A Young and Watchful Eye on Changes

Tunis – November 2012

Youth has long been the buzz word connecting to the uprisings in North Africa and in the Middle East in the spring of 2011. A demographic shift, we’ve been told, combined with economic and social conditions, resulted in a new resistence culture with new strategies and goals for their respective countries.  Tunisia was one such country, where the median age is 30, and multi-lingual, interconnected youth played an essential role in spearheading the pressure that would lead Ben Ali to flee the country.  Now they are also an important part of safeguarding and assessing the changes that are taking place.  On today’s podcast, we sit in a part in Tunis, together with 3 young people working in the field of non-profit watch dog organizations.  In our 40+ minute conversation you will hear from Amir Kamergi, Khaoula Mhatli, and Yosra Mkadem, regarding the work they are doing and their individual and collective experiences and opinions regarding what is up with Tunisia today, how far we’ve come, and what to make of the future.

“It’s like shock therapy. Something happened that we never expected…  it’s getting better each day, people are growing up… and that’s the great thing about our revolution… we know what we want.” – Yosra Mkadem

I Watch Organization

An African Political Safari

photo by BBCWorldService on flickr

An African Election is a film that documents the struggle and achievements of the 2008 Ghanian elections.  4 years later, with the death President Atta Mills, the country is preparing to go back to the ballot box. And they’re not alone, throughout the continent of Africa, the wheels of democracy continue to turn, often in places you hear the least about in the international press.  Film maker Jarreth Merz is fascinated and inspired by the shining examples of Africa, and in their stories he see’s a chance to inspire, the spark that can light a fire and get new discussions started, large and small.  To do it, he’s putting together a mobile movie theater and bringing it all over Ghana and beyond. But he’s not doing it alone, besides his talented team, he’s putting out the call to people around the world who love democracy, Africa, aventure, and stories.. to get involved and get on board – it is time for A Political Safari.

Too Soon To Worry About Libya?

Photo by United Nations Photo / flickr

A militia rolls into the airport and shuts down all air traffic, because they’re angry about something.  Another militia goes into the offices of the electoral commission and burns ballots, because they’re upset about something. Officials from the International Criminal Court are arrested and later released, under suspicion of being spies.

– Eight months since the declaration of a new Libya and the end of Gaddafi’s rule, the steady stream of bizarre and sometimes dangerous activity continues in that country. As per the nature of media and stories that travel beyond its borders, these stories overshadow the positive developments that are also surely taking place.  But the question becomes, despite the short amount of time that has passed, have the first steps in these critical months been the ones that will lead to a more just and peaceful future for the country? Are these isolated incidents that will pass, giving way to cooler heads and more rational conflict resolution?

There is perhaps no great point to speculating or judging for the first year or years, but I am reminded of old wisdom from both religious texts and human rights advocates throughout history on the subject of wars and bringing about change through violence. Violence begets violence. That doesn’t have to be 100% true in all cases, but in today’s Libya I see what seem to be signs of what happens, the side effects of bringing about much needed change by using violence. The guns haven’t gone away and more importantly, the wounds have not simply healed. The trauma continues to play out, and sadly, creates more victims long after the official war has ended.

Was there a better way to do it? Again, it is both too late and not the point. The point – is that the costs of what happened and how it was carried will continue to be felt for what seems like the foreseeable future. Those costs undermine the goals of creating a better country where people can live life without fear of their government or their neighbors.

They Felt Ignored

Timbuktu photo by Emilio Labrador / flickr

Over the past weeks the stories have trickled in of events unfolding in Mali. In a rush to fill a knowledge void, many of us do quick research using sources from the past and present regarding this West African nation which in the 1300’s was an empire that controlled the very lucrative precious resource trade in that region. As a standard liberal democracy of today, it was thought of as a good example of a nation. But just as we so often hear from around the world over the past decade, a coup emerges kicking out the president, and revealing that in fact – things are not ok in this ancient land. A chain-reaction of events kicks off, with not only a military group taking over the presidency, but a declaration of independence by an ethnic group in the north, which is of course followed by plentiful speculation about ties to terrorist organization and other possible horror stories.

The frequently repeated line in the press, when attempting to explain the frustration in the country and the reasons the north broke away- they felt ignored by the central government. Others, who support the coup, felt ignored as the government worked hard to appease international funding schemes and please foreign investors (particularly banks). Whether any of these reports are accurate or not, when it comes to describing how people feel in different parts of Mali – it is a familiar phrase – they felt ignored.

How often, throughout the world, despite all the communication and representation that is possible, do people say these same words when describing government. These systems are put in place, often by people who are long gone, and among their descendants – there are those who feel ignored or wronged somehow, by the very group that is supposed to address them. Some will point to economics. Some will point to regional conflicts and trauma. Then there’s religion and ethnicity. The list goes on and on when it comes to why. In a time where there is so much evidence of what we have in common across borders; needs, concerns, goals, maybe even values – we still manage to have groups who feel so ignored they would take up arms, put up borders, and make a new country despite all the hardships that may follow that decision.  How did we do that, as a species, as a planet, how did this almost conspiratorial scenario take shape over and over again in various forms across the world? We seem to lose, rather than gain, the ability to live together in the same area, country, or region, regardless of differences.

While research about the planet and our history can and does reveal so many commonalities between people, people have created a reality that manages to divide us up in ever increasing ways. As a once famous fictitious kid on a Baltimore street corner once stated, “World going one way, people another.”

Global Disease Infects Portugal

Abandoned Lisbon, March 2011

Thats how it feels when everywhere you turn there are victims of some rapidly spreading phenomenon that leaves dispair and suffering in its wake.  Here in Lisbon the headlines read “Nation Reduces Its Deficit By 22%” with a sort of pride; the demands of the global bankers are being met.  But if you flip the pages of the newspaper, talk to the taxi driver, or the women on her way to work in Lisbon this morning, you’ll hear the painful details: Energy company privatized, raising prices by 30% next year.  Most salaries in public and private sector slashed by 8% and higher. Elimination of holiday pay, a yearly bit of income most mid and low income families count on to get by. Government programs for career development, cut. – Everywhere you look it is the average citizen, who for decades has survived on one of the lowest wages in Europe, that now literally pays to get the government out of its massive financial hole.

Somehow the bankers, governments, and many citizens in the rest of Europe will call it a success if Portugal manages to keep reducing its deficit. Many of the same people who,  over the past decade, helped plunge the country into its current crisis. The government in Brussels and here in Lisbon will probably pat itself on the back when the good numbers are announced in a few months or (more likely) years.

But what is left of a nation when everything has been cut or sold, and people have been squeezed to a breaking point?

I digress, this is not supposed to be a list of what does or doesn’t need to be done to save Portugal or save the Portuguese economy. This is an open question about the working of the global and European economy. About how we measure what is good and what is bad. While government and financial leaders act as if this is the medicine to cure the country of its ills, they bleed and beat the country through their actions. No I suppose not literally, but if you look around, there is a country full of afflicted people here.

Guardian Piece on Sousa Mendes

Today my piece on visiting the Casa do Passal and the Legacy of Sousa Aristides de Sousa Mendes was published on the Guardian CiF. It looks at the failure to truly honor his memory as well as  how even today there are those with the power to decide to break a rule or a law to save lives.  Here’s an excerpt, please click the link to read the whole thing:

“So you’ve seen our shame, our disgrace?” Those were the first words from an older gentleman wearing a sash along the parade route. It is carnival in Cabanas de Viriato, the ancestral home of Portuguese second world war hero Aristides de Sousa Mendes, and I’m walking alongside Francisco Antonio Campos, director of the local philharmonic.

He sounds frustrated as he stares in any direction to avoid looking at theghastly abandoned mansion looming over us in the town square. More than 70 years since Sousa Mendes, a diplomat assigned to the consulate in Bordeaux, saved over 30,000 people from the concentration camps of Nazi Germany, his story remains largely unknown and his majestic home, Casa do Passal, is falling to pieces.

Abandoned Casa do Passal
Casa do Passal, What is left of it.

Note: For those in the NYC/Long Island area, there is a special event being put on by the Sousa Mendes Foundation on Saturday in Mineola. Full details here.