08 December 2014

The highs and lows of Tanzania

Happy Thanksgiving! Yes, I’m late. But, frankly, whenever am I on time? Moreover, with less than a month left in my contract, I’ve been shipped back to the hinterlands of Ango to help out the small (and shrinking) team, and work has reached new and dizzying heights of craziness and absence of internet access. The latter is why, with greatest apologies, I have no photos – the connection simply can’t handle them (soon enough, I’ll tell you in greater detail about using the Began. It is every bit as old-school and hilarious as you imagine. To post this at all, I had to walk around the depot lot at 6am in my pjs, searching for the signal sweet spot, maman and children and chickens alike staring at me like I was bananas. Can you hear me now? Hahaha – NO).

When I left it, Bunia was bustling with people rushing to finish their to-do lists before the holidays, with Thanksgiving preparations, with all the joy one associates with proposal writing season and unexpected HQ visitors and a house that is packed to the gills…which is to say, very little. In Ango, though there is no shortage of work, there is a stillness that I didn’t know I needed. There is peace and space to make sense of these last few, whirlwind months. Ever since I came back from my most recent R&R, it feels like I’ve being going hell bent for leather. Even the R&R itself held very little of either rest or relaxation, but it was a wild and adventurous ride.

In preparing for my trip, I was paranoid that I would not be able to get into Tanzania, and not completely without reason. Countries were issuing travel bans left and right, including, oddly, those making up the Southern African Development Community, of which DRC is a member. As I emphatically did not want to be turned back at the border, I did a lot of snooping about prohibitions and restrictions, and ran across this little gem and I think that it bears discussing:


A Prohibited Immigrant means any person who if he seeks to enter Tanzania is, or if he has entered Tanzania was at the time of his entry:
a destitute person;
mentally defective or a person suffering from mental disorder;
a person who refuses to submit to examination by a medical practitioner after having been required to do so;
a person who has been certified by a medical practitioner to be suffering from a contagious or infectious disease which makes or which would make his presence in Tanzania dangerous to the public;
a person who, not having received a free pardon has been convicted in any country other than Tanzania of murder or any offence for which a sentence of imprisonment has been passed for any term and who by reason of the circumstances connected therewith, is considered by the Minister to be an undesirable immigrant;
a prostitute or a person who is living on or receiving, or who prior to entering Tanzania, lived on or received the proceeds of prostitution;
a person whose entry into or continued presence in Tanzania is, in the opinion of the Minister or the Principal Commissioner of Immigration Services, undesirable and is declared by the Minister or the Principal Commissioner of Immigration Services to be a prohibited immigrant;
a person against whom there is in force a deportation order or any order for deportation or expulsion from Tanzania made under the provisions of any law for the time being in force;
a person whose presence in or entry into Tanzania is unlawfully under any law for the time being in force;
a dependant of a person to whom any of the preceding paragraphs of this definition apply;
a person who is dealing in dangerous drugs;
a person who has committed a terrorist act or international terrorism;
a person who has committed the offence of trafficking in persons.

I have to admit that after reading this somewhat appalling list, my first question was to wonder what the children of former prostitutes have ever done to Tanzania to piss it off so royally. Of course, it appears that Americans are also on the national shit list, as our visa is twice as expensive as everyone else’s. I suppose that means destitute Americans are doubly excluded.

Anyway, in the hopes of avoiding what was sure to be a stellar Tanzanian quarantine, I had to pass inspection with the local representative of the MoH and confirm that I did not, in fact, have Ebola. The examining doctor, proudly flashing what was almost certainly an aspirational Audi keychain throughout, questioned me for a good 45 minutes, asking whether I had a headache or fatigue (dude. I’m about to go on R&R after almost 14 weeks), stomach pains or diarrhea (I live in Africa. That’s sort of the cost of eating), muscle aches (I teach a yoga class three nights a week!), or bleeding from the gums (we’re safe on that front, at least). I gave an enthusiastic and emphatic no to all of the above. He then pointed a very spiffy gun-like thermometer at my face, with no result. After digging through about five boxes and three thermometer chassis, he was finally able to cobble together something that worked and again drew a bead on my forehead. Just like that, I was stamped, certified, and cleared for travel, departing on a tinker toy plane with a groovy faux wood interior reminiscent of a sedan from the 70s.

It transpired, much to my disappointment if not surprise, that I was allowed to slip right past the police-manned Ebola line in Uganda. No one cares about the infection status of transfer passengers, apparently. And I so wanted to flash my spiffy MoH documentation! I was amused to note that the Entebbe Ebola questionnaire form was offered exclusively in French, marking the sum total of all the French I have ever seen in used in Uganda. Yeah, we all knew who it was for.

The Entebbe airport is not what one might describe as layover-friendly, and as I hunkered down to wait for my next flight, I found myself eating too many Bourbon sandwich cookies out of boredom as much as – no, more so – than hunger. Between the farce with the MoH in Congo and the three separate checkpoints I had observed at the Ugandan airport, I reflected that transportation security is vaguely comparable to an eating disorder. Some institutions and governments have so little control over everything else that they are manic in this one area, and it very rarely has the desired impact. On the upside, the little café in the corner does offer the coolest cappuccino art I’ve ever seen – it was like a sea monster that I’m choosing to believe was intentional. I eventually even busted in to the quinoa and rice chocolate offered as a gift to me on the eve of my departure. Oh, Italian yogis.

I finally did manage to rendezvous with my traveling companion and fly out via Kenya (who has managed to rebuild their international departures wing in record time and it is LOVELY) and ultimately land in Dar es Salaam. We arrived quite late and a little groggy, and I was shocked anew that my visa is twice as expensive as is everyone else’s. Especially when USAID paid for the brand new landing strip! If that’s a gift from the American people, I think I want it back.

Though I ultimately only spent a few waking hours there, I very much enjoyed Dar. I confess that I don’t know altogether too much about Tanzanian history, but I am resolved to learn. There are mosques next to Swiss clock towers, full veils next to knee-length skirts next to Masai in traditional garb. Perhaps it was a little industrial, and perhaps it lacked the charm of a Cape Town, but it was vibrant and diverse and welcoming and these are some of my all-time favourite things.

While out exploring the city, we stopped by the fish market. The smell was bracing and the uneven cement ran with blood. It was a hot day, but ski hats abounded. As you would expect, there was an enormous variety of fish ranging from the size of my finger, destined to be fried and eaten whole, to monsters that took two men to lift. While I wish that I could tell you more - type, perhaps, or shape (round bellied and heavy or angular and sleek, seeming to still cut through the air, bulbous backed and surprisingly asymmetrical) or colour (they were mostly all some variant of sliver (pewter, grey, steel blue, ice white) and levels of iridescent (dull to so shimmery as to be reflective)) – but, to be honest, fish aren’t really my thing. Just across the street was another market, this one full of dry goods and crown of thorns starfish and cooked fish. One could not fault their freshness. The vendors were bulk frying small fish and octopus that had been dyed a vibrant red in massive woks. I’m sure the oil had been used in the high hundreds of times. It was deeply bronzed and thick with use and wildly unhygienic and probably tasted amazing. The fires under the vats burned hot and the oil that sloshed into them sent up rich plumes of smoke. It was all heat and shouting and chaos and fire and fish. We did not eat here.

We did, however, grab a meal on the street. At first were we not sure if it was kosher (ha) for me to pop into the clearly halal deli, but there was an unveiled woman, so we figured it was okay. Then it was off to the domestic terminal at the airport, where at 45 minutes before our flight we were comically early. I have seen more rigorous check-ins at high school debate competitions. We watched dubbed Mexican soap operas and hoped they didn’t ship our bags to Pemba.

Our quick Cessna flight, shorter than our time in the airport, took us over azure waters to the small island of Mafia. Well south of Zanzibar, Mafia is far less developed than its larger neighbour. They had just begun to tarmac the road from the airport to the marine reserve and we Congolese felt right at home. There were also far fewer tourists (a warm, somewhat dippy trio of French and a handful of obnoxious Germans, one of whom claimed that he was practically African after having been vacationing there for four months. When he asked how long we’d been traveling – what? You just arrived today?! – he preened, solidifying his place as the Super Traveller of our little collective. Golf claps), but still a wealth of activities. We stayed in the marine park, in a tent within eyesight of the ocean.

This was my first time ever going scuba diving, and it was utterly spectacular. There were Bichon Frisé-sized lion fish and giant, long-limbed purple starfish and flat, sandy fish who gave me vertigo when they moved; it looked like the sea bed was undulating beneath me. The impossibly coloured coral teemed with life, otherworldly and overwhelming. At one point, so absorbed was I in the world of the reef that I totally missed the instructor’s cue to go a different way, and my diving companion had to swim after me and catch me by the flipper. I found to my chagrin that it’s very difficult – nigh impossible – to apologise under water. We also saw our fair share of sharks (the other divers, who were more experienced and therefore could go deeper than 12m, didn’t see any. Huzzah for beginners luck!), mostly of the reef variety.

Possibly the most memorable event of my maiden dive came when the instructor stopped us, and made the signal for shark – hand straight up and down at the centre of one’s chest, as though half praying. He then corrected himself, holding up two fingers. Two sharks! He signalled to us a third time, holding his hands slightly wider than his shoulders and wiggling his fingers for emphasis. Two BIG sharks. We made the collective decision to stay put for a moment and see what they were up to. Which was a fine plan, but then two things happened in quick succession: first, a section of the reef detached itself and swam towards us. No – wait – it was just a grouper the size of a Smart Car. Second, there was a terrifically loud explosion. The sharks hightailed it out of there, and two more explosions later, we followed. One cannot reasonably be expected to dive in peace when there is illegal dynamite fishing on going.

I really did love the diving, even though I am not nearly as graceful as others somehow manage to be – when I should be hovering observantly, reverently over a trumpet fish, I find that I more flail, and the sharks nearly scared me right into the reef – though I do breathe well. I used less oxygen even than the instructor. Thanks, yoga! This – the flailing, not so much the breathing – was especially on display when we went snorkeling with whale sharks (it has been the Year of the Shark). Others were diving down, swimming alongside the sharks, close enough to touch them. I, never what one might call an ocean girl, was content to stay on the water’s surface, following just beyond oscillations of the enormous tail, reveling in how the sunlight managed to caress the leopard spotted skin. My reticence was due to my fear of drowning, which in this instance was partly imagined, and partly due to the fact that my mask didn’t fit right and nose and eyes kept filling up with water. I would just have let myself dissolve into the moment – mouth of the whale shark working like a bellows, devouring the plankton just visible as particles in the dappled water, boats silent, the sharks massive and somehow still sleek, graceful…and then gahgarblearghcoughhack. Sea water up the nose and in the eyes, trying in vain to cough and sputter without distracting from the experience. Like I said: elegance was not my byword.

Eventually – and how I did this, I do not know – I managed to single out my own shark, tailing its leonine movements away from the pack of snorkelers. They were a bit difficult to find at this point; Super Traveler had touched one, which was verboten and scared it away, while some of the fishermen’s boats had passed too close over others, cutting into their flesh. Scars criss-crossed the backs of several. In that moment, though, aggressive divers, fishermen with dollar signs in their eyes, malfunctioning equipment, my own incompetence, all was forgotten. Between the bulk and the beauty, following the whale shark felt a bit like watching on of the dancing hippos from Fantasia come to life. It movements were economical but balletic, its skin dappled and painted. I had a sense of communion, serenity, the two of us swimming along quietly together. The spots made it seem like somehow it was keeping an eye on me, though its own were quite small and firmly pointed forward. When it decided it was tired of its noisy, beflippered shadow, it angled gently downward and melted into the hazy water. How something that large could wilfully vanish that easily was quite the impressive trick. Now you see me…

Lacking my gentle giant guide, I became once again acutely aware of my water logged mask, my inability to breathe, the flippers cutting into my heels, and popped back up out of the water, only to see that I was hell and gone from the boat, from the group, treading water in the middle of shark-infested waters all by my lonesome. Mind you, these very large predators only ate very small prey, the boat had already spotted me, and I chose to do this to myself. Even so, this is the stuff horror movies are made of. As I waited for my deliverance, I reminded myself that there are reasons Sharknado did not feature whale sharks.

As with the snorkeling, you had two options for pretty much every activity: hotel or local hire. We went with the hotel/camp for those potentially more hazardous activities. While it was more expensive, it was also infinitely more reliable and reputable (and they kept a respectful distance from the whale sharks). However, we consulted with the wealth of locals milling around the beach for just about everything else. After extensive rounds of bargaining with several captains (Peter, Paul, and Dingbat, I think), we took a tiny, plastic blue boat with a puttering outboard motor (it should have been in some toddler’s tub, not the Indian Ocean) to the tiny forested island of Chole, were ruins from the Omani and formidable orange millipedes abounded. The ruins, which were slowly being devoured by the foliage, were made even less structurally sound by a local myth that the Omani had buried gold somewhere. Most of the floors were dug up (though neither the mosque nor the graveyard had been touched). Wandering through the extensive ruins, warmed by the fading sunlight and adorned by tree roots strung like garlands, I reveled in the quiet and then promptly spoilt it by taking an embarrassing number of photos.

The only thing that marred our Mafia adventure was, to my mind, the somewhat distressing lack of food. The fair proffered by our tented camp was awfully expensive, especially considering the quality, and there weren’t too many more options around. Instead, we ventured out into the nearby village, dining on local delicacies of sugared fried dough and fried fish, still with heads attached and wrapped in newspaper. We further pestered the hotel staff to give us lessons in coconut harvesting so that we might shimmy up a palm and claim a post-scuba snack. Eventually, we discovered the Wave Restaurant. At this fine establishment, one had to order 2-4 hours before one intended to eat, and the only vegetarian option on offer was a coconut curry, but it was well beyond worth it. The food was spectacularly fresh and spicy and cheap. Thus, most of our evenings were comprised of a promenade along the beach, sheltered from the brightness of the starlight by the languidly waving palms, speculating on the interior monologues of the crabs we scared back down their holes. Because the Wave had no power, we ate by candle light.

Surrounded, as I was, by white sandy beaches and water shaded with too many hues of blue to name, I gave in to the cliché and decided to so some yoga on the beach (I defy any self-respecting yogi to do otherwise!). This was possibly a mistake. Allow me do dispel a pernicious yoga myth. It is not romantic to practice yoga on the beach. It is not particularly relaxing to practice yoga on the beach. It is not effortless to do yoga on the beach. Your base keeps moving, above and beyond the rather alarming slant of the beach to begin with. There are crabs that are determined to invade your practice space, and seabirds that deposit the leavings of their kills just in front of your splayed toes, only to pick at them throughout your practice. It is difficult and distracting and makes you work for it. I have no idea how they film yoga videos on beaches. I can only assume that there is some seriously dark mojo involved in that madness.

When we returned, too soon, to Dar, we took a tuk tuk back into town. It’s rather like a motorized rickshaw and offers a very different view of the street. Like almost everywhere else I’ve been, Dar es Salaam boasts its fair share of street vendors, this time hawking fire extinguishers, breakdown kits, hazard signs, movies, serviettes, and cashews (on way to Mafia, our cabbie had promised that we would find them cheaper there. The man was lying like a rug). Unique to Dar, though, was how bus passengers would board by leaping headfirst through the open windows. Several of these buses bore an exhortation to Never Walk Alone. We were undecided as to whether this was a religious mantra or terrifying.

After dropping my friend at the airport, I then snagged a cab to the bus terminal for the next, solo, leg of my adventure that would take me from 15m below sea level to, ultimately, nearly 6000m above it. I reasoned that the bus, which would take 10 hours to transport me from Dar to the border town of Moshi, was 200 USD less expensive than the plane and would offer much more of a cultural experience. In fairness, getting to the terminal itself was fairly illuminating. The cabbie was stopped by cops and interrogated in the hot sun for ages. In the meantime, at least three men tried to climb into my cab. I ignored them and instead focused on the goings on at the goat market in front of which we were parked. It looked like those that didn’t sell went straight into processing at the adjoining Wallet Hot Burger. Finally, the driver relented and bribed the cops and we were back on our way. In hindsight, this also might have been why he endeavoured to overcharge me (the gents at the bus terminal were emphatic that he was cheating you and offered to call the police. Having had more than my fill of those shenanigans, I declined and we settled on 50USD for the cross-town trip. It cost 35 to drive all the way to Moshi).

I’d purchased a ticket on the rather extravagantly named Sai Baba Express, despite my initial reservations (it was not on the list of suggested vendors I’d Googled. See - I did my due diligence, madre). I was one of the first to board, and so got a choice window seat. The doors stayed open and standing room only tickets were sold all the way out of the lot and practically to the outskirts of Dar. At each of numerous small stops (sometimes the bus didn’t even really stop moving, but only slowed), we were mobbed by vendors selling all manner of snacks and refreshments to each other as much as to the passengers: sucres and biscuits, whole loaves of bread and bushels of apples, hardboiled eggs, sparkling with salt. I finally did buy some cashews from a man wearing a taqiyah, a rosary, and a t-shirt calling for more cowbell. Though I opted to save my snack for later, others were less restrained and threw trash on the bus floor with the same abandon as in the street.

We arrived late and it was only the next morning that I could appreciate the numerous charms of Moshi, which is quiet, lovely, unhurried, wide streets framed by towering trees with purple flowers. I did manage to lost on my way into town (my hotel was a bit afield from the city centre) and ended up tromping around the countryside for two hours in flipflops, but I eventually made it back and was rewarded with a more than satisfactory ice coffee for my efforts.

But all this, really, was a prelude. Because, of course, the main draw of Moshi is neither its coffee houses nor its superlative shrubbery, but its mountain. Moshi is the starting point for those wishing to climb Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest mountain and the tallest freestanding peak in the world, the summit was which was my final destination.

I opted to take the Machame Route, in the hiking of which you gain 4,095m over elevation over 40km, totalling and estimated 32 climbing hours. You begin in a mountain rain forest, with lofty canopies and a tangle of vines, and over the course of six days pass through moreland, whose stunted trees reached witchy fingers through dense fog and hung with long strands of burnt orange moss, alpine desert, with bulbous cactuses whose bright yellow flowers exploded against the monochrome rocks, and ended in a blasted moonscape, devoid of plants but beautiful for it’s very barrenness. It was haunting and ghostly and utterly unlike Africa. The trail followed a bit of a roller-coaster path that in theory allowed us to acclimatise successfully, but often felt like we were losing hard-won elevation gains. Each morning, we woke to beautifully clear skies and a peak that loomed, solid and unyielding, ever closer. As we climbed, the clouds chased us up the mountain and engulfed us, obscuring everything beyond a few meters. It felt as though the world had contracted around us, and nothing existed beyond the fog. All that was real was the moment, the rock, the next step, the mountain. Occasionally, Kili would burst forth from the clouds, towering rock formations and glaciers adorning it like saints on a cathedral, only to vanish again into the mist. Each night, we fell asleep under a canopy of stars.

There was a special vernacular for climbing Kilimanjaro, introduced by our superlative team of guides (Sam, Hudson, Julius, Issac, and Gerard. Not the most likely groups of names, I know). ‘Wash wash’ was the bowl of warm water we received each morning and evening to preserve some illusion of cleanliness. ‘Leaving the message’ was what one did when no latrines were available. ‘Pole pole’ was our hiking mantra – slowly, slowly (which, while promoting excellent endurance, also made for burning muscles). ‘Water for life’ was how we were admonished to stay hydrated. Our guides were terribly disappointed in us on this front several times. ‘Depending on our performance’ was how they hedged their bets in giving us any estimation on how long a section of trail would take.

The guides themselves were an interesting hybrid of team leader with butler with nanny. In addition to ensuring that we were furnished with tea and popcorn at the end of every day and ensuring that all of our dietary needs were catered to (this one does not like eggs, and that one onions. Those three do not eat meat or that one porridge. Incidentally, the food was very good, even if it erred on the side of nourishing rather than flavourful), they chided us for leaving the message rather than using the provided latrines (which was sometimes easier said than done. Many of the constructions were…precarious. They did not meet Sphere standards), and checked our O2 and heart rate every night. This was a surprisingly stressful process in which we wondered who would be the first to fail and be carted down the mountain in disgrace? Just the act of having your body regulated in front of a room of strangers, one of whom was a respiratory therapist who would comment on every result, probably sent our hearts racing even faster.

In order to relax ourselves, as well as to take our minds off the depleting oxygen and increasing cold, we often took group quizzes from a tattered book someone with genius foresight thought to pack. After the third night of quizzes, I decided that, collectively, we were either really poorly informed or losing it to the altitude. Henry Who Shall Remain Numberless was not king during the War of the Roses. Yorick did not kill Macbeth. Rupal was decidedly not Sir Edmund Hillary’s Sherpa (in particular, given the level of care we were getting from our own support team, this was an egregious one to miss). It was on the third and fourth days that altitude sickness really started to set in for most people and marked my only real brush with it to, signified by a crushing headache. Add that to my chapped mouth and breaking nails (one of the upsides to RDC, for whatever reason? Best nails of my life), and I was not really feeling my best. I therefore decided a headstand was the only thing for it. In contrast to Mafia, the ground was staunchly unmoving, though it was the most cloathes I’ve ever worn doing yoga. It started to rain during my savasana.

Because of the peculiar nature of the hike, most of the physical heavy lifting came the day before/day of (depends on how you slice it) our summit run. It was on Wednesday morning that we set out to tackle the dauntingly named Baranco Wall. Traffic jams were the order of the day and the guides kept yelling at the porters who pushed through our plodding group. While I could not fault the porters, I was did take umbrage at the other tourists for their rudeness. This was the only remotely technical bit of climbing (and consequently probably my favourite stretch), and as we scrambled up the wall, Gerard would grab my camera when it swung free from my next to stop it from hitting the rocks. We reached the top of the wall in time to catch site of Kili, resplendent in a halo of sunlight and clouds. I felt very much alive (less so after the subsequent three hours we had to trek in order to reach our lunch site). Late in the afternoon, we arrived at the base camp that was perched on a cliff overlooking Mwenzi Peak. The village of tents looked like the flotsam of a shipwreck in a sea of clouds. My hands were almost too cold to work my camera, let alone the recurrently malfunctioning zippers of the tent.

After a nap, too brief and cold to be really meaningful, we were back up and hiking on the moonscape by midnight. There was a moment, just before our final ascent commenced, where a quite fell over us. And in that moment, with the bulk of Kili outlined by a universe of stars, I did not experience any sense of serenity. What I felt was joy, pure and fierce. That, of course, dissipated quickly into the cold, along with our crystalized breath. Flurries of snow were falling from the cloudless sky, and the guides had instructed us to turn our water bottles upside down so that we might be able to steal a few sips as the water froze.

Of all of my yogic adventures in Tanzania, this was probably the closest to capturing the essence of yoga. The entire climb was an exercise in brining breath and movement into harmony. At one point, I also found myself praying the rosary. I didn’t remember starting. I had to concentrate almost fully on the boots of the person just ahead so as not to let my exhaustion and dizziness overwhelm me (as continued to climb, my mental notes got shorter and more abstract, more a poem more than a narrative. I do think that the altitude impacted me less than others, but I was not immune). I continually moved my fingers as though playing a phantom accordion to prevent them from curling into claws around my hiking poles.

We took a minimum of breaks during the summit run. Those of us who managed to stay hydrated left the message as close as Propriety allows to the group, just to minimize our time along in the darkness. Believe you me, she is a gentle mistress at 3am in the freezing cold. The last time the guides called for a halt, I almost cried. I thought that I might well solidify on the spot. That was when they passed out shots of hot tea that one of them – Hudson, maybe? – had dragged all this way (most were not wearing their own bags, so that they could take ours were we too exhausted), and I almost cried again, this time with relief.

When I did choose to raise my eyes from the trail, I could make out other hikers snaking up the trail as though climbing into the stars like some modern-day tragic Greek hero. Or Draco. Several sported red headlamps, and I wondered whether they expecting incoming. In the other direction, Moshi shined below us like a jewel.

Julius, who was probably my favourite of the guide team, was the one actually leading us up the mountain. All during the trip, Julius would seek out even the smallest scraps of trash, a one man clean-up crew, and had once practiced yoga with me. His first summit was in 1994 and at this point he knew the trail so well, the headlamp seemed unnecessary (as were the cairns hikers insisted on building throughout, small monuments to themselves). He spent the entirety of the final climb singing Swahili hymns. His strong voice alternated by switchbacks with the speakers dangling from someone’s pack, Adel and the Ting Tings and Kings of Leon and Know When to Hold ‘Em mixed with Ni Wewe Baba and Mimbo Za Mungu. The other guides knew the words to the improbable country songs. I did have a little guilt here, as I found the music from both directions profoundly uplifting, and remembered how on the first day of our trip, I had grumbled about an obnoxious pair of hikers who were blasting music. I wanted to find them on the way back down and introduce myself as the pot to their kettle.

When we finally reached the top, just after sunrise, all was majesty and magic and tears and dancing and cashews. It is rare, I think, to have such an unadulterated feeling of complete satisfaction. The guides hoisted me in front of the sign confirming that we were at Uhuru Peak, 19341ft, a World Heritage Site. Either I was heavier or they more tired than they had anticipated, because they almost dropped me.

There was just time for photos and hugs, and then it was back down, as fast as our exhausted bodies would carry us, covering what had just taken us seven hours in three. I was a bit frustrated a how slow we were going, as the faster the descent, the longer our nap at base camp (a hot, windy nap. The mess tent blew away), but bowed to the demands of aching knees. At one point, a team of our porters appeared around a bend in the trail with juice and other refreshment. It was astoundingly well-timed (I haven’t given the potters the praise they’re due. They outnumbered us three to one, and would stay behind to break down the camp, only to pass us on the trail, each carrying roughly 20 kilos on his head, to have the next camp site set up and dinner prepared by the time we’d arrived. They were aces).

We did seem to race past those who didn’t manage to summit, some of whom were being seen to by the rangers that doubled as a sort of Kili medivac corps (on gentleman was complaining that they did not have sufficient medical services, as he had a lung condition. Sir, this is Tanzania. They don’t have sufficient medical services in Moshi. Maybe if you have a lung condition, maybe don’t make the climb! Of course, one of our own group had some not inconsiderable problems and our guides stole oxygen from another group).

Our final night on the mountain, I enjoyed some delirious vampire dreams, but slept like I was dead. It was the only night I didn’t wake up multiple times. Exhaustion is amazing. With one final, longing glance back at Kili, we flew down the mountain, passing from Alpine desert to moreland to rain forest. If my writing seems a bit rushes, that is because the experience itself was. Kili fell away too soon, leaving a hollow feeling where the glory had been. At least I got an official certificate that BUTTEFIELD climbed the peak. At least they got the Connolly? That’s usually the hard one. When I left for Congo two days later, our crew already there to pick up the next set of tourists to take up the mountain.

01 November 2014

Bicycle built for two

I cannot, for the life of me, recall if we had a Halloween party in Bunia last year. One imagines not – it’s not terribly big in Europe – though the expat community does seem to favour events wherein they can put on some costumes of dubious quality and dance and drink, so you’d think it would be right up our alley. At least I can rest assured that no one is planning on attending any potential party as a sexy Ebola nurse. That said, if they were feeling up to it, MSF could probably play an excellent joke on us – and indeed, all of Bunia, if they opted to come in full quarantine mode.

There are, perhaps unsurprisingly, a few other in which we feel the shadow of Ebola stretching out its boney, bloody fingers (boo!). I’ve been getting a really fun daily update from CRS (no idea how I got on that particular email chain), for example, that gives not only all the latest stats from the Congo outbreak, but also those in West Africa (and now Dallas and Spain and New York. It’s comprehensive!), as well as what new travel bans are in place (another NGO workers was recently refused entrance into the Seychelles because she was traveling from Congo, which seems remarkably short-sighted. Did they let in the people she travelled with? What if she’d sneezed on a flight attendant?). From a friend at MSF, I’ve learned all the gruesome details about what an Ebola clinic looks like, and it’s…not pretty. In their training materials, even regarding a ‘moderate mortality’ outbreak like that in Congo (only just over 50 per cent), they flat out note that treating patients amounts to hospice care. Really, really ginger and profoundly sanitised hospice care. If you do pull through, the virus can stay in your body for over a month, so all health care workers and survivors are supposed to remained quarantined for a bit. One of my friend’s colleagues, who has a reputation as something of a Casanova, was apparently ready to volunteer to work the outbreak (as it seemed quite heroic) until he heard this piece of information. He then demanded to know that, should he contact and survive Ebola, would it be possible to, during this quarantine period when the virus was still lurking in his system and he could not visit any of his numerous lady friends, re-infect himself via masturbation? A question for the ages, friends!

Far from isolating myself for fear of exotic diseases, I have been actively trying to get out and about in last few months. The end of my mission is rapidly approaching, so I’m trying to soak up my remaining time in Bunia. The same MSFriend recently (ha – he’s been working on it for the better part of his mission) rehabilitated a tandem bike. By which I mean he unearthed two, damaged bikes and soldered them together, making possibly the heaviest bike in the world. Now that it’s working, at least after a fashion, we’ve spent the last few weekends tooling around (they also have a fleet of single-rider bikes, so while the tandem was yet under construction, I would often hitch a ride on the back of the standard bike, sitting side-saddle with a hand lightly – and sometimes not so lightly – placed on my pilot’s waist for stability. I had to hop off whenever the road deteriorated to much and be careful to not let my skirts get caught in the spokes. I often felt like the eldest daughter in a 50s sitcom, riding on the bike of her steady on the way to the malt shop. If only it weren’t for the fact that the malt shop was covered in barbed wire and guarded by an APC…). On our last ride, the bike only broke down three times. So I thought I would invite you on a bike tour of Bunia with me!

This past weekend, we were lucky to have a perfect riding day, as we’re in the final, through very damp, throws of the rainy season. The tandem takes a certain level of coördination, as the engineering was perhaps a bit spotty. The back pedals hang low and will become lodged in any deep rut one encounters, not only stopping the bike dead but also dislodging the second gear chain and possibly even popping off a pedal in its entirety. Which wouldn’t normally be a problem, but Bunia roads are more rut than not. At any rate, though it always takes us a few attempts to work out our rhythm, we managed to get off and riding. Sunday mornings are my favourite time to be out around town, as there is less traffic than at almost any other time of the week. As we rode along, passing families decked out in their (often matching) Sunday best, strains of various hymns could be snatched from all sides, blending together in an unexpected (and mostly harmonious) symphony of worship.

Unfortunately, our first stop of the ride came just outside of the more exuberant though less in-tune congregations when my shoelace became caught in the pedal and snapped. My shoes have had a difficult time of things lately. Between the rain and the bike, it’s a bit of a marvel that I have any shoes left at all, now that I think about it. Bits flake and peel off my sandals like the appendages on a damp zombie. Which is evocative, yes, but somewhat less than comfortable. All but one pair are currently held together with epoxy and Medair-branded tape. I often give my shoes – and the tape that holds them together – pep talks. Okay, guys, I’m really sorry for wearing you in the rain, but we only have 3(!) more months. You can do this!

After dislodging my lace and resetting the chain, we managed to make it to the market without any additional mishaps. Our first stop was to visit the Bike Man; the tandem’s creator and he are on chummy terms, as the MSFer has been coming here for all the necessary odds and ends to create and maintain this twee Frankenstein. This weekend, the plan was to add a rack to the back of the bike so that things might be carried (optimistically, a picnic basket). While the Bike Man himself was professionally unimpressed – so it’s working? Ça va, ça va - others were more willing to be effusive. People cluster around it at every stall or let their fingers drift along it gently as we passed. One man clucked at how clever it was – those muzungus, always ahead of us! Many ask my friend how he made it, and while answering that he did it himself is not totally accurate, it is the simplest explanation (he conceptualized it, then convinced another expat with a background in deep sea welding to help, and when that individual left for the field, talked their staff welder – yes, MSF can afford a staff welder – to finish the job in exchange for a few beers. When things got really tricky, they went to an actual bicycle repair man just outside of town). He always fields requests to purchase it, one even as high as 50USD. That person had more money than sense, frankly.

At one point, holding the bike as my friend haggled over pagne prices – it’s not the most manoeuvrable thing in among the labyrinthine stalls and mud of the marketplace – I saw a pagne covered in sparkplugs. It was the classic 6V pattern introduced to me by a former MK during a dinener that somehow morphed into a master class on pagne. Apparently, most pagne designs come from a few speciality European houses and have, for the past 80 some-odd years. These fabrics, sold almost exclusively in Africa, can cost upwards of 100USD for the traditional length of six yards. On the plus side, during our discussion, the self-same humanitarian was wearing a shirt that had been made for her mother in Congo in the early 1970s and it still looked brand-new, so the real stuff is acres better than the knock-offs the rest of us are wearing. Back to the 6V, though, the MK had read, in a terrifically dated and racist travel book, that, when the first cars (which had six cylinders) were imported to Congo in the 1950s and 1960s, they were an overt status symbol and accessible to only the super-wealthy. ‘Six sparkplugs’ became a national catchphrase identifying any number of things – though women especially – as lux, classy. It’s like saying she’s a 10. Also, six vougie sounds better in Congo French that you might imagine. The most trend-setting of the fashion houses – a Dutch outfit called Vlisco – turned the 6V motif into a pagne. Though they might have intended it to be a courting gift – hey, baby, you’re 6V! – women apparently began buying it for themselves, as a way to affirm their own beauty and desirability (that’s right – I’m a 6V and I know it!). Though it’s no longer so much in fashion, it’s retains an aura of women’s sexual autonomy and empowerment. If only it weren’t so revolting…

I also had to pick up some food odds and ends for the house. Medair has a hard and fast rule that they will not reimburse without a receipt. It’s not always worth fighting for, as ost of the mamans on the market don’t offer receipts and only sign what you write out for them under duress. In some ways, I understand their bafflement – they think asking for a receipt for 500FC (0.54USD) worth of stuff is nuts, and when it comes down to it, so do I. But it does add up eventually, and then it becomes something of an adventure. This time around, and at the explicit request of a frittata-craving colleague, I stopped by the chicken men and requested 40 eggs. They didn’t believe that I needed so many, but I stood firm. Next, I asked for a facture – standard Congo French for a receipt (French French do not understand this term and will stare at you like you are an idiot if you ask for one). They had no idea what I was talking about. So asked for an addition, which is the ‘real’ word. Note to self – when people for whom French is possibly a fourth language do not understand my own pigeon French, going even more correct is perhaps not the right answer. Every time I asked for an addition, they would say sure – 350FC. Which would irk me – seriously? You’re charging me for a receipt? They, in turn, would also get annoyed and then say that they had already given me 40! I know, I would say – and now I need a receipt. It took me a while to understand that they thought I was asking for an additional egg. It was a bit of a who’s on first moment for me (my very fluent friend did not join me, as there was no way he was getting the tandem all the way back to the poultry section of the market). I ended up digging an old bank receipt out of my wallet and using it as a prop. Ohhh – a note of exchange! Yeah, we can do that. It is magic – best receipt I’ve ever gotten.

It reads:

On this day, the 2 of September, 2014, We the egg merchants of the central market of Bunia have sold 40 eggs (forty) to Medair for the price of 14,000 FC. This is at the quoted price of 350FC per egg.

Leaving the market, we were trailed by incredulous laughter and shouts of ‘double velo’. People on motos loaded with five children – the youngest hanging out over the back wheel, tied to its sibling – looked at us in bemused wonderment, which we tried not to return. Standards of normal are different here.

We paused at the French NGO Solidarité to visit a friend. The nature of humanitarian work is such that people pass fairly quickly in and out of your life and though you can manage to form some (hopefully) lasting bonds, most often you make a connection with people for a number of months, share a few funny or strange or touching moments, and then recall them with great fondness in fleeting instances of déjà vu. As a community, we had not so long ago seen off a colleague at Sol. It was over a really lovely and subdued dinner, sitting around in the waning twilight, that I had found myself discussing what makes a hipster with a bunch of French folks. With an amusement that was difficult to share, I tried to define the term to a group in which at least two individuals were sporting plaid shirts and there were skinny jeans all around. The only light was from the stars and two battered lanterns. Our food had all been organic and locally produced and we were drinking off-market beer. All told, it was a like a hyper-whimsical hipster castle in Spain. My French colleagues decided, however, that there were no hipsters about as there was a shocking lack of pompadours and beards. Apparently, a true hipster must have facial hair. No word on what defines hipsterdom among the non-folically blessed. The hipster brand is an odd one. We also discussed cartoons, and I learned that, in France, Pepe Le Pew is Italian.

Sol is also one of the most consistent of my secondary yoga sites. I was obligated to find a new site for my yoga class, you see, after my housemates kicked us out (which is hilarious to me, as at least two or three of them come to any given class). Now we have something of a rotating schedule of places to hold the class, depending on who is on mission or holiday. One of these yoga field trips included directions to turn left just before the coffins, which might well be be the most evocative set of directions I’ve ever given.

We hopped back on the tandem (remember the tandem? The letter is about the tandem) for a bit longer, only to eventually make our way over to my own home compound for lunch and repairs. The Medair house has been pretty lively lately, which is a bit usual for us, hosting cook outs and volleyball tournaments and movie nights. At the moment of our arrival, some of my teammates were engaged in an impromptu jam session, using a battered communal guitar and piano salvaged and rebuilt by our logistics coördinator and strung and tuned by the WASH programme manager. The latter, a charming Italian man, is usually far out in the bush, on his project sites for weeks at a time, and when he comes back to Bunia for a break, his level of pleasure at being around other expats is both charming and a little manic. We’ve actually had team sing-alongs almost every night since he’s been back). He boasts a surprising repertoire of cowboy songs and his rendition of Proud Mary is quite rousing, considering he only knows about 1/3 of the words and mangles the rest.

Full and fixed, we set off from Medair on a route that was vaguely inclined toward MSF. We cycled past the new standard hangout spot (as MSF is not allowed to patronise the UN watering hole), Garden Restaurant Multi-Cuisine. When Garden first opened last summer, Medair staff had hoped for great - well, mediocre - things. Its spacious grounds (the name it well-earned) and generous menu positioned it as a welcome alternative to MONUSCO House. Though our initial experience was somewhat less than promising (we did discover that the best way to successfully order at Garden is to ignore the menu and ask what it is they actually have), it’s come a long way in terms of service and food quality. We now only expect to wait for 1-2 hours for food, and it’s almost always what we ordered. To pass the time, we often play Uno and Ebola-themed Scrabble (in which you get a double word score for anything pertaining to Ebola. I once crushed with Zaire – an Ebola word twice over! – which, interestingly enough, would not count in a normal game).

Most recently, our games have not been necessary, as the obliging Garden staff has even begun dinner theatre! During a recent team outing, populated by the lion's share of Medair's women and Thomas, we were gently accosted by one Teenus Baby Official and his sidekick, no-English Williams. Teenus was insistent that we should join him inside, as he explained that he was a musician from Kampala, though originally from Congo, and felt that his table should be graced by such a cadre of lovely ladies. The Medair team thought that the veracity of his introduction merited the same and hoped he was pleased to meet Brenda, Carla, Els, Connie, and Louise (in place of Shétu, Riët, Elseline, myself, and Lydia). Thomas vanished as soon as they showed for the latrine in a stunning display of French gallantry. He never returned during subsequent events, so we naturally assumed that he’d fallen in and the fumes had rendered him unconscious. We demurred and settled in to wait for our food, which seemed to be taking a long time, even by Garden's generous standards. All was made clear when the friendly gents spilled outside the restaurant's back door, pursued by the waiter, bartender, manager, and possibly chef. While the show was in Swahili, we still got the gist, especially once they called in supporting cast in the form of local cops. Teenus transitioned from leading man to quirky supporting case, Williams took the role of rebel action hero and climbed over the latrine to leap over barbed wire and escape into the night (we had hoped that he might rescue Thomas, but no such luck).

Just past Garden is yet another local haunt – Rezac. Instead of late-night beers, this tends to be where I head for post-Mass breakfasts, where, depending on my compatriots in prayer that weekend, we discuss Rastafarianism and statelessness and conservation efforts in Nepal. Once, we even stole the proprietor’s notebook to hold a lion-sketching competition. Of my French Mass-mates, one showed surprising competency and drew his as a cartoon in a business suit. The other’s was, in a word, bad. Mine was a more realistic though hurried sketch. But their local national colleague, Max…I don’t know how to describe Max’s drawing. It transcended it’s childishness into something deeply primitive, yes, but also moving. It was full body, in profile. After a failed correction, its front left paw faced both forward and backward. The tail thrust out like a spear. The mane licked its back like flames. The face was undeniably human. I found it beautiful and myself deeply affected. Tanguy laughed so hard he brayed like a donkey and couldn’t breathe and almost had yogurt come out his nose. The waitress pronounced it her favourite of the drawings.
This was not the lion
At any rate, it was just beyond Rezac that the tandem again paused for repairs. As MSFriend bantered/haggled moto technicians into fixing his contraption, I listened to a football game in the distance. It sounded as though it were being held at Bunia's main stadium, where I knew from a game played by Medair and the Mercenaries (mostly the latter) that what scanty grass there is is cut by goat. The walls surrounding the stadium are also crumbling, requiring the goalies to leap to the top of the wall and solicit the kindness of passers-by in returning their ball after ever errant kick. I tuned back to the bike just in time to hear a moto driver inquire how much for the bike, and then how much for the woman? Rather gallantly (even if it did raise my feminist hackles), my friend claimed us both and said neither was for sale.
Goat patrol at the main soccer stadium
Given the incident I just described, I wouldn't blame you for being skeptical, but I find that I prefer traveling by the bike to either walking or driving as, though it is more noticeable, one seems to receive less harassment, sexual or otherwise (in fact, my harassment a are minor to what the teams get in the bush, where one colleague was propositioned by a Catholic priest who also happened to be the landlord of the base!). On the bike, for example, one is never stopped by a representative of the DGM (immigration), demanding to see one's visa. When I couldn’t find my copy, as I don't carry my passport, she lectured me in rapid French and then asked me to buy her and her buddy a sucre.

Driving is the worst, though. Of late, Bunia has been dotted with road blocks both legitimate and otherwise. The cops use 2x4s cruelly studded with nails to check for insurance and licenses, the necessity of both of which can be side-stepped with a few well-placed dollars. Of course, at the locally erected road blocks - usually nothing more than a rubber strip manned by about twenty dudes while another four were actually working on filling the ruts in the road, sort of - are totally illegal and somewhat intimidating. After a run at a UN base one Saturday, a colleague and I once drove completely outside of town hoping to avoid the blockade, only to run in to a gold mine and be forced to turn around and deal with it, anyway. We were mildly gratified to see the fuzz yelling at them on our way back. Though I hope it was something to do with the illegality of impromptu roadblocks, but it was in Lingala, so he could have been reaming them for not charging enough for all I know.

But none of these issues apply to the tandem. And even when you have to walk it up the final hill of the day, it gives a sense of freedom that can be difficult to find here. We ended our ride with a beer and some bizarre Russian Advil knock-off, courtesy of the foremost medical charity in the world. Sometimes, the disconnect between staff and beneficiaries does not go the way you might expect it to.

To bring us full circle to how little people here fear Ebola, we later watched in bemused horror as their guards stalked, ambushed, skewered, roasted, and ultimately devoured a possum-sized rat. Oh, Congo. Perhaps you should be a hair more leery of bush meat (especially bats. Rats, I’ll allow, but forever and always say no to bats. I don’t care what your witches’ brew calls for).

29 October 2014

160 Million Problems (Jay-Z didn’t know the half of it)

I mentioned HIV/AIDS a few times in the last post, so this BBC article seems relevant. It discusses how urbanisation and a skewed sex ratio in 1920s Kinshasa likely engendered the AIDS pandemic. Today, the surplus men I discussed in the last post – who are responsible for so very many good things already – also constitute what is known public health circles a ‘bridging population’. Basically, they’re among the most likely to spread the virus from high-risk to low-risk populations (basically picking it up in the misspent youth presumably seeing sex workers or doing drugs and then passing it on to the women they ultimately marry or children they ultimately have).

Okay, so as a refresher, the previous post went into what a skewed sex ration means for men – no wives, more violence. But that’s only half of the social equation. The question remains of what does a world with fewer women mean for those who remain (yes, I know that I’m being rather appalling heteronormative. Unfortunately, aside from a few hilariously offensive historical nuggets about how skewed sex ratios will result in a gay explosion, there’s very little I could find about the impact of gender imbalance on the queer community).

Just to reiterate the scale of gender imbalance we’re discussing, and while the subject of AIDS is still fresh in our minds, it’s interesting to conceptualise masculinization as an epidemic. For example, since its discovery in 1981, AIDS has killed an estimated 36 million people. Sex selection, meanwhile, has claimed 130 million more women. Never let it be said that demographics is a dry field! Girls are being culled from the population in all kinds of creative ways, be it from sex-selective abortion or relative neglect compared to male offspring in early childhood (including abandonment) or desperate life circumstances that might lead to suicide. If that seems a bit heavy-handed, try to remember that there are more girls than boys in orphanages and that in many gender-imbalanced societies, there is actually a higher mortality rates for girls, which is unusual.

If you were to approach this whole absence of ladies things from the angle of remedial economics (which, remarkably, some people actually have), you might come to the conclusion that it’s actually a good thing for the scarcer – excuse me, fairer – sex. After all, a simply supply and demand curve should confirm for us that fewer women makes each one more valuable, yes? True enough. Unfortunately, women are not commodities, despite what many seem to believe, and as they gain value as goods, they lose it as people.

It’s important to note, however, that the inverse is not necessarily true, either – women do not have greater human value in a society in which they outnumber men. Take Congo, my perennial favourite example, where sex ratio at birth is a surprising 1.03 (men to women). I wish I could have recorded the security briefing this morning. It was a litany of abuses against women. In village X, one woman was raped. In village Y, another woman was raped. In village Z, 11 women were raped and four kidnapped. In village N, one woman was beheaded and two girls were raped (for what it’s worth, most deaths are reported as people. Five people were killed in village D. I don’t know if the genders are mixed or men only, but after what came before…there is a small part of me that rather hopes that it’s the latter).

Back to the woman-less world, though, Mara Hvistendahl from Unnatural Selection (which I will be quoting from extensively yet again! You should probably skip the post and just read the book) rather tartly notes that “no majority group has ever aspired to become a minority under the illusion that a decrease in numbers will somehow lead the group’s members to be more valued by the rest of society (zing. Take that, economist demographers).” She goes on to outline a depressing smörgasbord (there’s an ö in that, right?) of ways in which, as they become a more valuable commodity, women lose their personhood (kidnapping or being sold, come to mind, even by family members) and also observes how this paradigm might lead to the propagation of a female underclass in which poor families might actually select for girls so that they can sell them to wealthy families.

There’s lots of precedent here to work with, as most mass population movements in history have been dominated by men (with the exception of refugee flows). The context now is different, of course – we’re more often addressing established societies than burgeoning ones – but the past can still inform our expectations to a certain extent. And those expectations are bleak. Historically, high sex ratio societies have had exceptionally low rates of literacy and female workforce participation. Historically, they have had have exceptionally high rates of prostitution. Historically, they have been unstable. Historically, they have often proven violent.

Some have even tried to use history to explain away the modern gender imbalance as a cultural issue (cultural relativism as an excuse for sexism, homophobia and other forms of violent intolerance has a long and ignoble pedigree). Shenanigans, I say! Sure, there’s a strong preference for men in the countries with gender imbalance problems, but there’s actually a preference for boys globally (“Sexism might be an obvious culprit for imbalance if it weren’t so universal. Parents in nearly all cultures say they prefer boys, and yet sex selection only strikes in part of the world.” Yay?). Moreover, though there was some evidence of traditional female infanticide in China and India, it was not a wide-spread practice, and generally only occurred in very select areas in times of extreme economic hardship. After all, if you only have so many funds to feed so many mouths, boys are often perceived as having more long-term value than girls, especially in societies that use a dowry system in place of a bride price. Generally, though abortion was frowned on in most of classical Asia. Where it was performed, it was anathema. Confuscianism held that life begins before birth, while Hindus specifically warned against killing foetuses. The Buddhist monastic code, meanwhile, stated that life begins at conception, and monks could be expelled for helping a woman abort.

How then, could this happen, especially in the second world? We’re used to violence against women in the third world, but these places are supposed to be better than that. “Development was not supposed to look like this. For as long as they have speculated about the status of women, social scientists have taken for granted that women’s position improves as countries get richer. Economic growth means that more girls go to school, and that those girls have access to a broader array of job opportunities when they grow up…” Etc., etc.

So it is true, for the most part, that economic development, along with the urbanisation, education, and the new job opportunities it brings, may well make parents less sexist. But because development is accompanied by plummeting birth rates, it raises the stakes for each birth, thereby increasing the chances parents will abort a female foetus. “Most parents wait until they already have one or two daughters before resorting to sex selective abortion; very few abort because of the fetus’s sex during the first pregnancy. We know this because around the world the sex ration at birth jumps abruptly with birth order.”

This, of course, suggests that it’s not a simple matter of coercion; for as riddled as the history of this topic is with forced sterilisation and abortion, most modern gender imbalances seem to occur in countries and among segments of the population (educated, urban, affluent) where women are reasonably reproductively empowered, to the extent that the really ever are. Social coercion is subtle and nefarious and nearly as strong as outright familiar pressure (totally interesting and unrelated side note? Fertility is generally set in the DRC by the paternal mother-in-law. So women do generate much of the pressure on other women to have children beyond their financial and physical capacity). Indeed, feeling an imperative to have boys speaks to an institutionalized, internalized sexism.

And not just that! It also has to do with modern means of population control, economics, and racism. This is going to get messy. In the mid-twentieth century, the West began exporteding the doctrine of population control largely out of a fear of communism. “Between 1965 and 1976, money spent on research and development for contraceptive methods around the world more than doubled. Developing countries received the lion’s share of that money while contributing less than 3 per cent of it. The most funding came from the US” (my, how times and global gag rules have changes). Aid was actively linked to population control measures, especially health programmes. As I understand it, the reasoning of Western donors went like this: if they promoted better access to and quality of health services, thereby saving lives, they would have to offset that population increase through birth control. Essentially, developing countries were obligated to exchange longer lives for control over their own reproductive rates.

Further, a critical component of improving health care is ensuring access to better technologies, such as prenatal screenings. The population control brigade quickly determined that promoting sex selection quicker and easier and cheaper than actually advancing the status of girls and women (which also tends to slow down birth rates). Some Western family planning orgs even extolled abortion as preferable to birth control. As I’ve alluded to a bit, horror stories abound of Western-sponsored field clinics that inserted IUDs and conducted sterilizations, despite the medical staff having no gynaecological experience. By 1977, doctors in Seoul were performing 2.75 abortions for every birth, makring the highest documented rate of abortion in human history.

Which, in fairness, is actually a lot less fishy that some of the other absurdities that were suggested, such as introducing sterilizing agents to the food chains or compulsively sterilizing men with three or more children or even “flying planes over India once a year to spray it with a contraceptive aerial mist”. Promoting sex-selective abortion: less horrific with the right context – just compare it against eugenics! It tickles me that one of the strongest arguments against sex selection was a fear that it might well increase homosexuality, as though having fewer women would essential turning Asia into a giant men’s prison (others pointed out that queer couples can’t conceive – this was the old days – and so should be encouraged as a ‘humane alternatives’ to population control).

The Western fetish with population control is even indirectly responsible for China’s One Child policy, though that might be a bit of an overstatement. It was a zealous non-demographer highly placed in the Chinese DoD who took the Western obsession to an absurd conclusion. Who was it that said that all things, when taken to their logical conclusion, become cancerous? At any rate, when China jumped on the population control bandwagon in the 1970s and 1980s, they did so without reservations. Graphic PSA were released, bearing slogans like: Better to let blood flow like a river than to have one more than allowed. Or: You can beat it out! You can make it fall out! You can abort it! But you cannot give birth to it.

By 1982, fourteen million women, accounting for 2/5 of all pregnancies, underwent abortions. Between January 1981 and December 1986, Chinese women underwent 67 million abortions. Sweet God. In 1983, in a moment of either unbearable gross naiveté or perfect historical dark humour, the UNFPA jointly awarded Qian Xinzhong, the former People’s Liberation Army general who was the architect of the one-child policy, and Indira Gandhi, who had overseen India’s mass sterilization (involuntary) campaign, with the first United Nations Population Award. Oh, the UN. You can be so difficult to forgive.

In fairness, while a lot of tremendously sketchy stuff went down in the name of population control, some have pointed out that this may yet be a step – a weird, extreme step to be sure – in the demographic transition.

This is possibly a valid point, especially as people (should) continue to become richer and more educated and understand the long-term consequences of gender imbalances. There are even a handful of effected countries that have starting to try and ameliorate their sex ratios, now that their cocks have come home to roost and have found no hens. Indeed, it might well be over or nearly over in South Korea, India, and China (where the imbalance is expected to peak sometime in the next 30 years. So…sort of nearly over). “In regions and countries that were touched by economic development later, however, the phase is just beginning.”

So what does it mean for women now, especially in those states that seem to be in the heart of their crisis? “Surplus men have been going to great lengths to find women – and in many cases succeeding.” One South Korean province, for example, has sponsored trips to Vietnam, and the national government endorses the trade in other ways, recently setting aside around 23 million USD for adaptation programs for new brides. “As the first generation touched by sex ratio imbalance grows up, the silent biological discrimination that is sex selection has been exacerbated by more visible threats to women, including sex trafficking, bride buying, and forced marriages.” Not all of these sins can be considered equal (women who willing emigrate for the purpose of marriage cannot be considered the same as a trafficking victim), but they all have their dark sides, as evenly legal cross-border brides tend to be in precarious situations with regards to their human and social rights, and others might even be pressured into accepting polyandrous arrangements.

That’s just the tip of the ice berg, really, as forced marriage “has become common enough in Asia that it has joined FGM, domestic abuse, and marital rape as a basis on which a woman can petition for political asylum in the US.” It also gets us into the territory of child brides (India accounts for 40 per cent of the global totally of marriages of adolescent girls) and (in what sounds like an appropriately Halloween-y urban fable but is not) ghost brides.

We really should have seen this coming. No less an authority than Amartya Sen warned about the phenomenon more than 25 years ago in his classic, More than 100 Million Women Are Missing, in which he observed that “economic development is quite often accompanied by a relative worsening in the rate of survival of women...The deterioration in women’s position results largely from their unequal sharing in the advantages of medical and social progress.” Sen pointed out that it’s not just about sex-selective abortion, but general neglect aimed at women from birth onward that decreases their risk of survival when, all thing being equal, women are actually heartier than men. “These numbers tell us, quietly, a terrible story of inequality and neglect leading to the excess mortality of women.” At the same time, and like Mara Hvistendahl two decades later, Sen cautioned against the axiom that it’s poverty alone that results in a gender imbalance. Rather than development being good for women, it is the inverse that is true: investing in women is good for the economy.

As a quick aside, one might reasonably ask, in light of what we’ve discussed previously, whether fewer women mean a smaller population. Might this help our youth bulge problem? Well, no. Not anymore than it increases the prevalence of male bi-curiousness. Two distinct types of fertility patterns currently contribute to population growth in the developing world. “Some developing states, such as Nigeria (6.5 lifetime births per woman) and the DRC (6.6 lifetime births per woman), continue to have high fertility rates. Such nations will continue to grow for at least two more generations. Other developing states, such as Brazil (2.5 total fertility rate), Mexico (3.1), Egypt (3.6), China (1.8), India (3.4), and Indonesia (2.7) have reduced their fertility rates but will continue to see population growth for at least another generation because of population momentum.” In other words, the high fertility rates of the previous generation mean that we can expect population growth even in the absence of a balanced population.

I want to wrap this up, but I do think it’s worth delving into why this issue is so little discussed in the West. After all, we’re talking about reproductive rights and gender empowerment, right? This should be catnip to progressive donors. At least, so it would seem. But there is an elephant in the room, and that elephant’s name is Abortion Rights. Activists and well-meaning NGO types such as myself will be hard-pressed to identify sex selection as a human rights issue as long as it feels like we might also be curtaining a woman’s right to choose. In Unnatural Selection, the author even goes so far as to suggest that those in developing countries should not be allowed to know the gender of their child so long as there is a risk of sex selection. And, as troubling as I find the idea of culling girls from the population, sweet fancy pants, but does that feel paternalistic in the worst traditions of humanitarian aid (many of which the author had spent much of her book decrying).

This is, however, a limited way to approach the topic. Ms. Hvistendahl herself notes that “…when societies liberalise abortion laws, they tend to improve access to contraception as well, so that with the right not to give birth comes the right not to get pregnant in the first place. But in Asia and much of Eastern Europe, where family planning policies were developed without concern for the needs of women and abortion was introduced as a crash population control method rather than as a backup to contraception, legal abortion has instead meant more abortion.” So, if in conjunction with improving prenatal care and access to safe options to terminate pregnancies, as much or more emphasis is placed on improving the place of women and girls and ensuring the ready availability of multiple methods of birth control, we might be able to have our cake and eat it, too. I know that this is pretty simplistic, but I think it would be infinitely more beneficial to reach for all options rather than to either continue to ignore the absence of more than one million or take deliberate steps back in prenatal care.

Finally, because it’s very difficult for me to bring up abortions and regressions in reproductive rights without bringing up the US, let me direction your attention to this slightly old but still amazing piece. It’s all about women’s rights and reproductive health and faith and made me tear up, which is not often something I say about Esquire.

To be totally completest, you might also be interesting in reading about how some Afghan families are dealing with their own gender imbalance that skews the other way (a standard legacy of long-running conflict). And no matter where we turn our gaze, we are confronted with the inescapable fact that the world is hard on little girls.

06 October 2014

Angry young men

Given that this is more or less how this extended reflection began, I thought it worth noting that the BBC and Washington Post alike seem to think we’re going to hell in a hand basket.

As, apparently, does my mother. She and I had a rather fraught discussion recently about whether or not Islam was an inherently violent religion. I fell adamantly on the shenangins, not more so than any other side of this debate (do we know how to leverage our limited and valuable skype time or what?!). Instead, I postulated that much of the violence we see stemming from purportedly Islamic sources has more to do with other conflict drivers that are masked and legitimized by faith. We’ve been over a few of these – relative economic deprivation and increased commodity competition spring to mind – but possibly one of the most critical, especially in the Middle East, is demographic shifts.

The field of security demographics is a rich one, with a wealth of sub-topics including the mass urbanization that we touched on briefly before. It could also include diversity (or a dangerous lack thereof), immigration (legal and otherwise, internal and external), sub-replacement birth rates in developed countries, as well as the impact of pandemics likes HIV/AIDS. Let’s take, as a quick illustrative example: the issue of population movements. Mass migration of people can result in all kinds of interesting collisions, like say an influx of poor people to affluent areas (as in the case of urbanization), thereby highlighting relative deprivation (which, if you recall, is more of a conflict driver than absolute deprivation), or perhaps the creation of a diaspora which enables a home-country conflict to run overlong (Sri Lanka, we’re looking at you). Per the RAND Corporation, “demographic factors can also help cause conflicts…The most likely mechanisms through which this could happen would be mass migrations or refugee flows in politically tense regions, the creation of ideological revolutions in large states, or the outbreak of ethnic conflict in states with an intermixed pattern of ethnic settlements.”

Which is all well and good and super interesting, but not actually what I’d like to talk about (surprise, surprise). Instead, let’s talk about the fellas. Yes – the gents of the world, with all their strength and intelligence and energy – violent, angry, anarchic energy. Think I’m overstating things? Take this on for size - that section of the male population aged (depending on who you ask) 15-24/29, who I shall now refer to with gleeful misandry as Angry Young Men, are a key indicator for conflict and have been for a VERY LONG TIME (do not believe this article with it refers to this phenomenon as underappreciated).

According to one Mr. Richard Cincotta of Population Action International (which I feel a little icky about linking to in this context, for reasons I will eventually explain), “from continent to continent and across race and religion, the ‘demographic’ of insurgency, ethnic conflict, terrorism, and state-sponsored violence holds constant. The vast majority of recruits are young men, most of them out of school and out of work. It is a formula that hardly varies, whether in the scattered hideouts of Al Qaeda, on the backstreets of Baghad or Port-au-Prince, or in the rugged mountains of Macedonia, Chechnya, Afghanistan, or eastern Colombia.” That’s quite a statement, but it’s backed by some pretty serious historical precedent. Going back even further, we find a bevy of conflicts linked with disproportionately large populations of young men, including the civil war in mædieval Portugal, the 17th century English Revolution, the French Revolution, the Spanish conquest of the Americas, and the rise of the Nazi party in Germany.

The Peace Research Institute of Oslo has even found that an increase of just one per cent in a given youth population results in a four per cent increase in the likelihood that country will experience conflict. Furthermore, when youth make up more than 35 per cent of the adult population, the risk of conflict is 150 per cent higher. When it goes up to 40 per cent, the correlating stat jumps to 250 times more likely to experience an outbreak of civil conflict than countries with lower proportions of young adults.

Why for? As with climate change, AYM are probably best understood as insecurity multipliers: male youth bulges can exacerbate conditions like unemployment or poverty or resource scarcity to create social unrest. This surge of adolescents virtually guarantees that the number of educated young persons will outpace job growth, leaving even bookish young men underemployed, frustrated, and resentful of those who enjoy the opportunities they lack. While not the overt cause of armed conflict, these demographic factors can facilitate recruitment into insurgent organizations and extremist networks or into militias and political gangs— now among the major employers of young men and the main avenues of political mobility in weaker countries. And because a youth bulge usually occurs in rapidly growing populations where fertility is high, where women have low status, and where vital services are limited, a youthful demographic is often accompanied by other potentially destabilizing demographic forces and adverse social and economic conditions. For example, nearly all of the countries with a large youth bulge are also undergoing a rapid rate of urban growth (more than three per cent per year), contributing to urban decay and sprawling slums. This can go all kinds of interesting places, including discussing how HIV/AIDS skews the youth bulge even younger. But we already have more than enough on our plate, so let’s soldier on.

It is perhaps helpful to take a fairly broad view of unemployment in this context, embracing not only true joblessness, but also underemployment, working poverty, and (perceived) disenfranchisement. The employment caveat is not in any way insignificant or imagined, as young people account for just about 60 per cent of the global poor and 40 per cent of the unemployed. This is wildly out of proportion to their share of the working-age population – a mere 25 per cent.

Egypt and the Arab Spring are, apparently, also good case study here (the gift that keeps on giving), as the population of Egypt now has roughly 20 million more people than did the entirety of the 18-state Middle East in the 1950s. That’s bananas. On a municipal level, Cairo is the most populous metropolitan area on the African continent, and one of the most densely populated cities in the world. As you might expect, such a recent population explosion also means that we’re looking a massive youth bulge. This is especially true of Egypt, where some 54 per cent of the population is under 24. There are 24 million Egyptians who are between the ages of fifteen and twenty-nine, also referred to in the demographic security field as ‘fighting age’ (that’s not ominous at all. Thanks, demographers!). To cap it all off, the Middle East has the dubious honour of boasting some of the highest unemployment rates in the world. Focusing in on Egypt again (which rather fabulously provides free higher education), its population is not only young and un- or underemployed, but also highly educated (and therefore more likely to be dissatisfied), and terrifically savy with social media (so apt to more readily organise). Right there, we’ve got the motive (education, lack of work), means (social media, lack of work), and energy (youth and anger) to foster the Arab Spring and subsequent social unrest.

Each of these risk factors is related to the demographic transition—a process that all countries either have gone or are going through, taking them from a population typified by short lives and large families to one with long lives and small families. About one-third of the world’s countries are still in the early parts of their transition, with the average family size exceeding four children per woman (it’s 6.6 in Congo). If the high-fertility northern states of India are included, these regions are home to nearly 1.5 billion of the world’s 6.4 billion people.

In the early stages of the demographic transition, women typically work in and around the home, boys stay in school far longer than girls, and the average citizen lacks basic knowledge of and access to vital public health services. By the transition’s end, women have been well integrated into the urban workforce, infant and maternal mortality are rare, and contraception is widely available through public and private channels (by some of these standards, the US is still transitioning). Drops in the birth rate ultimately translate to a slowdown in the growth rate of adolescents looking for jobs and an increase in the population’s average age. Progress through the demographic transition, meanwhile, has been traditionally associated with increased internal stability, if potentially loss of regional hegemony. I believe it was the gent from PRI who claimed that, “as (Western) populations decline, either absolutely or relatively, their economic clout in the form of percentage of global gross domestic product declines as well.” I see where you’re going with this – as the developed world has less of an economic hold over the rest of the world and reduced militaries (declining birth rates, remember), they won’t be able to manage the developing world with either carrots or sticks. The horror!

If it’s all youth, why for do I and others keep harping on men? PRIO also observed that ‘generally it has been observed that young males are the main protagonists of criminal as well as political violence’. Globally, AYM are responsible for 75 per cent of all violent crimes (as well as being the leading victims of the same). Especially for those who lack prospects in the traditional job market, the cost-benefit calculations for joining a gang or radical organisation or political movement alters rather drastically. Simply put, large, unemployed, poor AYM have a negative effect on security and are more likely to aggravate social unrest.

If this seems a bit reductivist, and possibly edging into Christopher Nolan fantasy territory, well, fair enough. Discussions in this field come with a heavy dose of fear-mongering to be sure. Even so, if we accept this base premise – that large populations, especially those with lots of young men, are scary – the answer seems simple. Let’s invest in family planning, and everything will turn out alright, yes? Not so fast! Because it’s not just a question of youth bulges, right? It’s also about gender. Increasingly, it seems that young men as a proportion of society might well matter more than young people at large. Indeed, the perennial favourites when discussing gender imbalance are China and India, which are actually close to replacement birth rates (1.8 and 3.4, respectively. Okay, so close-ish). It might not therefore be (just) straight youth bulges, but skewed sex ratios we have to worry about.

The go-to reference when it comes to sex rations is probably Mara Hvistendahl’s Unnatural Selection. It’s both delightful and terrifying and you should go read it now. “For as long as they have counted births, demographers have noted that on average 105 boys are born for every 100 girls. This is our natural sex ration at birth…that more boys are born is itself a form of balance, neatly making up for the fact that males are more likely to die young.” However, in several states in what we might somewhat patronizingly call the transitioning world – somewhere between developing and developed. Up-and-coming world? – you have reasonably low fertility rates but massively skewed sex rations. I’m not exaggerating. “For example, in China the sex ratio for children up through age 4 is over 120:100 (120 boys for every 100 girls), according to the 2000 census…In India the sex ratio for children up through age 6 has increased over the past decade from 105.8 to 107.9, though this masks the fact that certain Indian states have much worse ratios -- 126 in Punjab, for example.”

In Unnatural Selection, it is estimated that had Asia’s sex ratio at birth remained at its natural equilibrium over the past few decades, “the continent would have an additional 163 million females…If 160 million women were missing from the US population, you would notice – 160 million is more than the entire female population of the US.” Indeed, when taken together, India and China have such large populations with such pronounced gender imbalance that they are able to skew the global sex ratio to 107, despite the fact that women outnumber men in most of the rest of the world. India and China are not alone, of course. Other countries of concern include Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Taiwan, Afghanistan, South Korea, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia.

As one might imagine, gender imbalance couples rather unfavourably with youth bulges in that it swings them rather dramatically into AYM territory. After all, if you have a young, agitated population that is predominately composed of men, one of the great ameliorating factors to the AYM phenomenon – marriage – is effectively neutralised. This might sound hopelessly old fashioned, but it’s actually borne out by science: unmarried men have higher testosterone levels than do married men. Moreover, testosterone-rich people of both genders are more likely to express violent tendencies in some ways. “Bachelors between the ages of 24 and 35 are three times as likely to murder another man as a married man of the same age,” even when you control for other variables like socioeconomic status.

Our dour demographers refer to these unmarried/unmarriageable individuals as ‘surplus men’: the ones left over in the thought experiment in which everyone who can marry does so. They also point out that, all things being equal, surplus men are more likely to be relatively economically disadvantaged as, in a gender-imbalanced world, potential wives become yet another scare resource. The Chinese term for these extraneous fellows is apparently bare branches; an evocative term that conjures an image of those mightn’t bear fruit, but can yet find utility as clubs. This, of course, brings us back full-circle to men who, for a whole host of reasons we have now explored, do not feel fully woven into the fabric of society and therefore seek out other disaffect youth to build a community of their own. “Sociologists have found that the ‘risky shift’ in group behaviour, where a group is willing to take greater risks and engage in more reckless behaviour than an individual member of the group, is much more pronounced in groups comprised of unattached young adult males…After examining the evidence, some predictions can be made for societies with rising sex ratios: crime rates will increase; rates of drug use, drug smuggling, weapons smuggling, trafficking, and prostitution will increase” (see what I mean? It’s like all that’s missing from this description is a kangaroo court presided over by Scarecrow).

In an interesting and possibly racist article, two WashPo authors suggest that China, seeing the Egyptian writing on the wall, will attempt a very different and much more pre-emptive response to their own AYM. Recognizing that even they are facing an economic slow-down (that any self-respecting mass of AYM would respond to with domestic instability), China is instead trying to coöpt that energy by channelling it into jingoistic ardour. “Faced with worsening instability at home and an unsolvable economic decline, China’s government may well be tempted to use foreign policy to ‘ride the tiger’ of domestic instability. The government’s fanning of nationalist fervour has already been seen in the dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, where large and violent protests around the country were accompanied by the dramatic public destruction of Japanese goods and strong expressed anti-Japanese sentiments.”

Unnatural Selection looks a bit farther down the line, worrying about what gender imbalance today will mean for the societies of tomorrow. To do so, she uses the Old West to explain school shootings today. Even if it seemed to me a bit tenuous, it’s all together too fabulous to ignore. “In 1880….the mining town of Leadville, Colorado had a saloon for every 80 residents, a casino for every 170 residents, and a grothel for every 200 residents (ah, the good old days). Many western towns openly tolerated prostitution in the belief that access to prostitutes would prevent men from assaulting ‘respectable’ women. Each of Leadville’s churches, by contrast, served five thousand people…Leadville counted 105 murders per 100,000 residents in 1880, compared with 5.8 in Boston…In the sex ratio imbalance of the frontier lay the seeds of a nation’s violence.” Basically, we’re headed back to Deadwood.

In my next and final (and hopefully much more timely) instalment of this little series on violence, we’ll take a look at the flip side of skewed sex ratios and consider how the imbalance impacts women, the ugly role of the West in the creation of a global gender imbalance, and why this is such a fraught issue for progressives. It should be good times!

08 September 2014

Falling the way you lean

Returning to our earlier conversation about violence, the GBAV suggested that food insecurity was not a significant contributor to violent conflict, positing that, “while there is an association between lethal violence and hunger (as measure by the prevalence of underweight children under five), it is not statistically robust”. But I think that might miss the boat a bit; historically, food insecurity has been the straw that broke the camel’s back in many a volatile situation. When you then layer climate change and demographic shifts over a topic that’s already intricately linked to politics and conflict, really fascinating things happen. Moreover, at some level, it’s just fun to talk about. I mean, this topic has everything: resource wars! Sugar wars! Miracle fruits! Land grabs! Anoxic dead zones! Conflict chocolate! Bread intifadas! Agflation (it’s that thing where agricultural price increases drive up core inflation rates)! And DRC is smack dab in the middle of it.

But first, let’s get a bit of context about food security generally. Globally, nearly 100 million people do not have enough to eat. This is not an evenly distributed burden; 65 per cent of world’s food insecure people live in India, China, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Pakistan, Ethiopia, and, yes, DRC (it’s always a little weird to me that several of these are troop contributors to the UN). Each year, more people die due to hunger and malnutrition than to AIDS, TB, and malaria combined.

Given how tremendously inventive people are when it comes to killing each other, it really shouldn’t be surprising that food has routinely been leveraged in war. Most immediately, we’re seeing this technique employed with devastating efficiency in Syria, though in Sudan the government has also been known to purposefully bomb rebel areas at harvest time, while for their part, the rebels tend to raid humanitarian convoys for food aid targeted at IDPs. Indeed, the use of food as a strategic weapon has a proud martial history. Texts as venerable as Sun Tzu’s Art of War and Vegetius’s De Re Militari advocate denying the enemy food. What else is siege warfare by man-made famine by another name?

Now that we’ve established food insecurity as an agent of violence, let’s turn our focus to how it also engenders conflict. Equal parts unfortunate and unsurprising, we have a wealth of precedent to work with here, too. Most often, though, here it goes the other way. Food insecurity as a result of conflict tends to be imposed by a conquering force or despot. Food insecurity as a driver of conflict instead seems to spark populist outrage.

Take the so-called bread intifada of 1977. It stemmed from an attempt, begun three years earlier, by Anwar El Sadat to open Egypt’s economy to outside investment. The full set of reforms, or Infitah, called for de-nationalising a variety of sectors and ultimately cancelling roughly 30 million USD worth of subsidies, especially on food. Only a day after the roll-back on subsidies was announced, demonstrations erupted in the streets. There were factory walk-outs, clashes with police, acts of sabotage including the cutting of railway lines, looting of hotels and other institutes associated with wealth. Within just two days, rioting had broken out in most major cities across Egypt. “Shocked by the intensity and rapid spread of the protests, the government cancelled its economic decrees …after only forty-eight hours. In an attempt to contain unrest, it ordered a military crackdown and deployed army units in to the streets who responded to unrest ferociously. Fighting continued until the next morning.” Between the rioters and the viciousness of the police response, some 800 people were killed and hundreds more injured.

The bread intifada was just one instance of violence from the period, which actually saw as many as 200 riots in 40 countries, most of which were blamed on the IMF (it and donor countries demanded budget cuts to ensure continued support, and food subsidies were among the first things to go). What became known as the ‘IMF riots’ were actually a diversity of events that included demonstrations, looting, and in at least two instances (Sudan and Peru), regime change.

Craving more history (go ahead and procrastinate)? How about the French Revolution and one of the most infamous (if apocryphal) food security faux pas of all time? “Throughout most of the pre-industrial era, French peasants existed at the subsistence level.” The aristocracy, like many modern dictatorships, strictly regulated the grain market in order to ensure that it was affordable, thus ensuring a pliant peasantry. Even so, grain and bread riots were “extremely common in this period. Though often limited in size and scope, these riots sometimes spilled out across an entire region, sparking uprisings in different towns and villages.” It was a bread riot that resulted in the fall of the Bastille on 14 July 1789 and fear of further rioting that forced the fledgling regime to deal harshly with those suspected of hoarding bread. Turing to a History Chanel stand-by, a desire to secure greater food resources for the home country also played a role in both the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and the German incursions into Poland (1939) and the USSR (1941). Why someone would bother to invade Russia in the winter in search of food is quite beyond me, but there you have it. Reportedly, both the ancient Mayan and Anasazi peoples experienced higher levels of conflict due to food shortages.

In the majority of these examples, food insecurity was not the lone driver of conflict. Rather, it was gasoline on burning embers of resentment. I say resentment because significant violence very rarely comes from those who are truly starving – those people literally do not have the energy to fight back. Rather, populist riots more often come from perceived inequalities (relative deprivation rather than absolute). In fact, most instances of food-related instability occur after ‘agflation’, or a sudden rise in a given agricultural product independent of other economic factors, usually as a result of subsidies being dropped or tariffs imposed. It doesn’t really matter whether or not Marie Antoinette said ‘let them eat cake’. What is important was that people felt the leadership was out of touch. Consistently when it comes to food, perceptions trump reality. When food – or similar consumables like water or fuel – become abruptly more expensive without a comparable increase in wages, the regime is blamed (deserved or no) and bedlam follows.

If you want to predict where political instability, revolution, coups d’etat, or interstate warfare will occur, the best factor to keep an eye on is not GDP, the HDI, or energy prices,” but the price of grain (I think I already linked to that article, but it’s still a keeper). A sudden deprivation of food has a way of throwing other injustices and abuses – corruption, repression, ethnic tensions, etc. – into stark relief. To paraphrase Cervantes, it seems that without sufficient bread, all sorrows are worse. Such was the case in the recent anti-government protests in Venezuela and Thailand. On a grander scale, 2007 and 2008 saw a rather dramatic rise in the cost of staple food items including rice, wheat, and corn. “Between 2005 and 2011, world prices for rice, wheat, and maize rose 102, 115, and 204 per cent, respectively, according to the FAO.” In response, there were riots in countries ranging from Haiti to Bangladesh, from Mozambique to Italy.

Relative food insecurity has also been pegged as a precipitating factor in the Arab Spring (so, food shortages sparked a conflict that ultimately has resulted in the use of famine as a weapon of war. Life is funny like that), as the first demonstrations occurred in response to food price hikes in Algeria and Tunisia. In Egypt, of bread intifada fame, “by 2011 food and fuel subsidies accounted for a staggering 8 per cent of Egypt’s GDP. Hosni Mubarak’s government could no longer afford to feed his population into submission. Even with subsidies, grain prices jumped 30 per cent in Egypt between 2010 and 2011.” States that were able tried to head off their own instability by increase food allocations. Kuwait, for example, announced that it would celebrate the anniversary of its liberation from Iraq by granting every citizen more than 3,000USD and free food for 13 months. This is a pretty extreme, and terrifically literal, example of the bread and circuses paradigm in action and woe be to the autocratic government that can’t do the same (they could, of course, try to liberalise a bit and let the humanitarians come in and take the edge off. Call it the Myanmar principal).

If we take as a given that resource shortages – especially abrupt scarcities among essential commodities – can lead to social unrest, what does that mean for the future (stars, but I’m really into rhetorical questions of late)? For most political theorists, the answer is nothing good, especially in the face of two seemingly inescapable trends: demographic and climate changes.

Sometime in the near future, we’ll have a more in-depth discussion of global demographic patterns, especially shifting gender imbalances. For the moment, however, let us content ourselves to these three observations: (1) global population is increasing; (2) it is growing more affluent; (3) it is urbanizing. Put another way, the global middle class is expanding – it could as much as triple in the next 40 some odd years – and it is, as the middle class always has, claiming as a right what has traditionally been a luxury, like meat and dairy in every meal. In half that time, the demand for food and fuel is expected to double. This is not a criticism – having access to affordable health care, decent living conditions, sufficient food, etc., are all good things (though it is creating the very strange effect of obesity epidemics in food-insecure states. Is anyone else sensing the perfectly manicured hand of Dr. Raven Sable and his CHOWTM?). Unfortunately, the amount of arable land or water resources are not expanding in time with the size and taste profile of population (quite the opposite) and, thanks to that wildly thorough history lesson we just had, we know what happens when people are abruptly deprived of a commodity to which they feel entitled.

Water is perhaps the best illustration of this. On an annual basis, the supply of drinking water as provided by natural precipitation remains more or less constant: about 40,000 cubic kilometres or…a lot of gallons. Unfortunately, most of this precipitation lands on largely uninhabited areas – think Greenland, Antarctica, Siberia, and inner Amazonia – so the supply available to the rest of us is often surprisingly limited. Even were it accessible, the consistency of the supply of drinking water runs afoul of a population with ever-mounting demands for both personal and industrial uses, resulting in a situation of relative scarcity. The same is true of food, since that’s been the topic of the day. Corn yields in the US and rice yields in China have ‘flat-lined’ in recent years, suggesting that we might have topped out the amount of food that can be grown on the land currently in use even as the global demand for the same continues to increase. Danger, Will Robinson!

But these demographics are honestly nothing (at least to my mind) when compared to climate change. It is not an exaggeration to state that all aspects of food security are potentially affected by climate change. In fact, can we pause for a moment and consider just how horrifying climate change has the potential to be? A recent IPCC report on the subject (the UN: not always worthless) paints a pretty dire scene, illustrating how climate change is projected to decrease potable water (basically, even rain water will be too toxic to treat into drinkability), breathable air (as increased tree mortality and forest dieback result in anoxic dead zones posing risks for carbon storage, biodiversity, wood production, water quality, amenity, and economic activity. Seriously – how traumatic is that sentence?), arable land (and other kinds, what with most of the world’s coasts soon to go the way of Atlantis), food (with toxic rain, anoxic dead zones, and sea-bead farmland, is that even surprising?), energy, and numerous, numerous other critical consumables. It’s 100+ pages of voices crying out in a wilderness that soon will no long exist (and my PMs think I’m bananas to request that we start thinking about how to ‘green’ our projects for future proposals…pft).

Generally, when one discusses climate change and violence, it has to do with the more structural aspects. What are often referred to in development work as the ‘most vulnerable’, that is, the impoverished, refugees and IDPs, the disabled and infirm, the elderly, often women and children, etc., are also the most vulnerable to climate change. Per the UN report, people who are socially, economically, culturally, politically, institutionally, or otherwise marginalised are especially vulnerable to climate change and also to some adaption and mitigation responses. They will not have the resources or capacities to absorb the shocks of climate change, like the loss of agricultural livelihoods, reduced access to potable water, or increase of certain, climate-sensitive illnesses (cholera and malaria come right to mind).

But there are some outcomes of this issue – basically, that there isn’t enough food/water/oil to go around – that are a lot more immediate in terms of conflict. I think it’s easy to get hyperbolic about these things sometimes, but as a particularly vivid writer at The Nation warns us:

          Two nightmare scenarios – a global scarcity of vital resources and the onset of extreme climate                      change – are already beginning to converge and in the coming decades are likely to produce a tidal                wave of unrest, rebellion, competition, and conflict…experts warn of ‘water wars’ over contested                river systems, global food riots sparked by soaring prices for life’s basics, mass migrations of climate            refugees (with resulting anti-migrant violence), and the breakdown of social order or the collapse of              states. At first, such mayhem is likely to arise largely in Africa, Central Asia, and other areas of the                underdeveloped South, but in time, all regions of the planet will be affected.

I keep waiting for there to be a Chicken Little joke in this article, but no, it was presented in earnest. Even so, it does point out that scarcity in one area can lead to conflict in another. A timely example can been found by taking a peak at the fraught world of land grabs.

Land grabs, for those not in the know, are instances of land acquisition that, to some extent, cause displacement, dispossession, and disenfranchisement, or pass purchase of agricultural land by external entities. Put another way, land grabs occur when an entity that does not live on/work a given parcel of land – say the national government – sells that land to another external actor – like another country or a transnational corporation – without consulting the local population or reimbursing them for their losses or resettlement. For clarity’s sake, let me make explicit that, in these cases, there is NO BENEFIT to the local population, who are almost uniformly impoverished (their lack of political power makes their rights less important to the state and thus more easily violated – what ho, structural violence!) and women (I think I already said something about lacking political power and structural violence?).

The perpetrators of land grabs are varied but, as you might expect, include comparatively wealthy, food-importing countries (Saudia Arabia and China) and transnational corporations from even more affluent states (Europe and the US, mostly). The former tends to purchase land so that they might more cheaply meet demand back home, while the latter tends to use the parcels to source biofuels. This might have a wiff of neo-colonialism about it, and with good reason. It’s frequently lumped in with other forms of ‘commercial colonialism’ and can have extensive negative consequences beyond creating food insecurity and economic IDPs, allowing external actors to co-opt the entire supply-chain. Water security is compromised for locals, in competition as they suddenly are with massive agricultural needs. Further, farming on this scale often creates pollution and chemical run-off which can contaminate additional water sources. In order to clear large tracts of land for industrial farming, hundreds of square miles of forests might be burnt or swamps drained, all of which reduces biodiversity. It has occurred predominately, though not exclusively (Chinese firms previously purchased a plot of land the size of Luxembourg in Argentina, as well as about giver per cent of the total territory in Ukraine. Russia should take some lessons in acquisitions), in Africa, where over 40 million hectares of land have been purchased in Sudan, Ethiopia, and Sierra Leone, to name but a few.

To bring into stark(er) relief just how problematic land grabs are, let’s look at those latter cases a bit closer. In 2010 Ethiopia was home to 2.8 million people in need of emergency food aid, yet this country had concurrently sold more than 600,000 hectares of agricultural land to transnational companies that export the majority of their produce. A separate deal inked with Saudi Arabia and worth 100 million USD offered centennial leases to grow and export rice, wheat, and barley. Meanwhile, the WFP has spent 116 million over 5 years in emergency food aid. Apparently, no one in the Ethiopian government has taken an economics course. Like, ever. Upwards of 30 countries and companies have leased land within Ethiopia. Meanwhile, in Sierra Leone, the EU firm Addax Bioenergy promised that, in exchange for 40,000 hectares on which to grow crops for use as biofuels, they would employ 2,000 persons they had displaced and promised that the swamps included in their purchase would be protected. Instead, the swamps were drained and only 50 jobs created.

For our purposes, though, the most interesting attempt at a land grab can be found in Madagascar. There, in 2009, Daewoo Logistics, a South Korean agriculture firm, leased half the island’s arable land. The details of the agreement were astounding – the land would be rent-free, all of the food grown would be exported, and the displaced farmers were not to be compensated. The people rioted, ultimately resulting in a coup.

Even the US intelligence community is starting to take notice. In March of last year, the Director of National Intelligence identified ‘competition and scarcity involving natural resources’ (his specific use of the term ‘resource shocks’ had definite notes of agflation) as potential national security threats on a par with global terrorism, cyberwar, and nuclear proliferation. For what it’s worth, though, it will most likely be some time before the US feels the pinch of food scarcity (with the exception of foodie staples like limes and avocados). One in that slew of articles linked to referred to it as the Saudi Arabia of grain (Iowa alone grows more grain than all of Canada!), which is both nicely evocative and suggests a future in which we focus on feeding ourselves and leave the rest of the world to burn.