Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Teaching American Students About Africa: Lesson One, Part One

Now that the rant is over, I think its useful to elaborate on some teachable moments in the last post. Most (but, most definitely not all) of my first-generation--raised in the Bible Belt--raised during the 9/11 years--students would see little problem with a faith-based solution to the "problems of Africa". I think we can all agree that the best we can give our students is the view that the assumptions of their own socialization process need to be rethought in a college environment.

These are the issues I would like to come out in discussion:

Non-interference versus we need to teach them to accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior.

This is the "easy" one, after all: a religious agenda is interference. Yeah, right, she says, voice dripping with sarcasm. If you are a person of faith, as some of my students are, this argument is difficult because the non-interference doctrine of anthropology is directly contrary to evangelical goals. This is a good moment to let other students make your arguments for you. With luck, this happens. If not, then I have learned that you have to draw careful distinctions between the goal of anthropology and the goal of proselytising. I am very upfront about telling them that they are free as individuals to do as they please and it is not my job to tell them what their choices should be but it is very clear what my choices must be as an anthropologist. I never back down from that perspective and repeat it many times in many discussions, in many contexts.

"But it isn't interference if they already believe, is it? Aren't Africans Christians already? Wait, no, they are heathen pagans who practice Voodoo and witchcraft" is usually the next discussion on the plate, so, let's deal with that now.

My students usually, need a good discussion on the historical context of religious belief in Africa. I like to use Tanzania as example for this discussion; which is nominally labeled one-third Christian (Catholic, Anglican, and, increasingly, evangelical--Assemblies of God, for ex.), one-third Muslim, and one-third "other". We discuss the east African slave trade and the spread of Islam from the coast and into the interior. Then we have a discussion of the situational nature of religious conversion

I tell them about the village of Mtamba in Morogoro. The French built a Catholic Mission there in the 1880's (pictured above on the left). When I arrived there in 1987, a group of elders were waiting for me when I pulled up in my truck (pictured above). They had heard I was collecting stories about their past and they wanted to tell me theirs (yes, it was an anthropologists wet dream--awesome beyond belief). Among the things that they shared with me is that the above pictured men, were almost all christened with Christian names and now have adopted Muslim names--So, Peter has become Mohammed. At this time in Tanzania, support--both financial, educational, and ideological, was most readily given through Muslim channels. The only books in the village were Korans given to the local mosque, madrasas were providing educational opportunities for young men, and although I am glossing a complex situation--Islam was perceived, at that time, as a male power choice. Interestingly, women were not interested in this conversion and the wives gathered around me in the picture above remained staunchly Catholic--Beatrice is still Beatrice.

With this story I hope to get my students used to the idea that religious conversion isn't simply a matter of the power of faith or the acceptance of spirit.

And, of course, here is the opportunity to bring up the possibility of all those "other" complicated African beliefs that still exist and happily co-exist with major world religions. That other one-third in Tanzania. Cue E-P and both the Nuer and the Azande for this one. This discussion is easier for me these days because I have so many students who are latino/latina and I can reference their grandmother's beliefs (and their own) in Ojo. The Anglos in the class always learn a lot from this moment of sharing. I always feel great in my anthropology shoes during this discussion because you can see the relief on my students faces that I am not surprised or offended by these beliefs--for many, it will be the first time they have talked about "such things" in an educational format. They feel great. I feel great. Its a teaching high.

Next Post in our series on Teaching Africa and Push back to Rick Warren: Lesson One, Part Two: The Growth of the Evangelical Movement.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Why I am Sickened by Obama's Rick Warren Choice: The Meaning to Africa: One Anthropologist Strikes Back

First let me disclose that I have close and beloved friends who were "married" here in Houston by a renegade Catholic priest in the back room of a restaurant in the "gay" part of town. They were married there, not in a church because, as you have guessed, they are gay. In ways that every anthropologist can understand, we who loved and honored them came together as a community and witnessed their joining. I was honored to serve as "best woman" to my dear friend of many, many years. The marriage is not recognized by the church or the state, here in Texas.

A few years ago, I joined them at Houston city hall in an act of protest. Gay couple after couple entered the city hall and attempted to apply for a marriage license. I waited below on the sidewalk with other friends and family and the press and the haters. In my naivete, I did not anticipate the hatred and virulence of the opposition to our protest. I had brought my daughter who must have been about 14 at the time. At one point, it was necessary for me to shield her with my body from a wall of profanities and spittle aimed at us by those bearing signs with biblical verses scrawled with angry red markers. But it was worse for my dear friend.

I remember my cell phone ringing and opening the cover to hear a good, mature, supremely-controlled man face his breaking point. This dear friend was a man who had worked for ten years teaching special needs kids; a man who in that capacity was used to being spat on, kicked at, cursed out, and who was able to talk coherently on his cell phone about the cost to his new Banana Republic pants while vaulting up the school bleachers to talk a child down from jumping off them:"Girl, I need to call you back...damn, not my new pants, I just got these at the Banana..I've got to get this kid down.". But when I answered the phone this time all I heard was sobbing. When he finally made it back outside, his mother, my daughter, and I held him close as years of socially-induced shame and denial racked his body. As the clerk in the license office read the prepared statement denying him the right to marry, he was lost; less than human; not fully whole.

Barack Obama: Rick Warren is not sitting at the table with you. You are not meeting with him. You have asked him to pray for us. You have asked him to be the one to mediate our relationship with the sacred. This does not carry the same meaning as sharing the cooking pot. Prayer is not food. And in Rick Warren's eyes, we are all not equal.

But, I am not done. This is a long post.

We are to honor Rick Warren for his AIDS work in Africa. Not me. I don't sleep at night thinking about his work in Africa. I sleep less thinking about the meaning of Barack Obama's choice of Rick Warren to the people of east Africa.

I am condensing, but, in a nutshell, while giving superficial lip service to condom usage in prevention programs, Rick Warren and his wife, Kay, are heavily embedded in abstinence-based teaching. Here is a quick summary (given by Kay) of their philosophy. Virginity. *sigh*. And here is Rick Warren's "spin" on the empire-building potential of the church complete with some seriously twisted assumptions about human behavior--so, all you men out there would be cheating but for your faith, huh? First: TMI alert....Eeeuwww. Second, oh never mind, typing statements defending male integrity is just too stupid, even for a blog.

As the postmortems of Bush are piling in, the general consensus is that he should be commended for his fight against AIDS in Africa. If you have followed the details, however, you will know that in 2005, evangelical Christians, were able to direct the funding formula for AIDS money to include a couple of key provisions: about one third of funds were to go to abstinence-based initiatives and any organization receiving U.S. aid money must condemn prostitution, (Brazil, notably, said thanks but no thanks to these terms.) Really. Honest.

Somehow, they have managed to control this message so tightly that you find arguments like this one, in the Catholic Education Resource Center. (Read it carefully, abstinence is not "real" in Brazil but a remarkable success in Uganda.) Those of you who follow these issues will be familiar with the work of Edward C. Green who was hired by USAID to confirm these beliefs. Most of the debate about his work is not freely available online but you can get a flavor of it here, in a synopsis of his work followed by a gentle but effective critique by Paul Farmer. A further critique would push this blog post into the book category, so I will defer that delight to a future rant.

Having spent months in Tanzania in 1994 developing a research strategy, hiring a team, collecting the data, and writing up the results for a "rapid assessment" of AIDS orphans in the country, I feel I have the experiential and moral authority (yes, Kay Warren, I have spent many months crying myself to sleep for the horrors I witnessed--when I could feel, again) to say that these views are not only factually incorrect but seriously damaging and delusional.

In 1994, first I went to Dodoma. The seroprevalence rates there were thought to be low. The population densities there were so low and people so poor there wasn't much "business" of any kind going on. HIV/AIDS was not yet on their radar screen. On to Morogoro, back to my favorite village of my 1986/87 dissertation research. I hardly recognized it. Rubies had been discovered in my beloved mountains and throughout the village young girls had been sweet-talked by young men with dirty red pebbles in their pockets, quick sex on their minds, and no condoms in the market kiosks. The young girls died alone. Stigmatized by the disease, no one would care for them. They were bad girls. At these early stages and in areas of low seroprevalence, stigmitazation was common.
Once the seroprevalence rose in a region, that all changed. We learned that from Uganda. We learned that from America.

USAID put me in a fancy Toyota Land Cruiser, sign of Tanzanian opulence and whiteness (I am very white) and sent me out to the Kilombero Sugar Estates. I had never seen anything like that place and in the years since then, nothing else has compared. Shanty towns for miles. 12-13 different types of home-brewed beer in 55 gallon oil drums, brewed by women (most kicked out of their homes for unwanted pregnancies), men gathered around drinking in the fire light. For miles. And miles. I drove out among them and made the driver stop. I went to the kiosks and saw the condoms hanging in their foil chains here and there. Do they want them, I asked the kiosk owners? Do they pay for them? Oh yes, I was told, we can't get them. We are running out. Can you get us more, we will pay. The men who were purchasing the condoms knew AIDS and didn't want it--right or wrong. You see, they all knew someone who had died from that behavior.

Give them what they want. They will pay for it with money. Don't make them pay with their lives. Did all men have sex in those conditions? Of course not. I knew many Tanzanian men who did not. Many men in those shanty towns did not. They all made choices. For themselves. Let people make their own moral decisions with all the options that we possess. Let, God, sort them out, Rick Warren--if you must attach a spiritual lesson--let, God, sort it out. At some undetermined time, in some undetermined future. You haven't got it right. You haven't got the right.

Ask yourself the question: is this what we do in America? Why do we treat them differently than ourselves? Anthropologists ask those questions.
On the eve of 2009, the policy decisions of 2005 are being felt. Read this report from Uganda. Because, you know what, those of us who were and are on the ground in Africa, talking to real people, dealing with an objective reality, know that the condom message works and is essential. People have sex. Provide them with the opportunity to protect, themselves when they do so. Get the morality out of the message.

And, you, Barack Obama, do you realize what your elevation of this man will mean to the people of East Africa, where they took to the street ululating in celebration of your election and happily naming their babies for this historic event, as they once did for JFK? Do you intend to solidify Rick Warren's spiritual empire? Because you have, assuredly, done so. Rwanda is on-board as the first Purpose-Driven Nation, Uganda is coming on board and his eye is next on Kenya. Is this what you want for your father's homeland. A complex father, an absent father, a less than father-father but is this what you want for his home?

In honor of those young girls raised with good values who died alone in their beds seduced by visions of rubies and to the young men celebrating their first pay packet with a beer and the assertion of their masculinity, teach your students what it means to be human, to make mistakes. Tell them they should not have to pay with their lives for such mistakes. We don't have to and we make mistakes every day. As do our students. As does our President-elect. Let's all learn from those mistakes. And let's teach students to think, critically, about these issues.

It occurs to me in editing that "mistake" may not be the best of terms here. An act of sex is not necessarily a "mistake". I think in the free-form flow of blogging, my brain was still reacting to the reading I had been doing. I am leaving the term up as a cautionary tale. The more you read the judgment, the more easily you make the judgment. Interesting, huh?

Updated on 31st December to add a link to another blogger at RH Reality Check a blog with "Information and Analysis for Reproductive Health who is, also, concerned with Rick Warren's presence in Africa. Its highly recommended. Check it out.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

May You be Enjoying the Courtesy and Decorum of this Holiday Season

The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens:
"From the centre of the ceiling of this kitchen, old Wardle had just suspended with his own hands a huge branch of mistletoe, and this same branch of mistletoe instantaneously gave rise to a scene of general and most delightful struggling and confusion; in the midst of which, Mr. Pickwick, with a gallantry that would have done honour to a descendant of Lady Tollimglower herself, took the old lady by the hand, led her beneath the mystic branch, and saluted her in all courtesy and decorum."

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Barack Obama meets Oscar Lewis: Sunday Morning Musings about the New Post-ideological Pragmatism

Thinking about the issues raised in this week's New York Times magazine feature article:

A Payoff Out of Poverty?

Points I am pondering: Isn't it terribly naive to suppose that conditional cash transfers are without ideology? Selecting which behaviors the money will reward is clearly an ideological choice. In an analogous situation, Rick Warren isn't a simple pragmatic choice. You aren't just sitting down to a table with him. He is being called upon to mediate with the sacred. It has meaning, damn it! Stop pretending it doesn't.

Nation versus NGO: Given the discussion in my last post discussing the Foreign Policy article about weak, failed states being further weakened by strong NGO involvement, would this procedure point to a possible solution to reinvigorating government--IF, and only IF, governments could, in fact, find the money in their budgets for such programs and the cash payouts were not given by NGO's, themselves. this just more power and control and interference. Am I more comfortable with national control than NGO control? But only in a nation were people have a voice and a vote?

Keith Hart reminds us not to assume that money is a "bad thing". Over the years he has taken anthropologists to task for our assumptions that money is inherently a bad thing to be brought into the mix for the world's people. And he has discussed in detail the ways in which money creates and defines identity and community and memory.

I am reminded of the vignettes in the film First Contact when the New Guinea Highlanders desire shells in trade and payment, only later to discover the value of their gold and money. We all know the fate of shell in New Guinea societies. My students are always quick to argue that the New Guinea Highlanders got what they wanted when they were paid in shell. Until I remind them that with money they could buy all the shell they wanted, what the New Guinea Highlanders lacked was the knowledge of the value of money in an outside world, once, they had that knowledge their desires quickly changed as did their sense and identity of community and their understanding of your own place in it.

As a member of a national community does it make sense to earn money for your own reproduction --in the form of education and healthcare--or not? After all, with money comes self-determination and community. Should the role of the nation-state be to pay its citizens for the labor of caring for themselves? Are national communities something we should be trying to achieve in an international world? Is this freedom or oppression or the potential for both? Have I got that right?

BTW, aren't we all just loving the whole "shoe" protest. Delightful in every way.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Failed States R Us: The Co-dependency of the Saved and the Saving in the Developing (?) World

Time for whack-a-mole, again. I keep hitting and hoping that someday time will be up. Preparing for three and a half hour flight where I was forced to select a middle seat from the plane diagram, I had the forethought to stock up on light reading. I was happily ensconced with my pile of magazines when I found this great article, The New Colonialists, in the Utne Reader, a reprint from a summer edition of Foreign Policy. Its a good, readable, usable discussion of the counter-productive growth of NGO activity in the world's "failed states".

The article makes a clear case for the ways that the functions and competencies of the state are weakened and undermined by the growing interference of western donor-agencies. Digest this info recorded on Page 62: "Today 80 percent of all Afghan services, such as health care and education, are delivered by international and local NGO's." Keep reading from there and you will have an entirely different perspective of the difficulties faced by the Afghan government and the opposition of their people to our interference than standard press coverage reports.

The authors don't discuss the role of the Human Terrain System soldiers in paving the way for this activity.

Anthropology teaches us to turn the lens on ourselves and, yet, the West is more concerned with transparency in weak to non-existent governments than in our own "charitable" intentions and actions. This is a hard one to present to a class. I have been screaming for years about the offense implied in our quest at "Saving" Africa. This article helps buttress our own legitimacy in making that argument.

Please note: no moles were harmed in the production of this post. And, a word of advice, think twice about repeating the words "yes, yes, yes", when occupying the middle seat in the coach section--such things might be permitted in Business Class but I wouldn't know because, Mr. Veblen, I know my place.

Year-End Blogalooza at Neuroanthropology!

The Award-Winning (and fan of the prehistoric life toob) Blog, Neuroanthropology, is hosting the first annual (drum roll, please):

Best of Anthropology Blogging 2008

Details are available here. In a nutshell, anthro bloggers will be submitting blog posts in two categories: Most Popular Post (oh, jeez, its High School again--deeply embedded insecurities have torn loose--a quantitative evaluation) and My Self-Selected Best Post (oh no, a qualitative assessment, but, I love all my babies.)

If you blog, suffer alongside me and submit your choices. If you read, log onto the blog on December 31 and do what you do best.

Any votes on "Best"?

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Distance Learning: the meaning of meaningless bits of flair

I recently opened a Facebook account. My daughter has, consistently, refused to allow me to do so. She thinks its a pathetic act for a woman of my age and stature. More fundamentally, I would be invading the turf and domain of another generation: hers. Its the modern day version of "you're not going to wear that. Mom?" Middle school, six years on.

I researched it, carefully, and the balance of student expectations seems to be shifting. As near as I can tell, there are more students in favor of faculty Facebook presence than against. But my consistent pet peeve is the way we treat students as a monolithic category. Anthropologists have no business making vast pronouncements about "students today". It is the sloppiest kind of scholarship, never to be tolerated in refereed journals but freely tossed about on the Internet. So, I expect some, like my daughter, will continue to find it lame while others will "friend me" enthusiastically. I admit to being thrilled to discover an old and dear friend from High School and to easily be able to stay in touch with former students. Being at a two year school means they are quickly lost to me (at least the successful ones) and I yearn for the sense of meaning in my life that comes from seeing them grow and succeed.

And, so, I have jumped aboard the Facebook train and begun the process of accessorization. Its a train ride in the sense that I am forced to go forward by the template through tunnels and mountain passes and, yet, I can rock the bling all I want. I am a fan of Karl Marx, Meyer Fortes, Evans-Pritchard, Emile Durkhem, Melville Herskovits (Go, you, NU), Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Buc-ees--home of the largest collection of beaver jokes, dried dead animals, and clean restrooms in the Lone Star State. It was Archeology (without the "a") that taught me that through process comes meaning, so, I have joined the Lewis Binford group. And in a nod to the beautiful mountains that were the home to my anthropological rite of passage, that overwhelmingly, embarrassingly arrogant "thing" we call fieldwork, I have joined the travellers to Morogoro group. I am made anew, born again, defined and redefined through point and click. My fingers are tired.

And I am contemplating the meaning of participation; what we faculty often pose as "you don't get credit for showing up". Because, I think, more and more students do. And I think this is more and more evident in Web 2.0 worlds and in classes where students (of all levels of accessorization, those with flair and those without) are Distantly Learning. I have an online student who has been emailing back and forth and back and forth about her grade. We submitted final grades on Monday and she did not like hers. Seems she has had hours and hours of Distance Learning courses, earning all As and Bs. She is frustrated by her C. Embarrassed to submit it to her employer for reimbursement and, personally, frustrated with me for not recognizing her well-travelled existence, she has fought valiantly and politely with me through two weeks of emails.

I have gleaned this from our correspondence: she has been through course after course where she had been given credit for participation. And she participates. She has, actually, shocked the bejeesus out of me with her level of participation. She has posted everywhere--responding to every single Discussion Board posting of other students, giving shout-out on top of shout-out. And she has worn me out, correcting and re-directing her. Because she just doesn't "get" anthropology. Born in Scandinavia and living in Latin America, she has travelled extensively. She posted pictures of the Sami, pontificated on Susto, and cheerfully contributed in her final post (long past the whole cultural relativism discussion) that the Maasai depicted in a Tanzanian hip hop video (the video that was posted here for Blog Action Day) had barbaric (her word) cultural practices.

She was like a run away toddler, I couldn't catch. In a face-to-face class, I would have shut her down in the first week. Cut her off, moved away from her, avoided eye contact; suggested disapproval of her conclusions in strong and monkey brain-stem ways. Online, I could only chase after her hours after she ran into the street. I, actually, started worrying about the cars that might hit her. She was so BIG, posting so much--the Stay-Puft Marshmallow man, lurching like a toddler but deadly sticky. Would other students read her conclusion, pontifications, and pronouncements and get the wrong impression, learn the wrong thing, be impressed by all the travel bling, the bits of Sami flair? They couldn't know that her quiz average grade was a D. She didn't even "know" this.

Participation-A; Content Mastery-D. I am glad it was a C, so I don't have to "face" her another semester. She wore me out.

You can find, point, and click; fan this, friend that, post, upload, interact but if you are only a vacation traveller, a tourist on the Net, shallow is what you will remain. We still need to look for the deep immersion in content: for the process is not the learning of technology, it is the learning.

And in the great (narcissistic) minds think alike category, you must check out this blog post on "students today" and Teen Narcissism by Mark Bauerlein at the Chronicle of Higher Education for the psychological underpinnings of the Stay-Puft Marshmallow student. But then, that is only my opinion, perhaps yours is better, cause after all its yours. Just don't ask me for extra points for having it because it might be WRONG, idiot. (Sorry, the pent-up hostility escaped again.)

Friday, December 12, 2008

Prehistory World Sim: The Ice Age Endeth

We have this thing in Texas called Hobby Lobby. My daughter forces me to go there to buy yarn--although now she has found a much better online site--for her crocheting, which is one of those things passed down matrilineally. My grandmother Helen Nora taught me and I taught my daughter Katherine Nora. Anyway, we took a wrong turn and I discovered an aisle full of treasures--including the prehistoric life toob (it was, totally, spelled that way). The prehistoric life toob was a plastic tube full of really amazingly dorky plastic figures of megalithic wild life, mega-buff early modern humans, and a few scenic additions like a tree and a volcano. All semester long my students have had great fun enacting scenes on the desk in my class. Usually one guy in the class will do the renactments and usually the animals; sometimes in pairs, sometimes in groups are positioned to be either killing each other or having sex. Or both. At the same time. Go figure.

Wednesday night we had an unusual event in Houston. It snowed. Several inches. The next morning, I came into a final exam with a couple of unused snowballs. So we re-enacted the beginning of the glacial retreat. Mid-way through the final, the volcano fell off the ice and all hell was breaking loose--not the Dante one but the other one.

See, I can do World Simulation exercises, too.

Thanks to the World's Most Beautiful Sociology Professor for the picture, since I am too tired to get mine off my phone. (Aren't those IPhone people smugly superior?)

I can't wait to get the Jamestown Settlers Toob.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Whopper Virgins (yes, you read that correctly): the taste-pure, chaste-pure "other"

Another atrocity to post, thanks, once again to those wonderful folks on the Society for Anthropology in the Community College listserv (really a great resource), we have this discussion looming:

Whopper Virgins for you Burger Kings and Queens: "Real People doing Real Taste Tests." "People who are really off the grid." "Extraordinarily gracious people" who have never tasted a hamburger before (?), and don't know "how to hold one", filmed at the moment of their deflowering. I am having a hard time swallowing it, having lost my hamburger purity some time ago.

Here is a link to the You Tube version of the commercial using (and abusing) the Hmong, and here is the Romanian one.

It is truly horrendous and I don't even know where to begin with the critique and analysis. Anthropologists everywhere are going to be running to the dentist for mandibular adjustments when their jaws become unhinged.

(Excuse my temporary absence, btw. Returned to the ancestral homelands of New Jersey to return my Grandmother's ashes to where her heart has always been, had a nice break at the Algonquin Hotel and now am hip deep in student excuses, pleas, and pitifulness. Thanks for all the nice comments and posts. I will return shortly.)

UPDATED to add student responses from class today:
Some of my students, today, had seen the ads. They enjoyed critiquing them. Some thought them offensive and exploitative. Most did not "buy" the "pure" message. They questioned the accuracy of people not knowing about hamburgers. And they questioned that Whoppers were something which represented a positive contribution to people's lives. One offered the analysis that it was insulting to "us" as well, since we are portrayed as victims' in the McDonaldization of our society, unable to judge for ourselves the "better taste". If they are "pure" then we are "dirty".

Having completed the entire semester some pointed out that asking people to pick up foods with one's hands and inserting the food directly in the mouth might be offensive. But they know my story about how in the 1980's in Tanzania this would have been considered disgusting. Only the size morsel that actually fits in your mouth should inserted in your mouth. They felt the film makers were completely missing people's discomfort with that process.

In general, most thought is was a fairly stupid commercial because they couldn't accept the conclusion that other people eating Whoppers was much of an argument for them eating them. They have been raised with continual advertising assault and they are far to cynical to fall for that argument, seems to be the generally agreed upon sentiment. Although the extension of that argument made me uncomfortable, for, as my student said, it worked to the extent that we are all discussing it which is, after all, what Burger King wants.

All in all, many teachable moments.