the media skews us yet again.

I always get so frustrated with the media.  I always hated the media for the following reasons: 1. It skews our perception on what’s important news, whether it’s blowing a story out of proportion or incessantly jabbing on about idle celebrity gossip as if reporting what kind of toothpaste the second coming of Jesus used on his first day on Earth.  2.  It tears apart celebrity lives.  3. It skews how children and young adults perceive themselves and the lives they should be leading.  4. It exposes what I would often consider sensitive information to anyone who can get ahold of the articles or clips, this including reports on military strategy or even problems that are weakening the country (and thereby making them more easily targeted).  5. It often publishes photos of people suffering, dying, and crying which are completely personal.  6. I don’t care if you enjoy journalism, I still think it’s selfish to make personal gains on articles that “expose the truth” i.e. get you a higher ranking and plaster such private moments over everyone’s front page.  7. Sometimes, it just plain old reports a topic miserably and inaccurately, such as the skewed article that recently described the recording of the Daily Show mascot issue and how the non-Indians were “attacked”, defending them.  And now the media drives me even crazier because there are so many fake articles circulating and people blowing up over false alarms, like the one about Facebook beginning charges for its services in November.

Well, there’s a good, recent example of the media skewing our perceptions on current issues:  The Ebola outbreak.  IT’S IN THE USA OMG WHAT WILL WE EVER DO.  I get it, it’s bad.  People are dying.  Unfortunately, this is Mother Nature sending us to our rooms without dinner.  You think this is bad?  I’m confident it’s about to get a hell of a lot worse over the next century, and I don’t mean in terms of Ebola.  I mean all kinds of pandemonium.  But that’s okay, just keep living your “modern” life and leave the future up to the hands of the future.  That’s the American way.  Live in the now, take all that you’re entitled to and whatever else you can snag up.  I’m not even sure we can’t get through the next century without blowing each other off the face of the planet with weapons of mass destruction – but that’s not my point.  My point is that indeed this Ebola spiel is not what the media is making it out to be.  Yes, Ebola is also an RNA virus which spreads at a faster rate than Influenza, but its R0 (R-naught) value is actually fairly low.  It’s lower than HIV and way, way, way lower than Measels.  With one or two cases in the US, ones which have been brought here by volunteers in Africa, those have been well contained.

And that’s the key, really – containment.  I’m so saddened by this epidemic because of my many friends in Benin, Togo, and Mali.  I lived a short time in Ouidah just last year.  But that means I’ve seen first-hand the porosity of the international borders.  I literally walked across the border into Togo.  It took a few minutes to present my Yellow Card (to prove I’ve had a yellow fever shot) and to get my visa stamped into my passport.  I got my credentials checked on the Beninese side, then I passed through a door beside the car gateway to have the Togolese police take my currency, represent the money I paid with postage-like stamps, and place their signed seal over the visa.  On the other side of the border, it was a chaotic mumbo-jumbo of women in colorful cloth and head wraps, hacking coconuts open and peddling bananas off as people ran back and forth across the road.  Yes, in West Africa you carpool.  I literally would stand on the roadway between Nigeria and Togo near the Kpasse market in Ouidah and flag a car down.  Actually, I usually asked someone to do it for me.  When a non-black flags down a car, everyone rushes to try to rip them off.  When a black person flagged one for me, I could haggle the price with someone who may not have stopped to get an overpriced deal.  I would jump into the back and keep moving left, left, left…to fit more and more passersby as we progressed towards wherever we were going.  I’m telling you this to demonstrate the relaxed situation over there.  Yeah, I would get yanked out of the car at random police barriers and have my credentials checked, but they were just looking for non-Africans who they might be able to bribe.  Rarely did they do much policing.  Once we got to a country border, it was a chaotic scramble to get the passengers to pick up visas by foot and cars driving through the gate to pick people up on the other side.  When I went to Lome, I actually traded vehicles at the border.  The driver asked to split my fee with his friend.  Rattling, smoking clunkers would roll past us with 20 feet of bundles and bananas on top – and sometimes people – and up to 15 people crammed into small vans.  Oh, when in Africa.

Ebola is spreading rapidly in West Africa.  It’s spreading because of the porosity as I’ve described.  It’s spreading because people don’t have the same sanitation as we do in the USA.  That doesn’t mean the places are absolutely disgusting, not at all.  It’s just not so freaking sterile either.  Lome was actually probably the worst I’d seen.  It had sanitation systems, but the streets were backed up with trash.  I literally walked across a field of piles of burning trash on my way to see some soccer matches at the University.  Benin is a skinny country, just like Togo, so the short trip to Lome already put me within sight of the country of Ghana.  And a lot of the people out there, especially more rural peoples, have some fears of the incoming doctors.  Treatment isn’t that easy, even with the supplies.  Keeping everything sanitary is surely another horror.  And living in Ouidah, Voodoo capital of West Africa, I saw firsthand how very unsanitary practices can contribute to the spread of diseases.  While Ouidah villagers throw carcasses into the street and sell rotting animals for witchcraft spells, other groups of people are also known to wash dead bodies as tradition.  So what would make an Ebola-plagued body any different?

Yet probably the final sad thing about the way the media is reporting this outbreak is the complete neglect Cameroon is getting.  Again, I fear for my friends.  I’ve been to Cameroon twice now, having spent a total of maybe 3 or so weeks in rural reaches of the country.  The rural areas have a much more sterile feel, unless of course you walk through the market area where the trash accumulates or if you walk through the actual market day where what my group would call “fish that looks way too much like fish” and chopped-in-half goats would be lying out in the sun, accumulating masses of flies.  Yes, you could be standing in the beignet booth and be overcome by the stench of ruminating death.  But EBOLA EBOLA EBOLA – oh wait, 80 Nigerians at a camp died in Cameroon from cholera?  There’s an outbreak of that TOO spreading around?  Yeah, no one’s hearing about it.  Why is that?  It’s not “cool” enough or there’s too much to report on for Ebola?  Can’t divert the audience’s attention?  I don’t know, you could also run a story on “the end of the world”, portraying the two epidemics as wiping out Africa and coming thirstily for our continent.  Oh, and I’m sick of seeing pictures of these suffering people.  Does no one else feel bothered by it?  How would you feel if you were the front page story??

That’s just my lunchtime rant.  I’ll be thinking of my friends in those four countries.

poverty vs simplicity.

I’ve been reading Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto by Vine Deloria, Jr.  It’s pretty intense, and reviews by whites tend to reflect two concepts that I find disturbing: 1. Oh, now I “get” Indians and 2. This book is horrible and racist!  I’m white and I’m not like that!  I find the first sentiment disturbing because it shows how damn ignorant the country is on tribal law, broken treaties, and past assimilation programs.  I find the second sentiment disturbing because it not only views Indians versus non-Indians as a racial vis-à-vis rather than sovereign nations with enormous cultural disparities (a central point being made by most of these texts), but it shows resentment before assent to past wrong-doings (which were clearly racially and religiously motivated).  As a result, you get an audience that willing to be enlightened and which consequently becomes divided by those who resent the sovereign separation – but also those who pity.

And that brings me to today’s topic: Pity.  White, Christian society has – as a generalization – repeatedly pitied minorities (once, of course, it got over taking advantage of them).  For example, so many mission trips head off to Africa within 150 years of African slavery in this country and within 50 years of Civil Rights oppression.  These societies didn’t care then, but suddenly they do?  Is it the new, generational upbringings that have helped conquer past racism?  No, I don’t think it is.  I think it is continued egocentrism, a continued effort to inflict one society’s views on another.  And just like people today will look at African countries and pity the poor, impoverished people without any hope, they will read about American Indians and just feel bad – but never do anything that could sacrifice any of their royalties.

Okay – now you’re probably saying, Well people do sacrifice for mission trips!  You say this because they take time and money to go overseas to live in those icky conditions for just some time.  But this is just my point.  Poverty vs. simplicity.  And while I don’t speak for every person in every community in every impoverished area of the world, I can speak from at least my observations in West and Central Africa, places where mission trips and Engineers Without Borders visit on an essentially permanent basis.  I have, in French, conversed for several weeks among people in both rural and urban situations about the poverty.  I’ve asked them what they think of America, of this lifestyle that these do-gooders wish to impose on the “impoverished”.  They’ve told me that America sounds fascinating, but NO I would never leave here for that.  Roukia, a cook in Ouidah, Benin who cleans in her spare time and recently opened her own restaurant – she told me the poverty is bad, people live badly in Africa.  But she also told me that America is not the answer.  People get by, but it’s confusing when the American lifestyle butts up against them.  A man named Tomas and his friends, some committee people in the tiny rural Cameroonian village Batoula-Bafounda, sat around a table drinking palm wine with me, laughing because we Americans refused to stay in their village after the well implementation was complete.  “Why go home??  We have EVERYTHING you need here!  So many bananas, avocados, and palm wine!  No, it’s not the American lifestyle, it’s the SIMPLE LIFE.”  I can’t tell you how many times I heard people tell me this was the SIMPLE LIFE, the BETTER LIFE.

And so I ask, what are these trips accomplishing?  What is this pity about?  Why do people think this American, white, Christian lifestyle – this modernity – is the solution?  When it’s the same answer to why the world is collapsing?  Why are people convinced they have the solutions and that everyone else wants to live like them in this luxurious way?  I think, to many “impoverished” people, this luxurious way is excessive, unnecessary, and severely lacking happiness.  They see it as stress and competition, not family and laughter and tradition.  These people who think otherwise come into villages (kind of like we did with EWB) and they implement systems that, quite frankly, fail immediately thereafter.  (Google it if you don’t believe me; I’ve also written about this failure before.)  Why do they fail?  Because the people don’t care for them.  Why?  Because they fall back into routine, a routine that doesn’t have these luxuries at all.  They choose tradition.

Thus back to this book, back to what I’ve written about so much lately.  Tradition.  This is the same problem we face in America with the failing efforts by the federal government to “fix” reservations.  They’re imposing their beliefs, their ways of living, their solutions.  What is the answer?  Learn, ask, respect – but let be.  Respect treaties and promises.  Respect each other.  Is that really so hard to do?  Sometimes doing is like talking; if you really want to help, sometimes you’re better off not saying anything at all.

nepal.

Nepal: One of the “Thinnest” Places on Earth

Have you ever heard of a “thin” place? No, not a place without McDonald’s or obesity. (On the contrary, there can be thin places in the US, where both of those things boom.) Instead, a thin place is described as a place of energy, a place where whatever divides the real world we live in and an eternal world beyond our reach is extremely thin, so thin that the two worlds nearly blend. Some people believe thin places are connected to God, but no one can deny that some places in nature – “thin places” – invoke an ethereal sensation, God-filled or not. I’m pretty certain the entirety of Nepal is a thin place.

The spiritual intensity of India can be ethereal, where strangers equate their guests to gods and you can wait hours pressed body-to-body in a sweaty temple just to be blessed by holy men. Waves lapping and then smashing the shores along the Blight of Benin is peaceful, terrifying, and an ethereal reminder of who’s in charge. Standing at a Buddhist temple on Mount Saleve, France, overlooking Geneva, Switzerland under a banner of prayer flags, cold air rushing up the mountain face – that was also ethereal. High altitudes and misty scenery is ethereal. Now, imagine combining all of those: altitude, scenery, the forces of nature. That’s like standing high in the Nepalese Himalayas. Up in these mountaintops, formed by clashing continents and which also host the great Mount Everest, one is greeted by a simpler life that is elevated both physically and spiritually. Picture solemn, dedicated, generous monks seeking retreat. (And don’t picture the ones setting themselves on fire in streets – that’s just to the north, in Tibet. Those are the monks that need to go to a thin place, or Nepal.)

There’s surely a reason why so many Hindus gather in these places, and it’s doubtful that Hindi Ghandi’s admiration of thin places is coincidence. But not all of Nepal is standing on a mountain top amongst trees full of prayer flags, crossing bridges in orange tunics, or eating dal bhat while cross-legged on the floor. Nepal is in fact divided by three regions which run east-to-west: mountains, hills, and the swampy terai. These regions are dissected by the river system, flowing north-to-south, making Nepal truly feel like an intersection of the forces of nature.

Of course, not all of the intersections in Nepal are the most pleasant. Since 1990, Nepal has managed to push through 500 years of governmental transformation in only a couple of decades. Yes, in 1990 Nepal was still a monarchy. This transformed into a Communist lead (well, it does border China) and is now finally a Republic. Yet, no matter how backwards Nepal might have been a few years ago, it is the first Asian country to not only abolish the death penalty but to also rule in favor of same-sex marriage. In Nepal, you can even declare yourself as a third gender – neither man nor woman. Wowzers! Basically, Nepal just wants people to be Yay! happy. And to not set themselves on fire.

The only thing about Nepal that does not lead to a happy, easy life seems to be the complete lack of efficient transportation. Sure, Nepal has 47 airports – but only 11 have paved runways. Most of the population has a 2 hour walk to the nearest all-season road, so don’t even begin to complain about 480 traffic. Basically, everything that geographically assists Nepal in being a thin place makes its transportation feel like a nightmare. And when it’s the rainy season, you can forget it. Fortunately, though, there’s no sense in having a car to get around Nepal. Just get yourself a bovine, load all of your belongings (three blankets, a wok, some tunics) on its back, and you’ll be riding in style, high up on those…15 hand shoulders. (Okay, it’s not 37 Nittos but it’s still cruisin’ for Nepal.) But, seriously, Nepal is one cool, thin place. And you should definitely try to land yourself there some day, in a tunic, on a cow, and while not setting yourself on fire.

Avoid Being a Critic.

benin-06

As I struggle to understand the world around me as well as my own emotions and role, I realize how often I judge people in my mind.  You would think that the more I discover about humanity, the more I would come to dislike people who go against the grain of what I think is the right way to live.  On the contrary, it’s been quite the opposite.

I used to be haughty and swing around the opinions I’d been raised on like some kind of righteous sword without even having a cause for why I felt that way.  It was strictly due to my environment.  Moving away from home – and then eventually traveling independently – gave me the priceless ability to view myself from the outside.  And I didn’t like what I was seeing.

It’s too easy to get caught up in the toxic wave of judgment.  Someone says one thing, a few people nod in agreement, no one wants to be “that guy” who stands up and protests.  It’s important to remember people come from different backgrounds, experiences, comfort zones, and beliefs – and all of those things drastically influence their actions and choices.  Even if something seems wrong to you, that person might not be viewing it in the same way.

Let me take a very simple example:
When I was living in Ouidah, Benin in West Africa this time last year, it was perfectly ordinary to walk out onto the street from my compound to swarms of children with outstretched hands.  They would chant “Yovo!  Yovo!’ on account of me being a foreigner with lighter skin.  They would sing “Yovo, yovo, bon soir!  Ca va bien, merci!” without even knowing what they were saying.  They would then tug at my dress and beg for a “cadeau”.  The parents would chuckle and watch.  Yes, these children were taught to racially discriminate and demand money, to disregard personal space, and to taunt.  That’s at least how some people saw it and it angered them.  They’d spit out mean words and curse at the children.  I just smiled and played along, rarely given out any francs.  These kids were raised to believe this is how you treat people, this is how you survive.  And there’s nothing wrong with that because that is how they survive.  That’s how those kids get the coins they need to go to the Internet café.  Some of them probably give the change to their mom, and that’s how they have bread for dinner.  No harm done.

Probably the hardest part in avoiding being a critic, for me at least, has been realizing not everyone is so determined to live righteously.  Some people choose to just live and get by within the common rules.  They don’t strive to find some inner-peace or to travel the world or discover themselves.  They’re content like that.

I used to hate that.  I used to resent that and call it being lazy, selfish, stubborn…but really, it’s a choice.  In fact, I preach so much that morality is just a human-made concept in order to function in an optimal society – that we are really just animals.  So isn’t that perspective more animalistic?  I guess so…I just couldn’t see it before.

I think I always just wanted the best for myself, and then to see the best in others and help them bring it out.  It’s a tough line to walk, but there is a point when your suggestions should stop before intervention.  I see it between me and my peers, the ones who don’t say they’re inspired by my ambition and who continue with the same mundane life they grew up into.  The ones who don’t move or don’t try to make changes.  I’ve got to let them decide for themselves; they’ve already seen the things I have done and how those things have helped me.

So before you’re hasty at judging someone, consider why you’re doing it and why you think you’re better for what you do.  You might find you don’t have a legitimate reason after all.  You might realize you should remain a worst critic to only yourself, and I think you’ll be a better person for it.