Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Cars, Agriculture, and Winter

Jo Hunter Adams

Hello everyone,

Sorry for the long absence. It's been a super-busy few months. I've recently shifted jobs within my workplace, Eug started his new day-job as a freelancer, and we're growing our family. This seemed like a good moment to pause and get back to The Concrete Gardener.

Things are good here in Boston. The title of this post describes three major Concrete Gardener related life changes. Winter, of course, is not something we can control, but something we can escape from... perhaps. The first snow was remarkably early-- 18 October-- and I'm still bitter about that. We're due to winterize the apartment with our heavy curtain, plastic on the air-conditioner (that doesn't come out) and window, and moving into our bedroom. In the midst of this process, we're eagerly anticipating two Major Trips that take us to the warmth-- both trips relatively unexpected. One is home (yeah!) to see the wonderful Julie and Sam get married. The other is to Florida, for awesomely frivolous reasons that don't come often-- so we jumped at the chance to go. I would love to see a killer whale.

In other news, at the other end of the fossil fuel spectrum, we've taken the plunge and given up our car. I read blogs of really skilled, socially conscious types and I'm blown away by the planning and consistency I sense. We're navigating a pretty bumpy path towards more responsible lives-- I'm slow to do something that hurts. That said, the car is probably the change that has most affected our daily lives. The car was a huge variable expense. I now take bus-train-train to work, and I'm learning to enjoy the commute. Hard-core comfortable shoes makes it doable. Evenings need some extra planning to avoid being totally draining, but again, totally doable. Zipcar is still a great option for day trips and weekends.

We're moving into the winter months of our Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) share. Particularly without the car, the share has done an amazing job of filling up our fridge. I'm hoping to keep you updated on some of our winter transitions. We're due for a major simplification to make space in our apartment.

More soon.

P.S. Poor Nick (see below) seems to be close to passing on to spider heaven. S/he's leaving little flies on the web, and doesn't seem hungry. S/he was the best spider anyone could wish for.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Enemy of My Enemy is My Friend

Meet Nick.

My worm bin is doing amazingly this summer-- the spot is cool and the worms are tons happier with the variety of scraps we are able to give them from our CSA share.

The main challenge last summer were fruitflies. Once they came and got a foothold, they never really left. This year, thanks to Nick, there are virtually no fruitflies. As soon as a few arrive, they have an unfortunate (but surely natural) end. Sure, we have a giant spider living above our worm bins (getting obese), but that's nothing compared to the joy of a fly-clear landing.

Outgrowing our Food

Jo Hunter Adams

Outgrowing our food recently appeared in the Mail and Guardian. Some thoughts:

- South Africa has rapidly rising rates of chronic disease linked to obesity (Type II Diabetes, hypertension). This is tied to the affordability of maize in South Africa, in favour of more diverse sources of nutrition.

This is a moment in South Africa where quality of food supply might be overlooked in favor of increasing mass-production. But mass production is not efficient, by scaling food production, one is left with massive problems of soil degradation and waste.

The article argues that farmers farm what is most profitable. Massive amounts of energy are currently used to ship some of our best food overseas, particularly to Europe. The question is, how can South Africans keep its nutritious and excellent quality produce in-country? Increasing the supply of maize and red meat is simply not in the best interests of South Africans. Large monocultures-- or swathes of land farming only one crop--are not in the best interest of South African farms or South Africans' health. There needs to be another solution to maize and soybean scarcity.

I believe at least part of the solution involves reforging the connection between individuals and their food supply, particularly in cities. Where does our meat come from? Vegetables? What makes it good? The quality of the food supply of the poorest members of society is an issue of justice. It is hugely sobering to consider that the food we eat is actually transforming into the substance of our physical bodies.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Interview with Joel Salatin

Check out this interview with Joel Salatin, a farmer, writer and activist. I encountered Farmer Joel first when I read Pollan's "In Defense of Food" and again when I watched the movie "Food inc." If you're not sure where you stand when it comes to food production, Joel Salatin will mobilize you. From definitions of organic-- and the limitations of that certification-- to how we treat our soil, I get a sense of how complex our food system really is, and how broken.

Some thoughts from the article:

"I suggest that aiding and abetting Walmart is a fundamentally flawed exercise if your goal is localization, decentralizing, integrity, transparency, and triple bottom line accounting. Walmart business models do not include the question: "Does this make more earthworms or fewer?" A few pennies tossed to environmental organizations do not make a company green."

"Dad always said if you're doing chores more than 4 hours a day, you will burn out because no time is left for progress and dreaming." (yeah!)

"Remember, cancer is growth. Growth in and of itself is neither healthy nor noble. And so as I've searched for noble goals for our farm, I've found great freedom in being liberated from competing with farmers outside my bioregion."

Friday, August 7, 2009

Monday, August 3, 2009

Innocence after Violence: "It's Our Turn to Eat" by Michela Wrong

Jo Hunter Adams

How does one turn back the clock after personal violence?

After being impressed by "I Didn't Do it For You" and "In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz", it was hard not to dive right into the pdf of "It's Our Turn to Eat" e-mailed to me the day after the book came out in print. But I managed to hold back long enough to order it via our awesome Watertown library. Ironically, the print book is much more easily accessible in Boston than in Nairobi.

How does one think about corruption in the context of colonialism, post-colonialism and neo-colonialism? Usually very, very carefully. In contrast, Michela Wrong manages to capture a lot of the conflicts of Kenyan society by describing the story of one man. She manages to navigate difficult territory courageously. The protagonist, Githongo, epitomizes some of the conflicts in modern Kenya. Rather than attempt to summarize the whole story badly, I'll just say "read it!"

I'll highlight one section. The book concludes with a discussion of the 2008 post-election violence-- violence in the context of profoundly rooted corruption. People who had never thought their lives were defined by ethnicity or tribal identity found themselves with exactly those labels after the elections. People were killed as a result of their ethnicity. One question that brings is, 'how do you go back after that?' Violence is an identity-shifting experience. Although there is something reminiscent of Rwanda in the violence, it's also very different, as Kenya's history is very different.

So, it seems impossible to live as though there had been no violence-- to say and live the way one did before, defying categorizations of Luo or Kikuyu or.. Yet I doubt people want to be in a society where prejudice and division is one's best defense; I doubt people want to believe that another, equally exploited group is out to get them.

When we have a desire to return to innocence, but we can't at any deep level, what do we do? What does a society do? This is a question to ask of tons of difficult experiences and tragedies that are woven into our lives. Is it a choice to either become hardened and defensive or pretentiously unaffected? Is there another way?

For further reading (after you read "It's Our Turn to Eat"!) check out Mzalendo, "Eye on Kenyan Parliament"

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Freecycle Watertown: Transforming the World, One Gift at a Time

Jo Hunter Adams

Towns in Massachusetts are getting into a system of gifting called Freecycle. And, it seems I'm late to the party-- there are freecycle groups all over the world!

For example, there is a group in Cape Town with 2012 active members. The group in Durban is smaller with 451 active members.

The idea is simple: You join a Yahoo group, and post when you're giving something away or need something. It's different from Gumtree or Craiglist because you become part of a community of people who give and receive from one another (Craigslist Boston, at least, is a much looser and larger group of people) Great things are up for grabs on Watertown Freecycle; I finally felt comfortable enough to part with items that "I might need someday", because I figure, if we need them someday someone else will be generous with me.

I wonder how this would work in countries with less plentiful resources, or with even greater disparities? What do you think? Would a YahooGroup work, or is it a replacement for a more intimate type of community? Could this system free up more resources for the poor?

Saturday, July 18, 2009

A Glimpse of Massawa, Eritrea

As you descend from the Hamasien highlands, you're confronted with a dramatic drop within a few kilometers. Above is the drop in the early morning, below the sun is coming up.

Ghinda, about halfway between Massawa and Asmara is extremely fertile and has created ways to make use of the slopes by creating steps.

Massawa bore the brunt of much of the thirty year war with Ethiopia, as well as the 1998-2000 war over Badme. Despite the marks of war on many buildings, one can still appreciate that the architecture of Massawa uniquely reflects Italian influence and Eritrean building styles.

Below is the famous Dahlak hotel, where my parents, brother and I stayed fairly cheaply (thank you mom and dad).

We got stranded in a small motor boat between Massawa and a tiny island where we were going for the day.

Massawa by night-- after the worst of the mosquitoes have left.

I won't write much here about Massawa; I mean no disrespect to all the stories that need to be told and am sorry for such a touristy perspective. That said, perhaps we could do with a little tourism in Massawa!

The most recent easy-to-read book on Eritrea is "I didn't do it for you" by Michela Wrong. I recommend it to those interested in Eritrea's most recent history. The other classic is "Eritrea: Even the Stones Are Burning" by Roy Pateman, if you're interested in learning about the war with Ethiopia.

Coming soon:

Asmara photos
Summer recipes

Our washer-dryer system has paid for itself! Yeah! We spent about $150 on the system, and have been using it since January. Before buying the washer and spinner, we spent about $5.50 a week at the laundromat. In terms of time, it's about equal and although we use much more human energy with the Wonder Washer, it's worth it.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Food Inc, the Movie

Jo Hunter Adams

Food, inc. was recently playing at Kendall theatre.

My starting point: I've been a meat eating Market Basket shopper for quite a while (Market Basket is the super-cheap grocery shop here in Massachusetts), but our family also has a Community Supported Agriculture Share. It's tough to balance frugality and eating responsibly.

What Food Inc. showed me was that eating responsibly should take a higher priority than some of these other priorities (saving money, living simply). Why?
1) I am what I eat. Literally. Perhaps by empowering myself to know what I'm eating, I can make it less of a luxury in US society.
2) You vote every time you buy a product. You can change the system by choosing organic and/or respectfully produced food, by not eating processed foods, and by supporting local agriculture.

How do I eat responsibly?

For Eug and I, we're investing in small changes. We took the plunge and pay the extra dollar for free range eggs. We survived, and they're awesome. We're gradually rediscovering vegetables through our CSA. They taste great-- I was shocked by how different fresh garlic is. We finally ordered the Grass Fed beef at Wild Willy's And since the movie, we haven't been to our favourite butchery to stock up on meat.

I realize that there are real financial burden associated with certain choices. That said, the burden is at least partially caused by artificially low processed food prices-- prices that are incredibly low because of the scale and nature of much of the U.S. food industry. These artificially low prices are good for our budgets in the short term, but in the long term, they encourage entire communities to subsist on foods that are making them fat and tired.

Below are two links that may be helpful for some of you, brave readers.

Eat Well Guide

Eat Wild Massachusetts
, has details on various farms in the area growing and raising great food.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Story Walk

Jo Hunter Adams

First, a confession: I have never really walked along the street where I go to church. We drive in, we drive out—we don’t “hang out”. Eug was running errands before picking me up from church last Saturday, so I decided to go and visit the nearby pet shop (I have a thing for hamsters… but a digression: did you know that goldfish only cost 13c?!).

Anyway, for the first time, I discovered that the walk has a series of posters on fences and poles. These posters are actually in sequence and made up a children’s story (about dinosaurs, if you must ask). As a child walks they’re exposed to a story that they can read as they head home or to the T station. No pictures here yet, but I’ll try and take a couple at the end of this month.

I have no idea how kids experience the story, or if it’s fun for them, but I thought it was a potentially interesting way to introducing non-commercial reading into common space.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Thoughts from “The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less” by Barry Schwartz

Jo Hunter Adams

The Paradox of Choice brings together data from all kinds of studies to show why, at our core, massive amounts of choice can actually decrease our happiness as human beings. For a brief version of Schwartz's thesis, go here

The unparalleled freedom of our century sometimes comes with too many responsibilities and expectations—if an individual believes that something is possible, it is his or her fault if she doesn’t have the perfect ____ (insert aspiration here). This means either guilt or a striving after things that are, if not impossible, pretty difficult. The reality is that we are forced to make very complex choices that generally have at least a few negative consequences. Obsessing over these consequences can be deadly to happiness, because inevitably in a fictitious alternative life everything was perfect.

Although this is not primarily a self-help book, I think the implications are powerful: Firstly, there are some decisions that shouldn’t matter, but the number of options out there (for example, when choosing a pair of trousers) is so overwhelming that it begins to seem important. Secondly, there are decisions that do matter, and you can create rules that you apply for all time so that those decisions are made easier. Even though you are choosing to limit your freedom, Schwartz argues that you could avoid some of the effort and regret associated with decisions. Thirdly, whether we like it or not, we are influenced by how we compare things, achievements and people. For example, being aware that you will likely think a product is more affordable if there are far more expensive versions of the product you’re looking for could help you step back and evaluate your decision.

I'm reminded of when my parents and I were in Eritrea (Red Sea, borders Ethiopia and Sudan), and the choices were super simple and cheese and chocolate (not together) were about the most awesome things I could imagine. I remember my parents really struggling when they returned to South Africa and there were forty different kinds of every food. It's interesting that it's impossible to recreate the sense of joy I felt when I got chocolate in Eritrea. That said, it's clear that certain limitations, and certain habits, could help fuel a sense of abundance and gratitude.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Watertown Greek Festival and Red Fire Farm Strawberries

Jo Hunter Adams

Although my thanks are not likely to reach back to the Watertown Greek church, I wanted to thank them here all the same.

This weekend is the Annual Greek Festival here in Watertown—with food, drink, dancing and games. As a renter—and not terribly outgoing person—on a street with many churches and schools, it’s not always easy to feel at home. I wanted to give recognition to the Greek church who reached out to their neighbors and gave us all coupons to attend and enjoy a free (and super-good) Greek meal at the festival. You guys are awesome!

Eug and I made it out to Red Fire Farm for the first time, after receiving the share for the past three weeks. This week, our share (thanks Connie!) had: turnips, summer squash broccoli, onions, lettuce, parsley, dill and collard greens. My worms are super, super happy with variety of scraps—they’re eating like they’ve never eaten before.

We’re also sharing a fruit share, which, in addition to the quart of strawberries per week allowed eight quarts of pick-your-own strawberries (so far). Visiting the farm and getting strawberries was amazing! The intense rain the last few weeks had clearly taken a toll, but we were still able to pick plenty and just enjoy a really well-run community farm.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Saviors and Survivors Part 2: Darfur and the question “Who is an African?”

Jo Hunter Adams

The question “Who is an African?” was one of the most important and divisive questions during colonialism. It remains one of the most important questions today in Darfur and other parts of Africa. A brief background: the war between the North and South of Sudan was often reduced to a war between Christians and Muslims, or blacks and Arabs. People were asking who really belonged (and where) as well as who had claims to what-- claims to land, to Islam, to Sudanese culture and tradition, to the Arabic language. Darfur was cut along slightly different lines, but again the question was “Who is the real Darfurian?” “Who is the real Sudanese?” “Who is the real African?” "Who is Arab?" "Who is the real Muslim?"

Mamdani quotes John Garang’s (the leader of the SPLA who died in 2005 after becoming the vice president of Sudan for just 12 days) 1986 speech in which he struggles with the felt need in Sudan to be "Arab": “Others get frustrated as they failed to discover how they can become Arab when their creator thought otherwise and failing to find this... they take refuge in separation." Importantly, Garang believed in one Sudan, and even in Arabic as the language of Sudan. He believed that regions of Sudan could persist without succession-- or at least, that this might be the most practical options for all Sudanese.

Motivation is important. Identity is important. From Saviors and Survivors, my take away message is that, as in so many parts of Africa, identity can be constructed along destructive lines, that those lines are super complicated, and that a community never has total power over their identity. Bringing it back to our lives and our identities, the lens through which we approach other people is surely defined by our histories, our knowledge of our country or community, but also our overall belief system. Garang argued in 1986 that one takes refuge in separation- not that separation is a natural first choice.

On a fairly unrelated note, I wanted to include an exerpt from Mbeki's "I am and African" speech, for some inspiration:

Thabo Mbeki “I am an African”

“…Today, as a country, we keep an audible silence about these ancestors of the generations that live, fearful to admit the horror of a former deed, seeking to obliterate from our memories a cruel occurrence which, in its remembering, should teach us not and never to be inhuman again. I am formed of the migrants who left Europe to find a new home on our native land. Whatever their own actions, they remain still, part of me. In my veins courses the blood of the Malay slaves who came from the East. Their proud dignity informs my bearing, their culture a part of my essence. The stripes they bore on their bodies from the lash of the slave master are a reminder embossed on my consciousness of what should not be done… My mind and my knowledge of myself is formed by the victories that are the jewels in our African crown, the victories we earned from Isandhlwana to Khartoum, as Ethiopians and as the Ashanti of Ghana, as the Berbers of the desert….

I am born of the peoples of the continent of Africa. The pain of the violent conflict that the peoples of Liberia, Somalia, the Sudan, Burundi and Algeria is a pain I also bear. The dismal shame of poverty, suffering and human degradation of my continent is a blight that we share. The blight on our happiness that derives from this and from our drift to the periphery of the ordering of human affairs leaves us in a persistent shadow of despair. This is a savage road to which nobody should be condemned. This thing that we have done today, in this small corner of a great continent that has contributed so decisively to the evolution of humanity says that Africa reaffirms that she is continuing her rise from the ashes…
Whatever the difficulties, Africa shall be at peace!

However improbable it may sound to the sceptics, Africa will prosper!”

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Saviors and Survivors Part 1: The Save Darfur Movement

Jo Hunter Adams

Saviors and Survivors, by Mahmood Mamdani, opens with a discussion of the Save Darfur Movement.

When the movement was just starting to gain momentum in 2004, I was asking "how can I get Africans and Wellesley students to be aware and understand the genocide?", "How can people have a nuanced idea of who is killing and why?"

It's striking that I wasn't asking questions like "how many people are dying?" or "why is this the issue of the day?"-- I suspect that those seemed like jaded, cynical questions to be asking in the midst of a crisis. Yet these are exactly the questions that Mamdani-- rightly-- asks.

I was well aware that the peace agreement between North and South was convenient for international politics, and in general I consider myself relatively knowledgeable about Sudan after gravitating towards Sudanese history in college. It certainly didn't feel like I was being used in any way. It felt super important that the international community didn't sit back, as it had during the Rwandan genocide.

There was no question that Darfur was important to think about, that some kind of intervention-- even military intervention-- might be warranted. I looked critically, but was at some level impressed by the giant T ads the Save Darfur movement was able to paste around Boston.

That said-- here are some of the questions Mamdani asks in his chapter:

-- Why did no one question when New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof inflated the numbers of excess deaths in Iraq while calling for intervention and attention? Is it because no-one knew enough to question? Were facts less important because the story was about a faraway place?

-- What does it mean that there were actually more excess deaths in Iraq at the hands of American soldiers (these deaths were associated with "counter-insurgency", which is considered an acceptable role of government) than in Darfur?

-- What does it mean that the greater numbers of deaths in Congo (even today) and Angola were ignored in favour of a U.S. focus on Darfur?

-- How did the Save Darfur Movement gain such widespread recognition, and how did it become so well-resourced? How could it afford that million dollar ad campaign? Could that money have been more useful in Darfur?

From these questions (questions I didn't ask in college) I sense a tension: Activists, by definition, need to act, to respond to injustice and be appalled at senseless violence. At the same, activists need to study and understand the context and ambiguities of our priorities. Perhaps this tension could manifest in the type of activism we try to foster-- learning together and feeding our priorities and fairly nuanced understanding back to politicians and NGO leaders-- vs. calling for military intervention and creating flashy campaigns.

Simplistic campaigns may be effective at generating interest, money and momentum, but those campaigns feed into the fast food culture of instant, visual and sensual gratification and short attention spans. The culture that this blog is undoubtedly a part of!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

More isn't Better- Discussions on Health Care

Jo Hunter Adams

A recent New Yorker article by Atul Gawande tells the story of the town with the highest health care costs, set against the Mayo clinic. Two things are striking:
1) The best care-- the care with the best health outcomes-- is not the most expensive care.
2) The care a doctor provided depended a lot on their medical training and their personal beliefs about medicine.

Here are some excerpts:

"Two economists working at Dartmouth, Katherine Baicker and Amitabh Chandra, found that the more money Medicare spent per person in a given state the lower that state’s quality ranking tended to be. In fact, the four states with the highest levels of spending—Louisiana, Texas, California, and Florida—were near the bottom of the national rankings on the quality of patient care."

"Fisher found that patients in high-cost areas were actually less likely to receive low-cost preventive services, such as flu and pneumonia vaccines, faced longer waits at doctor and emergency-room visits, and were less likely to have a primary-care physician. They got more of the stuff that cost more, but not more of what they needed."

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Adventures (Relaxing?) in Cape Town and Durban: Part 1

Eug and I arrived to Cape Town at 9:15pm, and before we had set our bags down, found that not only mom and dad, but also Sam, Julie AND Kim had come to the airport. This when we were hiring a car. My family is pretty cool.

At the car hire place, the car person was a little worried about how 5 people were going to squeeze into the smallest class of car. After explaining that these were my siblings and that they had another car, the guy was even more confused. It went something like this:

"They're in South Africa as well???"
"Yes, they're South African. They live here."
"Oh...right. So you..."
"I'm South African."
"Really??? No??? and he? (pointing at Eug)"
"He's not South African"
"Oh... Ok"
"So why are you hiring a car?"
"I'm visiting"
"Oh, fooled me again! You don't sound South African."
"Yes, sadly I've been away almost 10 years."
"oh. So you're American now?"
"No, I'm still South African."

Then we sputtered away from the airport, trying to remember how to drive a normal car. And remembering to drive on the left side of the road.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

You Can't Get H1N1 From Eating Pigs

Our Community Garden

Our Community Garden 1/2 plot:


It's great to be preparing for summer here in Boston! We've been lucky in getting a half plot to try our hand at gardening outdoors for the first time in Boston. I've started a bunch of seeds that should be ready to go outdoors soon.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009


Jo Hunter Adams

The ANC recently won the South African elections with a little less than two-thirds majority. The DA came in with around 17% and COPE with around 8%.

William Gumede's article best described how Zuma was elected.

As I've written in the past, I'm concerned about Zuma. I write that with some trepidation, because I find myself aligned with the views of much of white South Africa. As with many liberals, I like to consider myself above the interests of "my group". That said, I like to think that if I thought Zuma was good for the poor, as long as he didn't do physical harm to anyone else, he would have my support.

There are a couple of things in Zuma that I find unacceptable in a president. Firstly, his perception of, and relationships with women. There's the refrain that polygamy is cultural. What does that mean? What is culture? There's a ton of reasons that polygamy is on the rise in South Africa, and plenty of them are related to the dissolution of the South African family during Apartheid. It is precisely because lifestyles and manhood was denigrated and undermined during apartheid that today there's pressure to be careful how we talk about lifestyles that many South Africans (myself included) don't fully understand. I don't have much right to judge the polygamy of our forefathers, which seemed interested, at least in part, in physical provision. Polygamy is not polygamy is not polygamy. Zuma is a man who believes faithfulness is unimportant, and that his rights to women are self-evident. There is no way that Zuma respects women as his equals. This will bleed into his policies and administration.

Secondly, he seems to be all about power. Mbeki made a ton of mistakes, but I never felt he was vindictive. I always felt that he was about South African society becoming the best it could be. I'm not sure that Zuma wants that, but I hope to be wrong. We're one step removed here in Boston.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

40 Days of Faith and Tiny Houses

Jo Hunter Adams

Every year our church-- the Greater Boston Vineyard--does something called the 40 Days of Faith (A Faith Experiment) that corresponds to the Lent period. Although each year has a slightly different focus, we're always given the opportunity to ask for specific things from God for the 40 days, perhaps with a new intensity. The asking comes out of a bunch of motivations, but the questions are "what do you want from God?" and "what do you really want from God?" (that is, why do you want what you want- but more on this)

One of the things Eug and I asked for was pretty concrete, and fairly unlikely. We were hoping to find a space in Boston to build a tiny house. A tiny house doesn't need much explaining (though I could go on and on). They are a lot more affordable than buying a proper house and seemed to fit with our desire to live small, cheaply, and close to Boston (with some space to grow food).

Perhaps understandably, nothing happened with the dream of a tiny house. I have seen some awesome empty spaces of land near my work, but I don't have a clue who I would ask or how we could borrow/rent/buy those little spaces. Eug and I also both have the sense that this is not necessarily a long term dream, this is a dream for right now. For me, part of the dream was closely tied to the idea that we would be pay the house off within a couple of years, and it would not be something that forced us to stay in Boston beyond the time we feel called to be here.

For the second question, "What do you really want from God?", I think we've already been getting some answers to prayer.

Living in a small place closer to Boston than Watertown seems to make sense. You can't get much with a small budget, and we'd likely still be renting, but we could probably make tiny pretty fun. In that context, a community garden may help with the challenge of a small apartment space.

The biggest draw for me is the hope of forgoing car and maybe even public transportation for our work commutes. We would be able to bike/walk to work every day, making exercise part of our day without making our work days longer.

More on the work-life balance to come, but I think what's been cool about this process is that it empowers you to leave some things alone-- the big stuff that you can do a bit about (pray, pursue), but certainly can't control, and may not be in the end what God has for you. At the same time, I felt able to identify the essentials that God DOES want for me-- balance, exercise, healthy community, home etc-- and pray and pursue those in a more open-ended way.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A Reflection on "Emma's War"

Emma's War, by Deborah Scroggins,

I saw this book years ago in my advisor's office. I avoided it in the years that followed because of it's cover and it's title- a kneejerk reaction against a title that implies that war in Sudan belongs to a British woman in some way (or perhaps, because of the ton of weird psychological stuff that comes with being a white South African woman trying to study Africa and deal with her own demons simultaneously).

I finally picked it up, because it was of the few books in the African section at our local public library.

I was pleasantly surprised. It may be that I'm in a less critical space than I was a few years ago, but I felt like the medium of storytelling left plenty of space to the reader to play their own role in interpreting context. I felt myself thinking more about Sudan than I have for quite a while. And it allowed me to generate many questions.

The story was about what it meant for a British woman in Africa in the 1980s-early 1990s. This excludes a ton of other stories (what it meant to be a soldier in the SPLA, what it meant to be a recipient of aid). The story it was telling, it told well. Emma, the heroine (or villain) of the story had access to resources by virtue of her British identity, her beauty and her personal charm. Despite a lack of real skills, Emma worked for an NGO and had access to UN resources. She was "used" for these resources.

But she edged out of the roles and privileges available to her by actually "playing up" those roles and privileges as she entered into the Sudanese People's liberation army (SPLA) world. That is, her identity loomed large because stepping out- getting romantically involved with an SPLA commander- had massive political and social ramifications. Yet for Emma, love was love was love. It seemed to have no context or boundaries, and it meant absolute trust, faith and sacrifice. The problem was, her relationship had unintended consequences. If there was a way to connect this stories to other stories of aid (aid that kills?) it is this law of unintended consequences, and the inevitability of unintended consequences in a new space.

New Connections
I never thought of Nairobi has the center of aid distribution in East Africa, but it seemed from Emma's war as though Nairobi was an essential step in the aid chain- it was also apparent from this how multiple crises in the region would be linked in very practical ways.

I was shocked by the sheer number of flights aid workers seemed to take in and out of Southern Sudan. This made their presence, their role, and their understanding of their jobs all the more transient.

Questions-- some old, some new.
How can relief be helpful? That is, not development, but actual relief aid in crises?
What rights to information can NGOs evoke when they are providing relief?
What is the international community's role in civil war?
What does neutrality involve? Distance? Is it good to be neutral?
What would it mean for an aid worker to be engaged in a responsible way? Emma was by far the most engaged aid worker, but also probably the most exoticizing and irresponsible.
What are the rights of those receiving aid?
What would Emma's war look like in the 21st century? The same? Different?

News from (a) distance
Expat south Africans are now permitted to vote. More on this soon!