Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A strange sympathy

Nanda would like to work, Nanda would like to be a normal contributing member of British society but ...

From the Guardian 20 December by
Yeukai Taruvinga ...

"When I tell ordinary British people that I came to this country from Zimbabwe to seek asylum because of Robert Mugabe's government, they are always sympathetic. They see the humanitarian crisis, the old people and children dying of cholera - the UN reported yesterday that there were more than a thousand dead and another 20,000 sufferers. They see on the news night after night what Mugabe is doing to my country. And they see the continuing human rights crisis and how he treats those who oppose him.

Hopes were raised when Mugabe agreed to a power-sharing government with the leader of the Movement for Democratic Change, Morgan Tsvangirai. But it is evident that human rights are still not being respected. In the last two weeks prominent human rights defenders have been abducted by groups suspected of having government links. These include Jestina Mukoko, the director of the Zimbabwe Peace Project, who has not been seen since she was taken from her home on 3 December.

British politicians have expressed great sympathy towards Zimbabweans. Just last week Gordon Brown said that "we must stand together to defend human rights and democracy, to say firmly to Mugabe that enough is enough", and that it was "our duty" to support the aspirations of the Zimbabwean people. David Cameron has described Zimbabwe as the most important issue in the world today and has pressed for wider sanctions and a rescue package for the Zimbabwean people. And David Miliband has said that, "Zimbabwe's crisis is one that the world has a responsibility to respond to."

It is good to hear all this, but how does it translate into action? It is easy to condemn a government from afar. But if politicians really believe that Mugabe is illegitimate, that his repression of his own people is the most important issue in the world today, why do they behave as they do to his victims?

I got involved in supporting the opposition party when I was a student. Like many MDC supporters, I was beaten up by Mugabe's Zanu-PF thugs when I went to meetings and rallies. When they wrote threats on the walls of my family's house, my mother decided that I should leave the country.

I believed that I would be safe when I came here seven years ago, at the age of 18. When I stepped foot on English soil and claimed asylum, I did not realise that I was in for a long battle. I have been detained - imprisoned - for two and a half months, simply because I claimed asylum. I have been moved between three different detention centres, and taken without notice from Colnbrook at Heathrow, to Yarl's Wood in Bedford to Dungavel in Scotland.

You feel extremely helpless in such places: it is almost impossible to stay in touch with friends or your lawyer, and you believe that anything could happen to you and nobody would know about it. Although suspected terrorists cannot be held without trial for more than 28 days, I was locked up for more than 60 days. In Dungavel at that time there were only half a dozen women and hundreds of foreign criminals awaiting deportation. It was terrifying just to walk around the centre.

It seems to me that political leaders are reluctant to do anything to help those who make their way here. Last week Jacqui Smith said that the government's priority was to ensure that Zimbabwean refugees did not use false passports in order to get to this country. She did not say that refugees should find a fair system when they arrive.

I am still not safe. I have not been given refugee status. After my release from detention I was not allowed benefits nor allowed to work. This is the government's policy of destitution; if you have failed in your asylum claim, then you are forced to live without support. I rely on handouts and gifts from churches and friends, even for the bed I sleep in and the soap I wash with. Most of the people who help me are asylum seekers or refugees themselves, because they understand what it's like.

It is humiliating: not only can I not work, but I cannot study or learn. I am worried about the impact this is going to have on my future. I want to study and work, so that when Mugabe is toppled I and my fellow activists can be the backbone of the new country that will arise from the ashes. But all avenues are blocked to me to grow and give back to society. It is strange that this country, which expresses such sympathy for Zimbabwe's people, condemns its refugees to this kind of life - which is no life at all.

• Yeukai Taruvinga is not allowed to work; the fee for this article has been donated to Women Asylum Seekers Together in London, which she chairs

Merry Christmas

Happy Christmas to all readers.

Grim. I didn't realise how grim.

I had to take alot of Leave without Pay in November thro' sickness. I have been reading the news on the Internet about the global economic recession. Fuel and energy prices, both globally and domestically going haywire. Exchange rates ...

Personal financial hardship led me to ask Teresa, our social-worker if she could arrange something to help us out over December-January. She noted many charities are rejecting grant requests ... their money was invested in the Icelandic bank collapse and no-one is donating.

No-one is donating.

The national chainstore Woolworths, selling everything from toys to CDs to clothes to garden furniture to etc, that existed since many years before I was born, has collapsed. So the employees of our local Woolworths store are facing imminent unemployment. Worse still the town hosts the northwest's Woolworths distribution centre so the town loses 500+ jobs.

TV, radio and pubs are constantly playing the optimistic Slade song "Merry Christmas" ....

Monday, December 22, 2008

npower and Ofgem

I have posted on our experience of the power utility company npower's dubious selling practices. They have been fined £1.8 million by the state energy regulator Ofgem as a result.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Take Another Plane

A Journey through Hell.

I arrived in Rochdale at 06:30 yesterday to spend Christmas and New Year with Nanda, Jaime and Kezia. Hence the two digital paintings in the two posts below done by Kezia and Jaime this morning on the Elonex One t netbook they received in September.

My local travel agency, Mistral Voyages , always book me on the last flight from Lisbon to London assuming that the Sao Tome to Lisbon flight will arrive in Lisbon too late to make an earlier connection to Heathrow. Previous trips TAP, the Portuguese national airline, has managed to not transfer my baggage from one flight in Lisbon to another four hours later to Heathrow - but AirItalia which was the contracted baggage-handler at Heathrow always managed to get my suitcase to me the next day.

A few new twists on this trip ...

I arrived in Lisbon in good time, went through immigration to have a smoke, a beer, a sandwich etc. Finally, my flight came up on the Departure Board "delayed". So I went to enquire and was informed it was in fact cancelled but I had been put on a later unscheduled flight. However, I would have to queue for a new boarding pass. A long queue as most passengers were not transiting but checking in baggage.

So the later flight was also late in departing.

We arrived at Heathrow at at 11:30 pm. My overnight coach to Manchester was at midnight. No time to sit by the baggage carousel for a suitcase that might not be there. So I went straight ttto Baggage Claims, explained and filled in the form.

So Saturday I rang the new baggage service Global Baggage Services and they tell me that yes they have found the bag, but their courier servive TNT doesn't deliver to a destination further than 50 miles from Heathrow on the weekend so I won't get the suitcase until Tuesday!

Sparkling Night

Monsters in the Sparkling Night - Kezia

Surf Boarder

Jaime Surf-Boarding

Monday, December 15, 2008


"Ravens I use in my paintings because they clean up the land ... buzzards also clean up the mistakes on the the highways done by human beings."


Ushahidi (Swahili for "testimony") is a web-based reporting tool allowing Africans caught up in political unrest to report incidents of killing, violence and displacement.

It started in May 2008 during the elections in Kenya, was later used during the attacks on black foreigners in South Africa and since November has started to be used in the conflict zones of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire).

Its goal is to create a simple way of aggregating information from the public for use in crisis response.

The site is a free open-source mash-up which can be run by anybody, anywhere in the world who at the minimum has access to a mobile phone network to gather distributed data via SMS, email or web, visualise it on a map and/or timeline, call up media reports etc etc

Users can report an incident by filling in a very simple form with a description of what happened, when it took place and put it in a category.

As an example, a Red Cross worker waits to distribute buckets to displaced people. Ushahidi can be used to identify areas where aid is required. Incident data is colour coded on the website into categories for events such as military activity, riots, looting, illness and sexual assault. Or whatever you decide.

Even though it is limited by Internet and, to a slightly less limited extent, mobile phone network access (mobile phone networks are one of the fastest growing markets in Africa) and its still experimental nature, I see its enormous potential. Both geographically (e.g. Darfur/Chad, Somalia etc) and thematically (e.g. medical).

From the Ushahidi website:

"The goal of the project is to create a platform that any person or organization can use to set up their own way to collect and visualize information. The core platform will allow for plug-in and extensions so that it can be customized for different locales and needs. This tool will be tested and made available as an open source application that others can download, implement and use to bring awareness to crises in their own region. Organizations can also use the tool for internal monitoring purposes.

The core engine is built on the premise that gathering crisis information from the general public provides new insights into events happening in near real-time. It is being developed by a group of volunteer developers and designers, hailing primarily from Africa. So far there are representatives from Kenya, South Africa, Uganda, Malawi, Ghana, Netherlands and the US.

The private alpha of the redesigned Ushahidi Engine was released in October 2008, and is currently undergoing testing in pilot projects including Peace Heroes, the DR Congo crisis and 4 others.

Ushahidi plans to make the Ushahidi mapping tool available globally for free. After initial testing with NGO's the tool will be distributed to interested parties and organizations, and the Ushahidi team will provide technical customizations and support as needed."

... and it is open-source !

Scroll down to link on right.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Off-Treatment - Consultation #1

Today. Our consultant John has just written me

"Just seen her all well, normal count. Bringing back in 6-8 weeks.

Have a great Xmas and new year.


Her counts were at 2.7 and John has taken her off Co-trimoxazole prophylaxis. Excellent!

Other Toilets I have known

1. The traditional French Squat-on-Ceramic. Nice little footmarks moulded into the ceramic so you can position your feet not to get wet. No splashback. Bit awkward I imagine for the old or disabled.

2. Whilst not concerning the "big one", only public "small ones" for men, French pissoirs were often architecturally pleasing. Has anyone ever done a photostudy?

3. The "pit latrine": widely encouraged in the developing world by the likes of the WHO and that marvellous work Where There Is No Doctor for rural healthworkers originated by David Werner. Basically an approximately 2 metre x 2 metre hole in the ground with a reinforced top with a hole over which one squats. See how to make one here.

It can be more or less sophisticated.

In Nyala, Darfur, being dry, we shared a fenced-off open-air pit with the owners of the courtyard. And it being a Muslim household, no problems with toilet paper quality - jug of water and bar of soap next to the pit. Wash with your left hand and eat with your right.

Here, where it rains, sheltered pit latrines are recommended and there have been UN/WHO projects to encourage the local population to construct them - "we'll provide the materials if you provide the labour". I have my own.

A vent is recommended and a simple wooden cover for the hole. You can design the top as you like - I have known someone install a regular European toilet bowl over a pit and then flush it with a bucket of water.

4. The "bucket-drop". I have come across these in both Darfur and N.W. China.

Basically you build a raised holed platform in the outside wall of your courtyard and you defecate into a bucket which is accessible from a "cubicle" on the outside of the wall. Then the nightsoil collectors (the worst job in the world?) come round and collect the contents of the bucket. If they don't come frequently and regularly or you have a large family , the bucket soon becomes fly-ridden overflowing mess.

However, in colder climes during winter this isn't too much of a problem.

In the college holidays of the winter of 1981-82 I toured northern China and visited the famous Buddhist decorated caves of Dunhuang in north-west Gansu province near the border with Xinjiang or Chinese Turkestan (hmm ... another story there).

The local state-run guesthouse was pretty rudimentary. Temperatures were constantly sub-zero, the bucket-drop toilet was across the courtyard. Going outside to relieve oneself in the middle of the night was torture. Looking through the hole of the bucket-drop was a metre high pyramid of offerings. Couldn't see a bucket - was there one? Ones offering froze on contact. I guess being a nightsoil collector was seasonal employment!

5. Anywhere ...

So let us finish herewith my scatological offerings and move on ...

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Childhood Cancer Awareness Month

Our Clic Sargent social worker, Teresa, draws my attention that here in the UK December is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. The focus this year is on providing children and their carers with more support at home in order to lessen the amount of time in hospital.

Toilet Design and Scatology

Dr Crippen draws my attention to this very amusing post by Dr Grumble on the role of scatology (a fascination with pooh) and the design of toilets in German culture which led me here and here.

Apparently, a toilet bowl in a German residence is so designed that the pooh falls on to a flat horizontal surface so that it can be thoroughly inspected before the flush is pulled. It also has the advantage of no splashback when that "big-one" hits the water and showers your lower end with now contaminated water.

Now, as you can see from the photo below, we very carefully chose our toilet to match the period-style of our four-legged bath-tub. No practical push-button floor-level plastic tank and plastic seat for this pi├Ęce de resistance in bathroom design.

Only ...

this elegantly-designed toilet obliges me to inspect my pooh. The angle on the back downslope is such that my "big-one" doesn't directly hit water and thus avoids splashback. But the pooh, being somewhat viscous and sticky in nature, has a tendency to adhere to the ceramic back downslope. As per usual in the modern western world, one wipes one's orifice with a piece of paper that gets thrown into the bowl after the pooh.

And then one pulls the chain, pushes the button or whatever and it's all meant to get washed away ...

Only ...

It doesn't.

Here comes your saviour ... the toilet-brush!

Conveniently positioned next to the toilet, you cannot use it on first flush as it will become hopelessly mixed-up with the now sodden dirty toilet-paper with which you cleaned your orifice.

Wait for the cistern to fill up, flush again - make sure you're quick with the brush! And if your pooh is particularly adhesive, you may have to repeat the flush yet again.

At work we have, what I can only imagine, typical American lavatory installations where an explosive pooh will drop straight into the water causing serious splashback. However, one flush and it's all gone.

However, I have one complaint (apart from potential splashback) - the toilet paper is the thinnest of thinnest single-ply you can imagine! One has to tear off four sheets at one go and fold them. An anecdote from a colleague recounted how he knew someone who calculated the false economy of a thick chunky single-ply toilet roll versus a seemingly smaller multi-ply European toilet roll.

Anyway, back to our German toilet bowl design - they certainly seem to be a waste of water and demonstrate an unusual fascination with the state of one's pooh!

Friday, December 5, 2008

Blogspot web clipping

We have come in at no. 34 of the top 100 most web-clipped (think that means downloading content for offline use) Blogspot blogs.

Quite pleasing really - bet it's all the BBC iPlayer posts


Not a widespread technology in this part of the world.

On Wednesday it decided to piss down as I exited the house to get into the car to go to work. It was raining cats and dogs as I got out of the car upon arrival at work. As I walked down the corridor to sign the timesheet, colleagues remarked I looked like a wet chicken.

As I walked back across the compound (still raining) to my air-conditioned office, I feared "Oh shit! This is a recipe for a chill..." and then I remembered ...

Several months ago we helped out a scientist from the University of Texas by installing a seismic monitoring station on our worksite. Essentially a probe about a metre into the ground into a complex toy connected to a Sony Clie PDA. Each month we would download the data onto a portable drive, plug the drive into a computer and send him the data. I was amazed that an earthquake in the Philippines could be sensed offshore western central Africa!

Anyway, after supervising the installation of the seismic monitoring station, he upped and left. Just before he left, he walked into my office with a plastic supermarket bag saying "Here's a bunch of old clothes which I'm sure you can find a good home for."

The bag laid, knotted closed, ignored, on a chair in my office for months ... until Wednesday when I decided to see if it had a dry shirt in it - and sure enough, although somewhat dirty, it did.

But to my great surprise, under the pile of dirty clothes, there was a weird ellipsoid device with a separate USB widget made by Logitech. Took it over to our computer centre (rain had become a drizzle) where my IT colleague Danny works.

First we worked out it was a laser pointer and then by plugging in the USB widget and toggling the switch on the back it became a mouse. Plug-and-Play under Windows XP. Took it back to my own work computer and it worked a dream.

As it is not work property, I took it home but worried about Bluetooth mice under Linux. Download numerous libraries? Went to the Logitech site - nothing about Linux. Surfed Bluetooth/Linux/Ubuntu 7.10, found a couple of useful links which I printed out.

Got home - plugged the USB widget into a USB port, fired up Ubuntu 7.10 and it was sensed immediately!

Beats the touchpad!

P.S. This is not a new notebook - Compaq Presario 2100.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Afia Darfur

My employer has just (29 September) set up a daily 30 minute radio programme, Afir Darfur, for the refugees in Darfur or in the camps just over the border in Chad, It is on short-wave (SW). How many of the refugees have access to short-wave radio?

Maybe some have a radio that receives FM (VHF) or AM (MW) but few will have access to SW.

Maybe the African Union under-funded, under-staffed and ineffective peace-keeping force will listen. Maybe the foreign aid agency staff in the camps over the border in Chad will listen ... but as none of them speak Arabic ...

My employer has an FM affiliate station in the Sudanese capital city Khartoum. Its signal will not reach Darfur or eastern Chad. If my employer is serious about reaching the refugees in Darfur and eastern Chad, it will set up an FM station there in El Fasher, Nyala or El Geneina in Darfur or in Abeche just over the border in Chad.

I am disgusted at the waste of taxpayer money, the waste of money on useless propaganda and wish these funds could be spent on peace-keeping, food aid and healthcare.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Kiss of the Spider Woman

A recent visitor left me some DVDs amongst which was Kiss of the Spider Woman. Thanks to Linux and OSS I managed to rip-off the DRM and watch it (again after many years).

I cannot do better than quote the blurb on the DVD cover:

“An intense story, set largely in one prison cell in an unnamed Latin Amerian country, Luis Molina and Valentin Arregui are cell mates and poles apart. Luis is a camp gay man who escapes his grim conditions in a cinematic fantasy, telling a glamorous story of forbidden wartime romance. Valentin, on the other hand, is a revolutionary firebrand, tortured by the authorities but steadfast to his cause.

But through their hardship and the escapism of Luis's storytelling, they come to understand and respect each other. A bond develops and the consequences for both of them are as romantic and tragic as Luis's tale”.

Luis, on his release from prison, sacrifices his life for Valentin's political cause.

I must seek out the novel by Manuel Puig on which the film is based.

In the film Luis is played by William Hurt. I have not seen such brilliant acting since seeing Billie Whitelaw's performance in Samuel Beckett's own direction, at the end of his life, of his play Happy Days.

Emergency Sex

Another book I am currently reading is "Emergency Sex (and other desperate measures) - True Stories from a War Zone" by Kenneth Cain, Heidi Postlewait and Andrew Thomson.

It recounts their experiences as aid workers (and colleagues), principally for the United Nations and the International Red Cross, in various war zones around the world between 1990 and 1998 - Cambodia, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Liberia.

Personal and harrowing accounts of how we dismally failed to prevent massacres and genocide, personal tragedies and gross ineptitudes. How the “international community” withdrew from situations which the “international community” could have averted. How we only returned in the aftermath of these “situations” to investigate the mass graves, the war criminals, the strategic failures, to assuage our own guilt.

Wading in the muddy pit of a mass grave to extract a body only for the arm to become detached from a headless corpse is not my idea of a fun job ...

Seemingly, the post-mortems have done little to teach us anything.

The same stories are repeating themselves around the world - Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel/Palestine, Lebanon, Burma, D.R. Congo, Darfur, Chad, Somalia (still) etc.

Rent Boys

Male homosexual literature (I'm not talking "Porn") really didn't take off until the latter half of the 19th century with the likes of the inspiration of the US writer/poet Walt Whitman and the UK writer John Addington Symonds (please look at the wikipidea entries on pedastry and paedophilia and whilst you're at it look up "Ages of Consent").

The UK male homosexual literature movement of the late 19th/early 20th century has become known as the "Uranian" movement. It was always discrete and euphemistic. Perhaps the two definitive academic works on the Uranian movement are Love in Earnest by Timothy d'Arch-Smith and Sexual Heretics, an anthology with a lengthy introduction edited/written by Brian Reade.

Oscar Wilde's failed libel case with the Marquis of Queensbury over his supposed, but actual, homosexual relationship with the Marquis' son, Lord Alfred Douglas, considerably dampened the enthusiasm of the Uranian writers. Oscar Wilde served 2 two years of penal servitude resulting in his famous poem "The Ballad of Reading Jail" and then went into exile in France where the deterioration in his health during his imprisonment soon led to his death.

But in post-WW1 Germany, Berlin thrived on its high-life including its gay clubs. Christopher Isherwood's collection of Berlin scenarios “Goodbye to Berlin”, which inspired the film Cabaret, seems to be an accurate portrayal of Berlin at that time.

One of the books I am currently reading is "The Hustler" by John Henry Mackay, first published in Germany in 1926 as "Der Puppenjunge" under the pseudonym Sagitta and not translated into English until 1985. Mackay was of mixed Scottish-German parentage and moved back to Germany at the age of two after the death of his father. He was more well-known as a writer of anarchist treatises than gay literature.

It relates the story of a 15 year-old boy, Gunther, who arrives alone in Berlin and soon becomes a prostitute, a rent boy. He is picked up by a young man,a closet gay, Hermann, who falls hopelessly in love with him. The novel relates the conflict between a love affair and life as a rent boy.

In contrast to the rather saccharin and euphemistic literature of the Uranian movement, The Hustler, although certainly not pornographic, deals with its theme of male prostitution straight-on.

Mackay died, perhaps fortunately, in 1933, the year Hitler came to power. He would not have survived under the Nazi regime - probably more due to his anarchist beliefs than if the identity of Sagitta had been revealed.

J.H.Mackay 1926. The Hustler. Translation H. Kennedy 1985. Alyson Publications