Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Juggling, Tea Festival, and Tha Ton's many Buddhas

As Joseph said before he kayak accidentally flipped over spilling him into Lago de Atitlan (I would also accidentally follow only moments later), “This is what traveling is all about.”

Today was like that.

After a chilly night in Mae Salong (temperature dropped to around 50 degrees and without heat, you simply bundle up in multiple blankets and sweaters), I woke to the sound of the morning market. Looking out my window, the sky was just starting to light up and sun slowly peeking over the mountains in the horizon. I hastily got washed and made my way partially up the hill for a better view of the sunrise.
The morning market by now was in full swing. While small, it had a very nice feel, local, authentic, devoid of tourists and normal fanfare surrounding tourist oriented markets. You could watch people from the local tribes – Akhan, Luisa, and Lahu – trading, selling and purchasing goods much as they had done for decades, probably centuries. I bought a few bracelets as souvenirs and decided to collect them from any place that held a special place during my travels.

I left the market and returned to my guesthouse (which was essentially just a family’s home, where they rented out one room). The main host was playing guitar, and he had two guitars so we jammed and chatted for a little bit. After he left, a couple cute kids watched and listened as I played, and I decided this was a good time to introduce a little juggling in the fray. When I first started juggling, their faces simply lit up, entranced, and then giggling with joy. For the next hour or so, I juggled for the kids, trying to teach them the basics. They brought their parents and relatives, and the common area of the house had become quite a lively area. The best is always slowly building the relationship with the kids, where they might be a little shy at first, nervous around this strange “farang” (white man) in their house, until they loosen up and became relaxed, fighting with each other for a spot on my lap.

The kids had to leave for school, and I headed to the local tea festival. Initially, I had been worried when I arrived at Mae Salong because most of the guesthouses were full (I thought it might be flooded by tourists). It was flooded, but in a different way. Rather than Western tourists, it was mostly Thai tourists and mostly from surrounding villages for the annual several day long tea festival. It was still pretty early at that time, so I visited a nearby wat overlooking the valley. On the way back, the festival was in full swing. Dozens of food, tea, and souvenir stands. Various dance groups began to perform on the fairly large stage. I saw dances from the various nearby villages – Akhan, Luisa, Lahu, and one or two more. And amazingly, I was the only white face in the crowd.

Around noon, I needed to head to my next destination Tha Ton, so I found the minibus down to the Tha Ton bus station. The ride cut along the ridge of the mountain, sweeping around the curves with gorgeous views of the surrounding valleys. At the bottom, the overcrowded bus to Tha Ton was heading off, so I tossed my bag on top and grabbed onto the back of the bus or really pick-up truck. After a pretty ride, I found myself at Tha Ton.

Tha Ton is another really pretty town. Mostly one street, Burmese Shan refugees make up a substantial portion of the population due to Tha Ton’s proximity to Myanmar (and due to the outgoing violence against the Shan in Myanmar). Tha Ton is basically cut in half by the Maekong River, with a pretty bridge connecting the two sides, and towering mountains forming the background on either side. The main attraction is the various temples and Buddha statues on the mountain. In 9 stages, you walk or drive up the hill visiting the various sites. And they are definitely worth visiting. Probably even more spectacular than Mae Salong, the various statues are massive and ornate – the glimmering white sitting Buddha, the golden Buddha with dragons surrounding him, the massive multicolored stupa overlooking the valley and Maekong (with multiple levels and overlooks inside), and the famous standing Buddha (with its back turned towards Myanmar).

I spent the afternoon exploring the various sites, and returned to the stupa to watch the sunset.

All in all, it was a great day.

Tomorrow I head to either Chiang Mai or Phitsanoluk for New Years. I’m not sure which yet.

(PS. I'm starting to realize I blog in spurts... I'll have to work on being more regular with my posts)

Mae Salong

Following Chiang Rai, I took an early bus out to Mae Salong. I had to change at a tiny town, Ban Basang, to a pick-up truck turn taxi for the ride up the mountain. Mae Salong is built along the spine of the mountain. It’s basically one main street with a few houses, shops, restaurants, and guesthouses along the side. On the peak behind Mae Salong, there’s a large pagoda and temple overlooking the surrounding mountains and plains. I made the climb in the early afternoon after grabbing lunch in a Yunnan noodle shop (Mae Salong was actually founded by Chiang Kai-Shek after his nationalist army was driven from China and took shelter there; hence, it still retains a strong Chinese influence and often is seen as more Yunnan in its stylings than Thai).

Offering close to a 360 panorama, the view from Wat Santikeree was spectacular. Possibly even better than the buddha’s footprint near Krabi.

All in all, I really like Mae Salong. It’s largely devoid of tourists. The town is small and quaint, and people are friendly (including the nice Akhan woman at the guesthouse, peering over my shoulder as I type away on my mini-computer). The scenery is spectacular, and the chilly air (and it’s actually chilly up here, making me glad I’ve been carrying my fleece around) is a welcome relief.

Tomorrow I head to Tha Ton, another village town around the Golden Triangle (the area bordering Thailand, Laos and Myanmar (Burma – I’ll be referring to it as Myanmar for most of my blogs because I need to get used to calling it that since I’m going there in about a week.. probably not good to accidentally call it Burma once I get there). The Wat Tha Ton is supposed to be excellent, with the massive standing Buddha on top of the mountain (largely the reason I’m going there).

Random thought at dinner, I think it’s interesting how geography and politics go together. You usually find mountains or rivers near the borders of countries. The Golden Triangle being the perfect examples, but you can also look at the Karen areas of Myanmar bordering Thailand, or the Shan areas further north, or the Kauchin areas of Myanmar bordering China (again mountains). The Malaysia-Thailand border also becomes mountainous all of sudden, and Singapore, of course, is cut off by water. Similar examples abound throughout the world, and the reasoning is fairly straight-forward, mountains form a natural defensive wall; they serve as markers to the legacies and histories of war and conflict, the ebb and flow of borders, settling on the most naturally defensive areas.

Chiang Rai - land of a thousand smiles... or a thousand tourists

So for a bit, I thought Chiang Rai wasn’t too touristy. I had just arrived by bus from Chiang Mai, passing some gorgeous temples and beautiful scenery along the way. I found a nice, isolated guesthouse (Ya House), where I got a second floor bungalow seemingly entirely made of straw and bamboo and offering the prospect of hot showers. After settling in, I made my way down to the river and came across several wats along the way, where the monks were just performing the final ceremony to close down for the evening. One of the temples had a pretty green backlight illuminating the emerald Buddha inside. Returning from the river, I walked past a nice night market and grabbed some duck-rice for dinner at a street corner. Nearby, the ornate, golden clock tower glimmered in the early evening light.

At that time, I preferred Chiang Rai to Chiang Mai. Tourists were few and far between. There was a lively night life removed from the lady bars and nightclubs on the main strip in Chiang Mai, and street food was common. I took my chance and continued on to the reportedly “tourist-centered” Night Bazaar. At first, it seemed fine. A wide variety of stalls and venders, similar to the night bazaar in Chiang Mai, flood the streets. There were also two stages for performances. One being worrisome, given that it had “Night Bazaar” in Thai, English and French (a warning if there ever is one). The first few acts were fine. A couple musicians, a dance, and then a group of pretty Thai woman took the stage, dressed in fancy, flowery outfits, then began to dance and lip-synch to a song… in English, about Thailand being the land of smiles and where all your dreams come true. So much for my illusions about it not being too touristy.

After the song, I made my way back to my bungalow. In all though, I really liked Chiang Rai. While the night bazaar is very touristy centered, it’s quite easy to get away from it to a decent day market and night market, which still seem to be focused on the locals and haven’t been inundated with Western tourists. Many of the wats in Chiang Rai are also quite pretty, and I preferred some of them to even the best that Chiang Mai had to offer. The new White Temple in particular was amazing.

Monday, December 22, 2008


While walking along one of the main canals in Bangkok, I discovered a little known gem - Bangkok's juggling club. Actually, I don't know if it's official or anything, but a group of Thai jugglers meet pretty regularly at this small park near the canal. They're also joined by a decent amount of expats living in Thailand, a Belgium guy, one Japanese, and a Spaniard. Some of them were quite good, especially the Thai jugglers who are actually professional here. It was awesome doing the 10-club feed again, some nice runs at 7-singles, and teaching them the rotating Y-pattern. Oh, the joys of juggling...

land of queues

I went to get my visa for Thailand extended. And I can't help but comment on how inefficient the whole system was. First, you queue at the information desk to find out what to do. Then you get a form to fill out and queue for the line where there's actually space to fill it out. Then you queue to get back to the information desk to be told you need to photocopy some pages of your passport, so you can go queue at the photocopy store across the street, all so that you can finally queue again at the information desk to get your official number in the official "queue" for turning in your paperwork.

Oh and of course once you turn in your paper work, you get another number to queue for picking up your passport.

Saturday, December 20, 2008


I just arrived in Phang-Nga. I wasn’t certain I would come here. I heard it was really nice but it’s a little out of my way to Bangkok. Still, I decided it was worth a detour, and so far it hasn’t disappointed. The town is basically set on one main street. On either side, there are souring cliffs and karsts cutting up from the plains. I made plans to do a tour of the nearby national park and a visit to the stilt village of Ko Panyi. This afternoon I made my way to a couple temples and then Tapan Cave (?) and Dragon Temple. The whole town is completely devoid of tourists (or rather western tourists), which is a nice break from the tourism central of Ko Phi Phi and Ao Nang. Prang-Nga seems to draw more local tourists visiting the rather ill-kept “places of the interest”.

Anyway, Tapan Cave and Dragon Temple were awesome. Similar to Haw Par Village, Dragon Temple featured morbid figurines of punishment in the afterlife. Such as:

To top it off, a pack of gibbons had taken over the area, hanging out the massive distorted statues, and the place was eerily quiet. There was also a small temple at the top of a cliff that offered some excellent views of the surrounding area.

Other photos:
Full moon rising over the mountain at the river town outside of Taman Negara

Petronas Towers at night:

Petronas Towers from KL or Menara Tower:

Reflection of Kaula Lumpur skyline:

Ton Sai and Pranang

So I arrived at Ton Sai yesterday. Ton Sai is the backpackers beach (basically cheaper and grudgier) in the area, and I actually like the scenery more. The setting is cozier, with massive imposing cliffs surrounding the beach (which is admittedly worse for swimming and sun-bathing, neither of which I particularly cared about). I found a cheap private bungalow in the back of the forest behind the beach. The bungalow is mostly wood and bamboo, and setting is perfect. The woods are filled with birds and animals; the nights quiet and still, except for the sounds of nature.

Ton Sai also has the advantage of being close to Rai Lei and Pranang, two of the nicest beaches in the area (Pranang is actually ranked by many as the second nicest beach in the world). Before visiting Pranang, I took a fairly steep hike and climb up to viewpoint over Rai Lei, and then another climb to this absolutely marvelous lagoon. The trail plunges straight down into this beautifully quiet and cool canyon, insolated from the sounds and chaos of the outside world. The canyon continued down to a crystal clear lagoon, surrounded by massive cliffs on all sides, with stalagmites hanging off the cliff faces.

After the lagoon, I made my way to Pranang for the sunset and some juggling. The beach definitely did not disappoint. Limestone islands rise out from the ocean, soaring cliffs with stalagmites form an auditorium-like setting, and crystal clear waters top it off. On one side of the beach, you can explore several caves. One of them leads into a pitch black chamber, where you feel your way through a small opening until a glimmer of light reveals the way out.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

I decided to be a tourist for a day. After basically three weeks of backpacking, long train and bus rides, hiking through rainforests, and staying in some dingy $2-$3 a night dorms, I found a nice private room at Ao Nang beach in southern Thailand, off the Andaman Coast. Windows with screens (absolute luxury), so I didn't have to choose between stuffy hot air and mozzies harassing me during the night. Functioning, warmish showers. Basically the stuff of dreams, and well worth the $12 I spent on it. The scenery itself is quite spectacular. I took a longboat ride from the main town of Krabi after my morning hike to Wat Tham Suea. Wat Tham Suea is a massive Buddhist temple. The main part of the visit is climbing up one of the karsts to see the "buddha's footprint". I had done the Batu Caves outside of Kuala Lumpur, and much is made of the 237 odd steps you have to climb. Not to be outdone, you need to scale 1,239 steps to reach the buddha's footprint. But the view was pretty impressive, offering a 360 panorama of the surrounding karsts, mountains, and plains. And since ithasn't been really discovered by the tourist circuit (or people are discouraged by the number of steps), it was nice and quiet up at top.

So the longboat ride was also wonderful. You see fields of limestones karsts, cut through sparkling blue-ish green waters, and ride pass imposing cliffs, at times reaching through the water like bony fingers. My ride the next day would be even better. My tourist activity for the journey so far was an expensive speedboat tour of the surrounding islands, primarily Ko Phi Phi, Banana Islands, Monkey Island, and then a stop-over at Maya Beach (where the movie "The Beach" was filmed). The tour also slipped in three snorkeling stops, a couple of gorgeous alcoves, and a half decent buffer lunch. All for the exorbitant price of 900 baht, or around $25.

Rhys hanging off the back of the speedboat with me:

Maya Beach:

An alcove:

Today I head to Ton Sai, near Rai Lei beach to do some hikes, and then I'm off to Phang-Nga park and Bangkok.

Couple other random tidbits on my trip: Food tourism is awesome. In Singapore, I feasted at hawker centers. Basically Singapore's government decided to clean up the streets and moved all the street food into food or hawker centers. So in one food center, you'll have 30-40 amazing street food venders and feast for practically nothing. I got some kway toew (flat noodles) with oysters, a soup, half a duck and noodles, for around $5. And then when I got to Thailand, this is what they did to my food:

Ok so that was actually intentional. Pad Thai here is unbelievable. I had two massive orders last night... for about $2.

Haw Par Villa in Singapore... creep and morbid. The figurines depict some of the punishments in hell. Of course disobeying your parents gives you about the same amount of punishment as killing someone. Tells you something about Chinese culture. Some other highlights include the fireflies at Kuala Selangor. It's amazing watching the trees blinking with thousands of fireflies. I also spent a night there. It's kinda a dive, but there's a decent hike to one of the bukits (hills), where you can watch swarms of monkeys and get views of the Malacca Straits.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Bugatti, development, and souls

Writing in the New York Times magazine the philosopher Peter Singer once queried, “In the end, what is the ethical distinction between a Brazilian who sells a homeless child to organ peddlers and an American who already has a TV and upgrades to a better one —knowing that the money could be donated to an organization that would use it to save the lives of kids in need?” He based his analysis on the famous example of Peter Unger in Living High and Letting Die. Unger lays out an example where a man’s prized possession, an invaluable Bugatti car, and a child lie on opposite tracks. A runaway train is heading towards the child and about to kill it. The man can easily divert the track by flicking a switch, but by doing so, he would destroy his car. He chooses to let the train continue on its course. The child dies.

Most of us would view this as gravely wrong. It invokes individual horrors like the Kitty Genovese case, where people watched a woman being brutally raped and murdered and did nothing to help; it brings up images of the Clinton administration passively allowing genocide in Rwanda to unfold; and it invokes theological speculation on the divine bystander in the heavens. If we have the power to act, to stop evil, to end or alleviate the suffering around us, we have an obligation to do so. As the Holocaust Museum in DC reminds us, "Thou shalt not be a victim. Thou shalt not be perpetrator. Above all, thou shalt not be a bystander."

Unger and Singer use this example to cast a penetrating light to the indifference of our day-to-day lives: how time and again we stand idly by while children die of preventable diseases, how we linger as woman are gang-raped in Darfur. People starve while we gorge on fancy meals in New York and Paris. We take expensive vacations that could finance the education of hundreds of kids and provide thousands with 6-cent treatments that could save the lives of children from diarrhea.

But as a development worker in Sierra Leone, you also realize how imperfect this analogy is. Aid is often ineffective and even harmful. In south Sudan and Rwanda (especially in the refugee camps in Goma, Zaire), aid was manipulated by rebels and genocidiares to consolidate their position and continue to carry out massacres. Even something as supposedly non-political as food aid is, as Laurie Garrett notes, often harmful since it’s purchased in-kind (in the US or Europe for instance) rather than locally and requires massive transport costs. These in-kind food donations can undermine local markets, drive up prices through higher fuel costs, and create a costly dependency in communities – all in the name of aid. The presence of NGOs and UN agencies also has a distorting effect on local economies: increased demand from Western workers raises the price of certain commodities and basic goods, the middle class is drained because the best and brightest are hired into international development and relief organizations. And in general, as the former World Bank economist William Easterly comments, the West hasn’t been particularly stingy in aid (even with the lamentations of Bono and Jeff Sachs on the West missing the 0.7% of GDP target for foreign aid). The real question is why the $2.3 trillion given to Africa hasn’t shown more results in terms of improving living standards and promoting development. If we’re doing so much good, why aren’t things getting much better?

Merely pumping more money into the system might not be the correct response. For someone sitting in New York, the choice is rarely as clear cut as eating dinner at a fancy restaurant or saving a life. After all, even the calculation of programmatic expenses for NGOs and UN agencies is rarely properly understood. A substantial proportion of programmatic expenses are allocated to over-paid consultants (primarily in the EU and UN), and due to the reporting system, many NGOs and UN agencies “burn money” on large unnecessary (and harmful) construction projects so they can request more money from donors.

While I’m all for aid and I believe Singer and Unger’s analogy holds some important moral lessons, reality is not nearly so clear cut… Or at least not for everyone. Their moral argument does hold for some people though: the development workers such as myself.

For those of us who’ve chosen this life, we aren’t hundreds or thousands of miles away from the people in need; the children dying of hunger or preventable diseases aren't separated by layers of bureaucracy, inefficiency, corruption and outright incompetence. They're right next door; they're in the slums of Kroo Bay and Susan's Bay. They're asking for food and begging for money. They're the amputees you see every day, and the street children covered in dirt and flies. In Sierra Leone, when we purchase fancy meals from the splendid views of Country Lodge or the cool confines of Mamba point, the children needing help are just outside.

People like me find ourselves the ones most open to condemnation by Singer and Unger's analysis. For every night in a place like Sierra Leone, we spend relative fortunes on our housing, on our food, and children nearby go hungry, hidden in darkened hills of a pre-electricity age, sheltered by broken down and rusty metal rooftops, walking in streams of waste cutting and curving around the rolling hills of Freetown. We face the choice most days and make the choice to turn away, telling ourselves we need that comfort. And maybe we do. And maybe as good utilitarians offering ourselves this comfort, this escape will ultimately help more people.

But I also wonder about the choice to be here, the choice to be confronted so starkly with Singer’s pop quiz on a daily basis and knowing that you will fail this test repeatedly… perhaps the real sacrifice is not the material comforts of New York, but a sacrifice of one’s soul. Because we – more than most – are faced most starkly with daily tests of our own humanity, tests our humanity has demanded we expose ourselves to, and tests we fail time and again.

I have wondered about this many times. Maybe I should feel like a better person being here. But I feel dirtier than normal, like being here reminds me how dirty my hands are, or maybe being here makes my hands dirty, because I become the one turning away from the child right before me.

Perhaps the real question then, is whether I love humanity enough to be willing to sacrifice a part of my own.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Iran and Democrats

With only a month left in my contract in Sierra Leone, I decided to change this into a more political oriented blog.

McCain spoke recently at the powerful Jewish lobby AIPAC, where he sketched his approach to Iran. Democratic blogs like Huffington Post, Democracy Arsenal, Yglesias, and others of course have been jumping all over his "confrontational" approach, for instance arguing as David Shorr and Ilan Goldenberg do, that there should be direct talks with Iran. Some of the evidence they use to illustrate the value of engagement with Iran is ironic. They point to the 2003 letter sent to Cheney proposing a dialogue. They note the pro-American Iranian youth. They reflect on Larijani's rise to the speaker of the parliament, harkening a more pragmatic voice as opposed to Ahmadinejad. They downplay Ahmadinejad's role in foreign policy, especially now as even hardline clerics begin to turn against him, and of course, downplay the general threat to posed by Iran based, in part, on the 2007 NIE estimate.

But most of these examples provide evidence for a "confrontational" approach, not the conciliatory engagement advocated by the bloggers or scholars like Ray Takeyh and Vali Nasr. The NIE estimate says with "high confidence" that Iran stopped its program in 2003, after the US invasion of Iraq, and the 2003 letter was also after the invasion of Iraq. Implying that like Libya's WMD disarmament, the invasion of Iraq might have led to some of the most substantial accomplishments in WMD and nuclear disarmament.

Ahmadinejad's influence in Iran has also waned as the US and international community (even the IAEA belatedly) has become more serious and united in opposition to Iran's nuclear program. And yes, his economic policies deserve much of the blame for weakening domestic support, but all the democratic, progressive bloggers also note that the sanctions have been hurting Iran's economy (ergo, based on their own logic, sanctions have helped create divisions in Iran and given space for a more pragmatic approach).

The simple fact is that the evidence suggests Iran responds more to pressure than just engagement. Clinton's endless overtures to Iran; Europe's endless offers of incentives to Iran; and numerous US offers to talks with Iran have gotten us virtually nothing. The only actions that have gotten either internal divisions in Iran, Iran to halt it's nuclear program in 2003, or Iran to actually reach out to the US for a dialogue have been because of pressure, not engagement. Even many Iranian diplomats admit this privately - that Iran didn't take the US seriously until we blew up some of their ships and ports.

Perhaps there's some compelling evidence hidden away that engagement has really worked with Iran. I haven't seen it, and given that even the advocates of engagement point to the results of confrontation to support their position, one has to wonder if such evidence can be found.

While I'm not an advocate of military strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities or otherwise, we'd be remiss to think that direct talks and engagement are likely to produce anything unless they are coupled with serious pressure. Following Acheson's advice on negotiations, I tend to think we should focus on building up "positions of strength", increase multilateral and unilateral pressure on Iran, and also show the Iranian people that if Iran changes its behavior the US can and will really help them. Iran respects strength. If the US builds up its strength, keeps the door open for negotiations (at the lower levels first - which incidentally McCain supports, just not presidential talks), Iran will want to talk to US. After all, as the Democratic bloggers point out so well, the US still has most power regionally. We just have to make that power more usable.

(One last note on Iran's threat. I don't understand why people get so offended at the thought of military strikes against Iran. If they take US targeted military strikes against Iran as acts of war, why haven't Iranian backed terrorist attacks for the past 20+ years been considered acts of war? Iran kills US soldiers and citizens around the world; US does nothing, and then the US talks of hitting Iranian military sites and everyone criticizes the US confrontation, rather than noting US restraint. Nor should we be deluded about the existential threat to Israel that a nuclear Iran would pose. One nuclear weapon in Tel Aviv would destroy the Israel - and incidentally, Iranian "moderates" like Rafsanjani also make this argument, not just the crazies like Ahmadinejad.)

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Loss and luxury

Death is all around you here. It seems almost every couple weeks someone’s relative or close friend or child dies. You return from vacation and colleagues at work are gone. But life seems to move on as if barely anything has changed. Hardly any time or energy is spent grieving for those whose time has past.

Perhaps it makes sense. Perhaps grief is a luxury only the West can afford.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Cape Verde

I just got back from Cape Verde. It was one of the most spectacular trips of my life. I'll be posting photos soon, but for now, two quick anecdotes.

On my first day of hiking, I decided to go against the advice of the professional guide at the residencial, Casa Cavoquinho, that I stayed at. He said the path was extremely hard to follow and very difficult and dangerous. He was right. When I told one of the villagers near the top of the mountain what I intended to do, he looked at me like I was insane. A couple of kids followed me most of the way pointing the way down... down a practically vertical drop, with barely visible switchbacks cutting back and forth, several hundred meter drops on either side. After I made it past the most difficult section, I met a kid, probably no more than 10, carry a bag of rice and a knife. He seemed as if he were waiting for me to come down. He began to lead me through the rest of the trail, waiting for me whenever I paused to take a picture. Whenever we got to a difficult section, he would wait at the bottom to make sure I made it down ok. After we finished the last hard part, I thanked him and we parted ways. I never had a better guide in my life.

On the way back from Lungi International Airport, I decided against the overcrowded and lumberous Kissy Ferry. Instead, I made my way through the ramshackle village port of Tagrin and found some of the boats that head over to Freetown, across the mouth of Sierra Leone river that spills out into the Atlantic. You often see them, overcrowded and making their journey across the water. The boats are broken down messes, made of wood and leaks. The seats amount to either standing against the side or balancing on the edge, gripping the sides to prevent yourself from falling over the side as the boat rocked about in the waves. After enough people boarded, the boat set off. Mid-way across the water, another boat approached on the return trip from Freetown, and my boat began to veer directly towards it. The boats nearly crashed head on, the sides grating together, and people sitting on the sides of the other boat diving toward the center to avoid the colliding wood. At the last second, one passenger from the other boat dived on. Apparently that's how transfers in Sierra Leone take place.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

An Eostre Thought and Easter Confession

(I wrote this the night before Easter while sitting on my balcony overlooking a city stuck in a pre-electricity era. I had just been reading the Bhavagad Gita, and trying unsuccessfully to drown out the preaching of a Sierra Leonean version of Rev. Wright with Ali Farka Toure’s Malian jazz. I post it now as a belated and bit convoluted Eostre/Easter reflection.)

Easter - the most sacred Christian holiday - was named after a German fertility goddess, Eostre. It's a relic of a conversion effort by Christians who realized that - like Joe’s Nye soft power - they could make conversion more palatable by masking it in the pagan holiday’s garbs of bunnies and eggs and Eostre. Soft power in conversion: the compliment to the traditional hard power of coercion through threats of hellfire and bribes of eternal reward and drinking wells - luring the Dogon people from their cliffside homes at the Bandiagara escarpment to the stretching plains of Mali...

Both Good Friday and Easter are about suffering and death, and about God's answer to suffering and death. I have written of suffering before regarding the girl from Moyamba. From Plantinga to Swinburne, the Free Will Defense (FWD) and almost every explanation of problem of evil casts all evil, in every detail, as necessary and essential for some higher good (in turn transforming God into Raymond Sullivan's ironic utilitarian deity rather than typical Kantian, commandment-based moralist he's portrayed as). For if some evil is truly unnecessarily, people fear Archibald MacLeish's refrain would hold true, "I heard it called out in the yellow wood, if god is good, god is not god. If god is god, god is not good." So as a result, they try to answer pointless suffering by denying it altogether. But no Free Will Defense of Plantinga or Swinburne has been able to weave an argument to justify or excuse the ingenious savagery, the brilliant detail and artistry of cruelty... from a 14-year old girl forced to go through FGM by the Bondo secret society in Sierra Leone; to a 12-year old being raped and dying of her injuries in Bo district; to a girl from Moyamba bleeding from menstruation through her nipples.

But just like the traditional answer to the problem of evil, the traditional take on Easter tries to make sense of suffering, death, and evil by turning that them into something good, the Sad Friday into a Good Friday, a theological "switch in time" to rewrite history. Jesus’ death becomes some form of divine human sacrifice (i.e. the lamb of God as in the tradition to slaughter a lamb as a sacrifice for sins); blood ransom to Satan or Ancient Law (that god crafted himself, as in C.S. Lewis’s depiction); substitutionary atonement with innocent blood appeasing God; or, in the Jack Miles’ creative literary portrayal, divine suicide. In each depiction, Jesus’ death then becomes part of his plan, his goal and purpose, and his cry on the cross, “Eloi, Eloi, Lama Sabachthani? (My god, my god, why have you forsaken me?),” becomes either a mistake or an act of sophistry.

But to take away Jesus’ abandonment by God is to take away his humanity. To make it part of some divine plan is to make it inapplicable to the horrible, meaningless, and absurd suffering around us. Jesus becomes the austere image in the cathedral halls, the serene face on the stained glass instead of the startling image in Hans Holbein’s painting, “The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb,” which so shook Dostoyevsky it haunted him his whole life. As Prince Myshkin exclaimed, “Why some people might lose their faith by looking at such a picture!”

It is that suffering and abandoned Jesus that appeals to me, because it is that Jesus that you see, to borrow from him, in the “least of these.” It is that Jesus reflected in every child recruited into the Small Boys Unit (SBU) of Charles Taylor, in the rank and file of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in Sierra Leone. It is that Jesus reflected in every prisoner languishing in the cells of Evin in Tehran, in the dungeons of China, and the modern day gulag of Russia. It is that Jesus reflected in the children dying of disease or families wiped out by natural catastrophes. But too often, Easter tries to transform this senselessness into God’s divine plan, his divine instrument of justice. All evil, all suffering becomes a necessary part of God's plan, and God becomes a monster, Christopher Hitchen's dictator-in-the-sky.

Too often, Easter - instead of offering meaning - denies the real horror of the cross altogether, denying reality and offering insult to injury by undermining Jesus' death. And in doing so, it turns the God it is meant to praise into a monster, justifying evils that can never be explained or justified.

For me, the Easter moment, the Easter story is about the struggle to find the hope in the face of pointless, meaningless suffering. It is not about denying the meaningless suffering altogether. It is the paradox G.K. Chesterton described as where "God seemed himself for an instant to be an atheist." It is the question that made Kant back away from his deontological framework, forcing him to adopt a teleos based on God’s divine justice. It is the question that caused the disciples to abandon Jesus, to only return and found the world’s largest religion in his name. But Christianity perhaps more than any other religion, should enable its believers to face meaningless, awful, heart-rending suffering. Not because that evil doesn't exist, for it undeniable does. But because hopefully it is not the end of the story, but only part of it.

I confess I hope there is a heaven, a resurrection to provide some semblance of justice in the end; that all the dying children may have a chance to know some of the wonder and joy and beauty of life. But I also know even if death has been defeated, as in that famous verse of 1 Corinthians 15:55, suffering hasn’t. No power in the world can take away the suffering those innocent children felt. No God is powerful enough to pull off that "switch in time".

I also hope that if our abandonment is as final, as agonizing as Jesus may have come to believe on the cross; if that abandonment - that “final disappointment” as PJ Harvey would say - is really the final answer, I hope we can still discover magic in this world. For if this is all there is, then everything we do today, in the here-and-now, is all that matters, and that will ever matter.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Adam Smith, free markets, and horror

Free markets are thriving in Freetown and throughout Sierra Leone. You see the competition all around you.

Except the capital is war and poverty. The clients are expats. And the merchants are anyone with a story of suffering and hardship to tell. And the product is horror.

All along the streets and beaches, Sierra Leoneans compete with each other over finding and often contriving the right story to tell of war, poverty, and loss. Sometimes the pitch is simply nudging you with the remaining stumps on their arms (or “residuals” as prosthetic limb designers call them) or asking for money to watch the African cup. Some are prepared with letters and documents of their hardship and needs. Some just follow you for miles on the beaches, requesting aid as your new found Padi (Friend) or Brother. Some tell of their families being killed in the war; some tell of their hungry children at home; some simply tap on the window as your car drives by; some stick their deformed arms in your face or grab your hand pleading for money and food to eat.

It’s a skill, honed by years of sales to expats, discerning what the NGO or UN agency or individual needs to hear to open up the pocketbook and dole out some money. It’s a talent finding the right pitch to reach into the deep pockets of white man, sympathetic and naïve. And so hardships and difficulties are invented, and Sierra Leoneans become fierce advocates for their own impotence so the white man can come and rescue them.

But the pitch becomes so good, comes so often, it becomes harder to discern truth from lie, genuine hardship from contrived. But then, in a country like Sierra Leone, with a life expectancy around 40, with 75% of the population under $2 a day, with over a quarter of the children dying before the age of 5, what hardship isn’t genuine here?

George Packer wrote of war amputees who were brought to Long Island, New York, to be fitted with expensive prosthetic limbs and then returned to their homes in Sierra Leone. He discovered that many of the prosthetic limbs were left gathering dust in some corner of their shack or tin hut. It was so much harder to get sympathy with a nice prosthetic limb on your residual… victimhood was so much easier without a visible sign of the aid you’ve already received.

Maybe this isn’t the capitalism, the free market Adam Smith had in mind. Maybe this is an example where individual self-interest is counter-productive, causing people – like me, with deep pockets and sympathy – to no longer know who to believe and then turn away by default, even from the genuinely needy and genuinely honest. Maybe this is part of the irrationality of man, Kahneman’s psychology of decision-making, injecting itself into the rational calculation of economics. Maybe this is a downside Smith or Milton didn’t consider… Milton, the economist, but I suppose John Milton pertains as well.

For truly, a country sitting on billions in diamonds, with rutile, bauxite, petroleum and now even uranium; a country with arable land and vast fisheries; a country with miles of stretching beaches for the European tourist; a country with all that relying on free market victimhood and horror, isn’t that truly a paradise lost?

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

White Man in Africa

Several months ago I was working in my office and one of the local cleaning girls came in. She had been cleaning my office for the last couple days. I like to talk with most of the cleaning and security staff, so I asked what her name was and how she was doing, briefly chatting about a local Sierra Leonean band, Jungle Leaders, and their popular album Pak En Go. Within moments of becoming friendly, the whole dynamic changed and I began to feel uncomfortable, both with her and the other cleaning staff. Like many before me, I had become another rich white man about to rescue some cleaning girl from poverty.

I decided I shouldn’t be as friendly in the future.

Walking to work on a weekend, I stopped and chatted with some kids, saying “hi” or “kushe.” As I was walking away, a couple girls in the group approached and threw their arms around me. I kept walking and shrugged them off as they began offering me prices.

Taking the back road to my apartment, Fatima, a pretty Sierra Leonean girl I met a couple times near my apartment, waved me over to her place, where another girl was doing her hair. Both were probably no more than 14 or 15. She smiled at me and asked how was work, and said she'd see me tomorrow.

In bars and nightclubs in Mali, in restaurants in Senegal and Guinea, on the streets in Sierra Leone, being a white man in Africa… It's almost disturbing to see how easily one could be seduced by the power at your fingertips.
On the way back from work, I took a poda-poda (shared mini-bus) to Congo Cross on the way up to Wilberforce. The poda-poda stopped to drop someone off, and a man standing by the road offered the normal greeting, “Hey White man.” And added, “You come here and fuck our sisters.”

It was rude. It was offensive. And too often, it was right.

After posting On Prostitutes and Whores, the topic emerged in the national news in the US with the Spitzer prostitution ring scandal. This led to several interesting articles on the various approaches regarding various legal approaches to prostitution. Most notably, Sweden has legalized prostitution but, in contrast to Amsterdam for instance, focuses on arresting and prosecuting the clients. Initial evidence suggests that clamping down on the demand and treating prostitutes as victims has been the most effective. The Spitzer scandal is also ironic because Spitzer had taken the lead in reforming New York State law by signing, only last month, a bill strengthening the law against clients (such as himself). New York Times also carried a recent op-ed arguing that the theory women choose prostitution is generally a "myth" propagated by the clients.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

On Prostitutes and Whores

Walking back from work at our temporary headquarters in Kimbima Hotel, I spotted a common sight in Sierra Leone and the developing world – a young relatively well-dressed girl escorting an elderly white male around. I ended up sharing a taxi with them part of the way up Lumley beach – the girl informing the clueless gentleman of the taxi-fare (three times the normal going rate) before they headed off to the open embrace of Bunker Beach Bar.

It’s an obvious guess that she was a prostitute. You see them all the time here – whether at Paddy’s – the notorious bar where UN staff such as myself are banned, Atlantic, or in the lobby of almost any hotel frequented by expats. Some are young; some are tall and skinny; some are short; and some are missing both hands.

Sometimes you just meet the pimps, like the teenage boys I met while wandering around the streets of Mopti and Bamako in Mali, eagerly offering up their “sisters” as “babies” where I could get “good sleep, no pay.”

They say wherever an army goes, prostitution follows. Perhaps, more accurately wherever humanity goes, prostitution follows. And in a country as impoverished as Sierra Leone, it’s easy to see why young girls and women capitalize on their comparative advantage in providing cheap sex to a mostly expat clientele… For a girl surviving a war without hands, why shouldn’t she, why wouldn’t she be willing to sell the rest of her body in order to survive?

As the taxi continued its way towards Lumley junction, it occurred to me that maybe the word prostitute or whore doesn’t even fit in many cases, at least not when one considers the origins of the words. The notion of sex for hire is actually not inherent in the etymology of prostitution; rather, “prostitution” has its roots in “sex indiscriminately offered” (fem. of prostitutus, pp. of prostituere, 1530). The dirtier and more offensive of the terms, “whore”, is derived from the Old English word hōra, which in term is from the Indo-European root kā meaning “desire” or “lust”, and the Proto-Germanic word khoraz (fem. khoron-) “one who desires.”

But many ‘prostitutes’ aren’t necessarily indiscriminate or lustful or desiring of sex. After all, they’re selling something – their body or sex – for something else. It’s anything but indiscriminate, and it’s not sex they’re after. Plenty of women and men in the US and worldwide give that away for free. We look down on prostitution because they’re exchanging something we believe shouldn’t be exchanged (sex and by implication self-respect, dignity) for money. Except in places like Sierra Leone, they may be exchanging sex for survival or some chance, no matter how slim, to escape from the grind of every day life, and that is something harder to ask someone to give up. Especially when all we have to offer is some esoteric ideal of human dignity and self-respect – a Kantian Kingdom of Ends far removed from the biting poverty of the here-and-now… And it is far removed from how the “civilized” world has functioned and continues to function. After all the exchange of sex/mating for stability (measured generally in terms of material comforts) has been a central feature of marriage and courtship and dating for time memorial.

But of course all this leaves out half of the picture, namely the elderly chap being led off to Bunker Beach bar – the clients or the “Johns”. The Johns are also exchanging something for sex but not nearly as much stigma is attached to the male clients that feed the industry. Because of the ingrained sexism of our language and culture, the names for Johns are not nearly as varied or colorful or insulting as those for whores, hookers, sluts, and strumpets. After all the clients don’t live in shanty towns and slums or learn to deftly manipulate clothing with the remaining stumps on their arms; instead, they return to their civilized professional careers as UN employees, NGOs workers, businessmen, lawyers, and politicians. But more than any prostitute, these men are exchanging money in order to be able to carry out their lust and fantasies. And they’re the ones continuing to feed a multi-billion dollar industry often based on the rape of children and modern day “comfort women”; a multi-billion dollar industry based on people choosing to turn themselves into an object to be sold on the market.

In the end, I don’t know if she was a prostitute… but I’m fairly certain he was a whore.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Random Stories

My office on Jomo Kenyatta road is undergoing renovations so we moved “temporarily” (i.e. 3-4 months) to Kimbima Hotel at Man of War Bay in Aberdeen. My “office” is now a former hotel room with a balcony that overlooks the Atlantic. You can walk out to the balcony and watch dolphins in the Atlantic.
On the way back from work, I pass Lumley beach. Some days you can see the amputee soccer game around dusk. The ones who lost a leg play as strikers and defenders, moving around deftly on crutches and carrying out vicious take-downs by using their crutches to rip the other players’ crutches away. The ones who lost hands or arms play as goalkeepers.
Sample songs written by children in two villages of Kenema District, Sierra Leone, as part of the Community Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) project.

“A’ mu heimie yeh seseh -
Kekeh latrine bur mu weh
Mu gbe a li la dogbui hur
Nao mia wah a hegbei”

“Keep our environment clean
Father dig us some toilet
So we can stop going into
The bush to shit
Because this will cause illness”

“A luk titi na wati dan di
Na kaka, kaka di gei gei oh, oh….
Na sei oh, kaka di gei korela, oh…
Na korela, kaka di gei, belerun, oh….
Na belerun”

“I look over there what did
I see is shit, shit can cause
Sickness oh, oh… sickness, shit
Can cause cholera, oh… cholera,
Shit can cause dysentery, oh… dysentery”

Sierra Leone has the highest child and maternal mortality rate in the world.

Friday, February 29, 2008

A girl from Moyamba

Several months ago a colleague of mine told me about a case he was working on. Four years ago a 14 year old orphan girl in Moyamba district, Sierra Leone, was offered “love” by a young man. She rejected him. Later when she was going to collect palm wine, he ambushed her, attacked her with a cutlass, and raped her. As a result of her injuries, she started bleeding through her nose and nipples during menstruation. She has to be hospitalized every month, and recently has been going into a severe fit every time.

After the initial attack, the man said he’d take medical responsibility for her. No surprise he didn’t. Instead, a year ago he attacked and assaulted her again. She’s now confined to a safehouse and a hospital every month when she menstruates. He’s living in his town, out on bail.

Since I heard about this girl in Moyamba, I haven’t gone a day without thinking about her. It’s with me wherever I go.

As someone focused on human rights issues, it’s not as if I haven’t read or seen my share of horrors. And like many people here, I almost believed, in a twisted way, optimistically and naively that I couldn’t be shocked anymore. But this was new. A way of suffering I never even knew or could have imagined possible.

Dostoyevsky commented, “We talk of bestial cruelty. But that is a cruel insult to the beasts. A beast can never be so artistically cruel as a man.” We can and should admire the amazing artistry of beauty in this world, but the darkness is just as artistic, just as creative, just as inventive.

I thought then, and I think now of Ivan Karamazov querying his brother Alyosha in the smoky tavern. He tells Alyosha about a “poor child of five.”

"(She) was subjected to every possible torture by those cultivated parents. They beat her, thrashed her, kicked her for no reason till her body was one bruise. Then, they went to greater refinements of cruelty- shut her up all night in the cold and frost in a privy, and because she didn't ask to be taken up at night (as though a child of five sleeping its angelic, sound sleep could be trained to wake and ask), they smeared her face and filled her mouth with excrement, and it was her mother, her mother did this. And that mother could sleep, hearing the poor child's groans! Can you understand why a little creature, who can't even understand what's done to her, should beat her little aching heart with her tiny fist in the dark and the cold, and weep her meek unresentful tears to dear, kind God to protect her?"

And he asks Alyosha, if Alyosha could create a world to guarantee man’s future happiness, where he could transform all suffering into joy and comfort, but only on the condition that “it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature - that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance - and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions?”

When Dostoyevsky left the Siberia prison camp where he was exiled for six years, he commented, “If someone proved to me that Christ is outside the truth and that in reality the truth were outside of Christ, then I should prefer to remain with Christ rather than with the truth.” Like Kierkegaard, the despair of a godless world, where “everything would be permitted,” terrified him too much. So even if it meant rejecting truth, they decided to take the leap of faith, accept Pascal’s wager, and simply embrace god as a divine placebo to the hopelessness they saw facing them otherwise. There would be none of Feuerbach’s ability to find hope in the rejection of god and embrace of “the anthropological essence of religion” - god as merely a projection of man. Nor would they be able to find comfort in the Nietzschean “will to power” after the declaration of the death of god. Rather faith in god grew partially from the fertile soil of fear, fear that if they “gazed into the abyss the abyss would gaze also into them,” fear that a life without god could only be sustained by Schopenhauer’s irrational “will to live,” fear that the world may really be as dark as it often appears, and only some otherworldly power and faith could salvage the wreck.

But I’m not concerned with whether god exists or not. Stuck with my Euclidean mind, it’s an answer beyond my ability to discern. Perhaps I prefer to take the folk singer Iris Dement’s refrain and “let the mystery be,” or bear homage to Kierkegaard’s concession that he is too stupid to understand philosophy, and philosophy is too clever to understand his stupidity. I just can’t help but wonder: Dostoyevsky argued that without god, all things are permitted. But if god does exist, if god can and does act in this world, and if a girl will bleed every month through her nose and nipples, what things aren’t permitted, even with god?

My question is then like Ivan’s. If you could create an architecture guaranteeing man’s future happiness, divine justice, the conversion of all pain to joy, but one girl must be raped and have to bleed every month through her nose and nipples… would you consent? And perhaps more importantly, could you praise such an architect?

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

On the road to freetown...

On Tuesday, I made my way back from Kabala in the Koinadugu District of Sierra Leone. We rolled down the windows of the 4WD, offering some relief from the heat by letting the dry, dusty, hot air rush into the car. As we pulled into Makeni for a brief stop to buy some vegetables, a woman came over. Her right arm was marred by severe burns from her hand to shoulder. The scars covered her flesh like a thick bacteria slowly crawling its way up and around her body. Her left hand was even worse. A mangled mess, her fingers wrapped around themselves and splayed off in different directions. You could only imagine what caused the injuries. Perhaps in the war she was caught in a Revolutionary United Front (RUF) attack; or perhaps the Civil Defence Force (CDF) or Kamajors suspected her of RUF complicity; or perhaps it was just a cooking or work accident. There are so many potential sources of pain and injury. It need not be as "glamorous" as civil war, genocide, slaughter, or torture. Torture comes in too many forms to narrow it down in such a way...

The woman approached our car, and shoved her disfigured hand in through the window into our faces, asking for money. Like anyone else, we recoiled, said no, and rolled up our windows. We finished our shopping and continued on our way back to Freetown.

I suppose I should try to say something profound now. But these things happen all the time here.


For reasons I may explain later, I came back from Kabala with a new sense of purpose in the choices I have made. Or at least I tell myself. I've always been good with words, laying out philosophy and principles with rhetorical and poetic flourish, but words without actions are dead, as James 2:20 reflected about faith. There's no need to write about all the new things I've learned or decided. If I really learned them, the only words that matter will be carried out through my actions, in the kingdom of the here-and-now, and anyone with eyes to see will be able to judge what really lies in my heart and in my head. For now, I depart with just one last reflection.

While climbing one of the many hills in Kabala, I thought about the great commission - the moment in the Christian story when Jesus tells the disciples to go out into the world and spread his word. Jack Miles argued in God: A Biography how, in the Jewish canon, God had been moved to silence after his argument with Job, how God never spoke again but became the silent, reclusive, tired Ancient of Days described in Daniel. What if the central narrative of the Bible is less about how God acts in the world, but how He's decided not to? Maybe the Great Commission is also a hand-off of responsibility to us, to take on the burden of the world and heal it, to become "world saviors," as the Gnostics would put it? Christian or not, maybe there will be great strength and power and compassion and love available to us if we seek it ("seek and you shall find") - whether from man's natural goodness, his ability to reason, or from the "divine spark" in each of our hearts, or whatever term of art we may use - but perhaps, at the end of the day, the only God to help us is the God within us. The responsibility is ours. And it's terrible and terrifying, and liberating...

We need not fly to Sierra Leone to find injustice and suffering. It can be found anywhere - in our cities, in our towns, in our neighborhoods, and in our day-to-day relationships, and it's just as real there as anywhere else. For human rights doesn't begin in some remote corner of the Congo, or some impoverished slum in Freetown. It begins at home - with how we treat everyone we profess to hold dear in our heart. If we can't do even that right... how can we ever talk about human rights and respect for man?

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Saving the world

The last village we visited today was Serabu in Kenema District of Sierra Leone. Our CLTS team, Kamboi, was already there implementing the strategy. While walking towards the meeting area, Kamal Kar - the pioneer of CLTS - noticed a young boy lying on the steps of a building. He asked the surrounding members of the community about the kid. The kid was clearly severely dehydrated in the dry, dusty 40 degree heat; his frail arms seeming as if they would break when we touched them. We got a water bottle from our vehicle, and gave him some salt and sugar water to rehydrate him. Our Ministry of Health and Sanitation (MoHS) escort took him to the local health center. As the kid began to vomit, the nurse reported that the village had a very high rate of diarrhea and dehydration but most didn’t come to the health center because of a local witch doctor.

While all this happened, our team worked diligently to carry out our strategy to get the community to clean up the village, unaware of the tragedy slowly unfolding steps away. How easy it is to become so focused on saving the world that you lose sight of saving one person.

(Children in the village of Serabu after they wrote and sang a song telling their community to clean up the village so they don't get sick and die)

(Children continuing through the village singing)

Saturday, February 2, 2008

The many faces of Sierra Leone

I just spent a week working on a Community Led Total Sanitation project. I head up to Kenema for a week tomorrow to continue the project. During this week, I caught a glimpse of the many faces of Sierra Leone.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

A kid and an orange

A kid offered to buy me an orange today. I met him at Lumley beach as I was juggling with some other kids. He was with a group of friends of his, who were pushing him around in a wheelchair. When he came over to watch me, he crawled out of the wheelchair and slowly pulled himself across the sand - his right arm and leg inverted, twisting around themselves like a poorly formed vine. We tossed the ball back and forth, with him throwing the ball into various juggling patterns. He explained how he was living on the street around the bus station along Wallace Johnson street; he no longer had any family because most had been killed in the war or died of diseases. Beyond his fellow street kids, wheeling him around in his chair, he had no one. And then he offered to buy me an orange because he had some money.

When I was in Mali, as a UN employee, I “earned” DSA (Daily Subsistence Allowance) for resting. I earned more money by taking a vacation than these children may make in a lifetime; I earned more money for one day of “rest and recuperation” than families here make in a year. I came here to fight against injustice; sometimes I wonder if I’m part of the source of it. We talk of income inequality back in America, but we have no idea of what it looks like. The UN perpetuates one of the most glaring systems of income inequalities in the world, and I am the beneficiary. And while we maintain our positions of wealth, a poor street kid offered to buy me an orange.

In Mali, I thought a lot about one of Thomas Aquinas’s arguments, and as the children stripped off their old and ragged clothes and headed to play in the ocean, I thought of it again. Aquinas, in contrast to Nozick or Rand, argued that right to property or ownership was based less on possession than need. That a rich person may possess great wealth but that person had less right to that wealth, that food, that life-saving bread than a poor person, a poor and hungry child. He argued that in a sense, it was the wealthy that were stealing from the poor simply by not sharing the possessions they had. I have no interest now in parsing the philosophical merit of this argument, or dissecting the practical policy or economic implications of following the logical conclusion of this argument through to the end. Only sitting in the hot sun on Lumley beach, the sky filled with the harmattan haze, the children frolicking naked in the waves, a poor street child pulling his inverted and twisted body over the sand, I couldn’t help but feel there was at least a seed of truth to Aquinas’s claim.

After spending a few hours with them, I ended up doing what everyone else does, and what you‘re forced to do a hundred times in a country like Sierra Leone. I walked away, heading out into the long stretching beach before me - this slice of paradise, and turned my back to the least of these.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Reflections from the past

I was just reading some entries from a brief blog I kept in Princeton. I put them up now because the sentiment still resonates with me, and I wrote it better then than I could do now.



at the end of the day, i want justice; i want be the voice of the voiceless; i want to do what's right

at the end of the day, i want to be happy

i wonder sometimes if those things are incompatible....

1/20/04, 10:01

sometimes i think that the hardest thing about believing in humanity's potential is being constantly reminded how far short we fall of it.... perhaps, an idealist isn't someone who believes in an ideal world, but someone who refuses to lower his values, refuses to abandon the ideal even when it's betrayed by those around him...

there are 70,000 child soldiers in burma

last year, 10,000 children were abducted and forced to become soldiers in the Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army

in 1994, we watched genocide unfold in rwanda, and witnessed the fall of Srebrenica

11/30/03, 4:27 pm

my dad brought me "the watchmen" on friday, and i reread most of it again last night. there's something about that story that always gets to me. i have often wanted to walk from this path that i have chosen, longing for some easier road, to be able to close my eyes to the world's dark underbelly. but i can't. and even if i could, i would never choose to do it. once a man has faced the truth in all its forms, he can never turn back.... sometimes i ask myself why i fight for the rights of strangers. watching mehdi zana speak about his eleven years in torture, knowing that his wife was probably going through something similar; i was able to formulate what i had been feeling and thinking for so long.

if someone i loved was suffering or being tortured, i would want some random stranger to do something, anything to try to make a difference. how can i ask anything less of myself? i am that random stranger to so many people.



i suppose i feel talkative today. sitting alone in the basement of a deserted robertson hall. i just reflected on jacob landau's eerie pictures about man's inhumanity to man. maybe i shall go looking for beauty later today...

11:25 am

beauty is present in the simplest of things

"in the depth of winter, i finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer." - albert camus

11/12/03, 3:29 am

it's another all-nighter in Friend. the issue of human rights in liberia lies before me. i wonder sometimes why i pour over these human rights document, learning the stories of unnamed women being gang-raped, left in some abandoned village, bleeding from their vaginas. or of child soldiers pumped with "bubbles" to make them brave and strong as they can engage in some horrible, random atrocity. or of soldiers dressed in wedding dresses and flowing colorful wigs, amputating and collecting limbs to acquire some reward from their commanders. what is it that makes us stare into the heart of darkness? what is it that allows us to still survive despite the horror? is it simply schopenhauer's irrational, all-pervasive, irresistable "will to live," a wild dionysian ethic pulsing through our veins, a Karamazov thirst for life? how can we stare at beauty after seeing such horrors? doesn't the contrast with the beauty make the horror too terrible to bear? but how can we help but stare at beauty after living in such darkness? needing something to cleanse our souls of the terrible filth of reality? how can we maintain faith in humanity seeing it so degraded? how can we lose hope when we see the good that people can do? "Bad is so bad that we cannot but think good an accident; good is so good that we feel certain that evil could be explained."

it's so late that's early.... i've been staring in the shadows for so long, sometimes i wonder how my eyes will adjust when they see light again. but i want to face these demons, i want to believe the world is beautiful despite everything; i want to be able to proclaim the beauty of world, not out of ignorance or fear of facing reality, but because i have seen it in all its heart-rending horror and all its breath-taking wonder.

it's late. and i need to focus my mind on negotiating some path through problems of terror in some far off land..... i've been thinking of this quote from The Thin Red Line recently: "what difference do you think one man can make in all this madness?" i don't know. but i want to find out.

About me:
In High school and at Princeton, one could easily chalk my career as a success with a solid academic record and impressive extracurricular resume. Like most students, I could list my accomplishments as I have done and fool myself into thinking that they really mean something important, but I don't think that they do. My success is not defined by those things. My focus throughout high school and Princeton has not been acquiring awards or recognition. Despite the due care that I put in all my works, laboring over every word in a paper, obsessing over each nuance of the guitar string, or learning the precise angle for a drop shot, it is life that I have tried to invest the most care into. My final work, my final project is simply the life I live.

When Buddha was asked who he was, they said: "Are you a God?" He said, "No." "Are you an angel?" "No," he replied again. "But then what are you?" He said simply, "I am awake." I have often longed to wake up, to see the world with an un-obscured vision, to slice through all the distractions of existence and to begin to truly see the form and logic pervading all things. I do not believe that humans are destined for intellectual or moral slumber. I do not believe that we are unable to move the world and move ourselves. We are so busy making excuses for our failures; we are so willing to abnegate our responsibility, to relinquish our ability to change ourselves. We often forget that life is an art; we must take due care to live properly and study the precepts for living a good life.

For the past several years, I have studied human rights violations, pouring over heart-rending accounts of slaughter and destruction.

Why? Because if any of my friends were being beaten or raped or tortured, I would have a problem with someone standing by and doing nothing about it. If this is true, then seeing the immensity of evil in this world; I cannot with clear conscience stand by with utter indifference in the face of such abject suffering.

Why? Because when I say that the world is beautiful, I do not wish to say it because I am ignorant and unable to face the darkest corners of reality.

Why? Because if we wish to know truth, then we cannot pick which truth we wish to see, for there is only one truth, one reality, one world, and it is simply up to us whether we wish to face it or run away to cower in fear of a reality we are unable to face.