Thursday, April 30, 2009
Tuesday, April 28, 2009
One of my cyber friends, the Irishman in Ghana, recently took a trip from Accra to Kumasi – which is generally known as one of the most dangerous roads in Ghana He was in a tro tro at night. BAD idea.
His blog post HERE is worth a read. I of course chimed in on the comments section with my jaded reply.
As a foreigner it is a common reaction to assume a car would stop if it hit or ran over a person! And an equally normal assumption that someone should call emergency services. In this case however, the tro tro he was in kept driving, and to his amazement all the passengers were fine with that. When he reported the incident to the police later, nothing was done about it (except for the police no doubt bribing the driver).
The next day when he asked his fellow colleagues who were Ghanaian what he should do about it, they told him to drop it. Today I shared his story with some Ghanaian friends and colleagues, and people laughed. Not a happy laughter but once of futility and despair. Their responses were all along the lines that he was naïve to think anyone would care.
Over the weekend in Accra, a man was hit at about 4am by a taxi which did not stop. By 6am the body had been run over by no less than 3 other vehicles. That means no one stopped – and even once they had crunched and bumped over the mass of a body under their tires, they carried on. This article was published in the local paper, but when I tried to find it online today, I realized it wasn’t important enough to make it to the online news in Ghana.
Recently a friend of mine came to me to tell me that his 36 year old brother was missing after having a minor argument with a fellow tenant in the compound where he lived. It was discovered that three thugs had ‘beaten’ the man and since then he’d not been seen. Two weeks later, thanks to an article the family had run in the newspaper about their missing brother, his body was identified at a local hospital. They had been about to bury his body in a mass grave. No investigation, no questions asked. Luckily the family had closure. But now there was a murder case to follow surely??
You would think so, but then you would be a naïve foreigner. In fact, the three people responsible were taken reluctantly into custody, but bailed out within a day. Now the family is being asked for installments of money to ‘help the inspector’ with his investigations. Yet nothing is happening. No one shows up at the court for the case. The family is not wealthy or well connected and they cannot afford the bribes... the case will die. And that is the sad fact. A 36 year old man beaten to death – no repercussions for the perpetrators.
We went to the funeral and across the crowd, who sat on the rented chairs straddling the open gutter in the heat of the midday sun, fanning themselves with the funeral pamphlet, I made out the dead man’s mother. I saw the genuine grief in her eyes. A grief I know too well. A parent should never outlive their child. I realized though, as I watched the neatly dressed men load the coffin into the ambulance, as they do here (ambulances being used for bodies as opposed to the sick but alive), that in Ghana it happens all the time.
You could be a toddler in a village and catch malaria, or an unfortunate cyclist on the road to Kumasi at night. You could have an argument with the wrong guy or stumble out in front of a car. In Ghana you will probably die. And there will probably be a funeral and Ghana will move on.
My Irish friend likened the reactions of his fellow passengers to fear, assuming that it was this fear that stopped them from forcing the driver to stop and assist the person he’d hit.
But I’ve been thinking and come to the conclusion that is the opposite that is true. What happens in society when there are no consequence for our actions? When we have nothing to fear from authority and also nothing to gain. No welfare from the government, no protection from the authorities. It makes people lawless and also concerned with themselves only. Why help an accident victim on the road if you will be asked to pay his hospital bill or watch him be ignored? Why stop to help someone you’ve hit when the police don’t care and will not persecute you in any way?
I guess I’m the Thomas Hobbes in this discussion, with Ghana representing humans in a state of nature - in a 'war of all against all', without a controlling authority… I'm definitely thinking far too much, far beyond my reach…
All these sad events have made me a backyard philosopher. Time to indulge in some soft fleshy mango and slices of the sweetest and best pineapple in the world – and remember some of the things I love about Ghana!
Tuesday, April 14, 2009
On my return to 'civilisation' I got a mail from a friend who is also one of the greatest teachers at my son's school (sadly he'll be leaving next school year, but that is the nature of International schools!). It appears some people accomplished a wee bit more over the Easter holiday!
I figure everyone can appreciate the inspirational value of a true story like this - of a regular guy with the right amount of determination and positive energy - achieving a lifelong dream! Excellent - have a read below. Go Johnny!!!
Years ago, I swore that I would run a marathon before I turned 40. Well, I never really got around to it and I never really pursued this dream, partially because I don't really enjoy running. I've always liked running after a ball or a frisbee but simply running for the sake of running always seemed a little futile to me - and boring. And, if I'm honest, I've had a standing policy to avoid pain at all costs (which explains my steadfast reluctance to get any tattoos or piercings) and running for such a long distance looks and sounds painful to me.
Then I heard about the Two Oceans Marathon in Cape Town, which is not really a marathon at all. It's two races: a half marathon (21.1 km) and an ultra marathon (56 km). The idea is that one has the opportunity to run by two oceans, along the Cape Peninsula, which features some of the world's most stunning scenery imaginable. I decided to try my luck at the half-marathon, which seemed like a happy medium: not too long and hopefully pretty enough to warrant some reward beyond simply finishing. I had wanted to do it last year, but got sidetracked in my planning. Then, I wanted to do it this year but it turned out that I would be taking 14 students to Cairo the previous weekend, which seemed like a difficult combination of trips to make (Cape to Cairo in reverse, Rhodes must be turning in his grave). And yet, almost in the last moment (mid-February to be exact), Amber and I talked once more and decided that it might be worth spending our Easter holidays in Cape Town, a town we've always loved for its climate, scenery, amenities and friends. I registered for the half-marathon and suddenly I was faced with the daunting task of getting into running form in less than 10 weeks.
As I mentioned before, I've never run before and it was a whole new experience for me. But I conscientiously got up before sunrise three times a week and ran before school. At first, I ran for 20 minutes, then 40 minutes and finally I actually ran for 70 minutes a few times. All in all, I only ran on 16 occasions and only once in the two weeks leading up to the race because I was traveling. According to my estimates, the longest distance I had run in training was 10 km - about half of the distance of the race. But I started to get better and actually felt OK about trying this insane experiment (I still maintain that running makes little sense unless you have a destination in mind or at least the possibility of scoring/preventing a goal). Nonetheless, I arrived here in Cape Town full of great ambitions: the cut-off time for the half-marathon was 3 hours and according to my calculations, I was hoping to complete the race in about 2 hours 45 minutes - just enough to qualify but not so fast that I would hurt myself.
A couple friends of mine had also registered for the race and they had each run several full and half marathons, so they were clearly well ahead of me in many respects. I had no idea what to expect and the 24 hours preceding the race, I became increasingly withdrawn and pensive, as the anxiety of attempting (and possibly failing at) this challenge approached. On the morning of the race, we woke up at 4:00 a.m., ate some granola bars, drank lots of juice and water and headed off to the start of the race, which was scheduled to kick off at 6:00. By 5:15, there we were, with 10,000 other contestants, in the pre-dawn dark, eagerly awaiting the start of the race. When the gun finally sounded (in the distance, because we were a good 500 meters from the starting line), I was almost bursting with anticipation because I simply had no idea what to expect from this crazy endeavor.
The start of the race was a bit hectic, as everyone jockeyed to establish their position in the line-up and within minutes I lost sight of my friends. From then on, I was on my own and it was a strange type of solitude, among thousands of strangers, both in the race and along the side of the road, cheering us on. At first, the only ones cheering us on were the volunteer marshals showing us the way, a few prostitutes plying their trade in the early morning hours and quite a few homeless, who rubbed their sleepy eyes in disbelief as thousands of panting athletes intruded upon their sleeping quarters. But as the sun rose over Table Mountain, providing us with a majestic view of this stunningly beautiful natural monument, the first spectators stumbled out from their homes, many still in their pyjamas, clutching their coffee cups and breakfast croissants, nodding approvingly and perhaps offering a word or two of encouragement to this or that runner. But as the sun rose steadily and the day began in earnest, the streets started filling with an increasing number of spectators and soon the roads became alive with the sound of cheering people, bands playing music and open barbecues roasting bacon and eggs. The race numbers pinned to our chest and backs had our first names printed on them, so every now and then, I would be spurned on by the seemingly random call of a "C'mon, Johannes!" or "Lookin' good, Johannes, keep it up!", which was truly encouraging. I could usually barely muster more than an acknowledging nod and a smile but it really made you feel special to be recognized - even if it was temporary and fleeting.
I am not a fast long-distance runner. Literally thousands of people passed me and I was astounded at the various body types that participated in this race. Normally, when one thinks of runners, one thinks of lean, thin and diminutive statures; you know, the stereotypical Ethiopian or Kenyan athletes, who are little more than bones, sinews and aerodynamic calves. But every single type of body was visible in this crown of runners - and most of them were significantly faster than me. But that didn't matter because my goal was to not stop to walk at any point in the race, even if it meant running at a snail's pace (which was definitely my speed going up the hill on Southern Cross Drive, which in my mind will now always remain synonymous with the term "hell"). But I kept running, even passing some other runners, much to my (and their?) surprise. By the time I reached the finishing straightaway, I was more tired than I had ever felt before and felt pain in parts of my legs (and biceps, strangely enough) that I had never even knew existed.
But as I approached the final 100 meters or so, I could not help laughing out loud, pumping my fistin the air and clapping exuberantly because I was so extremely proud of what I had accomplished. Granted, there had been thousands of people finishing before me and people probably thought I was a little pathetic in my childish joy (and maybe I was) but I couldn't care less because I had made it! I cannot describe the feeling I had crossing that finish line and I don't know if anyone will ever understand but for me this was a great personal triumph. I couldn't contain my happiness and went around patting other runners on the back, simply because I had this irresistible urge to share my joy with others. We congratulated each other and I simply could not stop smiling, despite the throbbing pain in my legs and the aching in my entire body. I was rarely as proud as I was when I was filing by the race officials handing out the bronze medals that all finishers receive, even though I was one of thousands. Oh yeah, my finishing time was 2 hours and 33 minutes, faster than I had expected, which was also cool - but totally secondary to the achievement of reaching the finish line in under 3 hours.
I soon ran into my friends, who greeted me with a great big hug. We exchanged high fives, congratulations and soon found the beer garden to celebrate with a cold drink. We then watched the winners of the ultra marathon arriving (only 30 minutes after me, even though they ran almost thrice the distance!), which was inspiring as well. But in the end, it was simply a great experience to have been a part of. I don't know if I'll ever run a full marathon because I don't think I would have the discipline necessary to train for it. Then again, I still have another 20 months before I turn 40, so perhaps I'll get crazy again and feel the urge to embark on such an adventure. For now, I'm basking in the glory of having completed this task and that is plenty of gratification for me at this point.
Now I gotta put my feet up and do something really unhealthy, so I can feel like myself again. Yours,
Irreverent Reverend (Johannes Schwerk)
A toast to you Johnny -
for giving us all a kick in the proverbial butt - what are our dreams? Live them!!!!
Wednesday, April 1, 2009
Oprah’s infamous South African School in the news again for a sex scandal…. Just makes me wonder… as I do… why the Hollywood heavy hitters get involved in all these ‘aid’ and good will projects by throwing heaps of money at the problems and taking snapshots for the press with semi-starving, but eternally grateful looking poor kids – when they are clearly in over their heads. There are cultural and systematic problems of epic proportions that they could not hope to understand when they ‘reach out’ in their naïve self congratulatory efforts to raise the quality of life of the poor in the ‘developing world’.
Oprah Winfrey has quite an impressive CV – according to her wiki profile, she is an American television presenter, media mogul and philanthropist. Her internationally-syndicated talk show is the highest-rated talk show in the history of television. She is also an influential book critic, an Academy Award nominated actress, and a magazine publisher. She has been ranked the richest African American of the 20th century, the most philanthropic African American of all time, and was once the world's only black billionaire. She is also, according to some assessments, the most influential woman in the world.
And yet, the most important philanthropic project of her life is an absolute disaster. Since it’s inception, the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for girls, has been riddled with scandal and controversy.
What Oprah hoped would be a leading school in the country, with state of the art facilities, at a cost of $45m, has been exposed as a shady den of sexual misconduct both by matrons, charged in late 2007 with various indecent acts on the students, and now the students themselves.
Yes, I’m on Oprah’s case again. I covered the earlier story in 2007 with my usual skeptical perspective, but this new scandal just throws the whole concept up into the light once more.
Oprah can be, and definitely has proven herself, as the hero of middle class women in developed countries who stress about their self esteem, yoga vs. pilates, low fat or low carb, and what book to read next.
Time has proven that despite her supposedly valiant efforts, she CANNOT be the hero of the poorest, most vulnerable girls in the world, who live halfway across the globe - who’s problems range from possible starvation, lack of water and electricity and the Aids epidemic - to physical, sexual and mental abuse in a crumbling increasingly corrupt country with a dubious future. Even the walls around her bright Academy couldn't protect them....