Something to consider


07 octobre 2012

Something to consider

If you’re like me, you probably have a common problem when it comes to charitable giving: you want to give money to help to help those in need, but you’ve just heard too many stories of fraud, peculation, and abuse. Charity staff embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars from food funds. Supposedly upright charities being a front for organized crime.  Charity managers gambling away donations. Or maybe just the old Nigerian email phishing scam. It’s called charity fraud, it’s a real problem, and it keeps a lot of people who would otherwise be willing to donate from contributing.

Well…not to sound like a scammer, but I may just have a solution for you: TREES. It’s not a big project, and it’s not flashy or sexy – heck, they don’t even have much of a website – but it’s direct, it’s realistic, and you’ll know exactly what your money is going to buy.

So what is TREES?

Put simply, it’s a project that isn’t trying to do anything big. All it wants to do is help one group of tree farmers in one village buy one set of equipment to help them improve their lives. However, its size is, in my opinion, its strength: you can see exactly what it is that you’re paying for, you know exactly who it is that you’re helping, and at the end of the day you know exactly how your money will be spent. It’s simple, accountable, and will actually do some good.

At this point, I suppose I should provide some disclosure: TREES is a project that’s being run entirely by my significant other. Strictly speaking, this represents a conflict of interest. However, I can say in all honesty that I would be fully supporting this project even if I had never met Elizabeth. It’s exactly the sort of project that the world needs more of, and if you’re looking for a way to donate money where it will make a real difference, this is absolutely the way to go.

So please: if you’ve found any enjoyment out of reading this blog, donate to TREES. Many of you have stated in the past that you wanted to donate to my Peace Corps projects. Since that sadly isn’t possible now, I would encourage you to consider TREES instead. It will be helping out the exact region where I was posted, and it’s very much the sort of project that I would be working on, if I were still in country.

Thanks so much.

To donate, please click here.  Please note: they’re an aid group, not a website design company. Donations are safe and secure (I myself have donated), but with the best will in the world, Amazon it ain’t. Thanks for your understanding.


Why I’m voting against Amendment One

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08 mai 2012

Why I’m voting against Amendment One

Note: today’s post has little or nothing to do with the Peace Corps. As a native North Carolinian, I think it’s important to take a day to discuss Amendment One, the proposed amendment to the state constitution that would ban gay marriage. I’m sorry to steal this blog to use as a soap box, but I feel it’s my civic duty in this instance. Thanks for your understanding. I also apologize in advance for the length.

I’ll be honest: I’m not all that comfortable with homosexuality.

Maybe I’m not supposed to say that straight out, but it’s the simple truth. While I’m not homophobic by any means – I have some very good friends who are LGBT, and their sexual orientation doesn’t have the slightest bearing on our friendship – I would be lying if I said the sight of two men[1] making out didn’t make me squirm a little inside[2]. And I don’t even want to think about them going further. It’s not a discriminatory thing, it’s just that I’m straight enough (and old fashioned enough?) that when my backbrain thinks couple it thinks man and woman, and any other possible iteration makes me just a tad bit…less than comfortable.

But you know what? I’m not all that comfortable with a lot of other things too.

Like morbidly obese men waddling around in little more than body paint at football games. Or parents who refuse to exert any control over their spoiled brats in public. Or people who openly joke about being on a fourth or fifth marriage. Or politicians who try to exploit the fears of others for political gain.

In fact, to be honest, I would much rather watch two men play tonsil hockey night long than have to deal with some of the things I just listed. I mean, if I have a choice between that, or, say, having to sit through a long (ruined) dinner resisting the urge to strangle that mother who isn’t making her kid sit down and behave, I’ll take the make-out session every time. And twice on Sundays. Especially since it’s my discomfort and my problem – who am I to tell others to alter a behavior that isn’t harmful in any way, just because I’m not 100% on board with it?

Unfortunately, certain members of our fair state have decided that they do in fact have just that right. Despite there being exactly zero evidence to any societal harm in gay marriage and despite there being plenty of evidence that our country as a whole is trending in favor of gay rights, we are now faced with a propose amendment banning gay marriage in our state.

I have a problem with that. And I’m going to hijack today’s post to discuss why.

But first, full disclosure: I am politically unaffiliated. I don’t believe in parties, I do believe in taking each issue on its individual merits, and I have no intention of trying to convince anyone to vote one way or the other. However, because I do have many LGBT friends, and because I do want to be the friend to them that I know they would be to me were our situations reversed, I am going to take this time to lay out why I am voting against the amendment.

Reason #1: Constitutions should guarantee rights, not deny them.

This is a simple principle, and a lasting one in the US political system. Human rights are natural, and exist a priori. When Jefferson wrote “all men are created equal[3]”, he rather pointedly refrained from including a footnote excluding certain unpopular minorities like Jews, Muslims, Gays[4], left-handed redheads, fans of Hegel, or the Pope. He said all, he meant all, and since certain of his generation’s less-worldly descendants didn’t quite get the memo, we even had a nice little war later to confirm that it meant just that.

The proposed amendment before us goes solidly in the face of that tradition. Yes, it tries to sound positive in its language by affirming that marriage is between a man and a woman, rather than flat-out negatively saying gays are forbidden to marry, but that’s just sophistry;  it’s like saying “I positively hate this place” – no matter how you twist it, it’s still a negative statement.

I believe that all men (and women) have the unalienable right to pursuit of happiness. I believe that included in that is the right to love and marry whomsoever one chooses, regardless of their race, age (so long as they are a consenting adult), socio-economic status, or sexual orientation. I also believe that any law which seeks to restrict that right is inherently wrong, and against our nation’s founding principles.

Reason # 2: Every time in our nation’s history that a body of laws has been established to discriminate against a minority group, they have ultimately been repealed.

Again, this is simple: there is not a single example in our nation’s history of a law that has restricted rights lasting for more than a limited period of time. Whether the laws involved slavery, Irish immigrants, Jim Crow, Chinese railroad workers, or women having the vote, they were all just as hotly debated in their day, and they are all equally archaic. Our nation’s history is one of assimilation and progress, not one of artificial barriers and restrictions.

Furthermore, it’s clear that our nation’s demographics are strongly trending in favor of gay rights. Gay marriage is now allowed in 6 states, polls routinely show roughly a 50/50 split nationwide on the issue of gay marriage (up from something like 20/80 against in 1990), and gays are now allowed to openly serve in the military[5]. In another 10 – 20 years, if things continue as they have been, it’s likely to be more like 80/20 in support.

In that light of these facts, it seems clear to me that this amendment is clearly doomed to ultimate failure. It’s the modern-day equivalent of George Wallace standing on the steps of the University of Alabama, trying to keep black students from enrolling. Whether it passes now or not is historically immaterial, since it will surely be repealed sooner or later. So why inflict passing harm on just a few, for no substantive reason?

Reason #3: This amendment will create harm

Right now, there’s not a single soul being harmed by NC’s current stand on gay marriage. If it were legalized, there would still be no harm done. Sure, a substantial number of people would be made uncomfortable, but you know what? Tough. The constitution doesn’t protect you from being uncomfortable, but it should protect you from being denied one of the greatest pleasures of life just because someone else has their panties in a bind.

Reason #3: It treads perilously close to breaching the line separating church and state

This is one of the hotter issues surrounding Amendment One and all like-minded legislation. While it’s true that it’s possible to be anti-gay marriage without being strongly Christian, the truth of the matter is, this amendment is primarily being driven by evangelical Protestant Christians. Which brings this perilously close to being an attempt to legislate a particular interpretation of the morals of a particular religious sect.  That is a one slippery slope that I want nothing to do with.

Look, guys, I feel you; I really do. I’m Christian myself, and I feel that there’s definitely probably something to the argument that the Bible condemns homosexuality. If my church were to refuse to perform gay marriages, I don’t think that I could argue that they weren’t within their rights to do so. As much as I want to be open-minded and hope that things are different, well…the book seems to be pretty clear on the topic.

But North Carolina isn’t my church, and the Bible isn’t the law of the land. And I in no way ever want it to be. Read up on the Thirty Years’ War and all the hot mess that took place during the Reformation. I want nothing to do with that, and I want to stay as far away from that kind of slippery slope as possible. No, this reason isn’t enough in and of itself to condemn the amendment, but it’s definitely  a strong supporting argument for me. Strict separation of church and state is one of the great strengths of our republic, and I would like it to stay that way, thank you very much.

Reason #4: Even if it didn’t, it’s theologically untenable and even hypocritical

Let’s assume for a moment that no harm would be done by bringing down the wall separating church and state. It’s absolutely ok to run a modern state and economy on Biblical principles. What does the Bible say about this issue?

Oh wait, that’s right: nothing.

Not a single thing.

1 Timothy states that:

We also know that the law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, for the sexually immoral, for those practicing homosexuality, for slave traders and liars and perjurers – and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine that conforms to the gospel concerning the glory of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me.

But while that’s fairly condemnatory of homosexuality (sorry guys, but it is), it in no way mentions gay marriage.

Ditto for the nastier parts of Leviticus, which says in 20:13:

If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.

But it still doesn’t mention gay marriage.

Hmm…maybe you just have to interpret that, since homosexuality itself is so bad, homosexual marriage must therefore also be super bad?

Be careful there…that’s a slippery slope. Especially when you consider the divorce rate among evangelicals in NC (and in the red states and Bible belt in general). After all, the Bible is quite specific about divorce.

Matthew 5:32[6] reads:

But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

Matthew 19:8 reads:

Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

Mark 10:9 reads[7]:

Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.

Also, Leviticus 20:10 is pretty clear that:

If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife – with the wife of his neighbor – both the adulterer and the adulteress are to be put to death.

In short, adultery is just as bad Biblically speaking as homosexuality, and divorce is equated to adultery. Ergo, anyone who has had a divorce and moved on – a very high percentage of the married population – is in the same sinful boat, only their sin has been happily endorsed as legal by the state.

That’s hypocrisy.

Reason #5: It’s irresponsible government

North Carolina has some pretty serious issues facing it right now. An unemployment rate of 9.9%. A public school system that, while improving, is still routinely ranked in the bottom 25-50% nationwide. Overcrowded prisons. Aging infrastructure.

And yet, with all of this on their plates, the most pressing issue that our legislature can find to address is…preventing gay marriage? Really?

I’m sorry, but from where I’m sitting that’s a criminal failure on the part of our elected representatives. I know our state is conditioned to expect a, shall we say, certain irreducible amount of incompetence and corruption in our state government, but this takes the cake.

And to be honest, voting against this amendment that they’re worked so hard on is one of the best ways I know to send them a message to shut up and get back to (real) work.

Reason #6: In my opinion, it’s a blatant attempt to milk fear for political gain

I know a bunch of people who are strongly opposed to gay marriage. I like most of them. By and large, they’re good, hard-working people who genuinely want what’s right for our state and our nation. In fact, I generally like most of them more than I like some of the more liberal folks I know who are so hot to see Amendment One shot down.

By and large, those people I know who support Amendment One fall into one or more of four categories:

  • They’re evangelical Christians
  • They’re over 40
  • They’re white
  • They don’t know any gay people

These aren’t bad people, they’re just people who are believing what they have been raised to believe. They’re also something of a solid voting bloc. And that means that any politician who harnesses their natural fears and objections automatically gains a significant edge in the voting booth.

And that’s what it comes down to for me: votes. NC currently has the first Republican government since the Reconstruction, and they haven’t been able to get a lot done (nor have they tried, if you ask me). But they still want to be re-elected. So instead of hemming and hawing about that 9.9% unemployment rate, why not create a lot of sound and fury about gay marriage? It’s a tried and true method of securing elections, and I think it’s the sort of thing that should be opposed on principle.

Reason #7: It’s just wrong

Whether you like homosexuality or not, whether you think it’s a sin or a wonderful thing, one thing is demographically certain: at any given time, somewhere between 1 and 5% of the population is gay[8].

For me, this means that homosexuality is a natural state, not a choice. And because I think that any attempt to restrict the rights of a naturally-occurring population is wrong, I must necessarily think that Amendment One is wrong.


In the end, I think Amendment One is wrong for the most basic of reasons: it takes away a fundamental part of the humanity of people whom I like, love, and respect. I’ve just listed a lot of reasons why I plan on voting against this amendment, but the truth of the matter is, those are only a small part of the reason my vote will be no; the real reason will be to support those friends of mine who happen to have a different sexuality from my own. No, I’m not entirely comfortable with all parts of that sexuality, but that’s my problem – I definitely don’t need to force my challenge to become theirs as well.

This isn’t an abstract question of theology or a philosophical point to ponder. This is a real-world issue, with very real consequences. Vote as your conscience dictates, but please: before you vote yes on this issue, take the time to meet with one of those who would be most impacted by this vote. Grant them their humanity, and take the time to see the world through their eyes.

Given the consequences of your actions, it’s the least you can do.



I have a firm no-names policy on this blog, so today’s post is for:

AFT, JC, BP, HM, MK, HB, CH, and the many LGBT PCVs that I know and work with.



[1] Or women. I’m only using men as an example here to avoid confusion with the unfortunate and weirdly positive pornographic association with two young ladies making out that so obsesses some young (straight) guys.

[2] Also, in fairness: I’m more or less uncomfortable about any PDA. I don’t want to watch anyone make out

[3] Yes, I know the Declaration of Independence is in no way the law of the land. But it is an admirable précis of our higher dreams as a society.

[4] Yes, they had them then, too, you know.

[5] At the military’s request, no less. This is especially telling, since the military has long a societal leader in the US. For example, desegregation of the military came some years ahead of national desegregation.

[6] All quotes come from the NIV.

[7] This is just a sampling. I could literally fill a couple of pages with quotes.

[8] The demography of sexual orientation is a tricky thing to assess, but this is the most widely accepted range.

Every child deserves a 5th birthday

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25 avril 2012

Every child deserves a 5th birthday

Note: April 25th is World Malaria Day. Today’s post is part of a coordinated social media campaign on the part of USAID. Please, take the time to click the links, watch the videos, read the sources, and actually learn about this tragic and 100% preventable disease. It’s only for one day, and will only take a few extra minutes of your time.

Do you remember your fifth birthday?

I remember mine.

We had a big party for me and my friends at the local McDonald’s – this was more of a treat in the early 1980’s than it is today – complete with Ronald McDonald, free cookies, and all the time on the brand-new playground that we wanted. I got a He-Man sword and shield, and it was even the extra-cool sword that glowed in the dark. In some ways, this was the first birthday party I had ever had; my birthday is just four days before Christmas and my friends were always out of town for the holidays, so I had never had a real honest-to-God birthday party before. It was amazing. I remember going to bed that night thinking it had been the best. day. EVAR[1].

What I didn’t think, of course, what never even crossed my mind, was the thought that surely, somewhere in the world at that exact moment, were any number of children my age who were about to die needlessly – children who were just as bright and special and hopeful and deserving of a brilliant future as myself, but who would instead be struck down by an entirely preventable and tragic disease that preys disproportionately upon the very young. I didn’t think about it because I was a child, but even had I been older, even had I been an adult, I likely still would not have thought of it because it is all but unknown in the United States.

I’m talking of course about malaria.

Taking its name from the Italian mala’aria (literally: bad air) and originally believed to be caused by the malodorous gasses that seep out of marshes, malaria is something of a paradox for Americans: for all that it is surely the greatest killer in human history, it is also a disease about which most of us know nothing. As a society, we seem to have classified it as a traveler’s disease and perhaps as a source of tragedy in period movies and novels; we know it’s a real disease, and a deadly one at that, but it’s not a disease for us – it’s a disease for Other People, people who live in noisome shacks and shantytowns in places like Calcutta and Lagos and Rangoon.

In one sense, this perception is entirely accurate: thanks to advances in modern medicine, malaria is primarily confined to the equatorial regions of the world, where it does indeed strike down millions of the teeming masses of humanity that tend to aggregate in massive conurbations centered on rivers or seaports. However, in a broader sense, this perception is entirely wrong: malaria was once common in both western Europe and the United States, and if we aren’t careful, it could easily become so again.

Technically speaking, malaria is mosquito-borne infectious disease caused by eukaryotic protists of the genus Plasmodium. Although there are numerous species, only 5 affect humans: Plasmodium falciparum, Plasmodium vivax, Plasmodium ovale, Plasmodium malariae, and Plasmodium knowlesi. Of these five, P. falciparum by far the largest killer, as it is the species that causes cerebral malaria. Of the remaining four, P. vivax is the most common, and if you have an aunt or a neighbor or a friend who came home from a vacation to southern Mexico with a fever and chills, they were probably dealing with P. vivax.

Currently, there exist a number of prophylaxis (preventives/suppressants) for malaria, as well as a number of treatments. The prophylaxis are drugs taken in advance to suppress the spread of the parasite in your system; the treatment is for curing active cases. The most common prophylaxis drugs are quinine, chloroquine, doxycycline, mefloquine, and Malarone. Quinine and chloroquine were for many years the most common form of prevention and treatment, but resistant strains have recently reduced both the effectiveness and utility of these drugs. The most common treatment is artemisinin and its derivatives.

(That’s the clinical description. In laymen’s terms, malaria is a blood parasite that is spread by mosquitoes. There are a couple of types, but the overwhelming majority of cases are accounted for by just two types. There are drugs that can treat it, but they’re becoming less effective over time. The only true cure is eradication, which is possible.)

So why should you care about malaria? After all, it’s here, you’re there, and you have zero intentions of ever heading this way, right? Why not just let the world do what it will and save your time, energy, and money for more local and pressing causes?

It’s a good question. And there are two excellent answers to it.

The first answer to that question is simple: self-interest. Malaria is commonly thought of as a disease that comes from mosquitoes, but that is in fact false: malaria is a disease that is spread by mosquitoes, but the reservoir, the source of the disease is actually humans. That means that, as long as one person in your area has malaria, you can get it too.

It’s a scary thought.

See, malaria has a long and complex life cycle, but simply put it goes like this: Infest one human — > grow in their liver — > spread to their bloodstream and brain — > get sucked up by a mosquito — > get spread to the next human. It doesn’t matter how rich, clean, Godly, pious, concerned, evil, filthy, poor, drunk, smart, or stupid you are: if your neighbor has malaria and there are mosquitoes in your area, the odds are, you will get it too. Right now, we don’t get it in the US and Europe because medications have managed to stay ahead of the disease[2], but eventually evolution has to win; if we don’t wipe the disease out, it will adapt to all of our cures, be it in fifty years, or a hundred, or five hundred. The only sure way to cure malaria is to kill it off everywhere, just as we have done at home.

But hey – maybe you don’t care about your great-great grandchildren’s health. After all, they’re then, and you’re now; who can say what might or might not happen between now and 2200? Why should you rob Peter today to pay Paul in some indeterminate and not at all guaranteed future?

Well then, maybe you will consider another argument: you can remember your fifth birthday.

Sound strange? Consider:

See, worldwide, there are something like 225 million cases of malaria each year[3]. Most of these cases aren’t too serious, so the death rate is only around 1 million or so, or 1/225th of the cases. However, 90% of those deaths occur in Sub-Saharan Africa, and 60% of those deaths occur in children under five years of age. They die in such numbers partly because their bodies are young and unable to handle the stress, but also because they are least likely to get food, medicine, treatment, or access to preventatives like mosquito nets and prophylaxis drugs. Their families are usually very poor – malaria is in and of itself a major cause of poverty – and they have to make hard choices. And they choose to help those with the best chance of survival.

Look: I know I can be a cynical and hard-nosed bastard sometimes, but this isn’t an academic situation. Simple math tells me that something like 500,000 – 600,000 children die each year from an entirely preventable disease. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I know if 500,000 – 600,000 children under age five died in my home state of North Carolina, that would be mourned as a tragedy nearly on a par with the Biblical plagues. In fact, that might very well account for the state’s entire preschool set. Consider that a “mere” 2,996 adults died in 9/11, or that the Oklahoma City bombing killed “just” 19 children under age 6, and you can see the scale that this disaster would be on.

Now imagine it wasn’t a one-time accident, but instead happened every. single. year. That’s what the region is dealing with, and they’re doing it with 1/100th of the resources of the US.

If malaria drugs quit working tomorrow and made an epic comeback, the US would still be better off than any of these countries are now. Sure, we would complain, but we would put up our screens. We would sleep beneath our mosquito nets. We would blast the ever-living bejeezus out of every winged-critter than even thought about sucking our blood. We might not kill the disease off, but by damn we would do our best to make sure that it didn’t kill one American more than was absolutely necessary, because that’s how we address problems. Because our kids deserve a fifth birthday, right?

So do everyone else’s.

Help a child in need reach their fifth birthday. Read up on malaria. Check out some of the links provided below, then go to Google and do some more research on your own. Take 30 minutes from your busy day and find some organization you agree with and do something. Donate, send a letter, make a prayer, whatever – just do it. Also, I never ask this, but…please, share this blog post if you can, and also any other similar messages as much as you can. If you’re willing and able, help us get the word out: every child deserves a 5th birthday.

Thank you for your time.

Some Links:

The American Red Cross – the Malaria Prevention Program

Stomp Out Malaria

The Malaria Consortium

The Malaria Atlas Project



[1] My mother couldn’t make it that day, because she was in the hospital getting an ovarian cyst removed. Ironically, it’s her absence that makes me remember the day so vividly, even though it was a source of real sadness at the time.

[2] Also, we killed off all of our Anopheles mosquitoes. But it’s only a matter of time until they make a comeback too. Evolution is slow, but inevitable.

[3] These numbers always have to be broad, because the standard of medical diagnosis and reporting is so variable in developing countries. For example, if you show up to a local clinic in Burkina with a cough, you have le palu (malaria); if you have a headache, you have le palu; if you have a fever, you have le palu. No, it’s not 100% certain that that is what you have, but that’s what they treat and report. So the numbers could be as low as 100 million cases a year or as high as 400 million; 225 seems a reasonable estimate to people who are far more expert on the matter than I.

Rumblings and grumblings

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24 avril 2012

Rumblings and grumblings

Burkina Faso is, as many of my readers have noticed, in West Africa. Some of them have also pointed out that West Africa is, on average, right up there with the Middle East for being one of the less politically stable places on the planet. Furthermore, the more geopolitically-inclined among you have observed that Burkina Faso shares borders with Cote D’Ivoire, Niger, and Mali, all of whom are currently undergoing revolutions or armed conflict to one degree or another. These are sapient observations, and I commend you for them.

However, I have to caution you not to draw the natural-seeming conclusion from all of this data that we here in Burkina Faso are somehow in danger or otherwise on the verge of a revolution ourselves. That’s simply not the case. While it’s true that we are naturally keeping a close eye on the various problems that surround us, it’s also quite true that, whatever its other faults may be, Burkina Faso is in no way unsafe or unstable at the moment, nor do we expect it to be so in the foreseeable future. Circumstantial evidence can be quite damning, but that doesn’t make it conclusive.

Nor is this me putting a good face on a tough situation; I assure you, if it weren’t for the BBC, internet access, and periodic security updates from the Peace Corps bureau, I would have no idea what was going on in any of those countries. Mali is a big place – somewhat bigger than France, in fact – and most of what is going on is happening in Bamako. That’s about a 20 hour bus ride from where I live. If there were problems in Denver, would those of you in NC or eastern Canada be worried? I doubt it.

So please don’t worry for me. I’m a long way from the troubles, they’re not expected to spread, the region is very pro-American, and even in the highly unlikely event of a societal breakdown, Peace Corps and the State Department are quite depressingly experienced at getting PCVs out of the country ASAP. I’m in no way worried, and you shouldn’t be either.

Instead, I strongly encourage you to turn this into a learning experience. West Africa is more or less terra incognita in the US, and it’s entirely probable that most of you reading this had to check a map to be just sure where Mali and Niger are in relation to Burkina Faso (which you also had to look up, when you heard I was coming here). Read up on the problems of the region; the situation in Mali is an interesting 4-way mélange of French post-colonial policies, the fall of Qaddafi, the rise of Al-Qaeda, and Tuareg nationalism. It is in no way a Cold War-type “revolution”, and the players are definitely more than the facelessly interchangeable terrorists that the American press all too often paints the inhabitants of the region as being.

I also encourage you to try different sources from the typical US press venues. Yes, Fox News, NPR, the NY Times, et al are all well and good, but try getting a parallax viewpoint: besides the aforementioned BBC, the Manchester Guardian, London Times, the Montreal Gazette, the Johannesburg Star, and the Sydney Morning Herald are all easily read in English[1], and Le Figaro, Le Monde, Der Spiegel, and Bild all have English editions as well. That’s just the big names; branch out from there and look for Japanese, Russian, Swedish, Chinese, Korean, and Arabic sources, and you’ll get just as many viewpoints. Yes, Western media tends to dominate the reporting world, but it’s by no means a monopoly. Also, smaller papers frequently devote more attention to the actual facts of a situation, rather than just a quick headline blip.

Sadly, given my internet connection, right now the above is a case of do as I say, not as I do. At home, I read many, many news sources, but as slow as my connection is here, I have to limit myself to just a few.

Read up: maybe you’ll be able to teach me something.

[1] Sorry, but I flat-out refuse to reference rags like the Daily Fail. If you know it, you know what I’m talking about; if not, nevermind.

An awful sound

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06 avril 2012

An awful sound

Note: today’s post is on a difficult topic. Skip it if you have a weak stomach.

Today, I was meeting with my homologue for lunch at his house when we heard the most godawful noise coming from the houses across the street. It sounded exactly like someone torturing a small child, and the screams were frankly horrific. Despite that, I tried to ignore the noise at first, since I thought it was just someone slowly bludgeoning a baby goat to death[1]. But when the noise continued for another ten minutes, I realized it was something else entirely.

I was hearing my first excision (female circumcision)[2].

For those of you who may not know, excision is the practice of partially or entirely cutting off the external female genitalia. It is practiced widely throughout Africa and the Middle East, and it is estimated that between 65-75% of all women in Burkina Faso have undergone the procedure, with rates en brousse and among the less educated hovering near 100%. There are 3 types: Type I, in which only the clitoral hood and clitoris are removed, Type II, which removes the inner labia as well, and Type III which removes all external features and leaves only a small fused hole for urination and menstruation. The most prevalent type here in Burkina is Type II, and from the duration of the screams it would seem likely that this is what I was listening to.

Believe it or not, the major problem with excision isn’t that it occurs; yes, the removal of one’s genitals seems like a horrific act, but a person is after all free to do whatever they like with their body. No, the problem is the conditions in which it occurs: it’s all but universally performed on underage girls who have no way to provide informed consent, it’s almost always performed without anesthesia of any sort, and it’s generally performed by untrained amateurs using unsterilized knives, scissors, glass, razor blades, or whatever else cutting implement is to hand. As you might expect, the rate of death, sterilization, and horrific side effects is high, and the medical justification for such an act is nil.

Unsurprisingly, excision is illegal in all but a handful of the countries in which it occurs, and equally unsurprisingly, these laws are or more or less ignored, although they are occasionally enforced. For this reason, such procedures generally take place at night and in great secrecy. This is the one thing that makes me question what I heard, and wonder if maybe I misunderstood.

I’m sorry…I’ll try to provide more on this topic later, but right now I’m just too upset to focus on writing. Those sounds were truly horrible.

[1] This isn’t as callous as you might think. There are lots of goats here, baby goats sound disturbingly like small children (hence the name kid), and, well…food animals in developing nations rarely die quickly, cleanly, painlessly, or with anything approaching dignity. Unfortunately, there’s little to do about it but look the other way and hope it’s over soon; after all, once you hear the screaming, it’s already too late…

[2] It’s generally known as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in the west, but excision is the local term, so I use it here.


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07 December 2011

FN: 8


On this day 70 years ago, forces of the Japanese Empire successfully prosecuted a sneak attack on the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor. During the course of the attack 2,459 Americans lost their lives, and 17 ships were sunk, destroyed, or otherwise disabled. It was one of the deadliest attacks ever on US soil, and it absolutely precipitated our involvement in the war. Without Pearl Harbor, it is doubtful that we would have ever declared war.

Today, we honor those who fought and died in this attack. Whether you approve of war or don’t, whether you think the military defend or destroy our freedom, please…take a minute to reflect upon the struggles of that day, and throw a kind thought or two in the direction of the few remaining survivors. They won’t be with us for much longer – all are over 85 now – and it’s important.



A shameless plug

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20 September 2011

FN: 4

A shameless plug

Those of you who are familiar with this blog will know that my formal job title with the Peace Corps is that of a Small Enterprise Development (SED) Volunteer. Job titles in the Peace Corps don’t necessarily have much to do with what you actually wind up doing in country, but in theory, my being posted to SED means that I will be working on various small business and microfinance projects. I might be helping women’s groups market neem cream to combat malaria, or I might be reviewing microfinance loan documentation along with my Burkinabé counterpart. Or I might wind up digging latrine trenches. It’s really a fluid sort of assignment (no puns intended), and much of what I’ll be doing depends on what I perceive is needed or required of me.

But since I’m a SED volunteer, I think it is beholden upon me to encourage and assist in Small Enterprise Development wherever it may be. So today, I’m going to shamelessly use this blog as a plug for a small enterprise being developed by a friend of mine here in the United States. Yes, I’m partly doing this to help a friend, but I’m mostly doing this because I think the company he is developing is important, and that if he succeeds at what he’s trying to do, he will definitely be able to help lots more folks down the road.

So with that introduction, the rest of the post is from Vinay Kolluru, founder and operator of :

I’m Vinay and I’m the founder of Jet Pitch. I first came up with Jet Pitch because of the glaring inefficiencies in company recruiting processes. There were so many talented students getting ignored by companies just because they didn’t go to a certain school. Meanwhile, all the students at certain “top” schools were getting all the attention.

I formulated Jet Pitch to even the playing field and help top candidates land the careers they deserve independent of where they come from.

I’m honored that Dell, Microsoft and Mastercard have believed in my vision enough to put their stamp of approval on me. Now I’m hoping the rest of America agrees with them and votes for Jet Pitch as their favorite small business.

With Jet Pitch, everybody – students, professionals, universities and companies – can all leverage technology to race ahead and sustain the competitve advantage that is required of them in this economy.

Please support the Jet Pitch cause and vote!

Editor’s Note: for some reason, YouTube videos aren’t uploading to WordPress right now. View Vinay’s final entry (and vote for it) at: