Peru: La vida Andina, a set on Flickr.
A glimpse of Cuzco, Manchu Picchu and the sacred Valley (Pisac, Urubamba, Oyantaytambo and Chinchero)
Over the past year, I have gotten the opportunity to travel to Vietnam on several occasions. With each trip, I was fortunate to explore another region of the country. In all of East Asia, it is the country that perplexes me the most. It is full of contradictions that somehow coexist in a precarious package. It is overtly communist with slogans and propaganda bombarding you at every corner; yet McDonald’s, KFC, Gucci and Hermes along with a slew of capitalist symbols operate lucrative businesses. Egalitarianism is preached through policies and sound bites but on closer inspection the dwindling rural way of life and magnetic pull of urban centers are creating large swathes of urban poor who are trying to make ends meet. On the surface, Vietnam’s urban centers are teeming with young urbanites. There seems to be an insatiable appetite for luxury goods with boutique stores such as Gucci and Hermes sporting gleaming store fronts. For those who can only afford to window shop, the next best trend seems to be choreographed wedding photos by these store fronts to capture the opulence in their matrimonial snaps. My experience in Vietnam’s urban centers (Hanoi, HCMC or Danang) has been very intimidating. Despite varying pace of life, traffic never stops for anyone, one has to forge his or her way through the sea of motorcycles, bicycles, cars, carts. The simple task of crossing the street becomes a battle to keep your wits, assert your presence (committing to walking in a slow and steady pace so motorcyclists can weave around you) and make it to the other side with minimal scratches. Somehow a parallel for forging a living as an urban dweller in one of the country’s rapidly growing metropolises.
Despite the turf rivalries between Hanoites and Saigonese residents, the former known by their southern neighbors as up-tight, frugal and bogged down by customs and traditions; while the Hanoites accuse their southern neighbors of being far too happy-go-lucky, loud and brash. The war of words and divisions extends to food and life style. This neat infographic gives a bit more insight as to the preferences of Hanoites vs Saigonese. All differences aside, from what I saw the majority of residents in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) or even Danang all seem to be in the below 30 years old demographics. Bia Hoi’s (local beer vendors) and pop up street food stalls are full of young, 20 something sporting the latest western clothing trends, k-pop inspired hair-dos and armed with the latest electronics. All are bubbly and chatty and the constant hum of chatter, motorcycles, vendors creates the perfect atmosphere for a people-watcher’s paradise.
On the flip side of this urban utopia, Vietnam’s rural landscapes are breathtakingly picturesque but mask the harsh reality of rural daily life. I was struck time and time again passing through eye-popping green rice paddy fields and noticing that the arduous, labor intensive task of harvesting the rice was undertaken by elderly women. Time and time again, I saw aging women vastly outnumbering men or young adults tending to farms. This left me thinking if all the young folks are heading to Hanoi, HCMC or Danang and not coming back, who will carry on this work? and where are the next generation of food growers?
Another realization is for a county that has sped up to catch up with the pace of its neighboring Asian Tigers, very little has been done to quell this mass exodus from rural settings to the cities. Although Vietnam is one of the world’s largest rice exporters. In international markets, its rice quality is seen as inferior to neighboring producers. As food consumption increases, this stress on water resources is becoming more pronounced, particularly since the staple crop, rice, is still being grown using water intensive mechanisms.
This is a country that I would love to spend more time peeling back the layers and unearthing the idiosyncrasies that make this nation tick. It’s a task that takes some time given the tightly packaged and sanitized version painted by socialist ideals yet slowly cracking from the pressures of capitalist temptations.
Since my last post, many trips, travels and transitions have passed. Unfortunately many of which went undocumented in this blog. A recent visit to China made me rethink to start updating once more.
I arrived in Beijing jet lagged and under what seemed to be hazy clouds. Only after getting a bit of shuteye did I realize that this haze was not a figment of my imagination as I had previously thought but a mainstay of Beijing landscape. A sepia-colored fog that loomed over the entire city, notorious visual of the city’s growing pollution challenges. I did not spend much time in Beijing as I quickly packed off to various locations across Northern China.
First stop, Ningxia Autonomous region. Arriving in the Region’s capital, Yinchuan I was flabbergasted by my surrounding. It seemed that the entire city was constructed yesterday. Construction cranes protruding like giant tentacles, were a staple of the city’s skyline. Large avenues, neatly dotted with trees, bike lanes, public spaces. An urbanist dream design of a Chinese city….or at least on the surface. All this and relatively very few people. It seemed everything was in excess. Buildings were grotesquely large in what seemed to me an effort of one-upmanship; to convey development and prosperity. It left me grappling with questions of how to define those terms and if development is measured by level of infrastructure in place.
Yinchuan is a stone’s throw away from ancient China’s most well-respected ancient civilizations. It is not as if Yinchuan happened over night. When I inquired about the origins of the old city, I was told it was mostly being dismantled in favor of this new Yinchauan that lies a little bit westward of its founding origins. Gaudiness aside, given that it’s highly bias to my subjective opinion, there was a sense of admiration and awe for the sense of effortlessness that filled the air. As if creating a city out of dust is just another day at the office.
Ningxia’s countryside was at times reminiscent of Sudan’s dusty savannahs and at times I could not help but compare. Hands down my favorite discovery was a visit to a museum dedicated to water resources. The region is home to Qunitongxia irrigation scheme, a network of 39 ancient canals dating back more than 2000 years and a testament to successive dynasties that built and harnessed the Yellow River’s power.
My presence around these parts was a bit of an oddity, with many inquisitive looks. Curiosity aside, I was humbled by the generosity and hospitality of folks I encountered.
And the journey continued. Will try keep recounting reflections…
I have been meaning to write about my trip to Northeastern Sudan for some time now but as usual many excuses can be inserted in this *________* space. I have been neglecting this blog for some time now but I’m hoping to be more active. Part of the delay with writing this post is also my apprehension that I find myself writing about my country in a sensationalized manner. In which, fellow countrymen are represented as anthropological case studies to be examined. So in writing this I’ve tried to be cautious of that and record my observations to the best of my abilities, without portraying the people/communities that I have encountered as an exhibit.
Every time I venture into a new part of Sudan, I am taken aback by the vastness and diversity of this country. It is also sobering to see life outside of the bubble that is Khartoum. This time curiosity took me towards Atbara River. Starting through the very familiar road from Khartoum to the town of Atbara, the sight of blown up tires littered the sides of the narrow road- a reminder that how this desert environment can be so harsh and unforgiving.
After reaching Atbara, we left the familiar tarmac road and ventured off on dirt tracks. Passing droves of ghost towns- towns built to compensate Manasir people for their displacement from Merowe. These houses and dry irrigation canals stood as a haunting reminder of the government’s blatant failure to provide any sort of adequate consultation or come up with some sort of acceptable solution that could have been far less costly than this current wasteland…Such a shame.
We drove in parallel with the Atbara River, which extends through River Nile and Kassala states and beyond the border over to Ethiopia/Eriteria. Across the border it’s referred to as the Tekeze River. The road or lack there off consisted of tracks laid by the occasional lorry or pickup truck before us. Driving across endless dunes, batched up with the occasional protrusion of Acacia trees, I realized that the horizon is much closer that I had initially thought. It seemed as our car could potentially fall off the face of the earth beyond the coming sand dune. Despite the serenity of the landscape, I found myself thinking how anyone could survive in such callous environment.
Most citizens in this area are nomadic peoples, tending to their livestock along historic predestinated routes. For centuries they have managed to forge a living through lucrative camel trading in relative peace. To take advantage of the cooler weather, our trips usually started at 5-6 am before sun break. In the early mornings we had the pleasure of witnessing impromptu camel races. Young boys, probably no older than 10 years old, mounted on the backs of sturdy camels, galloping across the flat landscape with ferocious clouds of smoke trailing behind them. These boys are training these camels for their debuts in races that take place in Kassala State. From there the best of the best are sold at rates of US$10k and upwards for pure breeds. These camels are taken to the Arabian Peninsula, mostly UAE for bigger races and camel breeders. Not long ago, many of these young boys would also be sold with the camels as their small body frames make for excellent Jockeys. Their blight came to light when several sources began highlighting their abuses; mostly undocumented in these Gulf States are they abused and then discarded like objects once they have outgrown their desired size/weight.
These days this solitude has been abruptly disturbed by the discovery of large deposits of gold in these deserts. As a result there has been a modern day gold rush to these desolate dunes. At the occasional haphazard rest stop/fueling station (usually consisting of several large jerry cans of petrol), I was surprised to find young boys/men not exceeding the age of 30 from all across Sudan. These men have left their respective corners of the country and made their way to this desert with the prospects of finding small nuggets of gold through arduous process of breaking up sandy/rock formations and sifting through under the intensely painful sun. In talking with some of them, it was interesting to see the mix of tribes, and socio-economic backgrounds represented. It ranged from those who have lost most of their livestock, to those whose families could not support the high cost of subsistence agriculture to university educated men, who have lost hope on the prospects of finding employment. In all, their stories were tied with the same somber tone of desperation. It was eye-opening to see the extents that these young men will go in order to earn an income.
After several days of spending time in these regions of the country, it is evident that these communities have been completely forgotten by the central government and they in turn have little faith in such an institution for providing them any semblance of basic services. They definitely feel the impacts of climate change/climate variability. Clans that once boasted herds in the 10s of thousands are now lucky to retain a handful for basic subsistence. The irony of the situation was palpable. Sudan as a nation is one of the largest exporter of livestock on the continent, yet those who labor in rearing these herds reap little benefits.
We marked the end of our several day trip, exhausted and covered in a healthy layer of dust/sand. As we approached the outskirts of Khartoum, the distinct flames of the Al Gaili Oil Refinery blew in the distance- with it came lights and more densely populated communities. Entering the city of Khartoum, I was left in a daze trying to reconcile the environment that had been introduced to over the course of the previous days and the car-infested streets of Khartoum. With drivers, lacking patience went about trying to burrow themselves into tiny holes within the traffic gridlock. Recounting the pleasant conversations had over freshly brewed jabana (coffee) and contrasting it with the impatient horns of Khartoumites was difficult to grasp that these communities existed on the same continent.
Appreciative of the diversity that makes up this country. I wish it was a bit more celebrated rather than being used as divisive tool to serve political agendas.
That’s 3’aib (a’ib) they say
What will people think?
What will they say?
That’s 3’aib they say
Sit up straight
Don’t come home too late
That’s 3aib they say
A single word that defines our world
Elusive boundaries of what’s wrong and right
You must exude a certain image
No room for individual thought
Just follow what has been taught
This 3’aib they speak of
These ‘disgraceful’ acts
Arbitrarily defined and full of illogical cracks
Your life is diligently archived in a series of disgraceful moments
Aunties and uncles never forgetting any details
So quick to judge and put you on the spot without fail
Slowly but surely this pile becomes an overwhelming mountain
Causing you to question your world and your actions
Is my logic absurd? Or am I missing a critical social transaction
When you finally cry out and question why
You are blatantly shot down
Told to obey and stop acting like a clown
This 3’aib they speak of
I want some justifications
Who makes the rules? Who changes the equation?
I love my culture
My deep roots that keep me grounded
But these double standards always leave me stranded
That’s 3’aib they’ll say
To these word of mine
How could you get out of line?
To this 3’aib they speak of
I’m tired of carrying this unnecessary burden
I need to let go
there is always a compromise
I sat underneath the shade of your Neim tree
felt your scortched, sandy earth beneath me
As my hand traced your parched skin
I felt you heaving heavily
trying to breath in
I asked you the matter?
but no words came through
Your solemn silence echoed your pain
like shells from a warplane
Your sha3ab, your ‘people’ that once sung your praises
now stand aside or rip you apart to smaller spaces
Their love and melodies carried you through
Those tunes and syllables that nourished you
No longer speak in unison
Or help to care for you
Your trees cried salty tears and withered away
Your monstrous march of millions hooves
Have dwindled or gone astray
The Nile your backbone
Has cowered and meandered
In fear of your people’s greedy panders
In a faint breath you murmured your sorrows
I am divided
and my people are dying
I no longer have the will to keep trying
We sat in silence and witnessed your neighbours’ grief
Egypt is spiraling in uncontolable directions
Libya is caving in for the “righteous” cause of speech and tribal factions
Your Somali brothers can no longer shed a tear
No drop of water in their bodies to placate their hunger and fear
We wondered if you will soon share their same fate
Or will self proclaimed saviors swoop in with their
and willingness to “donate”
where well intentions
give way to capitalist ventures
With every event, it is said that “this time is different”
But every symptom is getting the same prescription
We all seem to be suffering from selective amnesia
Forgetting to take notes
Repeating the same diction
As the sun came down
The dusk gave way to gentle breezes
the memories you etched along your sands
have been brushed away
and almost forgotten
A sight that is as ubiquitous as Addis Ababa’s distinctive blue taxis are none other than the thousands of listros or “shoe-shine boys” who roam the streets of Addis Ababa. They tend to weary shoes of the city’s pedestrians, giving them a new ‘face-lift’ and much-needed relief from the city’s abuara ‘dust’ or in kermt ‘rainy season’, chiqa ‘mud’. When I first arrived in Addis Ababa, I noticed the sight of these young boys who line the streets and offer shoe polishing for a mere 2 birr. They diligently smear away the layers of dust and mud and apply a generous portion of shoe shine, that leaves most shoe-soles gleaming. They walk around with distinctive wooden boxes that house their gear and double as a stand for clients to rest their feet as they are being polished. In some areas, some listros have gone as far as setting up strings of stools and using plastic sheets to create umbrellas to guard against the rain and sun. These little listro stalls become chill out spots where you see people sitting in small stools getting their shoes shined, getting their fill of local news or discussing recent events.
Initially I found this practice fairly amusing, never have I been to a country where there was such a deep ingrained culture to have freshly polished shoes. Where it was taboo to walk around with slightly dusty shoes. I found this practice particularly amusing during kermt, where it rains without fail on a daily basis and the streets become a canvas of mud and rocks. It didn’t make sense to me that one would get their shoes polished, walk several steps and have to repeat the process. Soon after I realized the utility of the service these listros provide. Having to walk from my house to the office, it became part of my routine to stop by one listro boy’s particular spot in the mornings, exchange greetings and have my shoes polished.
I then began to ask about the nature of this profession and how it came to be such an integral part of urban culture in Ethiopia. For many of these listros, the meager earnings from shoe shining provide a vital life line to life in the city and possibly at times to supporting family members. I discovered that most of these young boys are migrants from outside Addis. Initially listros were known to be from a particular tribe, Guragai, who are renowned for their business and entrepreneurship skills. A job as a listro for them is the first step in the ladder to becoming a self-made business man. Many of these listros worked to save up funds and pool it together to jump to the next rung in the ladder or renting a small mobile stall in Merkato (Africa’s largest open air market….a city of its own). From there as their liquidity increases, they move up to renting bigger venues and becoming more established business men. I admired this sense of resourcefulness that instilled the dogma of “hard work, can pay off.”
These days, the listro market although still majority Guragai, is now infiltrated by many young boys form other tribal groups (most notably the Wellita) trying to emulate the success of those who have gone to become well established business men or have found means to gain access to higher education. In trying to do a bit of ad-hoc research about the origins of the name ‘listro’, I came across some noteworthy organizations and others who are trying to portray a dire situation where these young boys are systematically victimized. The latter fail to understand the intricate business ethic that is instilled within this community of young boys and do little understand their mentality. Rather they are seen as drifters who have been neglected by society. They fail to understand that the services they provide are highly appreciated by the general public. More importantly is that these young boys do not see a lifetime of shoe-shining in their horizon, but instead see it as a step in becoming self-sufficient and capable of earning an income. Their intentions are to earn and save sufficient amount of money to move up to the next venture; making way for the next wave of young listos to occupy their ranks. Further in reading some of these accounts, it makes it seem these young boys are aimless and have no prospects. But in reality many are trying to go to school and take up this profession on the side.
As I stood in the check-in counter at Addis Ababa’s Bole Airport a few weeks back on my way to London, I noticed an all too familiar sight. Many European and American families with Ethiopian babies. In my particular flight at the time of my check in I counted 8 different families with new Ethiopian adoptive babies. For 2 of these families, it was their second adoption from Ethiopia as they were accompanied by young children (ranging from 6-10 yrs of age). The number of these adoptions have exponentially risen in Ethiopia. I’m sure that a wave of celebrity adoption of African babies, one of which was from Ethiopia has fueled this trend.
I have gotten into many heated debates about this topic with friends here in Ethiopia. I was always tried to give people the benefit of the doubt, and advocated for these adoptions. Ethiopia is in the process of reforming its adoption policies to attract more international adoptions. I viewed this as a positive step forward to making the process more transparent and an effort to safeguard children who are being placed with foreign families. I strongly argued against allegations of why these Western families were coming to adopt from Africa and Ethiopia in particular. My feeling was every child deserves a good home and most of these families are those who for some reason or another want to expand their families… so in a way it’s win-win.
I brushed aside the troubling fact that mostly Caucasian parents to be, adopt East African children and set them up for a life-time of confusion and isolation as they struggle to reconcile their new homes and their heritage. Further, I pushed aside the fact that Ethiopia is a country trying to manage this flux of international adoptions. As a result some of their safeguards and vetting processes for prospective parents is somewhat weak and can surrender young children to the hands of relative strangers who will take him/her to a foreign land and potentially expose them to abuse…and lack of a safety net to turn to in the event of such acts.
Many opponents of this wave of adoptions often argued why these parents fail to adopt from their own countries, where the foster care system is overflowing with children waiting to be placed into good homes. In my naive effort, I argued that systems in Western countries are very restrictive (which is true), which leads desperate parents to be, to venture and seek other avenues of adopting children.
I was troubled by blogs in the blogosphere where new parents talk about struggling to manage “unruly” hair of their new adopted daughters and the manner in which they conveyed their differences. I can only imagine what kind of impact that has on a child growing up knowing how different they are from their adoptive parents. These acts serve as subtle messages that create a chasm between the adoptive child and their adoptive parents and reinforce a divide in the mind of this child.
A friend of mine recently shared this link… where a 13-year-old Ethiopian girl adopted into an American home and relocated to Seattle, Washington, was found dead from frostbite in her family’s backyard. Reports indicated that teachers noticed that she lost significant weight before her death. Several months later and no one has been charged with her death and inquiries into this gross negligence have been moving at a glacial pace. Reading about this story was heartbreaking. I realize it would be premature of me to say this is what happens to every adoptive child. But hearing this story highlighted that these acts exist and authorities in their adoptive countries are very slow to react.
Lastly, I was captivated by a 3 part story on Slate.com titled the Makeni Children, where the Mosely family recounts their tribulations with international adoptions and discovering that their children whom they thought were orphans and in need of good homes were actually part of a large child selling schemes. Middle men/women, worked to lure young children from their families and practically sell them to adoption agencies in the US.
I am still an advocate for adoptions. There are many many children here in Ethiopia, Sudan and across the horn who are in need of good homes. Governments are doing very little to help provide basic needs to these children. To add, the destructive stigmas that surround adoptions in our cultures leave many of these children in sub-par orphanages, without hope of finding families. Yet I am more aware that the issue of adoptions is not black and white, yet many grey shades in between. I do hope that the Ethiopian government works to make adoption process more stringent and create stronger linkages in order to facilitate follow-up of adoptive children in their new environments. I also hope that those who adopt from Ethiopia become more conscious of remarks and actions that may seem harmless but can scar a child for life… and as a closing remark, I do hope that “we” Ethiopians/ Sudanese (people from the Horn of Africa) begin to shift our paradigm and reconsider adoptions. Instead of merely criticizing foreigners coming an adopting local children…why can’t we be part of the solution by providing homes for some of these children.