PortThe next morning we travel to the town of Altagracia. The election has arrived to Ometepe. With it, unseen divisions in Nicaragua start to emerge. People group around the two forms of the main political parties: the ruling Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN) and the opposition Partito Liberal Constitucionalista (PLC). Deep lines, which normally subtly mark daily life, appear like fences constructed urgently overnight. Allegiances are strong,territory is marked and tension heightens. We walk around the main part of the town. On the other side of the central square, the election results have just been announced and the town is fighting over the four votes which won or lost the seat. The winners gloat, fly party flags and explode firecrackers.

“We won!“ says a man from the FSLN in the square, leaning too close and wiping the sweat from his face, as if even the risky thought of change came a little too close this time.

The losers demand a recount, claim that there was rigged voting, that it wasn’t fair, that not everyone got a chance. The crowds stir. Mothers mutter, the unemployed grumble, the opposition will seek redress. We wonder how many of them will be heard.

In the church in Altagracia they sweep the town’s dust into heavy piles which they beat out into the garden. We walk around the church, and make note of its calm white interior and the wooden pews lined up in careful harmony. In the garden a chicken pecks on the ground. A PA system lifts music from the central square where a small cluster of victors celebrate with Cumbia music, shaking black and red FSLN flags. They play their part in a political process which reaches beyond their shore to Managua where they rarely go; to a President’s hand that they will never shake. As we drive away from the church, the voices and music fade. For those in Managua, for those watching from abroad, those voices will be quieter still.

This is an extract from ‘Waves’ published in Kweli Journal. Do visit their site to read the whole essay.

I want to share this article by my friend Veronica about returning to her home town in Malaysia after seven years abroad. She discusses the changes in her own community and the positive effect that murals and graffiti have had on residents. Having worked in development in Africa, she suggests that development is perhaps both more subtle and more organic than development practitioners would have us believe.

I particularly love the follow comment on development as a human and heart centred process. I couldn’t agree more, V!

“Development isn’t necessarily a set of goals. Development needs to be human-centred. Development is what people want it to be, what they want for themselves is what they will achieve with what they put in. Others are merely vehicles and catalysts to enable such an environment to take place….

(S)omething as simple as a few wall-paintings has triggered such response and in turn provided the catalyst for local artists to express themselves more freely now is what I would truly call development.”

Graffiti Mohamed Mahmoud Street

Veronica discusses the impact of wall art in Malaysia. This picture is from Mohamed Mahmoud Street in Cairo, where graffiti art has also played a role in creating change in the city.

market3

An article from BBC Media Action in Myanmar Making a World Debate Local which explores the view of ordinary people in Myanmar about the current changes in the country.

The changes over the past eight months in Myanmar seem to mostly manifest themselves in the form of new apartment blocks, shopping malls, extra cars of the roads and meetings about the change.

“What is really changing for ordinary people?”

This article discusses an event in the World Economic Forum where recordings by BBC Media Action researchers were put to members of the government, NLD and Mizzima.

Here is an extract from the article with some of those voices and those questions:

“If we work, then we eat”

….A motor-cycle taxi driver in Rangoon … said that Burma’s much celebrated economic transformation has had no positive effect yet on his own daily life.

“For people like us, there is no change,” he said. “No change because if we work today, then we eat today.”

The government representative on the panel was challenged by questions on issues of corruption, lack of investment in rural communities and energy supply. A day labourer, for example, asked,”Myanmar doesn’t get enough electricity so why do you sell [energy] to our neighbours? When will Myanmar get electricity?”

A woman who runs a flower stall in Htauk Kyat Market on the outskirts of Rangoon also took the chance to urge government ministers to find out what was really going on in the country.

“In order to help people who really suffer,” she said. “The country minister should come down, check and analyse every quarter (of the township). They should share the feeling of what is happening in the quarter.”

Just a quick post to share this link to the New Internationalist where they share the five shortlisted stories for the Caine Prize 2013. All the stories can be downloaded in a pdf version in full and bloggers are invited to join the discussion on which should be picked to win.

I’m looking forward to reading the stories!

A sequence of human rights films last week at the Human Rights Human Dignity International Film Festival Yangon  brought together my past life in Egypt and my current one in Burma.

A Myanmar film about a whistle campaign to prevent harassment against women in the Myanmar buses. The audience howled with laughter as men picked up whistles, desperate to also receive a free gift. One women said harassment was much better now, because of the whistle, we wondered?

“No” she replies, “because now I am old the men no longer want to harass me.”

“The men want to touch everyone”, says another woman , “so I am grateful for this campaign.”

The film seemed to go full circle as while in Egypt last year the grassroots campaign against sexual harassment by Harassmap and others was going strong. Myanmar has not had the same bad press as Egypt for its sexual harassment and violation of women’s rights, but there is an underlying problem here and dealing with sexual harassment will just be the first hurdle. (For more posts on sexual harassment see here and here).

The other film Back to the Square, brought us to the streets of Cairo themselves through the lens of Petr Lom. An in-depth and interesting documentary which explores the abuses of the Egyptian military authorities since 2011 through the stories of 5 different Egyptians. The film shows the continued corruption and abuse of authorities by the military and police through individual cases, highlighting current injustices but also the energy, defiance and humour which marks the Egyptian character.

Egypt might seem very far in distance and culture from the streets of Yangon, but the Burmese audience reacted audibly to the images of Egypt. They laughed out loud as the police officers spoke of the fairness of their system and gasped at the images of torture, manipulation and abuse. Whilst laughing as a police officer attempted to charm the camera with his version of good practice and justice, my neighbour excitedly whispered to me:

“It is just like our country.”

This moment highlighted the human nature of justice and the common understanding of abuse by authorities as wrong. Though they are worlds apart these people are tied by similar experiences and similar anger at their powerless in the face of such abuse. We so often debate the cultural nature of human rights, yet human moments like these remind us that justice its is broadest sense is something that we all hold strongly within us, whatever our cultural background.

An excerpt from Rachida Madani’s Tales of A Severed Head, translated from the French by Marilyn Hacker and published by Yale University Press in September 2012, featured on Jadaliyya.

Rachida beautifully expresses the feelings of being a woman in Morocco in a changing but still traditional society. In a world where women are both moving on and being held forcibly back.

A few lines beautiful lines I want to share from the poem The Severed Head:

What city and what night

since it’s night in the city

when a woman and a train-station argue over

the same half of a man who is leaving?

He is young, handsome

he is leaving for a piece of white bread.

She is young, beautiful as a springtime

cluster

trying to flower for the last time

for her man who is leaving.

But the train arrives

but the branch breaks

but suddenly it’s raining in the station

in the midst of spring.

And the train emerges from all directions

It whistles and goes right through the woman

the whole length of her.

Where the woman bleeds, there will never be spring

Again.

in the night, in her head, under the pillow

trains pass filled with men

filled with mud

and they all go through her

the whole length of her.

How many winters will pass, how many snowfalls

before the first bleeding letter

before the first mouthful of white bread?

A series of photos on Betel Nut from Dawei in the south of Myanmar. Betel is popular in Myanmar and is chewed as a stimulant. The production of Betel is an important source of livelihood for farmers in the Dawei area.

rolling betel

The ingredients of Betel

Betel ready to eat

An interesting article to share : ‘Rights Claiming in a Rule of Law Vacuum‘ by Jill Davison on practical approaches to human rights. She argues for approaches to securing human rights which do not rely on state institutions and rule of law. As the article very accurately points out in the rural parts of Burma, rule of law is a distant dream, whereas threats to human rights are a current concern. Methods which support local approaches to securing rights will allow for rights to be obtained through informal methods.

Here is an excerpt:

“It should come as no surprise that, given the persistently closed nature of political and legal institutions in Burma, villagers attempt to prevent displacement or secure some form of tangible redress through informal rights-claiming strategies like negotiation, non-compliance, complaint and open protest.What is surprising however is the development agenda’s persistent focus on support for state institutions, rather than for the concrete ways in which communities are already attempting to claim rights without institutional support. While civil society and NGOs tend to laud the increased space since the advent of civilian government in March 2011, this is often space for their own engagement with policymakers, rather than for village-level grievance airing or access to remedy.The assumption remains that the claiming of rights vis-à-vis business will predominantly be shaped by the internalisation of international norms into domestic laws, not to mention voluntary exposition of principles in corporate charters. While this is well and good, and the exposition of sound regulatory frameworks in Burma to be welcomed, the lack of clarity that plagues business and human rights norms, not to mention the enforcing role of National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs), will long hinder attempts to institutionalise them, even in non-transitional contexts.

There nonetheless exists in Burma enormous opportunity for well-crafted programmatic measures that go far beyond institutional capacity building. Community rights-claiming strategies are directed not only at states or political institutions but at corporate or even non-state armed actors with financial stakes in business. They represent nascent movement towards rule of law in a transitional context. Their persistent portrait as untouchably ‘political’ and oppositional in relation to the state is flawed and hinders vital programmatic support that aims inexorably at apoliticism.

Villagers in rural Burma do not have time to wait for the institutionalisation of norms into domestic policy. For those seeking to secure some tangible remedy at the community-level, programmes that foster community empowerment and confidence building now provide a powerful complement to existing strategies.”

This is the reality that not just the Burmese communities face, but rural and urban populations worldwide who live outside of the rule of law. Legal approaches to human rights, references to declarations and recommendations will not solve their problems. Listening to their approaches to the problems that they face and finding a way for human right to interact with their understandings of their problems will lead the way to solutions.

My own research in rural Nicaragua highlights similar observations. Communities are seeking solutions to their own problems. Adherence to stiff legal mechanisms will not aid them and risks alienating them using technical language.

A other few articles to share which have inspired me on this subject:

Can Human Rights Survive? Lecture One: The Crisis of Authority by Conor Gearty,  Hamlyn Lectures 2005.

Why More Africans Don’t Use Human Rights Language’ by Odinkalu from Carnegie Council Human Rights Dialogue 2.1

Reflections on Human Rights at Century’s End by Larry Cox from Carnegie Council Human Rights Dialogue 2.1 

Human Rights for All? The Problem of the Human Rights Box’ from Carnegie Council Human Rights Dialogue 2.1

Manal El-Tibi the only Nubian member of the drafting Constitutional Committee, withdrew frustrated with a non-inclusive process in which certain parties dominated. Nubian requests were not included: for the right of return to their traditional lands, for the development of historical Nubia, and for the protection of a diverse Egypt, where Nubian history and
language would be taught in schools. Within the power struggles in Cairo, the Nubian voice blends with other rights demands, but in Aswan, the Nubian voice is impossible to ignore.

In Aswan Egypt’s ancient links to sub-Saharan Africa are clear. Alexandria collects the winds of Europe; Sinai hears the desert songs of Arabia; Cairo catches the breeze from the Maghreb. In Aswan, the Nile brings Africa tangible and buoyant into the middle of town. Africa is bold in Aswan. The Nile has travelled far to reach this point, it transports invisible burdens from the countries it has penetrated. It heaps Sudan into Lake Nasser, drops Ethiopia by the Aswan promenade; unleashes Uganda into the soil.

Read the full article in Guernica Magazine: The Capital of Nubia.

While we are constantly reminded of the interconnected nature of the world, this interconnectedness has not extended to our responsibilities as citizens. The Virtual Dinner Guest Project is an initiative that attempts to address this problem by bringing people together to connect around political, social, and humanitarian issues.

The basic premise of the project centres on sharing a meal, a universal ritual to which we can all relate. There is a twist though – the meal is shared around a computer screen, connecting diners from different countries via Skype. The project brings together diners through links with universities, media groups, and civil society organizations.

Maddox describes the Virtual Dinner Guest Project as “a mechanism to play catch-up to where our governments are having a conversation. People are not consulted or directly in involved in high level dialogues, although their destinies are absolutely impacted by those kinds of decisions. In a failing global economy, it is becoming essential to be involved in the world in a practical way, not just through charity donations.” Echoing a global trend propelled by revolutions and civil society groups, he states: “at the end of day why shouldn’t they be spokesmen – we are all just one voice among many.”

In contrast to the traditional aid paradigm, Maddox aims to focus on local activists and create south-south collaborations, in which people and projects with similar concerns can support each other through their own experiences. Maddox’s aim is to work toward a global network of local actors who interact and practically apply the lesson’s learned from Virtual Dinners in their work: “Talk, digest and then act. That’s us,” Maddox says.

“Conflict is always going to exist,” Maddox remarks, “but how you manage it is important.” For him, engaging people in discussion is the first step toward building peace, and he is pursuing this belief one dinner at a time.

Read the full article at Muftah.

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