with the leadership type of African women. I seem to recall she professed to be a supporter of the Kabaka of the Buganda --- the King, as it were, of the largest tribe in Uganda --- a man who not very long after her visit  declared his tribe independent of the colony and was exiled by the governor for his pains. When Ugandan independence did arrive, he was the first president of the nation for two and a half years until being replaced by Milton Obote.
As for Ms Kisosonkole, I learned only yesterday from the Internet that she was a South African who had married in 1939 a Ugandan and had gone to live there. She had not only become the first African woman to serve on the pre-independence Legislative council, but had later become president of the International  Council of Women, Ugandan representative at the United Nations General Assembly for two years, and later a literacy expert at UNESCO.
I mention all this to indicate that Uganda was, indeed a promising place in its pre-independence phase, and was not the sort of place that one would expect the people could be so completely taken over by vulgar right-wing American fundamentalist preachers, as seems to have happened in recent years.
The picture painted by last night’s film was a rather desperate, depressing one: but two of the pro-homosexual spokesmen did manage to shed a ray of light. One young Anglian priest who spoke out against the evangelicals, Rev. Kapya Kaoma, spoke throughout the film from his self-imposed exile that he undertook when it became clear to him his life was in danger if he stayed in his home country.  Towards the end of the movie the funeral occurs of David Kato, the first Ugandan to “come out” with an admission of his homosexuality and was beaten to death. A former Anglican bishop  Christopher Ssenyonjo who was defrocked by the Anglicans for defending homosexuals, said that at the church service over Kato’s corpse, he  heard a member of his Church say homosexuality was  evil, so he determined to go to the graveside where he made a short, dignified --- and I would think, extremely brave --- statement in defence of the right of homosexuals to live their lives like other human beings. Against all the evidence of the film, this man expressed mild hope for the future, a hope that this madness will eventually pass.
Understandably because of the crisis nature of events in Uganda, the film emphasized the homosexual angle. I personally would have preferred if it had included the danger to everyone, homosexual and straight alike, of these dire sects and their fanatical behaviour. To realize the completely nonsensical stuff these people are peddling,  one has only to hear the ravings of Scott Lively,  the American missionary who, as Kato observed, in the U.S. would be a bush-league wacko heading a small right-wing ministry, but in Uganda somehow gets to address the national Parliament. Part of his schtick is that gays caused the Holocaust, although the how of it is left as a yawning gap.

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Tuesday, February 25, 2014

My Log 409 Feb 25 2014: Haitians appear to be waiting for God to help them: meantime, they are being cruelly exploited by the so-called international community

Debris in the streets of the Port-au-Prince ne...
Debris in the streets of the Port-au-Prince neighborhood of Bel-Air, in the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti Earthquake. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Street-view of the National Palace of Haiti, d...
Street-view of the National Palace of Haiti, destroyed by the 2010 Haiti Earthquake. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
MINUSTAH peacekeepers continue to work to find...
MINUSTAH peacekeepers continue to work to find survivors after after an earthquake measuring 7 plus on the Richter scale rocked Port au Prince Haiti just before 5 pm yesterday, January 12, 2010. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
A Brazilian soldier stands security in Port-au...
A Brazilian soldier stands security in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, during a visit by U.S. Navy Adm. and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: Jean-Bertrand Aristide meets Bill Cli...
English: Jean-Bertrand Aristide meets Bill Clinton in the Oval Office, October 14, 1994. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Secretary-General Meets Actor and Humanitarian...
Secretary-General Meets Actor and Humanitarian Sean Penn at Haiti IDP Camp (Photo credit: United Nations Photo)
Haiti appears to be a puzzling country. To judge by the news stories that come out of it after each successive disaster, it is the most corrupt and mercilessly exploited nation in the world. Yet people with a closer knowledge of the place insist it is a nation of magical people whose culture, based on religion, is so strong as to be unbreakable by no matter what disasters may befall them.
These two sides of the country were on display last night when filmmaker Joseph Hillel --- a small, mildly spoken, and apparently highly intelligent man --- presented his 82 minute documentary Ayiti Toma, the Land of the Living  at Cinema Politica Concordia to a sizeable, and apparently knowledgeable audience who  engaged him in a lively discussion after the screening.
Using anthropologists, historians, economists and spiritual leaders as interlocutors he presented the Haitians as an exceptionally cultured and artistic people whose main characteristic is their lively imagination.
One group of citizens from one of the poorest sections of Port au Prince, the national capital, that was largely destroyed by the earthquake a few years ago, told us that they have all the people needed to rebuild their community, if only they could get their hands on the resources --- primarily money and materials --- needed to do the job.  They were impressive as they made this argument, but it is about the closest the documentary came to suggesting actual means by which the situation in Haiti, acknowledged to be disastrous because of outside interference, could be improved.
Much of the film concentrated on religious observances: it was an amazing sight to see lines and lines of people on their way to some religious observance or another emerging from the surrounding chaos all beautifully dressed in spotlessly clean white gowns. These line-ups appeared to go nowhere in particular and to be replaced by equally impressive lines of women wearing the most colorful costumes imaginable as they marched on their way to some other observance.
A great deal of time was given to explaining voodoo, as a more or less normal religion, with a sort of implied suggestion that if Haiti could be freed from outside well-wishers and do-gooders, the voodoo priests and their followers would take care of everything. (The evidence of the presence of the United Nations, at present the occupying power in Haiti, came with shots of whole parking lots filled with their jeeps and pick-up trucks waiting to spring into  action around the country. Commentators made clear their belief that MINUSTAH, the occupying power, had failed in its proclaimed mission to uplift the country’s life.)  
I always look for messages in documentary films, and one message I got from this was that the Haitian people, deeply admirable as they are, have been waiting for God to help them, and while waiting they have become the most brutally exploited nation on earth.  It made me think a little of Quebec when I first came to live here in the 1950s. One  could say that at that time, God was running things, and not doing a particularly good job of it. So in 1960 and thereafter Quebec decided to put God in his place, since when things have been going along much better than before.  I was left with a feeling that Haiti would be well advised to put God in his place in a similar way.
Now I don’t doubt that Haiti has been hardly used by the international community. “Hardly used” is a euphemism for “brutally exploited.”:  I acknowledge that. And I think Canada has much to answer for because of its treatment of Haiti as one of the triumvirate of powers with influence there. We collaborated with the Americans and the French in removing the elected leader of Haiti in 2004, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was taken to an airport and whisked away to be dropped in the Central African Republic, of all places, and replaced by a government more amenable to American interests. Indeed, there is a strong argument for the case that Haiti has always been specially selected by France and the United States to be merely a source of cheap labour for international companies, the original motive for this apparently dating back to the 1804 slave rebellion, which set up a fear of similar revolts throughout North and South America and the Caribbean. To these metropolitan countries, anything would be better than the prospect of slave rebellions, and Haiti has suffered as a consequence of its brave and successful rebellion (which is the subject of the classic history Black Jacobins by C.L.R James, the Trinidadian historian.)
I’m not sure that Aristide was mentioned in Hillel’s movie, but what is sure is that, ever since he made clear his preference for serving the poor people of Haiti,  he has been opposed every inch of the way by the United States, and his recent return after seven years of exile in South Africa was strenuously opposed by Barack Obama. As is perfectly clear to anyone with eyes to see, any political leader wherever he may be in the world who does not accept the United States world-view --- which is dominated by the need to support the interests of U.S. corporations --- can expect to face the continuing opposition of that great power. Aristide has certainly suffered that fate.
For my taste, the vision of Haiti presented in this new film is of a country and a people who lean too heavily on their concept of God, and who appear not to blame their religion --- and that of others --- for their parlous state.
The proceedings opened last night when a young man whose name I did not catch showed the first part, quite brief, of a film he and his supporting group are working on under the title Democracy in Haiti. The extract shown was of a graffiti artist working in Port au Prince, a wonderfully imaginative and talented artist,   more of whose work I am anxious to see when that film is finished.

Meantime there is a great deal of activity in Montreal in the coming week or so that is relevant to this subject.  A Haitian lawyer called Mario Joseph is currently on a tour of Canada, and he will speak at the Centre St.Pierre at 1212 Rue Panet, close to Beaudry, on Thursday of this week at 6 pm. Then from today until March 1 a programme of films is being screened on the subject of LGBT rights in Africa and the Caribbean, by an outfit called Massimadi, at the Cine du Parc, and in the D.B Clarke Cinema at Concordia University.
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