Wednesday, July 25, 2007

People I'm talking to about Africa

My friend John (Doe – anonymous for racial sensitivity issues) has traveled on business in 19 African countries, and sees incredible potential that is usually overlooked by Westerners and also incredible adversity in the form of corruption which keeps up the state of despair. He also sees two Africas, Saharan and Sub-Saharan. He seems to be more a fan of North Africa, and feels that Sub-saharan Africans have a culture which lacks a certain base level of respect for other human beings and themselves that would be a pre-requisite for development. Certainly the many stories of atrocities that go on all around the continent and have been going on since written history began in Africa don’t bring the word ‘humanism’ to mind, but then again when you see the way people (at least mothers) mourn in the face of killers such as underweight, malaria or AIDS in children, you can see the spirit of life hoping to overcome all of these adversities which include remorseless killers wearing or living in human flesh. I think he’s mostly trying to point out that brutality reaches levels in Sub-saharan Africa that are unheard-of in the present day elsewhere in the world.

Another friend, also a John, is in awe of Nelson Mandela and the political sandwich he created. Blacks controlling the government, a very predominantly white middle class and a vast lower class of blacks. The democratic and easy thing to do as a political leader, it would seem, would be to appeal to the masses by abusing the “others,” the whites with the economic power. Instead, he set in place a dynamic whereby political power of the blacks and economic power of the whites co-exists and produces economic growth to the great benefit of the country (over time). Someone in his group suffered head-trauma in a car accident while they were in Namibia, where all hospitals are government owned, government run and government staffed and the health care is “free and worth every penny.” Yes, Hillary, he is being sarcastic. It was here that he had an encounter with a life dis-respecting doctor who brashly told John, with a straight face, his friend would surely die unless they submitted immediately to 5 days of intensive care with the doctor at exorbitant rates and pay, of course, in cash. Hippocratic oath, anyone? The next hospital being at least a day away, John not being medically trained, he was unsure what to do but took the advice of a native-resident friend and left the quack's office. Are you a doctor or a con-man? Such a perversion of roles and a wolf in sheep’s clothes, it reminds me of the U.S. doctor who got women addicted to pain killers in order to abuse them as his junkies.

Greg Z., RPCV who worked down the hall from me at First American Title Insurance. Greg thinks that there's a chance that Peace Corps will start a program in Portuguese speaking Angola soon. If they do, they will probably want qualified volunteers to be the first people on the ground. Since my Grandpa was a Marine in WWII, I'm particularly drawn to this idea and if they offer me the chance to move to Angola after one year of service to be in the first group of volunteers there, I think I would go. A very exciting distant possibility for the future, I'm glad Greg advised of this possibility so that I can be ready for it if it happens.
Greg also taught me that even though PCVs tend to think the experience will be better if they get posted in a rural area, this is not always the case. He got posted in Lagos when it was just a big city (now it is HUGE). He also told me that the river that separates Tanzania and MZ (the Rovuma River) was plagued with the tse-tse fly, which causes sleeping sickness, when the American explorer Stanley passed through that way into the African interior. We hope the fly has gone somewhere else by now. He also let me borrow his copy of The White Nile by Alan Moorehead, which is a really good read about the misadventures of the first European explorers in East Africa.

Stan, a friend of a friend of a friend of my Dad's, who does real estate work in Africa. He taught me that my long term ambitions of spurring home-ownership and efficiency in African cities is possible, because he's already doing this and making a buck while he's at it. Maybe not the same rate of return you could get in some other continent, but it sounds like it's not necessarily a money-losing proposition. The property registries may be slow and backwards, but they function, and people are increasingly conscious of the importance of acquiring property rights. As he explained, there's lots of development happening right now in souther Sudan, since they are just getting out of a civil war. It seems to me that the whole continent is just getting out of a civil war, so hopefully the infrastructure building begins and the violence ends. He also warned that some NGOs (or at least people masked as NGOs) operate as loan-sharks rather than doing micro-lending in a helpful way. Coyotes. That is news to me, and I haven't looked into it yet.

Elizabeth M., an RCPV of the South Florida chapter the the PC association. She served in MZ. Learned: She figures taking care of my health should be a foremost concern. Also, she recommended that I should take with me some of those pants that zipper off into shorts, which I think is a great call since they are synthetic and will hold up to the washing by hand better than cotton work pants like Dockers.

Chris Smith, my local Congressman who has served in the House International Relations Subcommittee for a long time, tirelessly advancing Human Rights (particularly in Africa) in the face of (it seems to me) overwhelming apathy on the part of his colleagues, who think leadership involves something other than working hard to make the world look closer to the way you'd like to see it. My favorite is that (according to an editorial I read in the Washington Post) he stood up to Bush when the Executive tried to short-change veterans (he asked them to re-do the math, the funding was inadequate) and to get this money for he veterans he paid the predictable price of demotion after having served the interest of veterans for quite some time. This being at some point in 2005--yes, we were at war at that time. After countless attempts to contact him through his office, it sounds like they're going to let me meet with him either in August or September.

Things I need to do when I'm there based on what I've heard so be continued

1. My boss, Tuey, told me that in Nicaragua they grow cashews and that people use the plant for all kinds of stuff, including making tea out of the cashew flowers. I'm going to have to drink some of that tea, I hope they do that in MZ. Corn and cashews are their two biggest crops.
2. Brandon says that he has some friends in Johannesburg who would be good to talk with. That should give me a reason to go there, and I can look around for the stadiums that they ought to be building. I imagine there will be lots of Chinese engineering involved, which makes me think...I'm going to pay the extra money to get seats close to the field so that I dont' have to sit on or under any of the mezzanine balconies.
3. Carlos, my co-worker, has a friend who runs a Bed&Breakfast outside in Maputo. Hopefully I'll be able to make a weekend trip during training with some fellow PCVs to check out this bed and breakfast and chat it up with the host.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Interpretation of Fake Plastic Trees by Radiohead

I know I should be writing about Peace Corps and all, since this is only my second post, but Fake Plastic Trees is one of my favorite songs, and for the longest time I couldn't figure out what was going on in the lyrics but I think I've got a hold of it now, so I share with you:

The starting point to appreciating this song is understanding that the 3rd person voice describing the surgery victim woman and her plastic surgery performing husband/boyfriend changes to a first person voice about halfway through the song ("MY fake plastic love"). What's great about that is that we experience a bewilderingly rapid change from 3rd person voyerism to a more personal 1st person where we can better identify with the metaphorical characters who were just described, beautifully (I especially like the description of a "cracked polystyrene man"). So which one of them is it that fantasizes of escaping this relationship ("If I just turn, and run"), the man or the woman?
My interpretation of the 1st person stanza is that the man's voice begins by using the possessive "My," the last lines of the song are in the woman's voice that is so concerned with what her partner wants ("If I could be who YOU wanted" is the only use of the 2nd person in the song), and perhaps the lines inbetween which describe the fantasy of escape belong to both of them, since they both want something different ("But I can't help the feeling"). The last lines definately belong to the woman, she wants to be the object of his desire always, but you can tell from the tone of desperation that she knows that she won't be able to, and this makes her (and me) very very sad. Too bad he won't change and start loving her for who she is. She should drop that zero and get with me.
In the words of the Gorilla Biscuits, “A standard's set that I just can not live up to."
If you haven't heard the song, try finding it on or just buy the CD you'll be glad you did.

Monday, July 23, 2007

27 months from now

You will still recognize me 27 months from now, I'm sure, but it's pretty exciting to think how I'm likely to change once my world is turned upside down. Some things will never change, for example I'll always like thinking about dumb stuff (and I promise I'll come up with some real gems with so much free time and so much to think about in Mozambique, I'll have some "deep thoughts" posts now and then) and doing dumb stuff, such as jumping off high places into murky water. Now we're getting to the point of the first post: I love this picture because it frames my sentiments into something visual that we can all look at and be reminded of why this is exciting.
Explaining the photo of Giedra and I with JFK: Giedra was one of two ESL students I had while I was living in Fairfax, VA. Giedra (Lithuania) and Yadira (Colombia) were great students and they came whenever they could, even though the lessons were hit or miss or often foul ball. In Peace Corps, I'll have more time to dedicate to lesson planning, and I'll get more practice at having English teaching as my primary role.