To My Great Surprise, I Kind of Love This Charity Ad

When a tipster sent me this ad for the charity Water is Life, I had every expectation that I would hate it.

The gimmick sounded kind of gross: because 1 in 5 Kenyan children don’t reach their 5th birthdays, the ad takes a 4-year-old boy named Nkaitole and helps him complete his “bucket list.” I was prepared for lots of pathos and heartstring-tugging victimhood, but instead what I got was this:

After some reflection, I think that there are a few good things about this video that are worth highlighting.

  1. It focuses on potential, not victimhood. “Save a child” charity ads usually to try to prompt action by provoking the viewer to feel grief for dying children, and guilt for not saving them. By contrast, Nkaitole’s bucket list (which he refers to as “an adventure”), turns out to be a lovely illustration of the way that the whole world loses out when a child dies young. Nkaitole dreams of beating Kenya’s fastest man in a race, and of playing soccer in the national stadium, which subtly reminds the viewer that preventable child deaths might also prevent historic athletic achievements, or the emergence of beloved sports stars.
  2. The items on Nkaitole’s bucket list show that he is sophisticated and aware of the outside world, even though he’s never left his village before. In addition to his dreams of success at soccer and running, Nkaitole wants to ride a speedboat, fly a plane, drive a go-cart and a front-end loader, see the ocean, go ice skating, and ride a hot-air balloon. That’s not a westerner’s idea of what a remote, exoticized “African” would want to do. Rather, those are the dreams of any child, anywhere in the world. (If you add “become a ballerina with magical powers,” that’s pretty much my bucket list from age 4, especially the front-end loader part.)
  3. It makes Kenya look like an awesome place worth living for, not a sad place where children die. By showing that all that is waiting for Nkaitole when he leaves his village, it also tells the viewer that Kenya is a place full of exciting opportunities that are worth surviving for. Again, this goes back to potential, rather than victimhood. (Also, it really does seem great. I half-expected this video to be sponsored by the Kenyan tourist board. “Kenya: come for the beaches, stay for the ice rinks!”)
  4. No “whites in shining armor.” Did you notice that there are no NGO workers in this video? Seriously, none: no Water is Life volunteers pouring clean water for grateful children. No villagers doing a traditional dance of gratitude for their white saviors. No Water is Life SUV driving down a bumpy dirt road. Not even, it should be noted, any sign of Water is Life staff paying for or accompanying Nkaitole on his “adventure,” even though I presume that was the case. Once again, that puts the emphasis on how awesome Nkaitole is, not how awesome the viewer is for deigning to help him, which I appreciated.

I have no idea whether Water is Life is actually doing effective work or not. (They appear to be focused on distributing filtration straws at the moment, which is the kind of development trinket that tends to arouse my skepticism, but they claim to be working on longer-term solutions as well.) However, their ad’s respectful attitude towards the people they’re trying to help suggests that they’re doing something right.

Time for a Bechdel Test for African Characters? Some Thoughts on the Newsroom’s Very Special Africa Episode

The Newsroom went to Africa. It was not good.

In Sunday’s episode, “Unintended Consequences,” ACN sent a reporter named Maggie and a cameraman named Gary Cooper to Uganda to do a segment on the U.S. army building an orphanage there, because apparently that is news.

When she was done interviewing soldiers, Maggie relaxed with a visit to the orphanage’s classroom, in which children of all ages were having a “geography lesson” that consisted of reciting the names of continents when their teacher pointed to them on a map. Seems like geography to me! Then Gary Cooper came in with the camera and all the children screamed and hid under their desks, because they thought it was a gun. (could this be…FORESHADOWING?) See, cattle raiders were roaming them there hills, and the children were afeared.

A particularly adorable afeared child named Daniel – who, the show takes pains to tell us, has parents but has been sent to the orphanage temporarily to avoid cattle raider attacks, and so wasn’t even supposed to be there that day (IRONY) – bonded with Maggie by demanding that she read him him Lyle, Lyle Crocodile over and over again, and petting her hair. The teacher says that Daniel is fascinated by Maggie’s hair because he’s never seen a blonde person before, and that “blondes are trouble.” (OMG MORE FORESHADOWING.)

Through a series of mishaps that include Maggie not knowing where Djibouti is and not understanding that it is not light during nighttime, the ACN team was forced to spend the night at the orphanage. (Thanks again for those strong female characters, Aaron Sorkin.)

That night, obviously, cattle raiders attacked. At first everyone was like “hey, weird, this is an orphanage so we do not have any cattle.” But then it turned out that they were actually CAMERA raiders who wanted the ACN camera. Maggie didn’t know that because the raiders were yelling in a language that her fixer did not understand, and apparently none of the other people at the orphanage thought to bring it up. (Perhaps they were embarrassed to, because camera raiders are not a thing.)

So then everyone hustled to load the children onto what I assume was an AK-47-proof bus, but Daniel was missing! No one saw that coming at all. Daniel was hiding under a bed, with the Lyle book. OMG. Who will save him? The orphanage staff apparently hadn’t even noticed that they were short a Daniel, but never fear, American people are here! Maggie and Gary heroically tore the bed off the floor and dragged Daniel out from under it, then ran for the bus. Except that the raiders shot Daniel while Maggie was carrying him to the bus on her back, so he died from the bullet that was meant for her. MORE OF WHAT I ASSUME WAS INTENDED TO BE IRONY.

All of this is told through the framing device of a deposition, because, you see, the truly important thing about Daniel’s death was how it affected Maggie, and apparently in Sorkin world a deposition is a thing you use to evaluate someone’s emotional state after a traumatic event. We can tell that Maggie is totes messed up about what happened because she came home and gave herself a terrible haircut and tomato-red dye job. (Remember, blondes are trouble.) But she bravely soldiers on through the deposition with barely a wring of her hands because she is BRAVE (if rather bad at her job).

Africa has changed Maggie – changed her forever. You can tell by her hair.

Over at Slate, Willa Paskin suggests that we introduce the term “Lyle-ing” as an equivalent to “fridging” for storylines in which a black child’s death, instead of a woman’s, is used to instigate anguish and personal growth in a white main character. I think that’s a fine idea, but would suggest another addition: a Bechdel test for African characters.

The Bechdel test is a feminist movie evaluation tool introduced by cartoonist Alison Bechdel. To pass the test, a movie must (1) have two or more female characters, (2) who talk to each other, (3) about a topic other than a man. If a movie doesn’t pass the test, that’s a sign that it’s lacking in female characters, and/or just using them as emotional MacGuffins for the males around them. (Many, many movies do not pass this test.)

I think it’s about time for us to introduce an equivalent test for African characters: if a movie or TV show is set in Africa, then it should (1) have at least two African characters, (2) who talk to each other, (3) about a topic other than poverty, disease, or violent conflict.

“But, Amanda!” you say, “how would that even work? Everyone knows that on TV, Africa exists so that white people can go there thinking they will change things, but end up having Africa change them more than they ever imagined it could. What would Africans even talk about with each other? And where will the white characters get their life-changing epiphanies if they’re no longer allowed to save helpless innocents from some sort of horror or tragedy?”

I agree that it’s a tough challenge. Western audiences, trained on years of Carter-goes-to-Congo storylines, may be surprised to discover that people in “Africa” have problems other than those that ride in with one of the horsemen of the apocalypse. And screenwriters, long trained to think of Africa as a continent-sized arena for the battle of White Person vs. White Person’s Inner Demons, may initially have difficulty finding other uses for it. So, to get everyone started, here are some storylines that are guaranteed entertainment gold:

  1. Any Wedding Reality Show Ever: Nigeria Edition. After seeing Glenna Gordon’s amazing photo essay on Nigerian weddings, I feel legitimately betrayed by the reality TV industry’s failure to bring me any wedding shows involving mommy lace, little brides, or cash “spray.” Seriously, someone has to get on this.
  2. Arrested Development in Addis Ababa. According to NPR, Ethiopia is currently undergoing a construction boom so powerful that women are leaving traditional work as maids and nannies to join construction crews. Perhaps it’s time for the Bluth family to partner with a development firm run by a family of quirky Ethiopians to blow the McMansion market there wide open.
  3. Scandal: The Kigali Initiative. Olivia Pope & Associates get new client: a Rwandan diplomat who has been in secret talks about joining the opposition, and is afraid that the Kagame regime is about to have him killed. The gladiators in suits get to work, but it turns out that the plot runs deeper than anyone could have imagined, so they have to join with a team of Rwandan fixers to get to the bottom of it before it’s too late.
  4. Untitled Liberian Surfing Project. A ragtag group of Liberian surfing entrepreneurs decide that it’s time for Robertsport to host a major international surfing competition. Hijinks ensue.

Come on, entertainment industry: make it happen!

WTF Friday, 8/2/13

This week’s WTF Friday traveled to the blog via Metro-North from New Haven. Yale University has released its latest Sexual Misconduct Report, which manages to avoid using the terms “rape” or “sexual assault” one single time, even when discussing, well, rape.

You see, when such things happen in the rarified gardens of Yale, they’re not crimes, just “nonconsensual sex.” Observe:

“A YC student brought a formal complaint charging that a male YC student had nonconsensual sex with her.

Update: The UWC found sufficient evidence that the respondent engaged in certain conduct of a sexual nature that was nonconsensual. In addition, the UWC found that the respondent violated the Yale College Code of General Conduct. The respondent was given a two semester suspension, was placed on probation for the remainder of his time at the University, was restricted from contacting the complainant, and was encouraged to continue counseling for alcohol abuse, appropriate sexual behavior and the respectful treatment of others.”

Let’s break that statement down, shall we? The quoted text refers to a complaint by a female Yale student against a male Yale student. The “update” sets forth the resolution of the complaint.

Yale’s University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct, or UWC (there’s something amazing about the fact that Yale didn’t even keep the “sexual misconduct” part when choosing an acronym for its committee on sexual misconduct) investigated the allegations, and found that the perpetrator had, in fact, assaulted the victim.

That sexual assault was a crime, and most likely a felony, but there’s no mention of that in the report. (It does, however, make a point of noting that the perpetrator violated the College Code of Conduct, which I think we can all agree is the real problem here.)

Isn’t the term “nonconsensual sex” amazing? The way that it somehow implies a gulf between a situation in which someone has sex with another person without consent, and a totally different situation in which that person commits a rape or sexual assault? Yale apparently thinks there’s a distinction between the two, because the most severe punishment it meted out to any of the perpetrators described in the report was a suspension.

What’s a person got to do to get expelled from Yale? Non-consensual cannibalism?

I don’t know if that counseling for “appropriate sexual behavior and the respectful treatment of others” is available to universities. But it sure seems like Yale could use it.

h/t Texasinafrica.

The Senate Should Confirm Nina Pillard Already

I wholeheartedly support Cornelia “Nina” Pillard’s nomination for the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, because she is awesome. Professor Pillard taught two of my classes at Georgetown, so I can say from personal experience that she is a smart, diligent, judicious thinker. She is also a triathlete with practically-bionic strength. (That is less relevant to her judicial nomination, but still cool. Her exploits in the law school’s gym were legendary amongst my classmates.) The Senate should confirm her already.

I am not the only one who thinks that Pillard would be an asset to the federal bench. Here is Professor Viet Dinh, former deputy Attorney General under George W. Bush, and probably Georgetown’s most famously conservative faculty member, on Pillard’s qualifications:

“She is a fair-minded thinker with enormous respect for the law and for the limited, and essential, role of the federal appellate judge– qualities that make her well prepared to taken on the work of a D.C. Circuit judge. I am confident that she would approach the judicial task of applying law to facts in a fair and meticulous manner.”

And here is a statement from a group of 40 prominent attorneys who practice before the Supreme Court, including several who served in senior roles in the Reagan and Bush justice departments:

“We believe that Professor Pillard would bring to the D.C. Circuit unquestioned professional integrity and intellect, a breadth of experience, and dedication to fairness and the rule of law. We urge her confirmation.”

And yet, if you listen to the Republican members of the judiciary committee and the denizens of the National Review echo chamber, Pillard is some sort of crazed radical who probably shouldn’t be trusted with young minds, let alone federal cases. Never mind that she has assisted dozens of litigants, from all points on the political spectrum, pro bono as part of Georgetown’s Supreme Court Institute. Never mind that she collaborated with Dinh and the Bush Administration to litigate (and win) Nevada Dept. of Human Resources v. Hibbs before the Supreme Court. No, apparently Pillard is “out of the mainstream,” and would be “the most left-wing judge in the history of the republic.”

Continue reading

WTF Friday, 7/26/13

In Germany, controversy has erupted over the town of Schwaebisch Gmuend’s plan to pay African asylum seekers 1.05 euros per hour to work as porters in the local train station:

“Nine predominantly dark-skinned men in red service shirts and jolly sunhats ready to carry the cases of predominantly white clients. For €1.05 an hour. Blacks as luggage coolies for whites – and in our country. How can that be?” wrote Stern magazine.

“Having refugees as bag carriers is a shameless exploitation of the people’s situation,” far-left Linke lawmaker Ulla Jelpke said. Jelpke called the practice “colonial” behaviour.

The bigger WTF, though, goes to the German government’s asylum law, whose policy of forbidding employers to pay asylum seekers more than 1.05 euros per hour – about eight times less than Germany’s minimum wage for temporary workers – is apparently at the root of this program:

A spokesman for Schwaebisch Gmuend told Reuters the conservative mayor was disappointed at Deutsche Bahn’s decision and blamed misplaced political correctness.

“At a first glance, pictures of black people carrying white peoples’ suitcases don’t look good and conjure up images of neo-colonialism and racism, but this is not the case – the asylum seekers want to do this,” said the spokesman.

He added that the 1.05 euros was not a wage as such, as asylum seekers are not allowed to be employed, but is the maximum amount it is possible to give them under the asylum seekers law.

Pro tip: if your migration policy is such that the best case scenario for vulnerable people in your country is a job that makes your citizens scream “OMG, colonialism! Colonialism or perhaps actual slavery!”, something has gone very, very wrong.

WTF Friday 7/12/13 (Okay, 7/13/13)

A late-breaking WTF Friday comes to us courtesy of the Texas State Legislature, which refused to let women bring tampons or maxi pads into the capitol building’s gallery during last night’s debate about the abortion bill that was the subject of protests and a 13-hour filibuster from State Senator Wendy Davis when the legislature tried to pass it last week.


Security officers were concerned that the feminine hygiene items could be used as “projectiles.” (Guns were still okay, though?)


Obviously this policy was 100% correct, because you know who doesn’t need tampons? Pregnant women. If these uppity slatterns had just done as Rick Perry intended and embraced their god-given role as baby factories, then we wouldn’t even need to have this conversation.

So ladies, before you get your your now-blood-soaked panties in a twist: when will you learn that your ACTIONS have CONSEQUENCES?

Melinda’s Book is Out Today! Kirkus Says It’s “A Perfect Blend of the Intimate and the Epic.”

We interrupt our normally scheduled atrocity coverage to bring you the message that my sister, the talented Melinda Taub, has a novel out today!

It’s called “Still Star Crossed,” it’s a sequel to Romeo and Juliet, it’s available on Amazon and in book stores near you, it’s awesome, and you should buy it.

I’m obviously biased, but there’s no need to take my word for this. Here’s what Kirkus said in its (ahem, starred) review:

Love and violence intertwine in this spectacular sequel to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

[...]

Taub splits her focus between the personal and the political, sending the narrative shuttling among Rosaline, Benvolio, Rosaline’s spirited sister, Livia, and desperate Prince Escalus without losing the thread. Rosaline and Benvolio’s tale is equal parts historical fiction, detective story and high adventure, relayed in accurate but not overwhelming period language, informed by Romeo and Juliet and Shakespeare’s other works but offering an expanded and original perspective.

A perfect blend of the intimate and the epic, the story both honors its origin and works in its own right. (Historical fiction. 12 & up)

Now excuse me while I go wander the city, bragging about my little sister, the novelist.

WTF Friday, 7/5/13

This zebra is not in Nigeria.

This week’s WTF Friday comes courtesy of young Abubakar Souleiman, a 15 year old Nigerian immigrant living in Boston with a creative sense of humor.

Apparently, Souleiman decided to have some fun with Yvonne Abraham, the Boston Globe columnist who interviewed him about his achievements in U.S. schools. He told her that his track and field skills were the result of a youth spent “hunting zebras with spears and trying to avoid antagonizing cheetahs.”

Abraham took his story at face value. Why, of course Souleiman would have spent his childhood dodging cheetahs and chucking spears at herds of zebra, because Africa.

Except, as blogger Bob Blewett points out:

“There are no zebra in the wild in Nigeria. (There are zebra on Nigerian postage stamps but that is about selling stamps to collectors, not zebra habitat.) While it is possible for a cheetah to exist in the savannas of northern Nigeria, this is extremely rare. Humans would frighten, not antagonize, any wild cheetah there. Besides, hunting is about accuracy; javelin is about distance”

Yesterday, Abraham issued a correction.

(Photo of zebra by Muhammad Mahdi Karim, made available under a GNU Free Documentation License.)

“With a Smile on His Face”: New Account of Sexual Assault in Tahrir Square

Another day, another revolution in Egypt. And with that new revolution comes a new outbreak of mass sexual assaults against women in Tahrir Square.

This is not a new phenomenon. In February 2011, CBS News correspondent Lara Logan was in Tahrir Square to report on the resignation of former president Hosni Mubarak, when a crowd of men overpowered her crew, stripped her, and subjected her to a prolonged and brutal sexual assault. In June 2012, documentarian Natasha Smith suffered a similar assault at the hands of a mob who stripped her and violated her with their hands as they dragged her, naked, through the square. There have been many more attacks against Egyptian women following the same pattern: a group of men isolate a woman, then surround her with what one activist has called “the circle of hell” – a ring of men who strip and assault the woman, surrounded by outer circles of accomplices who enable the attack by pretending to help the victim, and distracting the crowd from what is happening.

I recently spoke to Joost Schefferss, a 21 year old journalism student from the Netherlands who is currently studying Arabic in Cairo, about an attack that he and his friends suffered in Tahrir Square last Sunday. Thankfully, his group was rescued shortly after the assault began, narrowly avoiding a more serious fate.

Joost had gone to the square with two friends: another male student from the Netherlands, and a young Swedish woman. (His friends prefer not to be identified.) They were accompanied by two Egyptian journalists. Although Joost and his friends had no involvement in Egyptian politics, he felt an “intense strong feeling to go there to see what was going on.” He sensed that history was happening nearby, and thought it would be a shame to miss it.

They arrived at the square in the late afternoon, while the sun was still bright, and spent several hours there without incident. The atmosphere was happy, “like a festival, or something like that.” Helicopters flying Egyptian flags circled overhead, and the crowd cheered them, taking the choppers’ presence as a sign of support from the army. “It was a good atmosphere, great, really.” He took photographs, and tweeted about the excitement of the crowd.

As evening fell, and it began to get dark, however, Joost felt the mood of the crowd begin to change. “Be careful, be careful,” people in the crowd began to say to them, in English. His group linked together to walk single file, “like a train.” Each held onto a shoulder of the person in front of them, with the two Egyptian journalists bracketing the line in front and back, an engine and a caboose.

They began to make their way out of the square. Suddenly, “at a certain moment, the people were pushing, pushing, pushing. I didn’t have any idea what was going on.”

“It kept on going, and I felt a guy pushing me on my back, and again.” He briefly thought that it was merely the density of the moving crowd, but when he turned, he saw that there was plenty of space. Joost realized that the pushes were deliberate attacks meant to separate the group. Surprisingly, their attackers were teenagers. The person pushing Joost was “like a kid, of 17 or 18 years old.”

As he struggled to stay on his feet, Joost realized that his Swedish friend had lost hold of his shoulder. “I started to look, where she is, where she is, where she is? And I saw her, being pushed through the crowds by the Egyptian journalists, to get away from there.”

“She was pushed away, and the other guys were pushing me very hard, front and back.” He tried to follow, but the young woman was surrounded by a group of youths who were sexually assaulting her. “She got touched – hands were all over her whole body, grabbing her.” The two Egyptian journalists were trying to protect her, but they were unable to escape.

The Egyptian boys around Joost and his other friend continued to slam into them, trying to knock them to the ground as they tried to reach the young woman to help her. Joost felt certain that she was the main object of the attack. “That is the tactic of these groups. They push, and they push and they push, and at a certain moment the girl is gone.”

During the struggle, Joost made eye contact with one of the attackers. Horrifyingly, he looked like was having fun. “I looked the guy straight in his eyes… his face was really, really happy. He was enjoying it, definitely. There was a big smile on his face.”

Joost does not know how long the assault lasted, because he was just focused on keeping his feet, and getting to his friend. Suddenly, a group of broad-shouldered, muscular Egyptian men ran up to them and “smashed” away the youths committing the assault. With the Egyptian journalists, their rescuers joined hands to form a circle and made their way through the crowd, out of the square. Joost believes that things could have gotten much worse if they had not been rescued. “We were really lucky, after all.”

Once they were out of the square, most of their protectors disappeared – probably back into the square, to return to their patrol. However, “one of them walked with us to our car, just to make sure we arrived there, as safe as possible.” Joost would like to find the group, to thank them for their help, but has not been able to do so thus far. The rescuers never introduced themselves, so it is unclear whether they were volunteers with an official organization like Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment, or just concerned citizens.

“The guy who accompanied us to the car, he had a red t-shirt and a red key card with a red card on it, but I don’t know exactly what the red card was from. I also don’t know who he was, where he was from, or what else – I’ve got no clue at all.”

I asked Joost if he had any sense of what the attackers’ motivation might have been. He offered a few general theories, such as the mistrust created by Egyptian ad campaigns telling people not to trust foreigners, and the frustration felt by young men who are unable to get jobs or marry, but while those explanations might explain Egypt’s generally high rates of sexual harassment, they don’t explain the specific phenomenon of mob assaults on women in Tahrir Square. Joost has also heard that there is credible evidence that other sexual assaults were designed to drive women and journalists out of the square. “There were signals that those attacks were structured to get the journalists off Tahrir and make everyone afraid to come there and protest.”

That doesn’t seem to fit his own experience, though. “They could have been instructed by special forces to [attack us], but I really doubt it, because they were so young.” He imagines that if such attacks were planned, the organizers would send “a big group of strong men, to make sure that it happens. Not a bunch of kids.” (He hastened to add that this was just his own impression, however – he doesn’t have enough information to comment about the phenomenon of these assaults more generally.)

Whatever the motivation behind this particular assault, at this stage it seems clear that these attacks are taking place with horrifying frequency. Last Friday, a Dutch journalist was reportedly gang raped in Tahrir, and remains hospitalized for her injuries. Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment, a volunteer organization in Cairo that sends volunteer patrols into Tahrir Square to protect women from attack, received 46 reports of mob sexual assaults on women on Sunday, 17 Monday, and more than 20 yesterday. The victims of yesterday’s attacks reportedly included “grandmothers, mothers with their children,” and 7 year old girls.

Despite the ongoing assaults, however, women continue to participate in the Tahrir demonstrations, and to volunteer with the bodyguard groups patrolling to rescue women from sexual assaults. Three cheers for their bravery, which is an example to us all.

A Good Day For Equality

It’s late, and it has been a long day, but I don’t want to let it end without a post to mark the amazing thing that happened this morning: the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, and California’s Prop 8.*

My feelings on the subject are pretty much summed up by this quote, from Goodridge v. Massachusetts Dept. of Health, the opinion that legalized same-sex marriage in Massachusetts in 2003:

“Marriage bestows enormous private and social advantages on those who choose to marry. Marriage is at once a deeply personal commitment to another human being and a highly public celebration of the ideals of mutuality, companionship, intimacy, fidelity, and family. It is an association that promotes a way of life, not causes; a harmony in living, not political faiths; a bilateral loyalty, not commercial or social projects. Because it fulfills yearnings for security, safe haven, and connection that express our common humanity, marriage is an esteemed institution, and the decision whether and whom to marry is among life’s momentous acts of self-definition.”

This country is a better place now that more people are able to undertake that “momentous act of self-definition.” May it bring them the happiness that marriage has brought me. (Which is a lot! Hooray marriage!)

And, most importantly, now Kristen Bell and Dax Shepherd can get married. Which I’m sure is the thing that pushed Justice Kennedy over to the side of the angels in the first place.


* Well, technically, it relied on a standing issue to allow the CA district court’s decision, (which struck down Prop 8 on the grounds that was unconstitutional), to stand. But you know what? I’ll take it.

[Footnote edited to correct an error - I originally said that the CA Supreme Court's decision was upheld, but in fact it is the district court decision that stands, because SCOTUS found that the petitioners had no standing to appeal its decision. The CA Supreme had the standing issue on certification, but that's not what got upheld here.]