It may be dismissed by Kenya’s middle classes and elites as primitive, but farmer Leah Wambu, is convinced that bartering promises a new way of protecting rural food supplies as climate change takes hold.
Swapping one type of goods for another instead of for cash is an age-old practice. For a growing number of people like 69-year-old Wambui, from Nyeri, it is gaining new appeal as a way to combat increasing food scarcity in rural areas such as hers in central Kenya.
“If I need a chicken, I take a basketful of maize to the market and look for someone interested in my goods,” says the cheerful grandmother. “If we agree the goods meet each others’ worth, then I will trade my grain for the chicken.”
At the nearby Gakindu shopping center where Wambui stations herself, the market is abuzz with activity as traders cart in bags of farm produce, with flocks of goats and sheep, and herds of cattle and pigs in tow.
The chatter and haggling continues until around midday, when rural folk like Wambui head back home to see their fetch is enough to feed their families.
This is not how she has always operated. “I used to sell my grain to middlemen who would come to the village during the harvesting season,” recalls Wambui. “They would buy it at a throwaway price.”
Once her store of grain was empty, she would spend her meager earnings on food for her family, but it would not last to the next harvest. And harvests have become unreliable in recent years as rains fail or crops are destroyed in extreme downpours, worsening the cycle of want and hunger.
This changed for Wambui when she rediscovered bartering at a community meeting called by the village chief to discuss the drought of 2011, Kenya’s worst on record.
“I was relying on relief food but the supplies would take a month to arrive,” she recalls. “Sometimes corrupt officials would sell off a part of the supplies.”
Even so, villagers took some convincing that they would be better off bartering their farm produce than selling it to merchants who would trade it for a large profit in bigger markets.
“At first the people resisted the idea,” explains Mureithi Githinji, chairman of the village market.
But when a few, including Githinji, decided to try swapping commodities, they found they could make their food last to the next season. Soon more people joined the scheme, and the barter trade gained leverage.
Rising demand for food from growing urban populations and changing weather patterns have put increasing pressure on farmers, says Angela Kimani, subregional emergency officer for Eastern and Central Africa in the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
Many see little benefit from rising food prices in cities, with most of the profits of their production instead going to middlemen traders, who also profit when selling grain back to farmers during times of drought and crop failures.
A report by the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) indicates that more than 10 million Kenyans suffer from food insecurity, with the majority of them relying on food relief.
Rural and urban households are also incurring huge food bills due to high prices, says the report, while staple food is in short supply.
KARI links food insecurity to frequent droughts, high input costs for domestic food production, and land tenure insecurity, which is displacing farmers in areas with the greatest potential for growing crops.
“The high global food prices and low purchasing power by a large proportion of the population, due to high levels of poverty, means there is need to have infrastructure that protects the rural food chain,” says Ephraim Mukisira, KARI’s director, referring to bartering networks.
Some experts see bartering as a way to enhance food security while ensuring that traditional staple foods remain within the rural food chain.
“There is nothing wrong with barter trade because people trade for commodities they desire,” agrees Ronald Sibanda, the World Food Programme’s representative and country director. “It is important to encourage consumption of traditional foods because they are nutritious.”
But the FAO’s Ms. Kimani calls for wider consumer education as well.
“There is a need to establish a balance between barter trade and the rural cash economy,” she says.
John Kabiro, a trader in Nairobi’s Gikomba market, one of the busiest in the city, argues that bartering does not help social development because it undermines cash-flow systems.
According to Mr. Kabiro, bartering would work better if the government subsidized rural Kenya with social services such as education and health, since these tend to drain households’ income stream.
“Barter trade is the last thing on my mind since it does not give me money,” Kabiro says. “I do not see it working since everyone is after wealth creation.”
In October, Africa observed Food and Nutrition Security Day. As governments ponder steps to reduce food insecurity, it remains to be seen whether Kabiro’s approach or Wambui’s will prove most helpful in ensuring enough affordable food is available.
• Kagondu Njagi is an environmental writer based in Nairobi.
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In less than two years, Curacao may be using its ocean as a power plant. The island nation in the southern Caribbean could use seawater to generate and save power, taking a major step toward innovation in clean energy, projects backers say.
A Dutch company called Bluerise B.V. and the company that owns Curacao’s airport – Curacao Airport Holding N.V. – are exploring building a small 100-kilowatt marine power plant that will use the temperature of the seawater as a power source.
In the tropics, the sun heats the ocean surface and keeps it warm all year long. But at a depth of one kilometre (0.6 miles), sunlight can’t reach and warm colder waters, circulated from the Arctic.
Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC) works by deploying a pipeline in the ocean to pump cold, deep water to the surface and take advantage of the difference in its temperature with the warm surface water.
Cold and warm waters are used in a process to condense and evaporate ammonia, causing it to move inside a closed-pipe circuit. Evaporated ammonia powers a turbine that generates electricity, and then is condensed to continue the cycle.
The downside of the process is that the difference in temperatures is not very large, so the efficiency of the process – and thus the power production – is low when compared to conventional power plants. The bright side is that the energy resource is as abundant as the ocean itself.
”The ocean is an interesting resource to use, as it is always available,” says Berend Jan Kleute, Bluerise’s chief technology officer. He says OTEC might be used as one of the constant and reliable components of an integrated island energy system. Such a system could also include cheaper – but intermittent – renewable resources such as wind and solar power.
If the process is sufficiently cost effective – a huge question at this point – offshore OTEC plants could eventually provide energy for coastal communities on mainland areas, and any country with access to warm, tropical ocean waters, he said.
The plants could also use their electricity to create fuels such as hydrogen and ammonia, which would later be transported to shore.
According to Jan Kleute, the estimated installation costs of OTEC are around $12 million per installed megawatt – much more expensive than wind and solar. That has limited the technology’s appear to potential investors.
Until recently, OTEC development costs were so high that a commercial project was unthinkable, but Bluerise and Curacao’s airport may have found a way around this difficulty. The solution is using a fraction of the pumped cold water to run the airport’s air-conditioning system.
The project began in 2010 when Curacao airport officials, looking for a way to set themselves apart from competitors in the region, began exploring using OTEC technology.
Becoming “a center of excellence of renewable energy suits our vision,” said Simon Kloppenburg, development manager for the airport, which hopes to become a more important gateway into Latin America.
The airport team had looked at other renewables. But OTEC seemed an appropriate fit, Kloppenburg said.
Around 60 percent of the airport’s energy consumption goes to air-conditioning, and the power demand is almost constant, Kloppenburg said. Utility costs in Curacao are expensive because energy has to be imported – a problem shared by other islands. The price per kilowatt-hour of imported energy is around 45 cents, Kloppenburg said, which can be 10 times as much as the cost of power in mainland areas of the region.
Bluerise proposed that the airport begin running its air-conditioning systems using cold seawater pumped from deep in the ocean – a change it claims could result in power savings of 90 percent. The airport gave the project the green light, financing preliminary and feasibility studies.
The seawater air-conditioning component is crucial for making the OTEC cost-effective, project officials say. The fuel savings from using seawater to run the airport’s air-conditioning system could over time help repay the cost of construction of the deep-sea pipeline, which could then be used for both air conditioning and the OTEC pilot plant.
The aim is to have the pipeline – the most costly component of the system – in place and the OTEC plant working by 2014, project backers said.
If the concept works, Bluerise hopes to then build an additional 1 megawatt OTEC power plant that could provide about 1 percent of the reliable power generation needed on the island of 140,000 people.
Jan Kleute says he can imagine a future with floating offshore 5 to 10 megawatt OTEC plants giving clean and reliable electricity to tropical islands around the world.
The Curacao project potentially could be expanded beyond power and air conditioning. If they can find needed investment, Bluerise and the airport hope to develop an eco-park – an industrial complex for production and research – based on the use of leftover airport cold water.
Potential activities at the eco-park might include desalination, cooling soils to allow planting of different crops, growing fish from temperate waters, or growing algae for biofuels, Bluerise officials said.
A similar scheme is functioning in the National Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority, where a demonstration OTEC plant was constructed in the 1970s. In 1989 the laboratory began allowing other research activities to use the cold water. According to the laboratory’s website, it today hosts more than 30 companies and generates about $40 million in economic benefits.
The total cost of the Curacao ocean power plant, air-conditioning effort, and eco-park would would be about $30 million; so far $1.2 million has been invested in environmental assessment and engineering studies currently under way, project officials said.
• Santiago Ortega Arango is a Colombian engineer and freelance journalist interested in climate change and renewable power issues. He is an associate professor at the Escuela de Ingeniería de Antioquia and a Fellow in Global Journalism at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.
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The Public Banking Institute blog cites a powerful example of how a public bank can help a city bounce back from a devastating natural disaster. As Hurricane Sandy recovery efforts unfold, there's a lesson from history about the role of strong local financial institutions in increasing urban resilience.
In April of 1997, Grand Forks, North Dakota, was hit by record flooding and major fires that put the city's future in jeopardy. One of the first economic responders was the Bank of North Dakota (BND), currently the only public bank in the United States.
What's a public bank, you ask? Public banks are owned by citizens through their government. They have a public interest mission, are dedicated to funding local development, and plow profits back into the state treasury to fund social programs and cover deficits. Rather than competing with private banks, BND partners with them to meet the needs of North Dakotans. BND is one reason North Dakota has low unemployment and runs budget surpluses while most states are deeply in the red.
As a public bank, BND was able to respond to the '97 flood in ways that a privately owned bank could not or, perhaps, would not. While Sandy's wrath cost dozens of lives and an estimated $60 billion, Grand Forks' suffered $3.5 billion in losses – a lot of damage for a town of 50,000, which saw flood waters inundate a staggering 75 percent of area homes. Fortunately, no one died.
Right after the flood, the Bank of North Dakota got to work, established a disaster relief loan fund, set aside $5 million to assist flood victims, and set up additional credit lines of around $70 million:
- $15 million for the North Dakota Division of Emergency Management
- $10 million for the North Dakota National Guard
- $25 million for the City of Grand Forks
- $12 million for the University of North Dakota, located in Grand Forks
- $7 million allocated to raise the height of a dike at Devil's Lake, about 90 miles west of Grand Forks
Other financial institutions hurried to catch up and match the offer, as BND worked with the Department of Education, the Federal Housing Administration, the Veterans Administration, and other federal and state agencies to provide student and home loan relief to flood victims. Due to quick recovery efforts, Grand Forks lost only 3 percent of its population during recovery, while similarly devastated East Grand Forks, across the river in Minnesota, a state without a public bank, lost 17 percent.
That's what is possible with a public bank: people come first. But it's not all altruism. As a local financial institution, The Bank of North Dakota's future was partly tied to a healthy recovery.
I wish New York and New Jersey speedy recoveries. If you live there, I encourage you to start or get behind a public bank initiative to shore up local resilience. Twenty states, including New York, have initiatives under way to create public banks. The Public Banking Institute has a guide to local initiatives here.
In the mean time, here are 10 ways you can help the recovery effort.
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A group of more than 80 grant makers, nonprofits, and businesses has created a network to help legal immigrants living in the United States become citizens.
The New Americans Campaign will aim to use $20 million donated by multiple foundations to make it easier for people to become full-fledged Americans. Currently, barriers prevent the vast majority of the nation’s 8 million legal immigrants from becoming naturalized. Only 8 percent of those eligible each year do so, the campaign reports.
Applying for citizenship costs $680—too much for many immigrants. The lengthy, labyrinthine path to citizenship can take two years to complete, dissuading many from trying. Many who do fall prey to fraudulent operators who take their money but offer little in legal services in return.
“The goal of the campaign is to allow those who want to take that last step toward citizenship navigate the system,” says Geraldine Mannion, director of the US Democracy and Special Opportunities Fund at the Carnegie Corporation of New York, one of six grantmakers involved in the campaign. Carnegie has made $7 million in grants to the effort. “We want to help people who contribute to our country economically and socially integrate fully into it.”
Since July 2011, the campaign has run a pilot program that has helped 30,000 legal permanent residents by linking them with new online technology that streamlines the citizenship application process, saving them $20 million in fees and legal costs.
The effort also uses new approaches to reaching immigrants in eight cities where a total of 3.3 million legal residents live, tapping dozens of immigrants' rights and faith-based groups.
Finding institutions that will lend money to people who couldn’t otherwise afford to pay for citizenship will also be part of the campaign’s work, Ms. Mannion says.
“We see people who would like to become citizens along with their family members,” she says. “When you have a family of five, that’s a lot of money to come up with. It’s important for us to look for new ways to help them find it.”
In addition to Carnegie, founding supporters include the JPB Foundation and Open Society Foundations, both in New York; the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, in Miami; the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund, in San Francisco; and the Grove Foundation, in Los Altos, Calif.
It’s eHarmony for volunteers.
It's the invention of Ned Brokaw of Darien, Conn., who spent 27 years in the financial services industry, most recently as executive director of investments for Oppenheimer & Co. Inc. Mr. Brokaw wanted to create a centralized resource that was user friendly and harnessed the power of social media. And he wanted something both youths and adults could easily navigate.
In 20 minutes or less a person can log on, create a profile, and sign up for email alerts from various agencies and groups, from those who deliver meals to the elderly or to those who help repair a home. Volunteers apply directly to an agency for an opportunity through Volunteer Square. After that it’s up to the agency and the volunteer to connect with each other and decide if they are a match, says Rachel Reese, executive director of Volunteer Square.
A year old, the Volunteer Square database focuses on Fairfield County, sometimes called Connecticut’s Gold Coast.
“It’s a little jarring for people because there is this sense that everyone in this county has money,” Ms. Reese says. “But that’s not true. There are places in every town with tremendous need.”
Superstorm Sandy highlighted local needs. More than 6,000 people sought temporary housing, and the number of people needing access to food pantries also rose. Volunteer Square’s activity increased, Reese says.
In Fairfield County residents used the site's blog as one way to organize a beach cleanup. More than 1,000 volunteers turned up to clean a three-mile stretch of beach. In Darien, Conn., the nonprofit group Person-to-Person used the site to publicize the need for food donations in Stamford and Norwalk, Conn.
The uptick in activity came because of the storm but also because it's the start of the holiday season. Nonprofit agencies are often booked with volunteers six months out for Thanksgiving, Reese says.
“It’s so exciting to see this huge boost, but there’s a lot of need the other 364 days of the year,” she says. About 14 percent of Connecticut is “food insecure,” meaning families at times run short of food, according to a 2012 Connecticut Food Bank study.
Volunteer Square says it believes every citizen can contribute as a volunteer regardless of their age.
The centralized database lists about 100 organizations and more than 600 registered users. Participants range from agencies such as the American Red Cross to Home Front, LLC, a community-based home repair program that helps keep low-income people in their homes.
“Its exciting that big legacy agencies are using us, but we are also getting smaller, mom and pop agencies; the start-ups. It’s exciting to me to see smaller agencies using the site,” Reese says.
One of those agencies is Kids Helping Kids. Based in New Canaan, Conn., the youth-led nonprofit focuses on projects that impact other children. Each Thanksgiving kids gather to bake and sell bread at $10 a loaf. All of the proceeds go to various philanthropic projects. This year the proceeds will help renovate a playground at a homeless shelter.
“They have been amazing for me,” says Jennifer Kelley, director of Kids Helping Kids, referring to Volunteer Square. Ms. Kelley found a summer intern and an administrative assistant through Volunteer Square, she says.
Volunteer Square receives no state or federal funding. It relies on individual donations. It has no office building and its staff are themselves mostly volunteers.
The interactive online community also works like a community room. Agencies can post pictures, videos, and news. With a few clicks the posts can be shared on multiple social-networking sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter.
“Nonprofits are very strapped and very short staffed. The whole process [needs] to be as simple as possible,” Reese says. “We try to take the legwork out of it for nonprofits.”
A comfortable early retirement left Len Stanmore wondering what comes next. He climbed to a new level of satisfaction when he began to conquer a series of athletic tests around the world, putting him on the verge of setting a world record.
But he didn't really reach the summit of feeling good about himself until he connected those achievements with helping others.
The story starts when Mr. Stanmore sold his successful telecommunications business in 1998 and retired at the age of 49.
"The first year was pretty good: I played golf, I fixed everything around the house, I went on vacation.
"But then, after about a year or so, I really started feeling depressed. I didn't have any challenge in my life; there was no purpose to it."
After having lunch with a business associate who had been mountain climbing, Stanmore decided to try to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. It was the only mountain he'd ever heard of other than Mt. Everest, the highest mountain in the world, "and I knew that wasn't going to happen."
He was 50 pounds overweight, smoked cigars, seldom exercised, and didn't consider himself to be athletic. "I was not outdoorsy at all. All my friends thought I was crazy," he says. But he went in 2001 "and that was the start of my adventures."
Next week Stanmore heads to Antarctica to complete an unprecedented series of expeditions to some of the world's most remote locations. He will participate in "The Last Desert" race, a 250 kilometer (155 mile) footrace in Antarctica. When he finishes the race, which is expected to take seven days, he will become the first person in history to run across the world's four major deserts (Gobi in Asia, Sahara in Africa, Atacama in Chile, and The Last Desert in Antarctica), ski to both the North and South poles, and climb the highest peaks on each of the seven continents.
His run in Antarctica, with expected temperatures between minus 5 and minus 20 degrees F., will also raise $100,000 for the charity Trekking for Kids, which helps people combine their love of adventure and the outdoors with their desire to help those in need. TFK assists orphaned and at-risk children who live near some of the world’s most coveted adventure destinations.
"I'm always skeptical of charities," he says. "You never know where your money is going. But I was really impressed with this organization, the dedication of the volunteers. I could actually see where my donation went. It really touched me."
At first Stanmore, who lives in Toronto, continued to make personal donations to TFK. But after a while he began asking friends and family to donate too, tied to him completing new challenges.
Though his "seven summits and four deserts" challenge will be completed shortly, Stanmore has some new goals in mind. He leaves in February to reclimb Kilimanjaro, this time accompanied by his wife. And in April he will run in the Boston Marathon for the first time.
His advice to others thinking about setting a big life goal? "Just get out there and try it," he says. "I think the worst feeling would be to have a goal or a dream and you never attempt it. Even if you attempt it and you fail, you have to try, right? The feeling you get after accomplishing a goal is going to last you for a lifetime."
The lessons he's learned aren't all about personal accomplishment. They're about the importance of helping others, too. When he was racing in the Gobi Desert, he was passed by a young woman runner from Japan.
"When she was running by me she pulled out a water bottle and just squirted me in the face with it, and laughed and went on," he recalls. "It was such a small thing. But I was just at the point of quitting and I thought, 'what a nice thing for someone to do.' And I kept running."
• Donations in honor of Stanmore’s incredible feats of mountain climbing, desert foot-racing, and skiing the poles can be made by going to www.trekkingforkids.org.
A brightly-painted old school bus pulled up at the West Lake Junior High School in West Valley City, Utah, one afternoon in April. The bus’s appearance was unexpected, but it didn’t take long for the red bus to fill with 20 teenagers. Inside were drums used by No Bully Beat, a unique program to combat bullying that uses drums as a way to connect to kids.
On board, tentative taps on the drums evolved into pounding. One eighth-grade girl entered the bus as a skeptic but was soon engrossed in conversation between the beats, offering up examples of bullying, describing getting by with a little help from a friend and how she hoped to improve the social dynamics of her school.
Another teen, lanky, with black rods in his earlobes and a beat-up scooter at his feet, was also impressed.
“It makes me feel good inside, and that makes me not nervous to be in front of people I hardly know,” he said. Meanwhile, a boy with a crew-cut and a collared shirt said, “I liked the way, if you hit it really hard, I can feel it in my chest,” pounding his fist against his chest in emphasis.
To combat bullying in schools, the Utah-based program is teaching students to embrace their individualism and diversity while working toward a common goal. They do this by practicing a venerable form of communication – drumming.
Salt Lake City-based Rhythms of Life (ROL) and The Human Rights Education Center (HREC) of Utah have collaborated to create No Bully Beat. This innovative program has been used in over a dozen schools in Utah. Kids are taught aboard the DrumBus, a school bus converted into a colorful mobile music room. Leaders facilitate communication and build tolerance through discussion, rhythmic exercises, and role-playing.
Carla Kelley, founder and director of HREC, came up with the idea of a DrumBus to spread the anti-bullying message. Kelley partnered with Mike Liston, founder of Rhythms of Life, a private company that facilitates drum circles for corporations, youth events, and health and wellness centers.
“It offers this visceral connection because you’re not only saying it, but playing it,” Liston says. “We’ll ask the kids, ‘How would you feel if someone was bullying you,’ and then we ask them what that emotion would sound like on a drum.” Usually, kids will pound on the drums to communicate their pain or anger. One boy, however, made a soft, scratchy sound on the drum with his fingers. He said the sound was his racing heartbeat.
A similar anti-bullying program has been offered in schools throughout Australia for over seven years. Discovering Relationships Using Music – Beliefs, Emotions, Attitudes, and Thoughts, or DRUMBEAT, was developed at Holyoake, the Australian Institute for Alcohol and Drug Addiction Resolutions. Originally designed to engage young Aboriginal men, the program has been modified for use in schools to address a variety of issues, including bullying.
“There are a lot of drumming programs out there, but very few that have specific themes for bullying. Most of them are team building, work around getting kids comfortable with each other, building self-esteem and confidence, leveling the playing field,” he says.
DRUMBEAT takes it one step further and teaches kids how to engage and socialize in healthy ways during 10 two-hour sessions. The program culminates in a public performance.
“A lot of bullying comes down to corrupted communication patterns. People using power over another person, threatening, intimidating, putting people down,” Faulkner says. “We look at communication patterns and then we use basic analogies. What works in drumming is what works in general conversation as well.”
The results from the DRUMBEAT program are encouraging. The University of Western Australia found in 2009 that there was a 10 percent increase in self-esteem scores by the end of the 10-week program, 29 percent of participants had fewer behavioral incidents, and 33 percent had fewer unexplained half-day absences.
Arthur Hull says it makes sense to pair drumming with bullying awareness and prevention.
“Drumming creates a vibration in the air surrounding the group; it creates a group presence that acts like a messenger,” he explains. “It bypasses your circuitry that’s not working and massages the place that needs it the most. This is the experience that is reported over and over again by rhythm group participants.”
Hull’s Santa Cruz, Calif.-based organization Village Music Circles says it has trained thousands of drum-circle facilitators in over 15 countries, a significant portion of whom offer school-based programs. Of the 139 drum facilitators listed on the Drum Circle Facilitators Guild directory, most work with people of any age or condition.
The No Bully Beat program in Utah is still in its infancy, but Liston and Kelley anticipate serving 3,000 to 4,000 kids when the program is fully rolled out in 2013. They have received positive feedback from schools that have already participated.
Kelley recalls one particularly aggressive teen who claimed to be a bully at the beginning of the session, but had different thoughts after the drum circle. “Seriously, this made me think about what I’ve been doing. I should cut it out,” he says.
“Drumming is perfect for talking about bullying, which is all about exclusion,” Kelley says. “Maybe for the first time in their lives, they’re experiencing connectedness that’s crossing all sorts of bridges of difference that their little hearts or minds have been taught.”
• This article, which also includes video and audio components, originally appeared at Latitude News, an online news site that covers stories showing the links between American communities and the rest of the world. For more Latitude News stories about bullying go to http://www.latitudenews.com/topic/bullying-topic/.
A small boy, no older than six years of age, stood in the middle of an intersection. The streets were covered in entirety by small, colorful pieces of paper. Taking no note of cars passing by, the boy gathered up two handfuls and tossed a rainbow up in the air. The paper fell at his sides, as he looked overhead, laughing at the shower he had created. "Chuva de papel," my host sister said in Portuguese, taking note of the child. Paper rain.
These ubiquitous papers, 2x3-inch slips used as political propaganda in order to proliferate the name, photo, and campaign number of candidates, are called santinhos. These santinhos – which end up puddling in the streets, "evaporating," and falling once more as chuva de papel – are handed out generally tactlessly by individuals who are promised R$40, roughly $20, by a candidate for a day's work.
In Portuguese, there's a word for all this: brincadeira, derived from the verb brincar – to play, or joke. Perhaps as a result of Brazil's obligatory voting policy, many regard the voting process with a sort of flippant passivity. Failure to vote results in a fine, albeit minimal, and a bit of bureaucratic trouble. As such, votes are often determined not by way of political conscience or genuine interest, but rather, because a candidate has promised a beer in return for a vote.
In this brincadeira, the buzzword is corruption, or corrupção. Promises are made, bribes are offered and accepted, and many blind eyes are turned. Citizens complain that politicians are inactive for the entirety of the year, save for the election season, when construction projects are suddenly completed, politicians show their faces in neighborhoods otherwise ignored, and unfulfilled promises are delivered at long last.
One of the men running for mayor here in Salvador da Bahia – the third-largest city in Brazil, and the city with the greatest Afro-Brazilian population in the country – was featured on a poster embracing an elderly black woman. "The first time that that man ever entered a poor, black neighborhood was in order to pose for that photo," a Brazilian colleague of mine said with dismay.
Said candidate, the grandson of a famous Brazilian senator, is a member of one of Brazil's most politically powerful families. This sort of nepotistic culture is prominent within Brazilian politics.
Larry Rohter, author of "Brazil on the Rise," writes of family dynasties in which "governorships, mayoralties, and congressional seats ... are handed down
from father to son or daughter as if they were heirlooms."
Rohter's comment, while astute, seems to fail to acknowledge one reality: It seems that these positions of power rarely fall upon "daughters," or the women of this country. In this year's regional elections, a mere five women were elected to Salvador's city council. Five women, in a 43-member body.
Furthermore, not one woman ran for mayor of Salvador da Bahia. This lack of female leadership and representation is undeniably concerning. While Dilma
may be representing the voice of women to some extent in higher-level politics, the same is not being done at a local level.
Yet within this system, marked by corruption and passivity, I found my own local female hero. Unlike those carelessly handing out santinhos for profit, my host sister Luciana passionately campaigned in the city. Luciana engaged people in the streets in conversation about political activism and responsibility, and took an admirable approach, which was novel in this environment.
"Ask me how much I'm being paid to do this... Nothing!" she proclaimed proudly.
Luciana was not a passive politician. Her passion was both contagious and inspirational. And, may I add, effective.
"HE WON!" she screamed at night, when the results of the election were broadcast on TV. He won. She won.
And, in the end, one more battle against the system had been won.
Editor's note: Kim Asenbeck moved from Germany to the United States when she was seven. Internationalism and global-mindedness define her passions and interests. At her high school, Kim served as the president of her school's Model United Nations team and as Co-Chair of the Leadership Committee for Africa. During her senior year, she researched the capacity of the artificial language Esperanto as a lingua franca in the service of the United Nations. She now lives in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil participating in the Global Citizen Year community service program.
On a fine sunny day in late summer, a prison work gang is busy clearing litter from the grounds around Dyess City Hall in the heart of town, providing a portentous sign.
This settlement of just a few hundred, created during the Depression as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal project, is the childhood home to that well-known advocate of the incarcerated, country music legend Johnny Cash.
The figurative relevance of the low-risk prisoners (guilty of minor crimes), who are frequent visitors according to the Dyess mayor, runs deep.
Perhaps more than most places, Dyess, located in Mississippi County, Ark., a short drive west of the Mississippi River, is all about second chances: Back in the 1930s, the brand-new government colony was a second chance for the Cash family after the economic ravages of the Depression and the poverty of their former home in Kingsland, Ark.
Today, Dyess is poised on the precipice of a second chance of its own.
Under the guidance of Arkansas State University, fund-raising and restoration is well under way in the settlement with the ultimate goal of returning rundown Dyess to some of its former glory – this time as a tourist attraction. One of the centerpieces, and almost certainly the biggest draw, is set to be Cash's boyhood home, a farmstead on the edge of town.
The colony-turned-city is a dilapidated shadow of the vibrant farming community it once represented. Back then it was buttressed by the bounty of cotton fields and a population that topped out at about 3,000. The area has been in decline since the end of World War II, a process that accelerated in the 1960s and '70s as locals struggled to survive on the flood-prone land, says Dyess Mayor Larry Sim.
These days, the cotton is long gone. There are fewer than 500 inhabitants, and the town is located in a region that statistics indicate is one of the most economically deprived in the nation: In Mississippi County, 25.5 percent of the population live below the poverty line, compared with 13.8 percent nationally, according to US Census Bureau data.
Ruth Hawkins, director of Arkansas Heritage Sites, the office at Arkansas State University in nearby Jonesboro that leads the project, hailed the restoration as a potential boon for the local economy. The project also includes the transformation of the old administration building into a museum and new home for city hall.
“It is projected this is going to have a major impact on the Arkansas Delta, one of the poorest regions in the country,” she explains. "We are focusing on the heritage of the town – not just Johnny Cash but historic Dyess itself. We project about 30,000 to 50,000 visitors a year. We are looking [at creating] 100 new jobs and about $10 million in [annual] revenue for this area.”
Known as "Historic Dyess: Boyhood Home of Johnny Cash", the visitor attraction hopes to tell the story of Dyess and how it produced not only Johnny Cash, but also fellow country stars Gene Williams and Buddy Jewell, as well as a string of other successful individuals, including current Arkansas Commissioner of Education Tom Kimbrell. A biking and walking trail connecting the center of Dyess with the Cash farmstead is also planned.
“Dyess was an agricultural resettlement project under President Roosevelt’s New Deal, which tried to give destitute families a new start in life,” Ms Hawkins says. “There were 16,000 acres of land divided into 20- to 40-acre farms. The 500 families who went there would eventually pay the government back through the proceeds of their crops and own the land.
“Rae and Carrie Cash [Johnny’s parents] were one of them. They just happened to have a little boy named J.R. who grew up to be Johnny Cash.”
The cost of the restoration project is estimated at $3.2 million, of which $1.4 million has already been raised through state grants and the annual Johnny Cash Music Festival.
Parts of the colony administration building – set to feature museum exhibits on family life in Dyess after the Depression, the impact the colony had on Cash’s music, and the local lifestyle – along with the Cash boyhood home are expected to open in September of next year. The Cash farmstead will also see the reconstruction of the plot’s original outbuildings, including a chicken coop, a smokehouse, and a barn – which together with the cotton fields were among the places that directly impacted favorite Cash songs such as “Five Feet High and Rising” and “Pickin’ Time,” Hawkins says.
To ensure the home closely replicates how it looked during the time the Cash family lived on the property, Johnny’s surviving siblings, Joanne Cash Yates and Tommy Cash, are acting as consultants.
Taking the lead is Joanne, who lived in the house for the first 17 years of her life. “I, being a woman, know where every table, every lamp, every bed was – even the colors of the walls,” she says.
“We are rebuilding some of the inside that has been changed over the years, and the foundation of the house has been restored, so now it looks like it did when we lived there,” she says. She will also be involved in finding furniture that closely matches what the family had in the home, providing direction for re-positioning of trees to the spots where they stood during the Cash family's tenure, and helping pinpoint the spots where the outbuildings were located, she says.
Mayor Sims credits “Walk the Line,” the 2005 biopic of Johnny’s life, with putting Dyess on the map. It has only been during the last eight years, he adds, that the town has “slowly started coming back” – a timeline that roughly coincides with the film and the first local efforts to develop a visitor attraction.
The fact that, today, almost a decade after his death, Cash is playing such a pivotal role in the resuscitation of his hometown is not lost on those involved – but neither is the symbolic significance of those prisoners tending the grounds outside city hall.
His sister Joanne says that would have appealed to Cash, who wore black to represent life’s downtrodden. “Even though Johnny was worldwide famous,” she says, “he did not look at himself as being someone special. He said to me before he passed away, ‘I wonder if no one would really miss me or really care.’ I think he would be overwhelmed.“
It was a controlled explosion, and shouldn't have been a surprise, but the boom a couple of hundred yards away in this lush, rainswept district of central Vietnam nonetheless prompted the small group of nongovernmental organization (NGO) workers, locals, diplomats, and journalists there to witness the event to flinch and recoil. Then the relieved-looking group exhaled almost in unison, a nervous-sounding release as if mimicking the puffs of smoke rising from the explosion into the gray sky.
Taking the blast in his stride, though not literally, however, was 14-year-old Duong Nhat Binh, a shy-looking, soft-spoken teenager wearing a "FBI"-emblazoned baseball cap. Two years ago he had a much closer encounter with a fragment of the estimated 800,000 tons of unexploded ordnance (UXO) thought to remain hidden in the grass and jungles around Vietnam, endangering lives and hindering local economies.
“I was on the way back from school, and I saw this metal thing in the grass. I picked it up and put it in my pocket and went home,” he recalls. “I did not know what it was.”
After he reached home, the "bombie" – as the UXO is known colloquially in Vietnam and in other UXO-affected countries such as Laos – went off, knocking him unconscious and leaving scars on his hand and arm. “I was lucky it wasn't much worse,” he concedes, “but I was out for four hours and only woke up in the hospital. My mother brought me there after she found me,” he adds.
In 2007, the Vietnam Ministry of Labor reported that there had been more than 104,000 civilian casualties due to contact with UXO, with more than 38,000 people killed. In Quang Tri province, 84 percent of land is affected by UXO, making it the worst-hit in Vietnam.
Wednesday's controlled explosion of three pieces of UXO, all sitting within a 30-foot radius of each other, was carried out by the Mines Advisory Group (MAG), an international NGO that does UXO clearance work in 15 countries.
“We have evacuated the area,” says Portia Stratton, Vietnam Country Director for MAG, which responded within hours after the UXO find was reported to the group two days previously.
“We don't try and move any of this material,” says Ms Stratton, who was speaking prior to the controlled explosion. “These devices are volatile, so we will destroy them where they sit.”
Pointing out the precariousness of life for rural Vietnamese who have to contend with UXO, Stratton says that the ordnance was found less than 30 feet from the roadside, close to a nearby shop. “The tree behind you marked with an X will be pulled down, as apparently there is more unexploded ordnance in the ground below it and around,” she says.
Since starting work in the country in 1999, MAG has destroyed on average 15,000 items of UXO each year. These controlled explosions are commonplace in heavily bombed areas of Vietnam, such as this part of Quang Tri, a three-hour drive north of Vietnam's third-largest city, Danang, and an hour from the old capital, Huế.
All told, an estimated 15 million tons of ordnance are estimated to have been used on the Vietnamese countryside during the US-Vietnam war in the 1960s and '70s. The Vietnamese defense ministry says that only 20 to 25 percent of explosives left by the war have been cleared so far, and in an acknowledgement that much more remains to be done before Vietnam can be rid of the UXO scourge, the Irish government last week announced a 600,000 Euro ($767,000) grant to MAG for clearance work in Vietnam's three worst-hit provinces of Quang Tri, Quang Binh, and Quang Nam.
“Unexploded bombs cause death and injury by the thousands in Vietnam every year,” says Ireland's Minister of State for Trade and Development, Joe Costello, who visited Vietnam last week. “We see supporting MAG's work as vital to addressing this,” he adds.
To date, the MAG says it has freed-up 7.6 million square meters (1,878 acres) of land from the UXO peril, making the land available for farming and other forms of potential economic gain for rural Vietnamese, many of whom live well below the country's average income per head of just over $1,250 per annum.
That poverty can prompt a somewhat reckless approach to ordnance among some Vietnamese living with the threat. “The land here is owned by a scrap-metal dealer,” says Henk Liebenberg, an ex-South African army soldier and nowadays MAGs technical operations manager in Vietnam.
“People in the area would find bits of ordnance and bring to him to sell. Either they overcame any worries about the danger or they were not aware of what they had found,” he says.
Lack of awareness of UXO is a concern, says Nguyen Thi Hing Thanh, a local schoolteacher, flicking through schoolbooks that try to inform children about the dangers of UXO. “A little girl of only 15 was blinded not so long ago by an explosion, she cannot go to school now. It is so sad,” says the teacher. "Not only do we use these specialized books in class, but other lessons also bring in UXO teaching," she adds.
Even if children are made aware of the hidden dangers in the nearby fields, spotting the now-weathered, decades-old devices isn't easy. Before the explosion, the devices to be destroyed sat inside a wall of bright yellow sandbags, but otherwise were barely distinguishable from the surrounding soil and leaves, due to a naturally acquired camouflage of dirt and rust.
“I could see the bomb,” says Duong Nhat Binh, recalling his own ordeal. “But maybe it would have been better if I could not,” he says laughing as he speaks after the devices were destroyed, an explosion that was a welcome echo of the sounds that almost laid waste to this idyllic part of Vietnam 40 years ago.