I’ve been GETTING IT DONE and that’s not a bad habit!

21 Mar

ImageContrary to popular belief, I have not been run into the ground by an accumulation of bad habits, I have actually been silenced in my blogging recently by my complete and perfect obsession with my new job at GET IT DONE.  My apologies for having apparently disappeared off the face of the cyber earth, I promise not to desert you again, as I have rather missed these sharings and out-pourings of passion and interest.

Please allow me to introduce to you my new baby; GET IT DONE.  GET IT DONE is an online platform set up by a friend of mine here in Amsterdam.  It is an attempt to change the way in which we view and donate to charitable organisations.

Everyone knows and understands how frustrating it is to be guilt-tripped into giving money by the can-shakers who force depressing facts and figures in our faces on a daily basis of how many children worldwide do not have access to fresh water/school/medical supplies etc, how many villages in the rural developing world live under the poverty threshold and fight for recognition of the simplest of human rights and how many people globally can still literally call their life a quest for survival.

GET IT DONE wants to change that depressing and negative image into a fresh, young and positive one. We want to put an end to that feeling of ‘us’ and ‘them’, to the ‘poor South’ versus the ‘rich West’.  We understand that everyone on this planet just wants the same things; to be able to lead a healthy and happy life.  However, we also understand that circumstances sometimes prevent people from being able to achieve that dream.

Enter GET IT DONE.  We are a community.  We have set up a website which features projects all over the world.  Small-scale projects with a budget of less than 10,000 EUROS.  The idea is that through social media, stories can be told where personal connections exist and hence passion runs true.  You will be able to support a small scale project and see the results for yourself.  All the projects will be completed within a year and you will be kept up to date of developments personally through Facebook and your E-mail.  The idea is that we can all mobilise our friends, family and colleagues into supporting a project and thus not only get the good karma that comes with thinking of others but also a sense of satisfaction that you GOT IT DONE.

I shall give you an example; my personal story.  Since I stopped working as a barrister on the child-soldier case at the International Criminal Court, I have been involved with various charities dealing with young people who have come into conflict with the law in Africa.  This started with War Child, where many projects were being set up to help the young people who had been involved with the brutal civil wars in Congo, Uganda and Sudan.  It was a great opportunity but I felt like a tiny little speck of dust trying to get noticed in a land-fill site of rubbish.  As most of you know, I am not very good at not being noticed; a small fish in a big pond.  Time to look for a smaller pond, I thought.  I then moved to another charity called Young in Prison, where I started to co-ordinate a project in Malawi for young men and boys who were incarcerated in deplorable conditions in Lilongwe and the surrounding area.

With a colleague, I co-ordinated a programme in 2 prisons in Malawi which centered around the idea that creativity was the key to liberation.  Now, I do believe that this is essentially true,  That disadvantaged children and youth can gain immensely from the opportunity to express themselves freely and creatively.  However, I again felt like I wanted a tangible result.  I wanted to be able to point to something that I had achieved and say to myself, this is what I have been working on, this is what I have helped to produce.  I spoke at length with my contact in Malawi, Gayighayi Mfune Mathews, who even came over to Amsterdam for a conference where we discussed what developments we could make to the programme.  At the crux of every conversation, is the big question of sustainability.  I did not, and neither did Young in Prison, want to support a project which was simply a money-giving project.  We talked and talked…

The old parable states,

Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day, teach that man how to fish and he will eat for life” 

ImageHa ha!  Lightbulb moment!  Malawi is a strange country for the reason that despite its land-locked geography, the inland waters are teaming with fresh water fish!  Opportunity knocks!  Most, if not all the boys incarcerated in the prisons there have no skills whatsoever.  They are locked up and punished for several years for the minor crimes of theft and burglary; survival crimes.  This is not a country where you see gang criminality, violent attacks and sophisticated offences. No.  This is a country where a 14 year old orphan on the streets, steals a bicycle left outside a street vendors stall and pinches it out of sheer frustration.  The proceeds of the sale of that stolen bicycle will probably keep him alive another week or two.

 As an old colonial country, Malawi does have the remnants of a very established legal procedure, they purport to have the rule of law.  In reality, there are less than a handful of qualified lawyers trying to deal with the over-flow and back log of criminal cases.  Papers get lost, identities get confused, boys get locked up for more than 6 months before even seeing the inside of a court room let alone being tried/convicted or sentenced for an allegation of crime.  In the interim, they are sat festering in disgustingly dirty cells with no running water, no electricity and no education.  Health issues are problematic and many prisoners suffer with preventable diseases.

So, I have come up with a plan.  My contact in Malawi has found a local guy who is a fisherman and who has been weaving his own fishing nets for years.  He is willing to train the prisoners whilst they are in prison how to weave their own fishing nets and then how to fish responsibly and sustainably in the local waters.  BOOM!

Not only do the boys acquire a useful and new skill which they can use upon their release as an employment option but further they learn how to feed themselves.  We have made all the calculations, how much it will cost to pay the fisherman to travel away from his family for a month to give daily lessons to the incarcerated boys for a 4 week session.  How much it will cost for all the materials.  How much it will cost for the overall direction of the project including food and accommodation for the fisherman as one of the prisons we are operating in is in a rural district away from the capital city.  The total price for the project is 5,700 EUROS.

The project has been born, it is called GET FISHNET MAKING DONE!!  You can read more about it on the website at http://www.getitdone.org/projects/posted/type/view/id/144

Or alternatively you can find it through Facebook- Get FISHNET MAKING Done.  Please find the page and like it.  This way you will be able to keep up to date with the latest developments.  There is a direct link to be able to securely donate both through the website and through Facebook. 100% of all money donated goes to the project.  Not a penny pays for the overheads.  We are a team of volunteers all striving to make a difference.

We are currently just past a quarter of the way with our fund-raising; 25.3% of the money has already been donated.  I am so chuffed. I have some other things up my sleeve to raise some funds including a karaoke conquest and competition at my house where people will have to pay to stop me from singing!!  I think it might just work!!  

I’ve also had the great news that KLM may well help sponsor the cost of travel requirements, so there really is a lot to feel positive about. 

If you feel like this is a project you would like to get involved with then please spread the word, donate, share the story, tell my tale, whatever is necessary to get that pot filled and the programme under way.  If you have more of an affiliation with another project featured on our site – there is everything from medical projects to arts and crafts projects to fresh water projects.

I hope you now understand why I have been so quiet these past few months; I am managing approx. 14 projects globally just now and of course metaphorically breast-feeding this one – my very own project in Malawi. Thanks for reading and let’s GET IT DONE!



21 Mar

Introduction to the concept of GET IT DONE

Home: returning by instinct to my territory

9 Nov


(of an animal) Return by instinct to its territory after leaving it: “geese homing to their summer nesting grounds”

So, everyone always talks about getting on the property ladder – well at least they do in the UK.  Not so much over here in the Netherlands but as I am learning more and more, you can take a girl out of the UK but you can’t take the UK out of the girl.

Ever since I can remember, the whole point of this game has been to get yourself educated enough to get a good job, to earn enough money to be able to afford a home, to find someone who is willing/stupid enough to agree to spend the rest of their life with you, to settle in a house, have babies and live happily ever after……

So far, I’m vaguely on track…minus the good income for now, but we will overlook that one due to the benefit of H’s credit card.  I find myself at the point where it is now time to move on to that level of the game where it is becoming necessary to think about the future family home. Sounds exciting, right?  I’m sure it should be exciting and it is, but oh my days, it is so over-whelmingly scary at the same time.

Trying to fast-forward my life a couple of years and imagine what needs we will have as a young family seems like a fantasy game which I have not read the instructions for.  How do you begin to say with confidence what will be important to you when you have no idea what it even feels like to have little people in your world who need recreation and education activities in the vicinity?  Does proximity to the ‘cool’ part of town really pale into insignificance when you weigh it up next to a slightly larger outside space and maybe car-parking access? Does a sexy open kitchen/living area with white walls, dimmer lighting and a Smeg fridge lose the battle to self-contained dark rooms where old stains can be hidden, with plenty of storage to hide the vacuum cleaner and children’s toys?

The United Nations produces a list each year of the best countries in which to live and I was happy to see that this year, out of 187 countries assessed, the Netherlands is the 3rd best place in the world to live.  Norway was first and Australia came second.  The UK could be found at number 28.  The list is produced after comparing many factors such as long-term progress in healthcare, education, child welfare, literacy, annual income and life expectancy.  So, I should be content right?  After all, I am not ever going to live in Norway realistically am I?  What happens there?  Some snow, some fish, some bleak landscapes and weird photographers to go with bleak landscapes…no, definitely Norway doesn’t appeal.  Australia – well, I would go in a second and set up shop there.  If it wasn’t on the other side of the world that is.  Oh and also if someone emphasised that it is actually quite cool to be clever and not just to be a surf bum….small point.  No, I should face it – the Netherlands is amazing.  Living in the centre of Amsterdam is a treat.  I adore the freedom of jumping on my bike and cycling to the nearest supermarket to pick up supplies for dinner that night – bearing in mind, we don’t have a freezer in our currently rented flat so everything either has to be fresh or dry.  I don’t adore so much climbing the 4 steep and narrow staircases in our ancient town house to get to our front door, loaded down with said shopping bags having diced death with said bags hanging perilously on my handle bars while i dodge red lights and the general cycle traffic to get back to the flat.  Now, fast-forward, at some seemingly distant point of the future, I will in addition to grocery supplies, hopefully have another bundle to care for, a living, breathing baby or, hold your breath, even two. How then do I negotiate cycling with babies, and ascending aforementioned flights of steps?  Answer: you don’t.  You move to a more suitable property – ideally with ground floor access or at the very least, a lift in the building to avoid trudging prams, shopping and baby(s) up Everest-like heights just to get to your front door.

OK, so far, so clear.  Ground floor flats in Amsterdam tend to be old commercial premises – that is the front windows of your sitting-room are big open windows to your life.  Imagine hardware stores on the high streets where merchants would display their wares in full view of passing public and potential customers.  I have spent many a Saturday afternoon peering into these windows and remarking on how strange it is to see a family living out their life in full view of all who pass by.  I have even once found myself, nose pressed against the window, admiring a flower display on the kitchen table within, to only realise moments later that the family are actually sat underneath my nose having a cup of tea within centimetres of my hot breath.  Awkward.  And in my very British view of things, thoroughly embarrassing.  I have seen podgy middle-aged men ironing in their underpants in broad daylight whilst I walk nonchalantly by.  I have seen women sat curled up nursing a steaming hot drink, entranced in a film with a bar of chocolate by their side as I peer in..IN THE MIDDLE OF THE DAY?!  And noone seems to blink an eye.  It is part of their Calvinistic approach – deeply rooted at the core of all Dutch souls; people only hide things when they have got something to hide. Those who have been to stay with us at our current flat will know what happens out of my back bedroom window every weekend – it is a full, x-rated, lesbian porn movie – and before you get excited and imagine that is quite an added bonus of my current living state – you have to appreciate that these two lesbians weren’t exactly at the front of the queue when God was handing out aesthetically pleasing body parts. Enough said.

Perhaps I have a lot to hide, who knows – the psychology and the reasoning behind why the thought of people ‘looking into my life’ scares me so much would be interesting to discover.  I think it would probably boil down to that very fundamental difference between the British and the Dutch, which is that we Brits have a ‘public’ face where we act as we should, say what we ought to and behave in a manner we think we should, that is until we go home, when we scream and rant about the injustice of the world, slag off our neighbours, eat cold baked beans from a tin, pick our spots in our shabby greying knickers, put a face-mask on, sing karaoke to the mirror and drink too much wine.  (Sorry, maybe this is only a very subjective description of what British people do behind closed doors..it’s what I do).  Would I want my neighbours to know this about me?  Of course not!  (Apart from the karaoke part – which I am actually very proud of, and who knows a record deal can come from anywhere right?!).So, I have already talked myself out of one of these ground-floor no-secrets ‘open-living’ flats.

Now what are the other options?  Well, we could always consider moving a little out of town and finding ourselves with a lot more space for our budget.  Hmmm.  So far, in the 3+ years that I have lived here, I am yet to really feel foreign.  Amsterdam has 83 different cultures residing in the tiny city.  Everyone speaks English.  You can buy Heinz Baked Beans at the local supermarket for god’s sake.  BUT, as soon as you leave the safe confines of the city… hello Dutchies!  Do you know what a typical Dutch family is like?  I don’t.  I don’t really know any, but suffice to say, when I’ve seen them on my day excursions ( I sound like I am visiting a zoo, don’t I?), they all have incredibly long legs, a ridiculously healthy glow to their skins, a slight tinge of ginge in their colouring, they repeat the same word a lot in the same sentence and they eat a lot of cheese and fried meaty foods.  Do I belong amongst them? Can I see myself spitting out the guttural sounds of the Dutch language whilst gorging on yet another Edam cheese sandwich and liquified meat balls whilst my children play ‘ Hide and Seek in the Dike?’ ( No sniggering here, we have moved off the subject of lesbians already…!)  The answer is no, I can’t.  My move from London to Amsterdam was made without much thought of necessary adjustment or acclimatisation and thankfully, this city doesn’t really require as much but if I was to break the borders of the safety of Amsterdam and ‘go rural’, well, I think the result would be a suicidal, depressed smart girl with perhaps such bad habits that she might not survive!

Where does that leave us?  I think, I have to settle for being over-looked.  I have to sacrifice the idea of a garden or any outdoor space for my own sanity.  There are enough parks here to never really feel claustrophobic and unlike London on a sunny day – it’s not as if there are so many people vying for oxygen and green space that it feels cramped.  I remember the days on Clapham Common in the mid-summer July heat – it felt as if I was in a cattle market – I’ve never seen so much flesh and displays of humanity crammed onto one heath.

Maybe I have to embrace this attitude of bearing all.  Perhaps, it isn’t so bad after all to show your private side.  God knows what that would do to my reputation of being a ball of ‘energy’ and always smiling – which was how i was recently described (ha!  If only they knew what went on behind closed doors!).

All I know right now, is that in addition to feeling slightly nauseous at the thought alone of being a mother, the issue of finding a home in which to raise a family happily, in a city which is so very different to the serene suburbia where I grew up, is massively overwhelming.  Can anyone sympathise with me?

Foxy Knoxy walks away….

13 Oct

Last week saw an appellate Court in Italy overturn the guilty verdict of Amanda Knox and her Italian boyfriend Raffaele Solicito for the murder of British student Meredith Kercher in November 2007.  It is hard when there has been so much media attention in one case to have a completely objective point of view on something as shocking and gripping as a murder of a young British student in Perugia where there were allegations of kinky sex games, drug-taking and role-play culminating in a violent but not perhaps planned murder.

I have to admit that I was swept away with the media frenzy about Amanda Knox when she was first arrested and named as a suspect in the murder of her flatmate just days after the incident.  Her portrayal was that of a smart, attractive, sexually open-minded student from USA who had inadvertently left her vibrators lying around the flat she shared.  Someone who happily referred to themselves as ‘Foxy Knoxy’.  Her innocence did seem dubious when it was revealed that Meredith had allegedly been brutally killed during what appeared as a multi-party sex-game gone wrong. The press got photos of Knox sharing what appeared to be a rather lingering kiss with her boyfriend, Solicito, hours after the murder outside the police station before they were to be questioned and arrested.  It didn’t seem right.  Her behaviour was not normal for a young 20 year old far away from home who has just discovered the semi-naked body of her 21 year old flatmate with her throat cut.

From the outset, she denied being at the flat when the murder took place.  She claimed to have stayed the night at Solicito’s house, to have returned in the morning to find the front door of the apartment open and Meredith’s bedroom door locked.  Despite the fact that she did notice blood in the bathroom that they shared and also an unusually dirty toilet pan in the larger bathroom of the flat, she washed and changed and collected some clothes to return to her boyfriend without further ado.  She stated that it was normal for Meredith to lock her door, blamed the blood in the bathroom to perhaps a housemate’s menstrual problems and didn’t think any more about the dirty toilet.  A few hours later, she telephoned another of her flat mates and explained about the open front door, this housemate questioned where Meredith was.  Up until this point, Amanda had done nothing to get in touch with Meredith.  She then attempted to reach her on her mobile but with no success.  Knox and Solicito decided to return to the flat to meet the other housemate.  It was by now afternoon on November 2nd 2007.

Randomly, and there is no allegation that this is anything other than a coincidence but a hoax bomb threat had led police to find Meredith’s two mobile phones discarded in a garden close to the flat.  As Knox and Solicito returned to the flat – they made a quick check of the house and further discovered for the first time that there had been what looked to be a break-in in one of the front bedrooms.  A rock was lying on the floor and the window was smashed.  Clothes and items had been strewn around the room.  The police having linked Meredith’s discarded phones as registered to the house arrived at the moment where they had realised that there had at least been a break-in.  Meredith’s door was broken down and her body was discovered.  She was underneath a duvet. Her throat had been cut, she had been sexually assaulted and she had been dead for some hours by then.

The forensic investigations commenced.  There was plenty of blood around Meredith’s body which was traced in footsteps through the flat, on light switches, on the bathroom floor and sink.  A hand print was found on the pillow of Meredith’s bed which contained easily identifiable DNA. There was also evidence of a sexual assault which led for more forensic material to be retained and analysed. The murder weapon was not found at the scene. The time of death was approximately estimated to be at 11pm on November 1st, some 14 hours before she was found.

In the period between the return of the forensic results and the discovery of the body – police obviously questioned everybody involved.  Knox originally stuck to her story saying that she had stayed with Solicito.  However, after hours of continual questioning by police, she gave a signed statement to the effect that she had in fact been present at the time of the murder but she had not been involved.  She named her boss, the owner of a local bar, Lumumba, an African man, as the murderer.  She told the police that she felt as if she was having dreams rather than really remembering what had happened but that she saw Lumumba in the flat and that she had covered her ears to drown out the screams of her flatmate as she was murdered.  A few hours later, Knox elaborated on this statement by underlining that she had made it because the police had told her that they had evidence which placed her at the flat at the time of the murder and that if this was the case, she had lost her grip so far on reality that her dreams must be true.  It was very ambiguous.  It had been suggested to Knox that the forensic recovery at the scene had revealed that Meredith had been struggling with a man of black skin as she was murdered and that Knox’s presence was a given.  Solicito also changed his account of the evening, stating that Knox had in fact left his apartment for a few hours.

Investigations revealed that both Knox and he had switched their mobile phones off after 8pm on the night of the murder.  Knox had been due to work in Lumumba’s bar that night but he had texted to tell her just after 8pm that it was not necessary for her to come in.  She had replied, ‘See you later, Good night”.  According to Solicito, they slept until 9 or 9.30am the next morning.  However, analysis of his computer records show that he had listened to music for half an hour at approximately 5.30am.  Which remains unexplained.

When asked why they had switched their phones off, they had stated that it was so as not to be disturbed.

So how do the police get from this to convicting a third man, Knox and Solicito for the murder???

Reliable alibi accounts led Lumumba to be released shortly after his arrest.  Forensic results showed that the handprint, faeces in the larger bathroom and sexual DNA belonged to a Rudy Guede, a 20 year old immigrant from Ivory Coast, a man who had a criminal record and who had fled Italy to Germany shortly after the murder.  When arrested and brought back to Italy, he opted for a fast-track trial, accepting that he had played a part in a consensual sex-game on the night but that someone else, a white Italian male had stabbed Meredith to death whilst he was in the toilet.  He had been to her room as she lay dying and had panicked, leaving her in a pool of her own blood.  He had fled the country shortly after on the grounds that he feared that there was some racial type-casting going on, as the white man had allegedly said to him as Meredith lay dead on the floor,” a black man at the scene means a black man behind bars.”  He was known to all the girls in the flat and also the neighbours as someone who played basketball with the University students and who also joined in party nights and smoking drugs.  Although he initially did not implicate Knox in the murder, he later changed his account to state that she was there although not in the room during the sexual contact or afterwards when he had tried to comfort a dying Meredith.

The prosecution case came up with their theory and looked to settle all the evidence with it.  All the housemates, including Knox and Meredith had been at a fancy-dress party to celebrate Halloween the night before in Lumumba’s bar.  Solicito and Rudy had also attended.  The prosecution set up a case theory that there had at some point been a discussion about the idea of a sex-game between the parties.

There were some witness accounts which place Knox and Solicito in the town square after 9pm on the night of the murder, although they maintain that they were in bed by this time.  Guede had been in the square smoking marijuana. They concluded that Knox, Solicito and Guede had met up, smoked some joints together and had then decided to carry out their sex game back at the flat. Meredith was alone and sober in the flat.  The prosecution alleged that when she had refused to join in their antics, the game had escalated in violence – with the men holding Meredith down whilst Knox stabbed her in the throat.

The Prosecution had come to this conclusion based on the post-mortem results which they maintained revealed many wounds on Meredith’s body which supported the belief that she was clothed and conscious, standing-up when the assault commenced.  Her throat had also been cut whilst she was standing upright.  However, there were fewer defence injuries than experts would expect from an attack of this nature against one knifed individual, the conclusion was that there had been multiple attackers.  Further support for this conclusion was drawn from the fact that the entrance wounds on her neck were not identical – that more than one knife had been used and that the blade had been placed on both sides of her head which would appear impossible for one man to physically restrain a fit and strong woman, swap hands and apply force at the same time.

Forensic investigation showed that one of the bloody footprints in the small bathroom matched the size and shape of Solicito’s foot, contradicting his story that he had not been at the flat at any time prior to the body being discovered.  Mixed DNA of Knox and Meredith were found in the bathroom on the sink – leading the prosecution to maintain that this was evidence of her having been there at the time of the murder and having attempted to clean up the mess.  The prosecution went further with their account of how there was only bloody footprints on the bath mat and not on the surrounding floor by alleging that Knox had come back to the flat in the morning to clean up any remaining mess.

Positive matches of Solicito’s DNA were also found on a bra clasp which had been cut off Meredith during the assault and was later found in her bedroom.  When days after the murder, police went to Solicito’s flat nearby, they confiscated a large kitchen knife which when tested also showed positive matches of Meredith’s DNA despite it being cleaned and lying in the kitchen drawer at the time.

At trial, both Knox and Solicito maintained their innocence.  The defence made much of the problems with the forensic discoveries – the fact that the crime scene had been improperly dealt with initially and items of evidence such as the bra fastening only being recovered on a later date after many people had been into the crime scene to investigate.

The DNA match on the knife was so small that it was impossible to re-test – the tiny microscopic amount of DNA on the knife was completely used in the one and singular test.  Other technical problems with the testing of the evidence was raised.

So, after all this argument and proof, evidence and witness statements, Knox and Solicito were convicted in 2009.  They lodged an appeal, maintained their innocence and have waited for this hearing.  October 2011, the judge heard the appeal and made his decision in private – the reasoning will be published in the coming months.  For now, we can speculate on what it was that made him change the ruling.  Of course, there must have been some convincing expert evidence to contradict the forensic conclusions that were made in 2009.  But until the reasoning is published, we will have to wait and think….

One thing is for sure, the family of Meredith must be in some amount of confusion and upset.  I am sure, and they have publicly stated as much – they would never wish for the wrong person to be behind bars for the murder of their dear Meredith but equally, I would imagine they would love to get a moment with an honest Knox and find out what really happened in that flat on the night of November 1st 2007.  All we can say, is Foxy Knoxy walks away………

A photograph of Meredith Kercher.  RIP.

One heck of a smart girl…Wangari Maathai.

26 Sep

First of all, I must apologise, I have been resting silently for the past month and not writing;  I hope you haven’t missed me too much!  But I’m back…when I read the papers this morning and learnt that Wangari Maathai had passed away yesterday, i was inspired to write again – if there was ever a good role model for any smart girls with bad habits, then you need not look any further than Wangari.

I am not sure how many of you have actually heard of Wangari, so please forgive me if this post is at all condescending; I am only working from the assumption that I would not have heard of her had it not been for the random friendship I made with a Kenyan girl when I was working in The Hague in 2008. We were sitting in a bar playing the day-dream game of stating who would be the guests around your ‘ultimate’ dinner table, if you could invite anyone from the President of the USA to Daniel Craig….and my Kenyan friend without a second of hesitation came up with this name, Wangari Maathai.  I felt a little foolish when my guests included Madonna and Robbie Williams etc when I learnt that this Wangari was actually a political activist, an environmentalist and most importantly a verdant women’s rights supporter.  In the words of my Kenyan friend, ” She is a bad ass, with one pair of balls on her  bright booty..” Hmmmm….what a description….it made me curious and in the months that followed whilst we worked together in The Hague, I was slowly educated about the achievements that this woman had made in a difficult country with a difficult start to life.

I haven’t thought much of her again until today when her name jumped out from the papers in the obituary section and I remembered what my friend had told me about her.  Now that I have started this blog and given it the appropriately titled name of smart girl with bad habits, I think it is setting to write about her and hopefully spread the word about what we as smart girls can achieve when we put our minds to it, even if we do have a few bad habits…

So let me tell you about Wangari.  She was born in Kenya in 1940, in the then British controlled central highlands.  Her father worked as a labourer on a white-owned farm.  She excelled in school, coming first in her class and thereby winning herself a place at the only Catholic high school for girls in the whole of Kenya.  In the late 50’s and early 60’s, with the close of the colonial period in East Africa, there were more and more opportunities for bright students to win awards to study in the West.  It was through the foundation set up by JF Kennedy, that not only Wangari won the chance to study at an American University but her patriate, Barrack Obama’s father was also chosen to study in Hawaii.  They were two of the first East Africans to win such scholarships.

Wangari read Biology at Pittsburgh University and took some options in German as a side study.  This side study proved fortuitous as she was later to be offered the option to work in several German universities as a research assistant, including Giessen and Munich Universities. She came back to Kenya and was the first East African Woman to be awarded with the title of PhD from Nairobi University in the field of Anatomy at the young age of 31.  She was already at this stage married with one child and was pregnant with her second.

Ok, let’s pause for thought here….I am already older than this woman, I live in the developed Western world in 2011 and I can not be addressed as a Doctor let alone a mummy….but she doesn’t stop there…

It’s now the late 1970’s, she has three children and realises that the situation is very different for women in academia as it is for her male contemporaries, she tries to advocate for equal pay in the institutions and the recognition of part-time positions to enable her to have some quality time with her young family.  She begins to actively champion women’s rights but cleverly links it to the environment at all times.  Her argument was that the single reason why Africa and particularly East Africa were falling behind and remaining in poverty in comparison with the rest of the developed and developing world was that nobody was paying attention to environmental degradation and the effects this had on the future.  She started planting trees and formed the Green Belt Movement in 1977.  This was long before it became an everyday ‘buzz’ word in Europe.

Her husband, who had political yearnings too, finds her opinions and demands all of a sudden too much to bear and files for divorce stating that she is ‘impossible to control’.  He publicly accuses her of adultery.  The judge in the divorce case agrees with the husband.  She is left with the children.  She then has the bad habit of commenting on how the judge was in her divorce case which finds her arrested and thrown in prison for 6 months for contempt of court. Thankfully, with the aid of an expensive lawyer, she is released 3 days later and the charges are dropped.  With the loss of her husband’s income as support and now living with her 3 young children without a job, she makes the difficult decision to accept an employed position with the UN which was based in Zambia, sending her kids to their father for the following 6 years to allow her to build up a strong and supportive home for them to return to which they did in 1985, aged 15, 14 and 11.

Through connections with the Norwegian Forestry Society, she continues on her plan with reforestation and makes a point of planting trees wherever she can encourage women to do so.  Her political involvements lead her to learn about Government plans to build on public owned ground – where she would stage protests and attempt to plant trees.  once such documented case was in Uhuru Park in 1989, where she single handedly beat the President at the time in his attempt to urbanise what had been sacred grounds and forced the foreign investors to cancel their plans to build a large development of offices, malls and shopping arcades.  He publicly said that she ‘should be  a proper woman in the African tradition and respect men and be quiet..”  Her zest and unswerving commitment to her cause were starting to really get on people’s nerves, so much so that a few years later in 1992, she was arrested and put in prison again for treason and spreading rumours.

International organisations and particularly the US were watching the Kenyan Government’s reaction to this campaigner of pr0-democracy and warned the Kenyans that if they did not release her and drop the ridiculous charges against her then the relations between the countries would be very seriously jeopardised.  How cool would that be?  You speak your mind, get in trouble for it and the whole of the Unites States of America comes to your defence. Awesome!

My Kenyan friend had first come across Wangari as a teenager in the late 1990’s in Nairobi.  Apparently, Wangari had visited all the student unions to address the women particularly in the importance of their role in fighting for the environment.  My friend said that she was an impressive orator, with a great sense of humour and confidence. That she felt the electricity in the air as she had spoken and would always remember her from that day on as someone who had been the most singularly impressively influential person in her university experiences.  Wangari had waged hunger strikes at Uhuru Park, the place that symbolised her protest the most.  She was beaten by police and hospitalised for such acts.  In 1999, she was attacked by Goverment employed security staff for attempting to protect public land privatisation.  She was arrested several times in 2001 again for her involvement in protesting the government land-grab and collecting petition signatures.

Then a break through…she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.  The Green Belt Movement had been responsible for the planting of some 20 million trees by women in an effort to conserve the environment but also protect their futures. Wangari was the first East African woman to receive such an accolade.  This award has been followed with the Legion d’honneur, the World Citizenship Award and the Indira Gandhi Prize to name just a few….she was unstoppable.

Since the Nobel Peace prize, she has written a book of her memoirs, Unbowed, and continued to represent women on various advisory boards across Africa and the world.  At the age of 71, she finally lost her struggle to ovarian cancer yesterday after a bitter battle with the disease.

I find her story inspiring.  Her intelligence and commitment to protecting her future generations will remain and continue to grow in the 20 million seedlings that she can be directly thanked for on African soil.  She would now make it onto my ‘ultimate’ dinner party invite list, because I don’t think there are enough or any, if we are being honest, African women from that generation who had the opportunities to do what she has done and have so superbly excelled in them too.  Your memory will live on and flourish in the Green Belt, Wangari.

London’s Burning….

9 Aug

Watching the news over the past 48 hours has been both distressing and sad.  Although this year has been full of scenes of organised campaigns of protest and violence all over the world, particularly in Egypt and Libya, nothing hits home harder than seeing places that you know like the back of your hand being burnt, looted, vandalised and destroyed.  By children.

I’ve been reading the blogs and commentary online and there seems to be a variety of explanations and reasons for why this has all come to a head now in London.  Although the shooting of Mark Duggan on Thursday night in Tottenham was the valid explanation for the rioting there over the weekend – there was a staged protest organised by his friends and family against the alleged unjustified fatal force used by the Met police which then turned into a scene of disarray, arson and vandalism.  I doubt that the youths now reacting as far-flung as Birmingham and Bristol even know about the story behind this one ‘gangsta’ being killed. Apparently the man killed was a known ‘elder’ on the estate where he lived.  This, in ghetto speak, means he was a respected thug basically.  The code of ethics in these inner-city housing estates means that uproar and protest were inevitable when there appears to have been a bungled arrest leading to his death.  They look after their own.  He certainly mixed with people who moved in the wrong circles – his best friend and cousin having been brutally stabbed to death a few months ago in Mile End, East London. According to the reports that I have read – he was traumatised by the passing of his friend and had ‘been down’ these past few months.  Whether in criminal circles this means that the carrying of a loaded gun is completely acceptable or whether, which I trust most non-criminals will feel – that no circumstances justify the carrying of a fatal weapon – his circle of friends and family are in denial that when a man with a loaded gun threatens a police man, failing to adhere to warnings to put his weapon down, they are acting unlawfully in shooting him in self-defence.  Who knows – maybe when the IPCC have conducted their investigation it will turn out to be another sad story like the Jean Charles de Menezes debacle in 2005 – where an innocent man was effectively assassinated on a tube in Stockwell, South London, because of miscommunication, panic, and the incorrectly perceived threat to officers.  Part of me hopes that this will not be the case.  I was incensed when the conclusion of the IPCC investigation made it clear that not only was Menezes death a terrible accident and completely avoidable but also that there had been a concerted effort to cover up the truth- I wanted police heads to roll effectively – I was happy that the Commissioner resigned with his head shamefully hung low.  It was an embarrassing and disgraceful affair.

Then came the G20 protests in 2009 and the incident where  47-year-old Ian Tomlinson was pushed to the floor by heavy-handed police officers to later die of internal bleeding.  Once again, the actions of the Met were under heavy scrutinisation and once again there was the stench of a cover up as various post-mortems were made which were at complete odds with each other about the cause of death.  It took 2 years for there to be a final admittance of fault and the culpable police officer was lawfully prosecuted for his actions.

Now, with this mass demonstration being held in front of our very eyes…did you observe how the police reacted?  They were scared to intervene.  They allowed looting to go on in front of their very eyes for periods as long as 40 minutes before they got the situation under hand.  Did you see police charging at the front lines of balaclava-clad young men?  I didn’t.  Did you see water cannons, or rubber bullets being used to clear the streets of the youths?  I didn’t.  Did you see how some big buildings and premises were left to burn for as long as an hour before fire engines could reach them – I did.  It’s understandable in some respects that having had their fingers burnt so many times for their actions under stress and panic, the police now seem to have this understanding that what will happen will happen and let’s hope that we can try to prosecute the main ring leaders in due course. The youth of today in UK know this.

I don’t believe that the copy-cat riots that took place last night in Hackney, Peckham, Clapham, Birmingham and all the other places have anything to do with the death of Mark Duggan.  I don’t believe that they are completely related to some sort of racial discontent as alleged by many commentators.  There were many white faces alongside the black faces.  It just so happened that the places in which the violence kicked off happened to be in some of London’s most urban boroughs where black Africans and black Caribbeans are representative of the neighbourhood.  I simply believe that they are the result of the society which has come to prevail in inner cities in UK – that the youth know how far they can push it and what the consequences will be.  If the motivation is there to organise a mass riot with arson, vandalism and looting..these kids know full well that there will be little the police will and can do lawfully to stop it.  From my experience of working with the Inner-London youth criminal justice system, I also know full well that if and when it comes to prosecuting one lone girl or boy from Brixton, let’s say for sake of argument, for their part in the riot – unless it can be shown beyond reasonable doubt that they intentionally acted in a way to cause a public disturbance, they will not receive anything remotely like the punishment which would need to be meted out to prevent this from happening again.  Being at the scene will lead to nothing – not even a charge.  The prisons are full in the UK.  You don’t even go to prison these days necessarily for carrying a weapon.  You don’t go to prison these days for being involved in a gang fight if you have managed to avoid getting a previous record and if you have a good enough family who will at least pretend that they are in control of you.  The prisons are over-flowing with serious criminals.  And by serious, I mean terrorists, murderers, rapists, paedophiles, hard-core drug dealers and recidivist robbers and burglars.

So what to do?  It made me cynically chuckle to myself last night when the politicians and senior police officials were ‘kindly’ asking all parents to get in touch with their children and take control of their own families in an attempt to get those kids back home.  Hello?  Do you seriously think that the type of kid who is using his closed network on Blackberry messenger to arrange where to meet up with his other ‘hoodie’ friends to start a riot is the same type of kid who would receive a message from his mummy saying, ‘Please come home now, dinner is on the table..’.  I don’t.  If you have ever lived in London, and I suppose inner-city Birmingham, Nottingham, Bristol and any other large city where the usual social problems exist when there is a high rate of ethnic minorities, a high rate of crime and poverty, a low rate of success and a downward -spiralling of hope for the youth of tomorrow, then you will know that sadly parental control and family structure has all but disappeared.  These are the families where single-parenting if any at all is the norm, where income into the family home is by and large provided by the state, where housing is inadequate, where putting food on the table is a daily struggle, where alcohol and drug abuse are standard, where violence is a valid way of communication, where success is measured by status and status is achieved by fear.  These are the homes where some parents encourage participation in the street life because they themselves have lived through it and understand what it means in terms of survival.  There were reports yesterday from Hackney that some older residents were actually throwing missiles out of their flat windows to the youths in the streets below in order to bolster their attack.  This is depraved.

I wrote a thesis in my final year of University which got me into hot water with many of my tutors but also was praised for its controversiality – I suggested that there should be a parental licence.  Now before you can accuse me of being a fascist – pretty much anyone in my books was capable of receiving a licence – there was no social engineering going on in my theories – I just believe now as I did back then in 2001 when i wrote the thesis that it’s all well and good blaming the politicians, blaming the schools, blaming the police officers for the mis-handling of certain situations but when it comes down to it – I don’t think that it would hurt in blaming some of these parents for once for their off-spring and for the situations in which they find themselves.  Fine, I understand that there will be homes in which the parents have done everything they can to educate their children to walk down the right path and it will have failed but these are the families which will probably assist the police in trying to stop non-sensical violence.  The families, and it can’t go unnoticed last night when hundred of teenagers come home stinking of acrid smoke, who hide, protect and shelter their children from consequence are effectively writing their children’s future off too.

We need to make these young people proud of themselves, proud of their country and proud of their future.  If this is the crisis we need to shock the way we educate and teach not only the parents but politicians, police officers and teachers of tomorrow into making some seriously needed changes in society then maybe, just maybe, something good will come out of the these terrible scenes.  Meanwhile, I hope that as little harm is caused as possible to individuals and that the violent scenes we have seen do not internally combust into some sort of civil war.  After all, what will it do to our reputation for next year’s Olympics?!  Don’t even get me started on that one……there’s far more important things to be worried about than our reputation abroad – that would incense me even more as a hopeless teenager in London to hear that….Don’t set that shop ablaze Tyrone, the posh people from Europe who very much enjoy horse riding will think we’re all barbarians when they see that on the television tonight from their gated homes on the Continent…..oh, of course, sorry Mummy, you’re right, can’t let them see the real London, heavens forbid!!

We need to talk about Lionel Shriver…

29 Jul

A little late to the game, I have just read the compelling and unsettling novel that is “We Need to Talk About Kevin” by Lionel Shriver. If you haven’t already done so, then I recommend that you should, with a word of wise warning that this book will chill you to the bone and resonate deep inside your core.

Lionel Shriver (married but chose to remain childless), an American female author living in London, dares to speak out loud about some of the fears that women have when making the decision to have a family; the distress of not ‘bonding’ with that baby, the sad disappointment of not genuinely enjoying any of the maternal instincts and then in time, the loathing and despising of ones’ own offspring.

I remember when the book first hit the  scene – although written in 2001, Shriver had a hard time apparently finding a publisher at first for the story in the wake of 9/11, the American market wanted ‘feel-good’ factors and not quasi-horror stories loosely based on Columbine killing sprees.  So it wasn’t until 2004, that I started noticing people reading this on the tube in London.  It won the Orange Prize for fiction in 2005.  One of the reasons why I didn’t take to it immediately, was, and I know this is a lame excuse to judge literature by, but I just didn’t like the cover.  I thought it was one of those goofy stories, predictable and hashed about a boy grabbing a gun and going on a murderous mission in his high-school.  Post-Columbine there had been a few of these stories not only in literature but also in film.  If you ever saw the dire film Elephant, you will know what I am talking about.

Anyway – I have dismissed it over the years and somehow have managed to avoid being given the hard-sell by anyone who has read it until now.  It was suggested at my Book Club for August’s discussion.  I read it in 2 days.  I couldn’t stop in the middle of the story – it kept me awake at night, I turned my phone on silent to finish it the next morning, avoiding my commitments and hiding in the bedroom – I had to get through the book and hear the conclusion.

It is a rare moment these days when something is described as ‘controversial’ and it actually is.  In an age when making reference to someone’s physical appearance or their sex can even be classified as ‘risky’ and ‘controversial’, I took the word lightly.  However, I was pleased to discover that some of the themes in this book really are cuttingly controversial.  I don’t know what that says for me and my tastes; I guess I am ashamed sometimes to admit that I don’t always think or say what everyone else wants me to or thinks that I should.  Particularly when it comes to children, baby-rearing and general family practice.  I am the person who thinks that it is quite spectacularly off-putting to see someone breast-feeding in public – more often than not, it is new mothers that rattle me not the babies – their superiority complex, the belief that they have just given birth to Baby Jesus, the quick evolvement on Facebook from being the fun-loving friend I’ve known for years to all of a sudden being a baby(?) – now that, I just don’t get that…..I often take an instant dislike to a child because of its snotty nose and grubby fingernails, its inability to eat properly and total uselessness in stimulating conversation.  Mostly I begrudge the fact that these little people take up all the attention and the adults have to work around their whimsical whims and needs.  I don’t remember forcing my parents to whisper so that I could sleep when I was little – quite the opposite – I remember putting my head under the pillow whilst Rod Stewart bellowed out from the stereo downstairs. I despise babies on airplanes and basically in any holiday destination – I am lying by the pool to relax and not to hear the whinging of a brat who can’t amuse themselves.  I know, I know – it’s different when it’s your own…that’s what everyone says and that’s exactly what the main character in the book, Eva, is told…..but what if your feelings don’t change when it is your own?  What if that alleged automatic instinct doesn’t get switched on when you hold your new-born baby for the first time and you look down and think – who and what are you? You mewling, pathetic, irritating bundle of neediness….These what ifs are the basis for the story, We Need To Talk About Kevin.

It’s a dark read but there are some hilarious moments in there too – the caustic sarcasm of Eva, the mother, who is fiercely bright and opinionated made me laugh out loud at points.  She would certainly be a smart girl with bad habits in my book!

And what’s more – it’s just been made into a film which received great reviews at Cannes this year and will be released for public consumption at the end of September. Tilda Swinton, the classic Oscar-winning ice-queen, plays Eva in the film – I can’t think of anyone better suited – having now read the book to play that part.  I think it’s going to be one of those films which really gets to you and makes you shudder. I have attached the trailer from the Cannes showing of the film below.  If any of you needed any extra help with deciding on whether to stop your contraception plans this weekend – then think again!!!! And before you all come to the conclusion that I am a mega-bitch – you can rest assured that like Lionel Shriver says in her post-script of the book – when it comes to commenting on anyone who is a mother and is making a good job of it – I remain mightily impressed.

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