blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit

blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit
By Alison Hobbs, blending a mixture of thoughts and experiences for friends, relations and kindred spirits.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

China's cities

That's my grey hair in the picture (taken by a member of the CCFSO last night) just beneath the board on the left. The slide was a map of the metro stations in Shanghai and the circles represented the proximity of homes and businesses to each stations, each circle having a 600m radius. The lecturer was making the point that in China, most people use public transport because it's been made accessible. The myth that every Chinese person who used to ride a bike now drives a car is not true, he said. These days, they mostly take the train.

Dr. Ben Gianni is from the Department of Architecture and Urbanism at Carleton University and his lecture was entitled Urban Planning and the Challenge of Sustainable Cities in China. Last summer he took forty of his students to visit China (Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Hong Kong...) who were duly flabbergasted and impressed.

There are 40 times as many Chinese people in the world as Canadians, and China is more like the Netherlands than the USA or Canada as regards population density, despite the fact that 80% of Canadians live in urban environments, as opposed to less than 60% of Chinese people. The density of a city determines its environmental sustainability, because the closer we live together, the less energy we consume. Had you realised that? I hadn't. "Grey is the new green," grey meaning concrete. Asian cities such as Shanghai or Tokyo, with ~14,000 people per square kilometer, are four times as dense as Toronto and nearly three times as dense as London.

Recently there has been a huge investment in mass transportation (since the year 2000, 400 km of lines have been added to the metro system in Beijing, for example) and because of the pollution problems, people who live in China are being discouraged from using cars. Traffic jams in themselves are an antidote to car usage, said Dr. Gianni; a license plate in Shanghai costs as much as a car, and the petrol costs as much as it does in Canada.

The only city in the world more polluted than Beijing is Mumbai. In China they lack the forests to offset their carbon emissions. For every single tree in China, there are 120 in Canada, but the Chinese are now reforesting and are planting trees along roadsides in the midst of their cities. The prof. reckons we are being hypocritical when we criticise China for its level of pollution. It is largely caused by factories and that's our fault, because it's we who demand the "cheap stuff" they manufacture in China.

Consider energy usage: the truth is that, per capita, the Chinese consume far less than we do in the west. An average Chinese person consumes 1806 kilowatts per year, and a Canadian 7379kW––that's a revealing statistic!

Hong Kong skyscrapers (Wikipedia)
"We need to learn from them," said Dr. Gianni. He also spoke of social interaction being essential to human survival and how people who live in high rise buildings are thought to have "no connexion with the street." In the USA, building monster housing blocks many stories high is considered to have been a "failed experiment," but a visit to China makes you question these assumptions, because in China, people do come down into the street; he reminded us with a smile how often you see Chinese seniors singing and dancing on street corners and doing their tai chi together in the mornings. Therefore the high-rise lifestyle "may work in China." In a certain Hong Kong district is a cluster of forty apartment blocks up to 40 stories high (some of those condos sell for $1million)––he called them "graceful" buildings, with through-ventilation, i.e. windows on both sides of the unit, architecture that is scientifically designed to allow adequate sunlight throughout the year. The high-rise is ubiquitous in China because the cost of land is the biggest factor in urban planning. You aren't going to get urban sprawl there as you do in Sydney, NSW, for example.

"China has created a middle class overnight," he claimed, and it is significant that a Chinese person is assigned a status and location at birth, so that families cannot move around the country at will (there wouldn't be a place in school for the children or access to healthcare if one broke the rules). This to some extent controls the pace of urbanisation, but migrants, not being part of the Hukou system, complicate matters. This month, there's been trouble with the Uyghur migrant community in Kunming, a city that contains districts that are "ghost towns" waiting to be inhabited, but not by the migrant workers who have built them. The PRC is now thinking of creating social housing (rented accommodation for the disadvantaged) in Chinese cities, another experiment like the planting of trees. Will it make a difference?

The lecturer recommended the book Arrival City by Doug Saunders.

Being in China "blows your assumptions out of the water." Dr. Gianni didn't want to dwell on politics but mentioned that the PRC being a one-party state does help to move developments along quickly––there's no opposition! All land is state owned; the government offers lease contracts for 70 years. Where properties are concerned, the one child per family policy means that the one child will inherit everything. A married couple could therefore eventually own five apartments––their own, their parents', and their grandparents'! The buildings may have been shoddily constructed (no one can inspect the rebar inside a block of concrete) but might well be upgraded in the future. Or might be knocked down. Chinese buildings currently have a lifecycle of 15 years.

Friday, March 28, 2014

At the bowling alley

This morning I was at the MacArthur Lanes, knocking the pins over for two hours. There were about twenty of us, all women; we had plenty of fun and felt really hungry at the end, after all the physical exertion, so wolfed down some slices of pizza for lunch, delivered from Louis' Pizza. This was a Diplomatic Hospitality event that had proven popular last year as well, very relaxing for the diplomats.

This is the largest bowling alley in Ottawa, with 32 Tenpin lanes, all kept beautifully clean, and everyone has to wear the same kind of shoes when playing, available from a special counter. You can choose your balls, which have holes in them for two fingers and a thumb. Some of the ladies snagged their nails on them, but I just found them rather heavy to lift––actually some balls were heavier than others. Whenever they'd been rolled at the pins, they popped back up automatically into the ball dispenser. The pins came back automatically too. There was something mesmeric about the apparatus that was doing that.

I got a score of over 100 which wasn't bad for someone who hasn't been bowling for 40 years or so!

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Theme and variations (verbal)

Our friend Mr. Vulpe has lent us a book, Exercices de style ––un des ouvrages les plus célèbres de l'écrivain français Raymond Queneau, as the French Wikipédia puts it––in which the author retells the same anecdote in 99 different registers. I took one glance at it and thought, I'd like to do that. So I gave it a try. I haven't got as far as 99 versions yet, but have spent far too much time attempting a few.

Here's my theme:

This evening, after practising the Schubert songs Chris has to perform at his singing lesson tomorrow, I asked him if he would like to go for a walk. He said he would do half an hour’s work at his computer, and then go out for the walk.

And here are a few of my variations on the theme:

Supper was served, after which two songs from the Winterreise song cycle by Schubert were practised by Chris. The piano accompaniment to these was played by his wife, Alison. A question was put to Chris afterwards regarding his preferences for or against an immediate walk. In the event, work had to be done in the basement for half an hour before the walk could be undertaken. Tomorrow the songs will once again be performed and on that occasion Chris’ progress will be assessed by his singing teacher.

To: C.Hobbs
From: A.Hobbs
Bcc: Family, Friends
Re. Evening walk, Mar. 17, 2014
Schubert song completion on schedule. No further action on Winterreise Nos. 1 and 20 required at present. Can we arrange for a walk ca. 20:30 or would that impact your plans for the evening? RSVP a.s.a.p. 

And it came to pass in those days, that the man left his tribe and took his tents and his cattle and his wife and all that was his, and went to abide in the wilderness across the waters. And there it was that he sang unto the Lord with a great voice. And lo, the woman did minister unto him. And the time came that she said unto him, Master, shall we not go now, even unto the frozen waters? And he answered and said, Woman, I shall first do this thing whereof thou knowest not what I do. Verily I must travail in the bowels of the earth before the Lord, and thereafter shall I come unto thee and do thy bidding. And it was so. Thanks be to God.

So. We were like singing. You know, like songs and stuff. And I was like, shall we go now? So he was like, not YET. I mean like, oh my god, I’ve got to like do this first. Oh my god.

Since thirty minutes I am waiting for hear your desires about stroll in evening with ourselves. Tonight I am first playing piano and hearing songs of you, then sitting. You come not yet up stairs in order to be my company. Do I wait much longer time for this going out, please?

Ah’ve met some right queer folks in me time, but this just about teks the biscuit. 'E wasn’t only singin’ for 'is supper, like, she was aidin’ an’ abettin’ 'im too, playin’ hymns or summat on t’ piano. An’ then she says she wants to go out in t’ park with ’im––in t’ middle of winter, mind, when it was as cold as if tha’d bin on Ilkely Moor b’aht 'at! Plain daft, ah’d call it. They’ll likely catch their deaths.

While he warbled, she played on the keys
Until in the end she said, Please
Let us go for a walk
And then we can talk,
But he said, Let’s postpone it––we’ll freeze!

Well, waddya know? Chris hit that D spot-on, tonight! Hey, that’s great, Chris. Get some more work done while the wind’s behind you? Or shall we hit the town first? Why not, eh? Could be fun tonight. Not for half an hour? OK, that’s fine with me. Give me a shout when you’re done, then let’s get going. Yeah.

Enter ALIS. and CHRISTOPH. Music.
ALIS. Hark, how the music lingers on thine ear with touches of sweet harmony.
CHRISTOPH. It strikes a chord, even to the utmost reaches of my soul.
And yet I fear, my sweet, that I must hence away
To do that which thy gentle nature can but marvel at.
ALIS. You mean, be at your labours, deep within the house
Whither fair music cannot penetrate?
CHRISTOPH. I do. And so farewell a while. I’ll haste away
And be before thee e’er the hour has half way passed.
ALIS. I’ll see thee straight. [Exit CHRISTOPH.] And yet, methinks,
He’ll tarry e’er he comes.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Goodbye to an intrepid lady

I have just come away from a memorial reception to celebrate the life of Elizabeth, who died last week; instead of the usual conventions there was no religious service for her funeral and no speeches were made either. A large number of her friends and relations simply assembled for a tea party with snacks, presented on the upper floor of a local funeral parlour with neoclassical pillars. Actually Carol and I went in the wrong direction on our arrival and made a detour through the padded coffins (fortunately empty, the ones we could see, at least) in the basement, before reaching the correct venue. In the upper rooms, photos and other memorabilia (Elizabeth's snowshoes, her skates, her wartime service medals!) were on display so that groups of people could move from one part of the room to another reviving their memories of her or asking one another questions about her. I thought this was a good idea; it encouraged people to mingle and it focussed their minds on why they were there. A slide show of pictures from her life story and a video recording was being played: a TV interview with Elizabeth from not so long ago. The words weren't really audible but the animation of her face brought her to life again.

She was already in her late 70s when I met her in 1995. She and her husband helped us to settle into Canada. Chris and I attended the Ottawa Quaker Meetings in those days, where Elizabeth and Earlston befriended us, inviting us––and not only the two of us but also our family and the friends who visited us in Ottawa!––to their home on several occasions. They were an inspiring couple in every way, thoughtfulness, kindness and goodwill personified, telling wonderful stories of their adventures and taking an interest in our own stories too. Theirs were the more exciting. When young, she had learned to fly and he had become a navigator on a corvette. They met in wartime, in Scotland, where she was a dietician at a Royal Canadian Navy hospital. Pictures of their marriage in uniform decorated the room today. When peace was declared they went to British Columbia and had four sons––taking them to other parts of the world as they grew up. On one occasion, Earlston having given Elizabeth a Land Rover for her birthday, they drove, with the boys in it, all the way from Venezuela to Ottawa; the journey took months. When Earlston retired they acquired a 42 foot ketch that they sailed for ten years, to the Caribbean, across the Atlantic, all round the Mediterranean, along Europe's canals (with its mast lowered) to the Baltic, round the Baltic, home across the Atlantic again and finally into the Great Lakes.

Their home on the southern edge of Ottawa was a lovely place, its large back windows overlooking a rocky bend in the Jock River. In retirement Earlston became engrossed in philosophy; Elizabeth practised home hospitality, keeping her style of welcome very simple, very Canadian. She introduced many people, including me, to Diplomatic Hospitality, the CFUW service group she co-founded in 1972.

Elizabeth's ancestors must have been extraordinary people, too. She told me once that her grandparents, living on the southern shore of Lake Ontario, were among those who helped runaway slaves to safety, on the Underground Railroad, by hiding them at their house.

During 1995-6, our first year in Ottawa, Elizabeth came to visit us, and brought a little pot plant with her as a gift to me. I still have it in my kitchen. It is flowering at the moment.

Monday, March 10, 2014

"They keep calm and do their work."

Dr. Najafizada speaking at last year's UWHAW fundraiser
Maisam Najafizada is working on a thesis about primary health care in the remote communities of Afghanistan.

As the guest speaker at our UWHAW meeting last Thursday, he gave an example of an Afghan Community Health Supervisor, “Shamsia”––not her real name. As a 2nd wife with ten children she had an education up to 9th grade and is the only breadwinner in her family. She first worked as a home-school volunteer for her neighbours, became a vaccinator and identified the sick children in her community, has also been an unpaid mental health counsellor. She trained as a Community Health Worker (CHW) under the BRAC scheme and dispensed medical drugs. She now supervises and trains 16 CHWs at 8 separate posts. Her husband hasn’t allowed her to become a midwife because that would mean her having to leave home for 18 months.

Community Health Workers and their supervisors are a “front line army” of volunteers, approved by the Afghan communities they serve. There are about 10,000 of them (whereas there are only about 2500 doctors in Afghanistan). CHWs educate people about hygiene, treat the prevalent diseases, dispense drugs and contraceptives (they call contraceptive pills “the happiness drug”), visit pregnant women and help prepare for the delivery of their babies. They offer maternal and child healthcare. Men volunteer to be CHWs as well, but only provide services for men.

CHWs are knowledgeable and mobile; they are highly respected locally, but do not receive much recognition from the national authorities (although this may be changing), and they get no pay. Often they serve as vets and / or teachers as well. They tend not to be aware of their own value and lack in self-confidence. In school they were taught to be silent and obedient. Many are illiterate, although their mentors––nurses, midwives and doctors––have to be able to read. Dr Najafizada told us of a CHW who is known as “the illiterate doctor” in Bamyan. She won an award for her services and then insisted on a school being built in her village.

In some ways it is to the advantage of these volunteers to keep a low profile (because prominent women are vulnerable to attack––the Taliban sees them as a threat and so threatens them). CHWs “keep calm and do their work.” They operate with a certain amount of freedom; women in the Afghan cities, with a “higher bride price,” are generally more oppressed than country women.

Volunteering is a new concept in Afghanistan, although the “birth attendant” (the dai) was a traditional figure in village life. There is little privacy or confidentiality in these communities of 100-400 souls. Nowadays, though, they nearly all have cellphones.

A photo I took at last Thursday's meeting

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Something to aspire to

When I arrived at the Bronson Centre last Thursday evening, the OrKidstra children were already in their seats in the assembly hall, waiting for the concert to start. All that week the Afiara Quartet and the Despax Quartet of adult musicians had been coaching the more advanced members of the OrKidstra, and they were about to perform together. The less advanced and the parents had been encouraged to come along in support and, row by row, were being served biscuits and milk in little paper cups to prevent them from going hungry during the performance. Three well behaved African children sat beside me, speaking beautiful French. The older girl told me that the lady leading the Despax Quartet was her violin teacher. On my other side were three grey haired ladies, probably donors to the Leading Note Foundation.

This concert was an initiative of the Ottawa Chamber Music Society; this particular event was part of their "Music For All" outreach program that also takes place in schools, long term care centres, and such.
The arts are not for the privileged few but for the many. Their place is not on the periphery of daily life, but at its center. (John D. Rockefeller)
Before the music began, Tina Fededsky came forward to tell the audience how music empowers children and builds a sense of community and how the OrKidstra venture in Ottawa had "grown beyond our wildest dreams."

Their discipline is very strict, as can be deduced from the way the listening children sat still. The first item was the first movement of J.S. Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, played with tremendous energy and concentration by students and professionals together, ten violinists, six violists, 6 'cellists and a double bass player. Because they were all wearing OrKidstra T-shirts, you could not at first tell them apart. It must be wonderful for the music students to share in the creation of such a confident sound as this.

The second item was a movement of Beethoven's "Harp" Quartet, played by the Despax Quartet. It thrilled me to bits, and one of the old ladies sitting beside me appeared to be in tears. Music making of the highest calibre, showing the chamber musicians of the OrKidstra at the "Dedication" level what to aim for; six of this group came on stage next, to play the lovely Larghetto movement from Mozart's Clarinet Quintet (the lowest part was doubled). Peter, on the clarinet, is only 13 or 14, but already looks and sounds like a first rate musician––a very gifted young man who is now principal clarinet of the Ottawa Junior Youth Orchestra. (He was also the young conductor at the last OrKidstra concert that I reported in this blog.)

These performances were applauded mightily, but when the Afiara Quartet came on to make their contribution to the concert, such was the enthusiasm that some of the young people cheered! It was a movement from a quartet by Nielsen that looked challenging to play and made demands on the audience too, but, as Tina said afterwards, even the youngest children concentrated on what they were hearing, "absolutely entranced."

The concert came to a conclusion with an exciting performance by the two professional quartets joining forces to play the last movement of Mendelssohn's Octet for strings, the Afiara 'cellist flinging himself into the music, stamping his feet and all of them practically levitating from their chairs.

Standing ovation!

A hypersensitive observer

A self portrait by Ruskin
At the National Gallery of Canada they're currently exhibiting a collection of art by John Ruskin (1819-1900), most of it on loan from the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

The exhibition is called "Artist and Observer." Ruskin was sensitive to the point of insanity. On his wedding night in 1848, his observations (or whatever) shocked him out to such an extent that the marriage was never consummated and was eventually, in 1854, annulled. In the end his wife Effie married Millais instead, a story that reminds me of Dorothea, Casaubon and Will Ladislaw in George Eliot's Middlemarch. It is alleged that Ruskin was also in love with a very young Irish girl called Rose La Touche, whose death devasted him.

Study of Gneiss Rock
Despite the tension with Millais, Ruskin was an apologist for the Pre-Raphaelites. He greatly admired Turner, too.

People tried to chivvy Ruskin into being normal. As a youth, his father had insisted on his mastering the art of drawing, because that's what young gentlemen did. As they toured Europe together, Ruskin drew every place he visited, cathedrals, bridges, streets. His technique improved rapidly and his sketches of architectural detail––cornices, arches, capitals, the painted details––were as exact as photographs. He was interested in daguerrotypes too. Eventually he chose natural subjects, too: studying the appearance of rocks and trees in great detail, fruit and flowers, or a bird's feather. His sketches are similar to Dürer's in their meticulousness and intensity.

Vineyard Walk, Lucca, 1874
Drawing and the natural world helped him through his depressions. A friend advised him to work on self-portraits when he was feeling miserable, but the results were predictably gloomy. What seems to have helped him better were his stays in the Alps, in Switzerland or Chamonix, France. He loved Italy too. The landscapes in the Ottawa exhibition are so attractive!––little sketches of Luzern, Fribourg, Venice, Pisa, Verona, of the wilder parts of northern Britain too. Mountain peaks and glaciers appealed to his romantic sensibilities and he obviously felt more at home out of doors than indoors. Mostly he drew in pencil (graphite) with some touches of black ink or white paint, but all of a sudden I came across one little painting in full colour, his picture of a vineyard at Lucca under a bright, blue sky. That must have been done on one of his good days.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The legendary Chá Mǎ Gǔ Dào

Fuchs meets a lady at a waypoint on the Road
Last week I heard the first westerner to walk the length of the 茶马古道 (the Ancient Tea Horse Road)––Jeff Fuchs––give a talk about it. He's part Hungarian, part British, comes from Ottawa, lives in Shangri La, Yunnan, as an eco-tour guide and has also written a book about his explorations. He is addicted to the "forlorn desolation" of high, remote places ... and the taste of tea.

Fuchs' chá mǎ gǔ dào trek took seven months. In order to prepare for the expedition, he learned Mandarin in Taiwan and spent three years acquiring the funds (North Face was one of his main sponsors). The tea trading route, 5000km altogether, was once a migration route for nomadic peoples also, and, although it has been used for an estimated 13 centuries, is not as familiar to the western world as is the Silk Road; its history has not been written down.

"Snogging an ancient tea tree" (on JF's website)
Tea, he said, is "a commodity like no other." The oldest tea forests in the world are in southern Yunnan. The big leafed species of tea that grows there is pu'erh tea (pǔ'ěr chá). It can be kept good for a long while; in time it ferments and turns black. People like to drink it "super strong!" Tea is an ancient fuel for the body and an ancient medicine too, beneficial to the pancreas. A 91 year old lady he met in the Himalayas lives on a diet of raw eggs, whisky, sugar and tea. Traditionally it was transported in bamboo husks, on the backs of mules (200 mules at a time) that have mostly been superseded by transport trucks nowadays, but are still necessary over the high passes––really high, 6000m and more. If a mule is injured up there it "becomes dinner." The mules had to carry their own food, barley, as well as the butter, yak cheese or rancid goat's milk, onions and garlic that kept the traders fed. The nomads even ate tree bark "with butter." Other things taken along the tea road were salt, wool, tobacco, opium, silver and resin. "DNA would travel too," said Fuchs. He needed a team of linguists as well as his guides because 27 different languages are spoken along this ancient route.

At one point he met a handsome, long haired horseman (see the photograph on this page) proud of his ancestors who had been highwaymen and murderers. Every village up there has a distillery, and the people like their whisky: arra. For parts of the trek glaciers had to be crossed, sometimes 4000m thick (although the glaciers are said to be only a third the magnitude they once were). At a 6000m altitude the expedition crossed a pass that the explorers dubbed "Nosebleed Central"––the Tibetans call it "the place where the bandits rest." The mules had to be muzzled on the way there to stop them eating hallucinogenic thistles which would have driven them to leap off the precipices. One place was known as "The Valley Of Bones" because of the casualties.

The men on the tea road had to be tough, joked Fuchs, "because the women were tougher!" It was the women who proved the more reliable sources of information, too, but he showed us a picture of an old man, Mr. Wu, who said, "If you want to speak of trade, you must come and sit down and take tea with me. I speak slowly, so we will need a lot of tea." The conversation lasted three days.

A brick of pu-erh tea (Wikipedia)
"Our teas have been travelling for as long as we had feet," say the travellers. For centuries tea has been a currency and panacea that brings many cultures together despite the barrier formed by the Himalayas. The market capital in the 13th century was Llasa where this most precious commodity was traded for horses. Accounts were kept in the chá shū (lit. tea book) because tea was the common currency. The word "cha" or "chai" for tea was spread across the world via the land route. The word "tea" ("té" etc) implies that its traders travelled by sea.

Fuchs spoke of the salt too, that used to be taken from the "salt wells", the salt lakes of Tibet, now extinct. Vultures, crows and cranes rest here during their migration. The red salts of the region are not valued by the local populace as much as in trendy California. The Tibetans feed their pigs on it.

Yunnan became part of China during the Mongolian invasions; the borders kept changing. This region is renowned for its bio-diversity, with its red clay soil of a high nitrogen content; it is the place from which the world's best shitake mushrooms are shipped, daily, to Tokyo. The country people are attracted to China's big cities, but many return home. The heart of China (a misunderstood, misrepresented country!) is in the rural areas, says Fuchs, but every home has a solar panel, these days, even in the mountains; the electricity is used to charge people's cellphones and boom-boxes. Tourism and modernity is inevitable, he adds. The question is, how it's managed. Tourists come to see the old traditions but as they do so, they destroy those traditions. It's a dilemma.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Latin American crooners

I went to a Spanish conversation for which the theme was going to be canciones españolas. I thought it would be about Spanish folksongs or art songs, but it turned out to be about Latin American soul music and the sex appeal of the men who croon on TV!

These songs are known as boleros, because of the dance rhythm to them: musica romantica, said someone. The style originated in Cuba and is muy popular all over South and Central America, especially in Mexico, where the best known idol, Luis Miguel (43), comes from. Unlike most of the others present, I'd never heard of him. As a child he was taught by his father to imitate Elvis Presley.

There's another one they talk about, Enrico Iglesias, son of Julio Iglesias (70) who is also a crooner, akin to Tom Jones (73). Sir Thomas Jones of Wales, I mean.

Anyway, these men do their best to convey a smouldering naughtiness, but when we looked at the lyrics of the songs they're known for, I found the words quite innocent ... and very sentimental.

Solamente una vez/ Amé en la vida / Solamente una vez / Y nada más / Una vez nada más/ En mi huerto/ Brilló la esperanza/ La esperanza que alumbra el camino/ De mi soledad/ Una vez nada más/ Se entrega el alma/ Con la dulce y total/ Renunciación/ Y cuando ese milagro realiza/ El prodigio de amarse/ Hay campanas de fiesta/ Que cantan en el corazón!
I only loved once in my life, and no more, once and no more. In my garden, hope shone, the hope that lit up the path of my loneliness. Once and no more, my soul surrendered with a sweet and total renunciation. And when this miracle happened, the wonder of loving, there were festival bells ringing in my heart.

We looked at two other songs like this, as well: Somos Novios and El Dia Que Me Quieras, which Dawn said was a good example of a subjunctive verb.

Education in fragile countries

Thursday Feb. 27th, I went to hear a “Conversation” at the The Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat on Sussex Drive. The conversation was called Education at the Margins: Reaching Children in Fragile and Conflict-Affected States.

Here's a summary of the notes I took; I've been asked to report back to the Ottawa-CFUW UWHAW group later this week. Only three UWHAW members were at the event but the others are bound to be interested. I'm restricting my report to the points relevant to Afghanistan, though several other parts of the world were mentioned during the discussion.

A force for transformation

The event was introduced by Khalil Shariff, CEO of the Aga Khan Foundation: "The Aga Khan said this morning [on Parliament Hill in Ottawa] that education has a great transformative potential and is a force for pluralism and peace, especially in an environment of conflict."

Lois Brown, M.P., mentioned in her speech at the event that the P.M. had just signed a "protocol of understanding" with the Aga Khan. She said, “Canada has been among the top donors to Afghanistan, and education remains one of Canada’s largest sectors of investment in the country. It accounts for 25 percent of our development budget there."

Sharif Ghalib
Diane Jacovella, Vice-President, Multilateral and Global Programs at the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development, initiated the panel’s conversation by asking Sharif Ghalib, Senior Political Advisor and Deputy Chief of Mission at the Embassy of Afghanistan, to speak first.

"The importance of education is immeasurable," he said. "It is a vital tool for unlocking potential and for the evolution of mankind. Over 60% of Afghanistan’s population is made up of girls and women under the age of 30, who face overwhelming challenges." He said that education is "a powerful force for transformation that has an immense effect on improving health and gender equality and enabling peace." In 2001 less than a million children––and no girls!––went to school. Over 10 million children are now in school in Afghanistan, 41% of them girls, and this is a “prerequisite for peace.”

Investment in the future

Alice Albright
Alice Albright, CEO of the Global Partnership for Education said that the work of the Afghanistan government has been “truly heroic.” Teaching people to read will reduce extreme poverty by 12% in fragile countries, therefore governments should invest in education. Education teaches people that there are other ways to interact than with violence. She said that the government of Afghanistan “needs no reminder” of the importance of education for girls. She was there last summer and says that the international community “cannot leave” now, but did complain of what she called “turfiness” (i.e. a tendency to say: Keep off my turf!) among the NGOs. This must change.

Sharif Ghalib knows that there are long-term repercussions to what we do now. He felt that the more the Afghan people can get an education, the smaller the likelihood of insurgency. In some of the remote areas with a lack of access to schooling the population is “totally gripped by despair” and this provides fertile ground for terrorists to recruit their suicide bombers.

David Morley
David Morley, President of UNICEF Canada, believes that schools can be peace building institutions. (But he has visited a Taliban controlled area [of Pakistan] and seen the ruins of many schools there.) UNICEF feels that there has to be consideration of people’s future livelihoods as well.

Protecting the girls at school

In her speech, Lois Brown said that quality education for children in safe and secure schools is “a building block we cannot afford to ignore.”

Diane Jacovella asked what could be done about the safety and security of children going to school in Afghanistan.

Sharif Ghalib spoke of his country's “gloomy past.” Insurgency lingers; low-intensity fighting has never gone away and takes its toll on basic services. There are limits as to where you can build new houses and schools. However, the international community has come to the rescue, and Afghanistan has benefitted from global solidarity and the long held consensus that things must change.

Alice Albright pointed out that we need to work with the parents to make them see the point of their children’s education, especially if there’s a choice between sending their children to school and sending them to work. But you also need a proper infrastructure, with schools not too far to reach on foot, with adequate washroom facilities for girls, security from harassment, etc. The GPE will help to fund these things. 

Structure and planning

David Morley recently met a Syrian refugee girl who had forgotten how to read. UNICEF has initiated the “No Lost Generation” campaign, also relevant to Afghanistan. He also spoke about the choice of a curriculum being "highly political." He added that there’s a need for both “hardware and software” in education, i.e. investment in teacher training as well as in the buildings. Secondary (“quality education”) as well as primary education in these countries has to be a shared goal.

Sharif Ghalib told us that the Afghanistan government is now insisting on a nationwide education system with a common curriculum.

Alice Albright pointed out that what you don’t measure you can’t manage. There needs to be an investment in tools that define the target outcomes and in data management. This is the new focus of the GPE. She said that the focus in future has to be on tertiary education, and in general there must be a “holistic approach.” 

Diane Jacovella, summing up, said that we need to be ambitious, we need to protect children, we need to foster a true partnership between all the players, we need to shift the outcomes and measure what we do.