"Life times" and memory

Nadine Gordimer's latest anthology is an orange five hundred and fifty page tome, suitable for use as a footrest. But of course such a collection of masterpieces of modern short fiction can’t always be used to appease the posture of my five-foot-one-and-three-quarter inch frame.

Human beings have unreliable memories, especially when separated from a particular world by time and distance. We need to be prodded to recall the events and atmosphere of thirty or twenty years ago. Considering that the average life expectancy of a Zambian is less than forty, my childhood is actually a lifetime ago.

Ms Gordimer prods me to remember scenes on the evening news of South African youth running from armed police, the pictures hazy through the teargas. Apartheid was the theme that followed us from day to day, why were the shops empty, Coca cola missing, fuel, and where was affluence? I was too young to understand Structural Adjustment Programmes and the treachery of the World Bank and IMF, but old enough to understand that in South Africa people were tortured and killed for the simple reason that they were black.

Ms Gordimer reminds us of those times, tales of the 1950’s and 60’s. Not all blatantly about apartheid, but shrouded in its mist - the affluence of the whites anchored in the subjugation of blacks, racial microcosms that could never merge, language that could never really convey meaning or intent and that often left behind confusion or misunderstanding. 

photographs: scatterkier, the man booker prize on flickr


In Damascus?

Yesterday, I spent the morning in a group discussion on the theme “The media’s role in social change.” The premise of the seminar was that the mass media can be used not only in development education but of course as a tool in more dramatic change – such as the oft repeated example of Facebook in the Egyptian revolution.

New media, social media or whatever other distinctions or euphemisms can be employed (I essentially mean blogs and Facebook) have seemingly been legitimised and have become a hot topic in the wake of the Arab and African crises. Wherever international development specialists gather, seminars, discussions and workshops are organised to analyse and critique the use of new media as a means to development.

However as the antics of Tom McMaster prove blogs and Facebook are vast and unregulated territory. Therefore are they really the best public spheres for development education? For instance, Facebook pages are as likely to be endorsing good causes as they are to be promoting violence and violation of human rights. Additionally a random survey of blogs shows the majority of them to be personal diaries or concerned with making money.

The fact of the internet is; as a blogger I may not be the facade that I exhibit, also I do not answer to any code of ethics other than my own and I do not have any responsibility to promoting good or morality. Does this make me unreliable? 


How the other tenth live

Blue skies and wisps of cloud, it’s Sunday in Helsinki and one must take a bike ride through the safe, planned and mapped bike routes of the city.

Filled with runners, bikers and walkers, the routes take us along the seaside, through the forest and through some of the wealthiest and most desirable neighbourhoods in East Helsinki.

In contrast to our neighbourhood, in Hertonniemenrannan the natives are invariably white and the local alcoholics and tattooed would-like-to-be toughs are distinct in their absence. In Marjanniemi multiple storey homes have private parking and beach views and children gather to practice sailing little boats at a private pier. In Kulosaari, large gardens are the norm as are old rambling homes, at least one with a private jetty and one with a small plane parked on a private beach.

This is the Helsinki no one tells you about - the Helsinki of affluence, where the famed image of a classless society falls flat.

Finland is known for its generous and egalitarian social welfare and education system and policies and the relative absence of poverty and crime. However, though its wealth distribution is fairer than most countries, its wealthiest 10% percent are responsible for 20% of its consumer spending. Designer clothes, pricey baby buggies, Marimekko shopping bags and grocery shopping in Stockmann’s are clues to the ostentatious nature of that 10%.

Recently Helsingin Sanomat published a feature that described the phenomenon of parents living in lower income areas going to desperate lengths to enrol their children in schools in wealthier neighbourhoods. This was put down to racism, that parents did not want their children in schools with immigrants. However one lone voice of reason explained this tactic secured better schools for their children in a country renown for scholastic excellence, meaning there must be a perceived superiority of schools in wealthier areas. I believe officials are less willing to contemplate this prospect of educational inequality because it would be proof that the policy of equal education, which is great source of pride, has loopholes.

Photograph A Happonen


Dark girls?

I don’t wish to denigrate the pain of the women in the video, but I have memories of the desire to be fair skinned – but also of wanting to be tall and thin and to have all the traits of “beautiful women.”  Looking back, this was part of the period of growing up, the years when one is learning about beauty, when one is still only able to see the most glaring examples of what is considered attractive.

To clarify, I am not talking about inner beauty or intelligence or humour. As an adult looking back at the icons of my youth, from music, films or even girls at school who were popular with the boys, I see that they were no more or less beautiful than I. A few years ago some friends and I were reminiscing of our secondary school days and came to the conclusion that (in general) the darkest boys pursued the fairest girls. In fact many of the fair skinned boys ended up with darker girls.

As I have mentioned in an article about hair, our immediate surroundings are a better indicator of what we eventually feel about ourselves - hair, skin and body. If one has a mother who is constantly berating her child for having dark skin then is it society to blame or the mother? Other mothers are sources of reassurance for their daughters who feel a societal pressure to be fair, thin and have straight hair.  

Though much of the obsession with skin colour is about wanting what you cannot have, African American films and television series often depict dark skinned girls as “ghetto girls.” In a circle of friends (think Girlfriends) the dark-skinned girl is the uncouth one – the one given to snapping her fingers, speaking in a ghetto drawl and starting fights. In mainstream TV black women are rarely as obviously categorised by colour (when they are portrayed at all). It is as advantageous to black or mixed race women to look as white as possible, as it is for Indian, Hispanics and other races to be as European as they can.

If movies or television are not specifically about racial matters then they tend to negotiate their way around black women, especially regarding sexuality. I watched only the first two seasons of Grey’s Anatomy and was very interested in how only one black man was involved in the sexual shenanigans of the hospital and no black women at all – fair or dark.

To return to my experience with skin colour, the fair skinned girls did not necessarily have better outcomes regarding relationships, marriage and attributes of intelligence or diligence were a better indicator of success in their careers. 

Dark Girls” to Premier in October.
Directed by Bill Duke and D. Channsin Berry
Uploaded on youtube 26 May, 2 011