Swazi government threatens torture against “foreigners”.

I haven’t written much about Swaziland recently as the situation in that small country in Southern Africa hasn’t changed very much. But I received this article from the primary English language newspaper this morning.

The short version appears to be that the Swazi King is becoming increasingly frustrated with the low level unrest in the populace. There have been increasing calls for governmental reform as the economic and public health situation has deteriorated. Rather than deal with the reformers directly, the government is suggesting that the real problem is the “foreigners” who advocate for democracy among the native Swazi tribes.

So in response the government is looking to an old tribal punishment, flogging the feet of offenders with spikes and effectively crippling them for a long while. This has the advantage of stopping the protestor and forcing his or her supporters to support him or her while they recover from their wounds. An effective and medieval response.

It will probably be effective in the short run, but totally useless in the long run given that it does nothing to respond to the real issue.

What we can do is get the word out that this is happening, and highlight the violence against peaceful protestors when it does.

Full article after the jump:

Continue reading “Swazi government threatens torture against “foreigners”.”

Learning to listen to the locals

What follows is an essay I just wrote for a Diocese of Arizona project which is collecting reflections from people who have been involved in various MDG projects over the past. Our diocesan MDG committee is going to publish these both in hope that other in the diocese might be inspired to get involved, and also so that local parish and mission committees might use them to guide their own decision making process. (I’ll try to remember to share a link to the full collection once we have them collated.)

My first startling impression of Swaziland came when I stepped out of the airport into the darkness of the night into which we had landed. The car to pick us up was not there waiting for us, and the airport was closing down for the night. The guards told us that we could not wait inside the compound, so we gathered up our luggage and started walking out to the main road hoping to either meet our ride there, or find a phone to make a call.

In the darkness, with gravel crunching underfoot, I looked up. It’s something I do reflexively as a former stargazer. Seeing the stars in the familiar positions makes me feel centered no matter what is happening around me. Their slow progress across the sky is always a touchstone of stability for me when I’m not feeling particularly secure. Except this time. When I looked up, things were all our of sorts. It was a combination of my first time to the Southern Hemisphere, with new constellations, and the effect of seeing all the familiar constellations upside down. It took me moment to recognize Orion. There he was, warding off Taurus the Bull, backed up by his faithful dogs, but he was standing on his head!

The idea of the familiar standing on its head became sort of repeated theme during my visit. Things that appeared familiar turned out, when more closely examined, to be topsy-turvy according to my expectations. Things that seemed totally foreign to me turned out to actually be closely to related to things I recognized once I took the time to see.

This was driven home as I began to speak to people around the country-side who were involved in Swazi Hospice at Home, the NGO I had come to support during visit. The program allows people who are dying of HIV and AIDS to die relatively comfortably at home surrounded by their family and friends. This is not just important to them, but to the whole health care system in the country because if the dying are not cared for at home, the all too few hospital beds in the country would be wholly given over to these patients and not by people who, frankly speaking, have a chance of recovery. In a country where 250,000 people have access to only one small clinic (a two room 1500 square foot affair) with 2 beds, this is a matter of life and death for many.

My immediate response to seeing this desperate shortage of hospital beds was to begin to plan some sort of response that would raise sufficient money to open clinics all across the country. But that wouldn’t be much help without trained medical personnel, medicines, equipment, transportation, or just electricity… In speaking with the local healthcare providers, and with the local committee who were charged with expanding the existing clinic, I learned how great the challenges were, and how little effectiveness throwing money at the problem would have. Much important was to listen to them explain why a Hospice program made so much more sense to their community.

There were numerous reasons. First and foremost was that by a number of different methodologies, it appeared that something between 35 to 45% of the adult population was HIV positive, and expected to develop full blown AIDS and likely die within the decade. The anti retro-virus drugs simply aren’t available in the Swazi countryside, and even if they were, the people suffering from AIDS couldn’t afford them, and wouldn’t have access to the necessary medical monitoring. Better people should live out their last days as comfortably as possible, and give those who are not infected with the disease, especially the children, an opportunity to access what health care is available, than to have even more people die unnecessarily because the inadequate health care system becomes overwhelmed. The second reason was not one I would have ever imagined…

Most of the land in Swaziland belongs not the individual but to the tribe. Families are allowed to live on plots of land as long as they are farming it and giving a portion of the crops to the chief, the King and to the tribal council. If they are not able to produce from the land, it is taken away from them and given to someone who can. Most often it is given to a member of the chief’s family. As long as an adult with children is able to remain on the land, the children can farm the land. If the adult leaves, the children would mostly likely have to as well, which would mean they would lose their families land and any means of independent support. There is no effective social safety net in Swaziland so losing the ability to raise their own food means that the families children are likely to die soon after their parent or parents.

Caring for people at home rather than in the hospital in Swaziland is less about the emotional needs and dignity of the dying as is the case in the developed world and more about trying to keep the whole of society from collapsing.

I only learned this by learning to listen to the local people who were doing the actual hands on work that our MDG group was supporting. It was the quintessential experience of the familiar standing on its head. I think my reflection on these sorts of experiences have informed my own continuing work on the Diocesan MDG committee and my coordination with that of the Cathedral’s committee. We must learn to allow the people on site to propose their own appropriate solutions. Our western solutions won’t alway work, and will sometimes make the situation much more dire.

Learning to listen in this way was for me one of the great and primary gifts that I received from my involvement in that project back in 2002.

Violence and persecution increasing in Swaziland

A few years ago I traveled to Swaziland as part of an effort of my then parish (Trinity in Bethlehem PA) to support the work of Swazi Hospice at Home. You can read my travel diary and see pictures from the trip here.

During the trip, especially during my journey to the southern parts of the country, there were hints that the government was beginning to prepare for a period of civil unrest. Around the time of my visit the presenting issue was the question of the proper relationship between the new Swazi constitution and the claimed absolute authority of the King. (King Mswati is sadly mostly famous in the West for the growing size of his harem.)

While we traveled it was hard to miss an obvious increasing military presence. While most of the population were very thin and wan looking, the military and police guards were large, strong and well equipped. Clearly they were not having any trouble finding good food to eat.

More ominously, I started noticing the big black anti-riot trucks (the Black Mariahs) that the South African government had built during the time of anti-apartheid demonstrations. I was told that the King and his tribal councils had decided to start purchasing them and deploying them around the country. They were parked in the forest – but not too far in. They were certainly not hidden…

I’d heard over the past couple of years that there has been an increasing threat of violence. But when I asked about it I kept being told that people were exaggerating.

Well perhaps not so much after all.

I just received an email press release this morning from Africa Contact. It reads in part:

The brutality of the Swazi regime, led by the autocratic King Mswati, has always been evident, as documented by numerous reports from Amnesty International. This brutality has recently escalated, however, to include a desperate hunt for anything or anyone carrying the name of Pudemo or Swayoco, Swaziland’s leading democratic party and its youth league. The latest example of this brutality is the death in detention of Pudemo activist Sipho Jele. Sipho Jele was in good health when arrested and detained on 1 May for wearing a Pudemo t-shirt but was found dead in his cell the next day. The police claimed that he had committed suicide but Jele’s aunt, a former nurse who saw the body the next day, insists that his face was bruised and battered and that any claims of suicide are manifestly and evidently untrue. Jele’s torture and death at the hands of Swaziland’s police forces is unfortunately by no means the first time such torture and deaths in detention in Swazi prisons have occurred, and we are worried that the student leader, Pius Vilakati, who was at Jele’s funeral but has not been seen since, could be the next victim of the Swazi regime if the international society does not act quickly by putting pressure on the Swazi regime.

The torture and deaths in detention of pro-democracy activists are chillingly reminiscent of similar occurrences during in apartheid South Africa, where deaths in detention were also routinely claimed to have been self-inflicted, and the response from the international community of governments, civil society movements and NGOs should therefore be equally vigorous in demanding observance of the rule of law and democratisation in Swaziland.

The full email follows after the jump.

Please do join me in keeping the gentle people of Swaziland in your prayers. The country with the highest incident of HIV/AIDS infection in the world (mostly because of government inaction) surely needs good and wise leadership. Not a crackdown on democratic activists.

Continue reading “Violence and persecution increasing in Swaziland”

Climate change God’s judgement not Man’s fault?

The BBC has a report this morning on a growing sentiment in parts of the developing world that the climate change that they are witnessing is not due to the actions of humankind. They are a result of God’s judgement upon us. And as such, there is nothing we can change that will have any effect on the situation other than pray for help.

From the end of the article:

“Climate change is a global issue transcending national boundaries, but impacting first on those who can least afford to cope with the consequences.

The ‘God not man’ cry from the lady in Kenya’s northern reaches illustrates a common problem relating to understanding the underlying causes, and underscores the incapability of people in such situations to deal with the crisis that has impacted so severely on their communities.

As Wangari Maathai, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, notes:

‘Climate change will bring massive ecological and economic challenges… therefore, alleviating dehumanising poverty will become even more difficult.'”

Read the full article here.

The point the article is trying to make, but doesn’t really in the end, is that attributing the climate changes to God leads us to think that God is going to be the one who’s going to reverse them. It’s the very definition of magical thinking and is not likely to be very effective.

It doesn’t seem all that different, to me at least, than the line of thought attributed to people like the former Secretary of the Interior, James Watt, who believed the rapture was so imminent that there was no reason for Christians to conserve natural resources. Instead, the reasoning went, profligate use of the resources was a sign of strong faith that God was coming soon and would remake the earth and effectively restore everything we had used.

Not unlike using the ever-increasing equity in our homes to pay off our ever increasing credit card debt…

The BBC article really doesn’t suggest any solutions to the problem of magical thinking among the poor in the developing world other than to “harness the power of youth”. But as the sixties remind all of us who grew up in them, that doesn’t really guarantee anything. Youth can act destructively as likely as they might act constructively. Such is the way of mankind.

Better, for Christians at least, would be to emphasize the meaning of stewardship among the Christian people in the developing world. We should be encouraging them to expect their governments to find ways to live gently in their environment, to do their collective best to steward the natural riches of the nations in which they live. I remember when I was in Swaziland, talking with local farmers who had begun to realize the toll that western style, petrochemical based agriculture was taking on their tribal lands. The old style tradition of small gardens, compost and regular crop rotation was much more effective at producing enough to eat, and was sustainable.

Of course that will require those of us who live in the developed world to put our money where our mouth is first. Otherwise why should anyone listen to us? We’d be like the Pharisees who bind others with burdens too great to bear while finding loopholes to excuse ourselves.

It will probably require us to downsize the homes we live in, move back into the cities closer to the places we work and shop, buy smaller cars, etc. In other words, live more like European society has been living for years. It’s really not an awful thing to contemplate if we put it into that context is it?

Will our actions make a difference? There’s a legitimate disagreement going on about whether the climate change we are observing is caused by human actions or not. But if not, it makes sense to act conservatively so as to try our best not hasten the rate of the change. Plus living as if it were will help us to start focusing our attention on what might be needed to survive what might come.

It’s not all that bad really. Imagine living in a small German, French or Italian city, or in one of the villages that surround them. What’s to fear in that future?

Learning to desire the idea of a thing and not the thing itself

Stewardship season is soon upon those of us who serve in parochial settings. As such I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the proper relationship I should have to my “stuff”.

And given the pile of old furniture that, as the oldest child I’ve been tasked with managing, my family has finally had to break down and rent a storage locker to store that old stuff that we can’t cram into our closets here.

After my trip to Africa and my experience of the lively faith and joyful lives of people who had much less than I could ever imagine getting by with, I’ve noticed that there’s much more tension involved in my relationship with my stuff. As a result I’ve been slowly giving away or disposing of the years of accreted things that I’ve managed somehow unthinkingly to amass.

When I saw this comment posted over on a website called “Minimalist Mac” (how to use as little as possible to accomplish as much as possible) it made recall something from my childhood:

“All of the computers on Ebay are mine. In fact, everything on Ebay is already mine. All of those things are just in long term storage that I pay nothing for. Storage is free.

When I want to take something out of storage, I just pay the for the storage costs for that particular thing up to that point, plus a nominal shipping fee, and my things are delivered to me so I can use them. When I am done with them, I return them to storage via Craigslist or Ebay, and I am given a fee as compensation for freeing up the storage facilities resources.

This is also the case with all of my stuff that Amazon and Walmart are holding for me. I have antiques, priceless art, cars, estates, and jewels beyond the dreams of avarice.”

From here.

When I was a boy our family didn’t have much money. We had enough for everything we needed, but not nearly enough for everything that I was being trained by advertising to want. I knew that there was a dichotomy between the two categories somehow even though I don’t think I’ve been able to name them until recently (post trip to Swaziland).

But I do remember working something out for myself when I was just starting to learn how to read. In those days Sears used to send out a special Christmas catalog to pretty much every house in the U.S. In that catalog was a large, colorful and carefully designed toy section. Every single toy in that book was made to appear to be the height of the toymaker’s art and, judging from the faces of the children pictured playing with them, they were guaranteed to bring joy and happiness into everyday life.

The catalog would arrive in early October (if I recall correctly) so as to help parents start their shopping as early as possible. My family couldn’t afford but one or two of the toys in the pages, but that didn’t stop me from pouring over the pages every day at breakfast. That was the best part of the fall for me. I’d get up, make breakfast, read the comics pages and then get the BOOK of TOYS out and sit at the table studying the pictures and reading the descriptions until it was time to leave for school.

I noticed something doing that. I’d become fixated on one toy or another and much less so in the rest. I’d open the book to the page with my toy-crush on it each morning and gaze rapturously upon it. I’d play with that toy in my imagination. Again and again. And after a week or so of doing that, I’d lose interest that particular toy and my desire would turn to another one in the catalog. The same process would start again. And then again. Lather, rinse, repeat… until Christmas.

On Christmas Day I’d receive one of the toys. It would be great for about 5 minutes. Then, not so much. The actual toy never quite lived up to what it had been in my imagination.

Once I realized that, I learned that I was much better off imagining playing with toys than I was with actually getting them. And, as an added bonus, in my imagination, the toys never broke, never needed batteries and could do things that the descriptions didn’t really cover… Actually receiving the objects of my fixated imagination was a let down.

That’s why this quote above struck me the way it did. It expresses the same principle I had blundered into as a child. I learned to enjoy the catalog of toys much more than the actual toy. What if we could learn that as adults. Don’t see the web pages as things we need to acquire so as to try to fill the holes in our emotional lives – but as things we already have and just need to retrieve if really necessary.

We’d probably enjoy them all them more.

There’d probably many fewer smoke plastic, led illuminated, electronic gadgets in the world overall.

And I don’t see that being a bad thing at all. Think of all the closet space we’d be gaining.

NYTimes article on Swaziland

Since I’ve moved to Phoenix, I’ve not had nearly the same level of contact with people working in Swaziland, but I’m still very interested in what’s happening in that country and the people there are often in my thoughts.

There’s an article in the New York Times today about the present situation in the country:

“Yes, Swazis have enjoyed decades of peace and are rightfully proud of their culture. But poverty has entrapped two-thirds of the people, leaving hundreds of thousands of them malnourished. And these days death casually sweeps away even the strong. The country has one of the worst rates of H.I.V.. infection in the world. Life expectancy has fallen from 60 years in 1997 to barely half that now. Nearly a third of all children have lost a parent.

‘How can the king live in luxury while his people suffer?’ asked Siphiwe Hlophe, a human rights activist. ‘How much money does he need, anyway?’

That question was as confounding as it was impertinent. In the government’s latest budget, about $30 million was set aside for ‘royal emoluments.’

But surely the king’s income exceeds that, people said. The royal family also controls a corporate business empire ‘in trust for the nation,’ investing in sugar cane, commercial property and a newspaper. Forbes.com, which is fond of ranking the rich elite, recently listed Mswati III as the world’s 15th wealthiest monarch, estimating his fortune at $200 million.”

Read the full article here.

Surprising news to me that there’s any criticism of the King. When I was in Swaziland back in 2004 I didn’t any outright criticism. There was just the beginning of an opposition party.

Apparently things are degrading.

Energy Consumption is starving the poor

The BBC article that I posted earlier this morning points out that there’s no way that the developed world can expect energy to continue to be available at present levels.

The unexpected consequence of this is being felt in Swaziland. The article in the Guardian below points out the real impact in a country that has no real resources other than its minimal agricultural industry:

“It doesn’t get madder than this. Swaziland is in the grip of a famine and receiving emergency food aid. Forty per cent of its people are facing acute food shortages. So what has the government decided to export? Biofuel made from one of its staple crops, cassava. The government has allocated several thousand hectares of farmland to ethanol production in the district of Lavumisa, which happens to be the place worst hit by drought. It would surely be quicker and more humane to refine the Swazi people and put them in our tanks. Doubtless a team of development consultants is already doing the sums.

This is one of many examples of a trade that was described last month by Jean Ziegler, the UN’s special rapporteur, as ‘a crime against humanity’. Ziegler took up the call first made by this column for a five-year moratorium on all government targets and incentives for biofuel: the trade should be frozen until second-generation fuels – made from wood or straw or waste – become commercially available. Otherwise, the superior purchasing power of drivers in the rich world means that they will snatch food from people’s mouths. Run your car on virgin biofuel, and other people will starve.

Even the International Monetary Fund, always ready to immolate the poor on the altar of business, now warns that using food to produce biofuels ‘might further strain already tight supplies of arable land and water all over the world, thereby pushing food prices up even further’. This week, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation will announce the lowest global food reserves in 25 years, threatening what it calls ‘a very serious crisis’. Even when the price of food was low, 850 million people went hungry because they could not afford to buy it. With every increment in the price of flour or grain, several million more are pushed below the breadline.

The cost of rice has risen by 20% over the past year, maize by 50%, wheat by 100%. Biofuels aren’t entirely to blame – by taking land out of food production they exacerbate the effects of bad harvests and rising demand – but almost all the major agencies are now warning against expansion. And almost all the major governments are ignoring them.

They turn away because biofuels offer a means of avoiding hard political choices. They create the impression that governments can cut carbon emissions and – as Ruth Kelly, the British transport secretary, announced last week – keep expanding the transport networks. New figures show that British drivers puttered past the 500bn kilometre mark for the first time last year. But it doesn’t matter: we just have to change the fuel we use. No one has to be confronted. The demands of the motoring lobby and the business groups clamouring for new infrastructure can be met. The people being pushed off their land remain unheard.

In principle, burning biofuels merely releases the carbon the crops accumulated when growing. Even when you take into account the energy costs of harvesting, refining and transporting the fuel, they produce less net carbon than petroleum products. The law the British government passed a fortnight ago – by 2010, 5% of our road transport fuel must come from crops – will, it claims, save between 700,000 and 800,000 tonnes of carbon a year. It derives this figure by framing the question carefully. If you count only the immediate carbon costs of planting and processing biofuels, they appear to reduce greenhouse gases. When you look at the total impacts, you find they cause more warming than petroleum.”

Similar food price increases are expected here in the US as growers start to sell their harvest for biofuel processing, and thus reduce the food surplus that have kept prices low.

Read the rest: The western appetite for biofuels is causing starvation in the poor world | Guardian daily comment | Guardian Unlimited

Not enough help for Swaziland

Because Swaziland is being incorrectly classified as better off than it really is, not enough AID is being sent into the country to allow it to deal with the rising death toll of AIDS:

“[NATIONAL Emergency Response Council on HIV and AIDS (NERCHA) Director Dr. Derek von Wissell] noted that humanitarian organisations considered HIV and AIDS a national disaster in the event of one death per 10 000 of the population per day.‘In their own definition, we already have a chronic disaster, but this hasn’t triggered any response nor any money being released to assist,’ stated von Wissell.‘Swaziland is in a chronic disaster situation compounded by acute disaster events and we cannot cope. […]

Even though the mortality rate in the country has increased alarmingly, this – and other social indicators – has failed to convince humanitarian organisations to intervene.

[…]‘Having succeeded in combating traditional childhood illnesses like measles and diarrhoea, more children are now dying as a result of AIDS. The U5M rate has doubled from 89 per 1 000 births in 1991 to 160 in 2005,’ states the report.

Read the rest here: The Swazi Observer

Only $3.1 Million to Feed 400,000

News from Swaziland today:

“Despite the worst harvest in the country’s recorded history and the aftermath of fires that destroyed crops and plantations, Swaziland’s appeals for international assistance are falling on deaf donor ears.

In July UN agencies appealed for US$18 million to feed about 40 percent of Swaziland’s one million people, who are facing acute food shortages. So far, only $3.1 million has been forthcoming, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)

‘The low funding of the appeal is extremely worrying. The food reserves that people have been living off of will begin to run out in September, and it is very likely that many households will have eaten the seeds they would have planted in the coming agricultural season, thus prolonging their situation of food insecurity,’ Kelly David, head the OCHA Southern African regional office, told IRIN.

‘Without assistance, there is no question that people will be facing serious food shortages in the coming month [September].’

To date, funding for relief aid by the World Food Programme has received roughly $1.6 million; the promotion of self-feeding schemes like backyard and community gardens, just over $1.5 million.”

Read the rest: allAfrica.com: Swaziland: Only $3.1 Million to Feed 400,000 (Page 1 of 1)

Alden Hathaway on the effects the Anglican troubles are having in Africa

+Alden Hathaway, my former bishop from my years as a priest in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, and one of the finest pastors I have ever known, has written an article in the Living Church. His article talks about the ways that our polity fights within the Anglican Communion are working at odds with our intentions regarding responding to the significant challenges facing that continent:

“For 10 years I have been going to East Africa, taking solar equipment to electrify homes and schools, orphanages, offices, hospitals, clinics, and whole villages in the rural hinterlands of Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda. I have 10 years of experience leading teams of American young people and African youth into the bush to install the equipment and to witness what a transformation electricity makes in the lives of people and the development of their communities.

On our first mission trip, we went to the verge of the impenetrable forest to install small solar units in two cinderblock houses the government had built for some resettled pygmies. These strange little people sang, ‘You came all the way from America to bring us the light. ‘Tukutendereza Jesu’.’

Over those years we have seen and done a lot. More than 2,000 installations have been subsidized by the charitable gifts of individuals and churches from all over America. It has been a collaboration of church, private enterprise, and government working together in local settings to make things happen and turn on the lights. With a commercial firm in Kampala, Solar Energy Uganda, we are partnering to build the first solar fabricating plant in East Africa.

But the most important fruit of these 10 years is the nearly 200 American kids, with a nearly equal number of Africans, who have caught a vision; who, in the words of our patron, First Lady Janet Museveni, have become true ‘internationalists.’ They are future leaders in this emerging global civil society we are witnessing— political, economic, spiritual.”

Bishop Hathaway goes on to discuss the ways that this witness he describes is now in jepardy. I’d quote the whole article here, but I’d be much more delighted to drive some traffic to the Living Church’s website – they need our support and are doing wonderful work at the moment being journalists in a sea of blogs.

So go read the rest here: Distractions Hinder African Outreach