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Complacency and apathy are our defence mechanisms

26 Jun

Above: The BBC news piece that caused a stir across the globe in 1985.

Beware: Diatribe below. Proceed with caution.

We, in the first world, choose not to care.

That way, when we hear about bad things happening in the world, we can still live our lives in comfort and enjoyment. By choosing not to care, we insure ourselves against disappointment, frustration, anger, and other uncomfortable feelings when things go wrong. So if we don’t care about immigration issues, if the sex slave trade sky rockets in Australia, we can successfully disengage and categorise it as someone else’s problem.

How do we so successfully achieve this state of uncaringness (I just invented that word)?

This is achieved by becoming complacent with the state of mayhem of the world, resulting in apathy, which paralyses us from taking steps to do anything about it. I’m not surprised by this. There are two key reasons I would like to point out as to why we, in particular the young people of the first world, are complacent and apathetic.

1. Aid doesn’t work. Giving money and volunteering in foreign countries doesn’t solve the world’s complex problems. Well, more accurately, aid hasn’t accomplished the transformations that many people hoped it would. Look at Africa, for example. I read an article while in university, that decades of aid has not lifted Africa out of poverty. It supports the structures that continue to entrench Africa in a cycle of poverty. I don’t know where that article is, but I’ve found a useful article written in 2009  I’ve also found a blog site that illuminates on the subject.

Above: A short glimpse at the “Dead Aid” in Africa issue in 2009.

The old marketing strategy of guilt-tripping people into giving aid money by broadcasting ads containing starving, sad-looking Africans on TV, especially during mealtimes – no longer works. Live Aid of the 1980s and Live 8 more recently, revived by Bono, as part of the “Make Poverty History” campaign has likewise not brought about transformative changes.

The makers of the Oscar-winning film, Slumdog Millionnaire, donated £500,000 to charities in India, prompting others to do likewise. The recent TV documentary mini-series, Go back to where you came from, has found a new type of story-telling which speaks to people and has ignited renewed dialogue on this global issue. The twittersphere and other online spheres continue to buzz about this issue. Despite these glimmers of hope that those in the first world are engaging in these issues, there is still the general population who have disengaged with these global issues.

The second key reason why we’ve become complacent and apathetic toward global issues is:

2. We have not been brought up to care about global issues.

I read a fantastic book by John Raulston Saul, called The Unconscious Civilization. It discusses how the institutions in society are geared toward encouraging passivity, mindless and continually increasing consumption and unconscious living.

One of the solutions that he poses to unconscious living is to take back our governments. This means that those of us who live in democracies need to become active democratic citizens in order for our government to truly represent us, instead of whingeing about and putting up with the government of the day.

Those of us in Australia who have gone through the formal educational institutions were never taught how to be democratic citizens, to express civic duties and responsibilities, and in turn, receive civic benefits. High school education is focused on ticking the boxes set out by the curriculum. University readies us to be worker bees.

In amongst all of that education, you don’t learn how to be a good citizen. To engage in community work, to protect and preserve the surrounding natural environment, to support the disadvantaged in the local area. We haven’t grown up being encouraged to do community work, like regenerating native bushland where it has come under attack by foreign species; or helping out at the local disability centre; or volunteering for the community fundraiser concert.

Thus, we don’t know how to be actively democratic.

If we grew up with a greater appreciation of civic duties we would be able to care and take greater ownership of our lives and our democratic nation. In turn, we would also care about and engage in global issues which concern each and every Australian. By actively engaging, we would have no need for defence mechanisms to protect us from feeling upset about Africans dying from treatable diseases. We would be OK with such feelings. We would also most likely take steps to engage with such issues.

Arise and Serve!

15 Jun

While watching last night’s news I was surprised to see Princess Sikhanyiso Dlamini, the eldest daughter of the King of Swaziland, being featured. She was proudly showing off her new apartment in Sydney which she will call home, for this year at least while furthering studies at Sydney uni.

After passing the excitement of seeing little known Swaziland on the news, I was overcome by a feeling of sadness and eventually anger. Reason being-where does all the royalty’s money come from and how justly is it spent? This question, I feel, can be and should be asked by all of us to the countries where we served in! Yeah, AUSAID, USAID, various NGO’s, UN bodies etc like to boast how much they help fight poverty, disease and the like in ‘third-world’ or ‘developing countries’, but that is as far as their concern (not all, but many) goes. Are they truly concerned about the development and difficulties at the grassroots? Reflecting on their approach to just throwing millions of dollars annually at the leaders of such countries would suggest otherwise.

In the case of Swaziland, for example, I can guarantee that this money does not filter down to the grassroots and rather stays in the pockets of those with power at the top. This too, can be argued for many African countries, nay worldwide. Corruption, politics, money and greed can be seen as a vicious cycle of destruction. What saddened and angered me the most is that Swaziland has a HIV prevalence rate of about 33-49%. That is ridiculous! How many ethnopeeps are there of us? 23? That means about 7 of us are HIV positive and no doubt ALL of us know someone personally living with the disease and very likely have had direct family members already die of it! Hearing such stories of my friends who I grew to love, having grown up with no parents because they died of the disease, having to look after their siblings, rely on wider family for support and further burdening them, became a common story. It was rare to meet someone who had not been directly affected by the disease. Now tell me, are aid organisations doing enough? Do they really care?

The leaders amass stupendous sums of wealth and waste it on material pursuits rather than the betterment of mankind and the progress of the human race. That is where the money goes. This sad reality reminds me of a quotation that I reflect on, it reads:

“All men have been created to carry forward an ever-advancing civilization”.

Were it not for simple yet profound guidance we have before us, such as the above, human beings would be left to their own devices and undoubtedly would fail. Changes are happening though. Slowly but surely. How can anyone disagree? We were all and are part of this change by the service we have provided to the advancement of humanity, right? If one were to disagree, why sit idly and argue and wait for change. Do something about it! Arise and serve!

Our efforts today will lay the foundations for their futures

Nothing in life is more rewarding than seeing the smiles you can put on someone else's faces 🙂

Sour Taste

14 Jun

So you’re volunteering away, everything is going well and you are having the time of your life.  But as more time passes and you look a bit harder, the rosie hue through the volunteer’s glasses begins to change.  It’s a typical come down.  You are all hyped to be in a foreign country and doing something new and exciting, but gradually this wears off and with more time, comes more opportunity for things to go wrong.

An event I sometimes wonder about, didn’t effect me directly but definitely effected my experience.  Two other volunteers were making a documentary about volunteering in South America.  Their main piece of equipment was a video camera and they had been making there way across the continent for the last 6 months, volunteering at various places along the way.  They were pretty discreet with their filming, mostly just about the volunteers and animals whilst they are out in jungle of the park.

We lived in a share house near the park, with about 4 bedrooms and 2 people per bedroom.  There was a lock on the front door, but we were kind of out of town, and it’s a share-house, and whilst you always mention security, no-one is ever sure who is the last to go to bed, so sometimes it doesn’t get locked.  Some people had locks on their doors as well, but these two guys didn’t.  They did however chain the video camera to their bed with a sizeable metal wire and padlock.  We awoke one night to the shouts of “Wake up! Check your stuff! We’ve been robbed!”.

Someone had come in during the middle of the night, gone straight to there room whilst they were sleeping, cut the wire and made a get-away.  No-one knows if the front door was locked or not.  But nothing else in the house was missing.

This was, needless to say, pretty upsetting for the two guys.  They had lost there purpose for the trip and all the material they had filmed in the park (they had backed-up there earlier material). Here were two guys set upon highlighting the benefits of volunteering, and someone stole their tool to spread the message.

The called the police which were about as helpful as you would expect of the Bolivian police.  The two guys searched the local town, scouring through shops and market stalls, looking for their camera.  They even considered going to the bigger towns nearby where there might be more of a market for it.  The never found it.

The obvious finger points to someone in the park, either another volunteer or a local who helped out around the place.  Thus, the few bad apples leave a sour taste in everyone’s mouth.  The volunteer community is small and word passes fast.

This definitely affected them, questioning what they were doing here, and it also affected me.  Was our work appreciated?  How are we viewed by the locals?  Are we this mysterious white beast from Hollywood or some music video?   Or is this just a few bad apples?

What I want to know is, was it need or greed that drove the thief?

Puma Facts:

4)  One single puma will normally have a territory of at least 1 square kilometre.  We had 8 pumas in a park less than 1 sq km.

In memory of a friend. A fellow lover of the Baha’i Faith. A humanitarian. A volunteer like us all.

4 Jun

His name was Mbuso Dlamini, pronounced em-bu-so.

He was one of my first friends I made in Swaziland. Each occasion I had with him, he was smiling and welcoming. He was a ‘home front pioneer’- he served as a human resource person within his own country, actively spreading the glad-tidings of the Revelation of Baha’u’llah, the Founder of the Baha’i Faith to his fellow men, and selflessly engaged in the spiritual, social and intellectual developments of his society. A true source of encouragement and inspiration to myself being an international pioneer.

Mbuso attempting a mid-air pose

He died at 23. The cause was never fully determined. But it was obvious, he was drugged by the evil workings of a family member by the help of a witch doctor with the use of mutti (as defined in my previous post ‘Outdated Practices-the Ugly Side’, a mixture of really whatever the witch doctor feels!).

I remember waking up to a heart-wrenching cry from my best friend, Isaac. He had just received a phone call informing him that Mbuso had died. Isaac was also a home front pioneer who lived with Mbuso engaging in the same community building activities.

What happened was Mbuso’s estranged uncle took him to see a witch doctor together. Naturally, Mbuso felt no harm in accompanying his uncle. There, Mbuso was told to drink some mutti with God knows what was added. The next couple days he went missing. On the third day he was confirmed dead. What friends and family of Mbuso believe is that the uncle was persuaded to believe that if he sacrificed his nephew (or any family member for that matter) he could get rich quick! One of many reasons people engage in harmful practices. A somewhat common practice, similar to albino body parts. He obviously had wrong intentions as he wasn’t to be seen after Mbuso’s sickness and consequent death. Had he cared, or did not know the mutti was poisonous he would have contacted his sister (Mbuso’smother) and offer condolences, let alone attend the funeral. Instead he fled back to South Africa to pursue his prize.

His funeral was the first I’ve ever attended. The lives he touched were evident in the faces of the friends and family in the room. He brought together people of diverse religions and backgrounds. His service to humanity was appreciated by all.

Isaac (L) and Mbuso (R) sharing the Baha'i Faith at a local store











A sad, but common story. What I learnt was that family extends beyond blood. We were connected spiritually. We shared a deeper, more sincere, true and appreciable bond that I don’t even share with some blood related family members. It is because of this connection that I can travel anywhere in the world and have a family member, something I’ve experienced in Israel, Africa, America, all over Australia, even in Singapore.

I wish this small caption of his humble and inspiring life, for myself and many others in Swaziland, can be appreciated by you all-active agents of change engaged in the upliftment of mankind. His service to humanity resemble much of what we all have and continue to be part of.
As Baha’is we believe true life is the life of the soul. May his soul progress in the spiritual worlds of God.

Outdated Practices-the Ugly Side.

2 Jun

So the general feeling is that wherever we went, we felt that the people and place was the most amazing. We felt that the culture was incredible and wished ‘why couldn’t people back home be like this?’ The humility, hospitality, true compassion and care, love, generosity etc that was given to us and that was practiced commonly. I often marvelled at this and tried to find one fault. For the first three months I thought I was living in paradise and that this could be a utopian society!

However, as the months went by, I began to see the ugly side. I began to see the effects poverty has on peoples actions. I began to see the outdated, dangerous and inhumane side of widespread practiced traditions and culture. I saw the injustices caused by politics and those with power (in Africa, this means money). At one stage I was pulled over and fined for driving with an expired Australian driver’s license. They don’t even have expiry dates on licenses in Swaziland/South Africa, yet I was booked for not flying back to Australia and renewing my license and flying all the way back just to drive! Truth was the cops just wanted money from a ‘rich white guy’. I gave them an equivalent to $5.

The most shocking aspect that affected me the most was the outrageous cultural practices conducted on albinos. Some reports suggest there are about 150000 albinos living in Tanzania, North of Swaziland. Naturally, there are many living in Swaziland also. I was blessed to befriend an albino lady, Precious, who I got to spend some time with her and her family. As Africans are still very superstitious and cultural, they still hold the belief that body parts of albinos are useful for voodoo, or traditional African witchcraft. Sadly, this belief is still held by ‘educated’ people-ministers, police, teachers-essentially everyone from each end of the social and intellectual spectrum. If police cannot solve a crime, they commonly resort to witch doctors to provide mutti (mixture of herbs etc) used to ‘help’ the case!

witch doctor I visited who gave us mutti mixed in this bowl-ingredients included various herbs and a feather from a rare bird that he wanted us to catch in the wild! Instead we bought it from the local market.

Talk about backwards! Anyway, back to mistreatment of albinos-about a month before I left Swaziland, I read in the paper that two infant siblings had been decapitated and killed. Shocking? Not as much as the next caption I read a week later: that these kids’ graves were dug up so that the rest of their body parts can be taken and used for mutti of various kinds. I even read reports that many political leaders in Africa (yes elected leaders) still practice this and hold to the belief that albino body parts can bring prosperity and success.

Precious, Nogubekezele, myself and Gugu

learning guitar by my friend Xolani (the 'X' is pronounced with a 'click' !!!

Shame. Outdated cultural and traditional practices. Disregard for humanity.

My thoughts now are: did anyone else experience the ugly side of where you served?

Despite this all, the practices of the minority did not in any way tarnish the reputation and love and respect I still hold for the majority. What I believe is that tradition and culture are positives, but are only useful and relevant today if they contribute to the society we live in now. Outdated practices should be left behind so that humanity can ascend higher and achieve more purposeful realities.

We See Trash, They See Potential

1 Jun

I found that I was consistently amazed when I was in the Philippines. Whether it was by the strength and fortitude of the people I met or by the awful living conditions which I saw; every day my mind would be blown in some form or another.

This, right here, is one of the most amazing things I’ve seen in my life. It’s a Sprite bottle that has been painstakingly melted and bent into this gorgeous tree. I’m sure the symbolism is not lost on anyone here.

In the Western world, such trash is thrown away without a second of thought. In the slums of Manila, this trash can be the difference between getting to eat or going hungry. Women and children rummage through rubbish piles to get at these discarded bits and pieces. Then they sell them on the street. If they are particularly lucky, they will be given the assistance of an NGO which will provide the materials for them and allow them to work in a safe and clean environment. The NGO may also set up a shop or have the items shipped across the world to stores like Oxfam

I visited one of these NGO’s and was, once again, amazed by how beautiful and functional these items of trash were; by how ingenious the women were. The bag above was made from juice pouches. They also used these packets to make purses and covers for couches.

The girls at the Bahay Tuluyan centre made jewellery out of magazines. Really. Magazines.

I think of all of the stuff which I throw away … and I wonder. What could be made out of this trash? How many people could benefit from it? And I cannot even begin to answer that.

What more. could you want?

31 May

We all know the phrase “A picture is worth a thousand words” and I think these photos of a local supermarket in Tamil Nadu say it all!

Good old consumerism eh?

Mass distraction

23 May

I realise I’ve been lacking my weapons of mass distraction while I’ve been over here, only one book one book that I gave my soul to (yes it was shantaram – THE book anyone says to read if youre going, and the most common book in hostels.being red in cafes – ) but that’s the brilliant part of it, it was brilliant, it heightened my experience and when I wasn’t justifying what I was doing there or feeling tired from hours on bus, I was reading – it made the hours ease glide and took the edge off dust up the nose.

The point is I wanted to read, and if it wasn’t reading it was meditating, and as much as it enhanced by experience it also served as an escapism  tool a means by which I would not be there, I was no where, I was in the book, or in my breath(?) – it helped me cope. Cope with what exactly? another entry for that.

But I realising it wasn’t coping as much as it was switching off the systems. Cheating a bit. Lessening the impact of powerful India. It was, after all the whole summer break, a part of me wanted to embrace that uni down time and it was hard to not feel ‘guilty’ for that.

An elephant of a story

22 May

I came across The Story of Stuff shortly before arriving in Hanoi to kick-off volunteering with youth on climate change education. It came as a surprise that the first Youth and Sustainability workshop I attended screened The Story of Stuff and had breakout discussions about it afterward.

The story is a frank and scathing description of the natural and human exploitation and waste that results from a linear system of production and consumption of goods. Plundering of the developing world to feed the bloated appetites of the developed world is one key component. The author of the Story calls for a cyclical system of production and consumption which supports the natural environment as well as societies.

This Story is undoubtedly educational, thought-provoking and a great eye-opener, especially for young people who are prone to increasing their consumption. However, I kept on wondering, do these teenagers and young adults blame the developed countries for disproportionate consumption of resources and exploitation of the developing world? How do the youth of Vietnam think about Nike factories in their country? They must be angry at the West, right?

During the breakout discussions, they talked about reducing their own consumption and living greener. However, the bigger issues weren’t discussed. I still don’t know if that was intentional or not.

For me, the elephant is still in the room.

What’s the point?

22 May

Why be a volunteer? Wikipedia defines volunteering as ‘the practice of people working on behalf of others or a particular cause without payment for their time and services.’

And of course volunteering is not just something that ‘has to be done’ in the third world. In rich countries a whole lot of work gets done by volunteers. Think about those people that work for food banks, the local fire-squad, those green people who raise awareness for global warming or just that group of neighbors that cleans up the local park. It seems that whenever there arises a problem that cannot (or more simply: is not) solved by the government or businesses (the market), there always is some group of volunteers that steps up to address the problem.

There are however a lot of rich-country-NGOs that try to address a problem in a poor country. Why? I guess it is for the same reasons: nobody else is doing it or that somebody who is doing it is doing it wrong(!). And of course there is some feeling of injustice and ability: we can and should set things right…

After returning from Guatemala I continued my studies and took a couple of anthropology courses. I found out that much of the academic work on development has a rather negative tone: after fifty years of development the poor are still poor. All the volunteering, all the aid-money, all those well-intended policies,… they failed.

Did I fail?

My project was to teach Guatemalan kids English. The rationale was that the chances on a job are higher if you speak English. The government doesn’t do it (properly) so that’s why my NGO was established. Next to English we we’re told to teach the kids norms and values: such as do not pollute the environment (pick up your candy wrap!), respect each other (no teasing) or be fair (everybody gets one sheet of paper) and working hard pays off (do your homework and you get an extra candy). So the kind of values that are considered to be helpful to develop into a successful society.

Maybe some of those kids did manage to get a job at a multinational, in the tourism sector or in one of the aid industry’s NGOs. I helped them right? No failure this time? It is however measuring success on a superficial level. If you think about it, I taught English because the government doesn’t do it and I taught values that are believed to be necessary for a successful society.

One of those values (believed to be one of the core values of a successful society) is equality of opportunity. I taught the kids to be fair. Isn’t there a paradox? If I teach them so they will have a better chance on a job than the kids from the village next door, am I then teaching the right values? Or worse, am I promoting inequality? Would it not have been better to stay at home and raise funds for the Guatemalan government so they can teach all kids English, on a fair basis?

In fact, by doing this work I take away the incentive for the government to take action or for businesses to give (free) English training. If you think about it in that way I have become part of the problem rather than being part of the solution. I think that qualifies as failure (disregarding the good intentions and the few kids I might have helped).

I guess I’m back to my question: what’s the point? I don’t think future volunteers ask this question very often and I can’t help wondering if my NGO thought about this question very long. It is an important question though, don’t get blinded by your noble vision, but face reality every now and then. And yes, I guess there are problems that can’t be solved by an army of volunteers.

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