Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Floating Hope has a new Tenant @ Virtual Africa

I am so glad to have met Peter Miller (Graham Mills inSL) and then discover his strong education background and interest. This is exactly the quality of community member that we would like to attract to Virtual Africa Region in 2010. Welcome Mr. Mills. We look forward to sharing some virtual space.... Ps: He also posted a blog entry:

TidalBlog: Floating Hope

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Reconcile and Rest in Peace

Yesterday, it was the 16th of December and in South Africa this day is a declared public holiday since 1838, and then revisited after 1994, and declared a public holiday again. It was also the day that  former Health Minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, passed away. And the day that my concerns for South Africa rose to the surface again. It was the Day of Reconciliation. I grew up in an Afrikaans-speaking community and came to know the 16th as the Day of the Vow, described as one of South Africa's public holidays on the South African Government website:  

On 16 December 1838 about 10 000 troops under the command of Dambuza (Nzobo) and  Nhlela attacked the Voortrekkers, but the 470 Voortrekkers, with the advantage of gun powder, warded them off. Only three Voortrekkers were wounded, but more than 3 000 Zulus were killed during the battle.
In apartheid South Africa 16 December was known as Day of the Vow, as the Voortrekkers in preparation for the battle took a Vow before God that they would build a church and that they and their descendants would observe the day as a day of thanksgiving should they be granted victory. With the advent of democracy in South Africa 16 December retained its status as a public holiday, however, this time with the purpose of fostering reconciliation and national unity.
And then I read an article in the New York Times and my heart sank a bit again as I listened to the views of one Afrikaans-speaking male in his late fourties - and knowing that he represents the sentiments of quite a number of South Africans: "The Day of Reconciliation may be a good idea, but for Afrikaners, the Day of the Vow is still what’s in our hearts,” said Johan de Beer, 46, a teacher waiting on the steps for the gates of the monument to open in the early morning. “This is a religious holiday that is based on our people’s history.”" It is a good idea (only) ?? followed by a 'BUT'... How could there possibly be a 'BUT' these days, in this country?

Now let there be no doubt:  I speak Afrikaans, English and German, understand some isiXhosa and Dutch. I can also help myself a bit in sign language. I have a light-skinned female avatar in Second Life and speak with the voice of a female in Skype. I also have a dark-skinned male avatar that I manage for our company. I am more than the stereotype  - just like you. I define myself simply as human and South African . Lately, I started thinking I am "Euro-African": only these - not black, not white, not inbetween, nor any cother colour or lack of it. I am also not an Afrikaner, or a Boer merely because 'Alanagh Recreant' is a light skinned avatar from South Africa that also speaks and loves Afrikaans. And certainly not a "whitey" nor umlungu (which means the same as 'dirty scum' from waves)- one of those racially-charged and hurtful linguistic shackles in our collective vocubulary. I defy being defined in terms of my race, my nation, spirtuality, religious background, cultural affinity or sexual preference. And I will not stand prejudice and human rights' violation in any form - have not in the past and will not now.. 

... which is why I am so uncomfortable about Gareth Cliff's insensitive remarks (which in itself is his constitutional right to free speech!) when the former Minister of Health, 'Manto' in nation's talk, died yesterday - despite the allegations that she did not seize drinking after the first transpart, or the fact that her support of  flawed ANC policies on HIV/Aids (at the time) may have done irreversable damage to many families losing loved ones to the disease.  For THIS most of us agree upon: the shame of her under-achievement when she had her courageous deputy, Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, fired when she challenged Manto's policies on Aids and exposed the state of hospitals in the media. Unacceptable. However, she was also a gender activist and contributed to the struggle in a big way, as so well described by Stephan Grootes in The Daily Maverick:
"Tshabalala-Msimang's contribution to our democracy is huge. We should remember her for that. We should remember that she gave up almost her entire life, put herself in danger, and left her family for the cold Russian winter, in the hopes of making things better for her people. She achieved that, and lived to see a better life for all. For that, we should be grateful. But her legacy is also the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Aids sufferers who could have been saved had her beliefs been different".

The fact is that death is inevitable for all, and that it is the last thing that any human being will do on earth. It is the ultimate human right (although not mentioned explicitly in the top 30 list) to die with dignity in a civilised society. And, it is just unacceptable that her right to such dignity as a human being - even though she passed on - is being disregarded via @GarethCliff and others:
"Manto is dead. Good. A selfish and wicked bungler of the lowest order. Rotten attitude and rancid livers - all three of them."

This is deeply personal for me in a way: My father, an active  minister (of religion) in a small community was declined a liver transplant (due to non-alcoholic liver chirrosis) by local doctors at the MediClinic George two years ago. We were told to prepare for the inevitable as (1) there were 'not enough organs available in South Africa' and (2) he would 'not qualify due to age'! He passed on a defeated man five months later at the George Mediclinic. It was a digified moment in the early morning -  on 10 January 2007. He was 70 years old. A few weeks later I learned about Manto's liver transplant on the frontpage news, and age not being the main consideration. Today, I read that there are not enough patients for all the available donors. And this knowledge was not enough for either my dad or for Manto, or our families. 

Life has moved on, and it will serve no purpose to reflect on the medical wisdom or lack of it in the past and be tortured by 'IFs' and seeking reasons... I can merely remember and forgive - even myself. And believe it was his time to move on, and he has. 

The fact remains: Reconciliation in South Africa can only happen at a personal level between people. One on one. It is not pie in the sky stuff. It is respect for humanity and for life - so that a healthy liver (cleaning the body of toxins) is wished upon anyone that needs it regardless of our own subjective judgment on whether she/her 'deserves' it. 

President Zuma spoke at Freedom Park in Pretoria yesterday. I could not agree more with him: "Let me emphasise that in this era of promoting renewal, we must promote the values of non-racialism, reconciliation and non-sexism amongst all our people, black and white," he said. However,  Mr. President, with respect, please do NOT assume that I have NOT done that already, merely based on what others say or do that look like me or talk like me. And similarly, please do not think for one moment that all those that look different than I do, or talk in one of our other 11 languages, have actually managed to overcome the deeply entrenched hurt of the past by now - without demanding that I suffer for the sins of my 'fathers'.

Yes, we need to get beyond and far away from stereotyping people based on their skin colour, their gender, their income-levels, their fashion, their career choice, their confictions, their associations, their sexual orientation, and most of all, their mistakes of the past - whether they are in the physical world or in a virtual world or social network.

We should be judged by our actions and not by the colour of our skin: and this is exactly where both  Manto Tsabalala-Msimang and Gareth Cliff failed in my book. The first by not acting with the power she had to protect innocent people from the deadly spread of HIV/Aids in South Africa, and the second, for not knowing when her influence is over and her family deserves the respect that she did not earn from him.

At least both spoke out bluntly and fearlessly about the convictions, with the necessary disregard for criticism, and were cut from the same cloth in this respect.  Few hidden agendas. Freedom of Speech some times knows no boundaries. Maybe it should.

~ This blog entry is in memory of my father, Chris Steenkamp, who  challenged me intellectually and supported my visit to the South African Council of Churches in 1989 where I met the late Beyers Naude who made a lasting impression on me ~

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Alis volat propriis - it flies with its own wings, or not yet?

Today I spent some time on my own outside the virtual African Lounge at Robben Island in Second Life(R), and I thought about the journey in virtual worlds to date: Our project has gained its own momentum and has grown wings beyond the small Uthango office at the old Sunset Commerce inSL. But does it fly yet? I am not sure... 

I have now just completed distribution of almost 300 notecards to my personal network about the status of Uthango's metaAfrica(TM) project. It is important that people know that we are having a tough time with this project in Second Life due to the financial costs. I think I will also post the same information on our project blog soon.

We currently have four sims - two full sims, and two homesteads - that are located next to each other and form a seamless region (beneath) for 3000 people (and counting) to explore every month. Some are even permanently camping at metaAfrica 1 to support our vision and have a home in Second Life. In these times, we hear much about landowners and projects downscaling, but we have stubbornly clung to the idea of having a region - working towards finding an African-based company or agency to partner with Uthango Social Investments. It has always felt like home to me, but then again - I am home in Africa - being an Euro-African (a term I have conjured up to define myself recently) and given my European roots in France in the 1600s and my place of birth in the Eastern Cape of South Africa in a rural village. Our region has lots of water, because (1) Africa has a coastline of beauty, (2) people love rafting, sailing and fishing here and (3) I am drawn to water like a typical Aquarian:

The month of November has been particularly busy in South Africa, and I could not spend my own time fishing in Virtual Africa on the small jetty overlooking a few animated and competing crocodile. Directions to my favourite fishing spot if you are active in SL: Click HERE.

Yes, we did also start to build a typical township / shantytown as part of our next phase of the project, but truthfully my efforts and energies were directed towards capacity-building workshops for 80 civil society organisations in South Africa on advocacy and campaigning: Online Ambassadors and Digital Nomads
Even this national initiative is part of the bigger picture for us, and organisations are SO keen to be part of virtual worlds. We have had the same request from organisations in Kenya and Egypt. Uthango is working on a plan to make that possible, and to enable them to link with the international community via this platform.

We ask ourselves so many questions recently: Is the community in South Africa more important than the community online in virtual worlds - miles away from the continent? If the economy is so cloudy, and resources thinly-spread, is it responsible to be in a virtual world and spend time, energy with advocacy in this format? 

So every now and again when my thoughts are pulled in many directions and I face the plight of our clients, I find a spot in a virtual world and remind myself (as well!) WHY we are doing this: And yes, yes, yes - we need to be present in virtual worlds and not just present, but ACTIVE. Information poverty is at the heart of many injustices in the world. And with upcoming European, Asian and American youth that are computer savvy, connected and AVATAR-friendly in a very connected 3D-online space, we have a responsibility to bring Africa into the loop as a parallel strategy to putting cables in the ground and connecting wires to gain access to technology continent-wide.

A young person in Amsterdam, Netherlands SHOULD be able to connect directly with another in Lusaka, Zambia and speak about cultural experiences during the holiday season after playing an online game, or maybe BECAUSE the game is designed to do exactly that. Also, if not, we design solutions top-down and may find that we have missed out on so many possibilities to make the world a more equal place of opportunity.

The virtual economy is growing and is already pinned at 8 Biillion USD per annum. Africa's 1 billion people COULD benefit directly from it if the DESIGN and INTENTION is in place. If the United Nations Millenium Development Goals highlight free trade and global partnerships as one of its eight goals, in MY book we include equal opportunity for virtual worlds as the upcoming emerging platform. Regardless of the developmental goal, it makes good business sense. More about that later...

It is all about timing. The biggest question is maybe: Will our wings be strong enough when it is TIME to fly? One organisation, One vision for Africa in virtual worlds, Several opportunities And all we need is a bit more time and our community. We think.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Google SideWiki & Uthango

Since I work for Uthango, and manages our digital footprint, I was surprised to log on today and find that Google SIDEWIKI was launched. It is an interesting tool, with no opt out for domain owners.

Nevertheless, it brings the opportunity to engage our new website visitors and extract comments and feedback on our work. Yes, like everything else, there is the possibility for abuse. Looking forward to see if Google adds value to our online experience(s).

Read more about our company under the ABOUT tab, where you will find an embedded profile.

in reference to: Uthango Social Investments - Welcome...! (view on Google Sidewiki)

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Seeing the Soul of the Ape one Sunday

Finally, I return to tell you about another experience in my life here at the southern tip of Africa. For me, the event is one of the 'thin threads' that Stacey Battat, former broadcast journalist, writes about in her book with the same title - it was life-changing.

"I want people to be i
nspired by other's real life experiences and have something positive come out of that moment", says Stacey and I also hope this story will be a thread leading to a positive outcome. Or at least, prevent a negative one...

It happened on a sunny Sunday afternoon in South Africa with the mountain ridge bright against the blue sky of Cape Town. I have gotten myself into the habit of driving along the coastline past the beautiful naval village Simon's Town up to Cape Point and back home to Kommetjie. Usually, this would be "me time", but a very dear spirited and spiritual friend invited me to share a picnic and we set out on the trip.

And it was the 19th of July - by the end of the coming week, we had to submit a business case to a potential sponsor. Our team at Uthango has been working on a this proposal with an international flavour for almost 18 months. Indeed, an important week was ahead and I was in need of some prayer and reflection with a friend. Almost as important to me was the opportunity to enjoy the wild baboons along the road, and see how the troops are doing with their new offspring. Baboons used to frequent my home over at Kommetjie, but some property development and electric fencing (for crime) changed their habits and I rarely see them in our street now. There are eleven known troops in our area, so I knew we would find the friendly Smitswinkel troop on the "other side" close to Miller's Point, often right next to the road:

I have always loved to observe baboons - from a very young age when my parents would take us to the Kruger National Game Reserve and we would spend hours observing wild life from a car parked at a waterhole. And my all-time favourites have always been the warthogs, the baboons and of course, meerkats. Interestingly enough, I realised later that these animals all have social constructs that make for excellent observation and that my own academic interest in the fields of Psychology, Sociology and Anthropology was possibly fuelled at a young, impressionable age right there in nature: Dorothy Cheney and Robert Seyfarth, a husband-and-wife team of biologists at the University of Pennsylvania, have spent 14 years observing the Moremi baboons:

"Baboons provide you with an example of what sort of social and cognitive complexity is possible in the absence of language and a theory of mind," she said. "The selective forces that gave rise to our large brains and our full-blown theory of mind remain mysterious, at least to us." (Source: How Baboons Think, Yes Think by Nicholas Wade)
The events of that Sunday would reinforce my belief that baboons are highly intelligent and adapt to their environment in order to survive. More importantly, I would experience the result of year's of human interference with nature first hand (excuse the pun) when a large solitary alpha male would unexpectedly open the car door with its handle at the driver's side and proceeded to jump on my friend - fangs and all. It all happened in seconds really. We JUST passed the rest of the family (below) and turned into a popular look-out spot (where I took this beautiful picture) and waited to see what the yawning male would do before we settled down:

I treat baboons with the utmost respect, and NEVER feed them - unlike some uneducated tourists that would "like to get the perfect picture" and then lure the baboons closer to their vehicles with fast food or fruit. Doing so, was an accident waiting to happen - and it did: Big Manie (my name for the baboon) stormed to the car, yanked the door open and went directly for my small-framed friend's face where she still sat buckled up in the driver's seat. She had the clarity of mind to grab him at the throat and push back and at the same time, I fell across her to try and get her door closed again. We managed, but before we could shut it, he opened it again and lashed out at my arm - leaving red scratches with his nail and one cut with a very dirty nail deep enough to see the bone of my hand under the bleeding flesh. This wound would later become infected despite best efforts and is still not 100% what it used to be. (Sounds a bit like a bit of fictional horror when I try and describe the moment of sheer angst).

In that instant - Gone was the images in my mind of tiny baby baboons frollocking in the trees along the road, and I was left with the crazed and bewildered picture of a confused and wild
animal trying to get to what-he-believed a source of food. We were simply an obstacle to be removed. A few weeks later I would read the LAST line in the warning signs scattered here and there along the scenic road: "Keep Doors LOCKED and Windows CLOSED" and I know why:

In 2006, an article by Biran Hayward appeared in the South African media : "Brutal baboon attacks raise concern" and I retrieved it in writing this entry. I am fascinated by the different opinions of the experts and copy some of it here for your reference:
Johannesburg-based Karen Wentworth, South African representative of the International Primate and Exotic Animal Association, said the problems people were experiencing with baboons were self-inflicted. "A lot of the problems come from people feeding the primates. They (primates) will take food wherever they can get it, and will go back to that place for more," she said. "They become less afraid of humans and it lessens their wildness, which is when they cause problems."

Cape Nature baboon management team head Melikh
aya Pantsi said it was important for people to be cautious when dealing with baboons. "It is very rare that a baboon would attack a human being. They might jump on you to grab what they think is food, but they are generally not aggressive," he said.

But Graeme Young, conservationist at the Ndlambe
conservation department in Port Alfred, said it was not unheard of for baboons to attack humans without provocation. Sometimes older males were kicked out of their troop and became aggressive towards humans as they scavenged for food on their own, he said. "We've had reports of an old male baboon that has spent up to three weeks a year disturbing residents in Port Alfred - running through gardens and rummaging through rubbish bins."

Jenny Trethowan, of Cape Town-based baboon monit
oring project Baboon Matters, said attacks on humans were usually not the fault of the baboon. "When you unpack the attack, usually the person has done something wrong."
We drove to the hospital that Sunday in July and I cried - and of all the things I were thinking at the time, I was deeply saddened and worried that the joy I get from observing baboons would be forever replaced by fear. I was also angry, because I knew that this baboon was mistreated by humans before - there was no respect left towards the two humans in the car that invaded his space. Did we do something wrong? No, not in person. (Except for not locking the doors, but assuming we are safe with CLOSED doors and windows). Did we do something wrong as human beings - collectively? All the time.

Photo by Mike Golby

Today, I am deeply concerned about the way in which the well-respec
ted local organisation, Baboon Matters, was replaced by another new agency, with no track-record that I know of, to monitor the baboons. (This is another matter currently at the Ombudsman). In today's newspaper there is a report that the new appointee's monitors are not just walking with the baboons and encouraging them to stay away from homes and cars (and people) as they used to do, but are now using WHIPS - supposedly to make a cracking noise. The piece in the Weekend Argus, titled 'Uproad over baboon sjamboks' by Helen Bramford, quotes Allan Perrins of the Cape of Good Hope SPCA: "The baboons appear to be up against 'Neanderthal' management techniques which have the capacity to terrify, traumatise and injure any unsuspecting, non-conforming baboon that happens to wander into 'our' space'". His objections about the use of whips to control the troups of baboons are shared by Beauty Without Cruelty: "Surely the role of CapeNature is to defend and protect our natural heritage and not to sjambok them into submission". The National Geographic completed a wonderful video clip about the lives of baboons close to where I live (copied here to view):

It is worth noting that the government and the nature conservation agencies in Cape Town also held a Baboon Expert Workshop early July 2009 and implied that "9 of the 17 troops were being effectively managed". Reading the notes on this workshop, it seems that the esteemed Doctor Justin O'Riain of the Baboon Research Unit at the University of Cape Town is the culprit who proposed the 'bear bangers and bull whips" - amongst others - as one of the 'active management' measures to be piloted. The same report mentions the troop that we encountered on my Sunday the 19th of July:

"We have a year’s worth of data for the Smitswinkel troop. Prior to the intervention, the troop was spending 25% of the time in Simon’s Town, raiding the urban areas regularly. As the home range is a linear area, the situation enabled a unique strategy. A virtual line was drawn and the baboons were to be kept south of this line. A range of tactics were used including bear bangers and bull whips and since the 3 June 09 the baboons have not been back into Simon’s Town. It is important to note how effective the GPS collars are working as the monitors can assess how to employ resources most effectively to keep the baboons out of the urban area".
I am no expert, but I am left to wonder: Did the 'pilot' banging on metal and use of whips in Simon's Town (by people) drive baboons away from the residential areas since June 2009? And did it leave them traumatised? further up the road? So when we met them a month later in July, there was a deeply-rooted bitterness against humans, which I have never encountered before in the South Peninisula. And still we have some people feeding these beautiful and fragile baboons from cars along the road... It MUST be confusing to them. Are humans driving baboons insane by acting so inconsistent? On the one hand, chasing away and with the other hand feeding. Then rather bring back monitors that walk with baboons and bond with them, and understand these stunning animals. Monitors that educate humans and not vice versa. We ARE in fact in THEIR space, and should act accordingly in my humble opinion.

We all need to get this right. And soon. I can live with the slight nerve damage and subsequent pain in my little finger which surfaced only last week as the wound healed inside. I can also live with the scar at the top of my hand which may need a bit of plastic surgery one day. I will battle to accept it if a child or unsuspecting tourist gets seriously hurt over at Simon's Town by this troop. We drove past the same place two week ago - and children were running outside (!!) a few metres from the baboons grazing on plastic bags filled with KFC left-overs. No monitors in sight.

So please, this is a very personal appeal: GET this. Please do not confuse baboons and sign their death sentence - or that of a human being observing them innocently - by feeding them or making them aggressive. Let them find their food naturally in the beautiful mountains of Cape Town and lead them away from human dwellings with ethical ways.

I continue to love baboons, and my respect for them as truly wild animals has only grown due to this incident. Like the blogger, AfricanPenguin, I wish to also share facts about the Chacma Baboons that frequent our world. The agencies working with baboons here made various information posters - like this one outside the Kommetjie Supermarket. The Kommetjie Primary School also completed a nice educational project (website) on understanding and dealing with baboons.

An Afrikaans naturalist, poet and writer wrote a wonderful book in 1912, translated as "The Soul of the Ape" and he based it on his behavioural study of the chacma baboons in the Waterberg. Eugene Marais
"became the first man to conduct a prolonged study of primates in the wild". He spent time with baboons and termites to learn from them. It was published in the year I was born, in 1969. My dad introduced me to the book as very young child and I think my love for baboons and literature started right there between the yellow pages. Marais was years ahead of his time:

Years later, he wrote in a letter, “No other worker in the field ever had the opportunities I had of studying primates under perfectly natural conditions. In other countries, you are lucky if you catch a glimpse of the same troop twice in a day. I lived among a troop of wild baboons for three years.

“I followed them on their daily excursions; slept among them; fed them night and morning on mealies (corn); learned to know each one individually; taught them to trust and to love me – and also, to hate me so vehemently that my life was several times in danger. So uncertain was their affection that I had always to go armed with a Mauser automatic under the left armpit like the American gangster!

“But I learned the innermost secrets of their lives. You will be surprised to learn of the dim and remote regions of the mind into which it led me. I think I discovered the real place in nature of the hypnotic condition in the lower animals and men. I have an entirely new explanation of the so-called subconscious mind and the reason for its survival in man.

“I think that I can prove that Freud’s entire conception is based on a fabric of fallacy. No man can ever attain to anywhere near a true conception of the
subconscious in man who does not know the primates under natural conditions.”

I had a life-changing day on the 19th of July - one sunny day in Cape Town. I really did think it's our last day on earth when a massive alpha male opened the door and attacked my friend and I - and this, in the 'safety' of our car without provocation or without any food visible. And to fight of a baboon, to walk away relatively uninjured, reminded me how fragile life is and how quickly it can pass. May we do the best we can with what we have, every day. There are quite a few things on my own list that I would like to get to....

On a lighter note, I just LOVE this MamaTaxi comic strip by Deni Brown and Gavin Thomson and hope we will never have to ask, "What baboons? There's not one":

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Grief Dies - like Whales do

It was an eventful and stressful weekend. Let me confess: There is a sense of loss that is ever-present in my life since my father passed away after a very short illness early 2007. A blog entry is hardly the place to spill emotional beans, but some do say it is therapeutic, so allow me a moment. The beaching of 55 fake killer whales on our Kommetjie beach early yesterday hit me hard and going through the experience of loosing them after trying to save them untied some knots in my mind and heart. Emotionally, it was a paralysing moment ending in grief and trauma - especially for the children that were there! I wish the authorities dealt with the entire situation differently as suggested on BBC by another volunteer helping with the effort. It also makes me wonder about Cape Town's abilities to deal with crowds ahead of the WorldCup Soccer 2010.

In the end, we all had to walk away and I returned with a dear friend returned later on Sunday and it was as if nothing has ever happened on the stretch of white sand. It made me think again about life and how it simply moves onwards - even after an incident or crisis. We need to keep perspective - even in a moment of sheer emotion. And it is not always easy, but there is ALWAYS another angle to the same experience, as is clear from the write-up from 6000 Miles on the entire incident.

We need to hold on to our memories and wrap them like small blankets around us. There are memorials yes, and there are gravestones and memories in photo albums that tie us to people, pets and places. However, ultimately, it is the only the altered way in which experiences of gain and loss shape us (and our moulded perception of the world) that remain. Today, I think of a school friend of mine who lost her two children two weeks ago in a terrible accident when her husband ran them over on the farm as they fell from the car. And I can not even start to imagine their heart ache and loss.

And maybe we can only hope that grief do not die. I can never understand how people are expected to 'just go on with life' when life itself is no longer what you know. For me, it all changed when my dad passed on... and life is altered a bit again with every new loss, even when whales strand on the beach where I walk my dogs every day.

Sonnet: Grief Dies was written by
Henry Timro:

Grief dies like joy; the tears upon my cheek
Will disappear like dew. Dear God! I know
Thy kindly Providence hath made it so,
And thank thee for the law. I am too weak
To make a friend of Sorrow, or to wear,
With that dark angel ever by my side
(Though to thy heaven there be no better guide),
A front of manly calm. Yet, for I hear
How woe hath cleansed, how grief can deify,
So weak a thing it seems that grief should die,
And love and friendship with it, I could pray,
That if it might not gloom upon my brow,
Nor weigh upon my arm as it doth now,
No grief of mine should ever pass away.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Sooner Death than Digital Indignity...

At the back-end of this blog seven draft entries sleep soundly. I never bothered to publish them. The sunset on the way home from work was something else, but it was gone within a few minutes. And so, the moments of those entries have also passed and they will never come into digitial light. Their value drowned as new thoughts dawned.

But the time has come to move and publish something again - mostly to clear my head.
Much has happened in my corner of the world since I wrote here in mid-February, and I thank my online friends for enquiring about the silences and responding so tactfully on my absence. I have been in and out of hospital and had time to think a lot. Allow me to dwell a bit on a the interesting issue of individualism and community that relates to my experiences here in Cape Town and online...and thoughts that fountain from these...

A few of my friends lost an online friend and her reported death sent ripples through the metaverse and networked community. I did not know Rheta Shan well at all, but we met once and we were connected loosely via other people that I do know. I realised in that moment of discovery how vulnerable our digital ties are - like a kite only tied to the hand holding it... and when cut loose (either deliberately or due to unfortunate accident), it slips far away into a world that may very well not be accessible to online friends. It leaves a real sense of loss - irrespective of whether the relationship was primarily digitial or transcended into the physicial world. Much has been said over the years about online relationships and social networks. Our human interconnectedness via technology has become the study of numerous anthropologists, sociologists, economists, (not-so-new-anymore) media experts, community builders and marketing companies. Stephen Baker recently wrote an interesting article in Business Week, "Learning, and Profiting, from Online Friendships":
"Companies are working fast to figure out how to make money from the wealth of data they're beginning to have about our online friendships...(and later), Calculating the value of these relationships has become a defining challenge for businesses and individuals..."
As an academic at heart, I understand the need to analyse the interaction between people and individual choices. It helps us to identity shifts in human behaviour and spot global trends in order to be responsive - either commercially or socially. Speaking of trends, the book by Mark Penn on 'MicroTrends' is an absolute must-read to start understanding new laws of doing business in a very fragmented world: "The argument is that societal fragmentation occurs because, in a post-modernist and individualistic world, people are beginning to make personal choices. In the process, many niches are being created, and the world is becoming more complex".

We instinctively think that multinational companies and global initiatives will set the tone for the future, but Mark points out that there are 'small forces' that become the real trendsetters. In this context, I cannot help to think about Twitter's 'Trending Topics' where individuals use #hashtags in their tweets to effectively! create a trend - organising group-think. (Here's a good piece by Ben Parr on how to use #hashtags). And of course, the same fundamental philosophy is obvious from the thinking of Seth Gordin on the creation of tribes - a social construct giving 'ordinary people the power to lead and make big change'.

And so, our company was approached this week in South Africa to 'build a community'
and make change happen and we respectfully declined. Let's get this right: Communities are not build, communities grow organically when a trend emerges - based on common practice or opinion. And a trend only emerges when individuals speak up through their text messages, their podcasts, their blogs, their micro-blogs, their tweets, their pictures, their songs - conversations with each other about the same shared matter of interest. So, we are back to the 'individual' whose experiences are indeed central to communities and are expressed in many forms online, but could also easily be drowned by the digital noise made by other voices.

"Social media mirror and magnify teen friendship practices", according to research by the respected Danah Boyd
(Digital Youth Research). For many it is certainly true that our digital interaction mirrors our personalities and our practices. I would add that social media - and here I definitely include virtual worlds - also and above all magnifies our values and beliefs. We may not have the benefit of seeing eye-to-eye in a physical world and measure attitude via body language - so we start reading behaviour and trends in how we are treated by others and how they do business with us in a digital format. Practices are under the microscope in a microcosm of communities. And we start to know each other's values through one-on-one interaction. In another book, Structures of Participation, Danah completed a chapter called " None of this is Real" and says insightfully:
"Millions of people worldwide are now connected through networked digital infrastructures in forms that grow increasingly sophisticated and contextually rich. The notion of the global village remains powerful, but individual sociability will never operate on a global scale. Large social networks will always be mediated by and constructed through smaller communities and individual relationships".
Closely connected to the matters of identity, individualism and community building based on common values, is the search for meaning and desire to live with digital dignity. The Yoruba have a saying in Africa which translates literally as 'sooner death than indignity' - "Iku ya j'esin lo" and the African philosopher, Wole Soyinka, points out that this expression "finds equivalents in numerous cultures, and captures the essence of self-worth, the sheer integrity of being that animates the human spirit, and the ascription of equal membership of the human community". Dignity or respect for the individual (also termed 'honour' since medieval times) is a human virtue that carries much priority in many communities. The value that a person places on her/himself often equates directly to 'dignity' (or self-regard) which in turn links to her/his perceived experience and interaction with others. Which brings me to the interesting matter of 'digital identity' again and living or dying with dignity in online communities. What does that mean?? Or is it easy to 'execute' an 'avatar' when her/his reputation has been shattered or he/she has been humilitated by others in a community? Do you step out of a relationship in a different way, because you don't have to face the person on the street every day, but could purge him/her from your 'friends' list' at the push of a button? And how does it affect the person behind the digitial persona? Or does it not matter because it is "only online"?

In the Oration on the Dignity of Man (1486), the famous philosopher Count Giovanni Pico della Mirandola writes that "after God had created all creatures, he conceived of the desire for another, sentient being who would appreciate all his works, but there was no longer any room in the chain of being; all the possible slots from angels to worms had been filled. So, God created man such that he had no specific slot in the chain. Instead, men were capable of learning from and imitating any existing creature. When man philosophizes, he ascends the chain of being towards the angels, and communion with God. When he fails to exercise his intellect, he vegetates".

Fast forward more than five centuries and the dignity of man comes up in quite a different form: Millions of young people headbang to the lyrics of a song 'Before I Forget' written by a group Slipknot and stating: "I am a worm before I am a man'.... and in 2008, a South African youngster pulled a mask matching the lead singer's over his head and killed a fellow student in cold blood. More worrying are the responses to the killing captured at Metal News (a website for fans of heavy metal). And one cannot help but wonder: How did society get to the point where taking the life of someone else has become a trend? Or have we always had this dark side as a tribe of humans and it shows up in periodically in acts of terrorism, the war against terror, in domestic violance, abuse of children, our indifference to poverty and hunger ... or as simple as spreading a lie, planting a rumour - executing a person's reputation in a digital community.

A co-worker has been the victim of an attempted carjacking in her own drive-way last week, with her two toddlers in the car. A man stuck his arm through the window and held a gun to her head. And she told me yesterday that she felt violated on her own property and her kids now suddenly ask questions like, "what happens with bad people when they die?" Innocence stolen in an instant. Dignity affected?

And how do we get back? Or go forward? Maybe part of the answer is to reconstruct the world we live in according to the hope we believe in. If enough people could have enough conversations about the same constructive solutions and create together; then just maybe, we will gravitate towards the same communities. And we will become the small influences rippling downstream from all parts of the world towards an ocean of global consciousness that restores the value of a human life and dignity. After all, dignity may just be worth more than life itself.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Balloons that Float and Tweets about it...

Like most things related to great causes on the periphery of one's daily work, it was a matter of do it very quickly and as best possible - or just let it pass by quietly. In which case, Cape Town might not be (offically) part of the meaningful global conversation between connected people about one topic: access to clean water. I blogged about our experience at the Twestival this week, where 185 cities came together on one day to raise awareness for charity : water:

Because (1) the issue of access to water is very much an African issue with 19 of the 25 nations in the world (with the greatest problems in terms of access to water) all in Africa!, (2) Africa is a big part of the world map and needs to be represented in initiatives attempting to solve its problems, (3) social networks are inherent to communities in Africa even if the technology do not support them, (4) there is an opportunity to promote social media and Twitter to Cape Town residents and (5) we can! and all great things start with a first step.Cape Town South Africa Twestival 2009, Feb 2009

And we jumped in to assist another charity thousands of miles away, because it just made sense on so many different levels. You should read the whole article, and also find some other entries. It was a busy week and a bit, but it was worth this little sleep. I have seen again how a few people can make a big difference. Even though I am disappointed with the number of people attending the Cape Town Twestival (only 30 odd) I am encouraged that we made a start and critical 'who's who' in the social media scene in South Africa were there...

We have organised events before, but I am by no means an events' organiser by trade or reputation. A good thing too! It was a stressful experience to say the least and when one of the other volunteers shared via Facebook on Thursday that he was really really busy and does not actually 'want to be involved with the sound set-up' (after we relied on his relationship with the restaurant, I grew a few more grey hairs and realised just how difficult it is to hold the strings to the drifting balloon gaining momentum and still 'tweet' about its colours at the same time - so to speak.

It was, however, an awesome event and we have only had good feedback so far. It was an evening for another non-profit in the spirit of collaboration, and I am glad our own was not mentioned much - if at all. However, the association with, and volunteering for the Twestival in Cape Town was a good decision - it exposed our staff members to an issue that is not central in our development work and also not the biggest challenge in the communities we serve in South Africa.

It it also good to know there was a Second Life Twestival as well and it was covered in the news by CNN iReport in the same way as we got much media attention as well - but I was simply too tired to attend the one inSL after we got home...

Glad it is weekend... and thankful for friends.

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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Cape Town South Africa Twestival 2009

I found this fascinating quote today:

Sylvestre was born in Pointe-Noire, on the coast of the Congo republic. He represents a “new generation” of African artists, using his acoustic guitar, dynamic lyrics and melodies, and rich baritone vocals and percussion to produce a unique sound rich in emotion and sentiment. His contemporaries include Salif Keita, Youssou Ndour, Papa Wemba and Zao.Cape Town South Africa Twestival 2009, Feb 2009

You should read the whole article.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Cosmos opens in my garden

Isn't this beautiful?

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Sleeping on "Thin Things"...

When we visited Aquila Pre-Primary School, these mattresses caught my eye. The little ones sleep on them daily but gosh! they really do need some new ones - or at the very least, some covers. Another day, another mission...

Resources in schools in Africa are most of the times not elaborate, but really the basics. One would wonder, why could the school not just get what they need from fees? However, it is a simple calculation to realize that the small salaries of educators (not much more than $250/month), daily food, educational variable costs and maintenance of the premises cannot be covered by school fees paid by unemployed parents in these communities. The assistance of the government and private business sector is needed and organisations like ours make it just a bit more easier on the management of these places. We hope to be able to get the matrasses for the small ones... and replace the 'thin things' as the local gardener called them as he carried them out to make up a few rows for the 2-4 year olds to sleep that afternoon...

Monday, January 26, 2009

On the playground at Aquilla Pre-School

Today was a special Monday as we set out to Ocean View, a community that has its share of challenges with drug-abuse and poverty - with numerous kids growing up in unacceptable social conditions. I spend the better part of the morning there and reflected on so many aspects of our company's strategy and ways in development in Africa. Mostly, I just enjoyed playing... - simply enjoying the new toys with the kids! More later...

Books that keep me Busy

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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

(Not) one of the "only white tribe" of Africa??!

Jacob Zuma, President of the ANC (and most likely the party's presidential candidate for South Africa in this year's election) made the statement that 'Afrikaners' are the 'only white tribe' in Africa and much needed:

Now I am asking myself ever since, am I part of the 'white tribe' he refers to and do I really associate myself with those who 'play konsertina'? It is easier to answer the 'konsertina' question than the former, as it strikes at the heart of identity and relates to my very roots. It also reflects on the active or passive role that I have played (or not played) after and before(!) 1994 in South Africa. There are many assumptions about diverse peoples living in South Africa. I encounter these daily in my digital life - meeting new people - and also in the South African business environment and political arena. It is simply assumed that I vote for an opposition party; it is assumed that I do not speak an African language; it is assumed I played no role in the struggle against apartheid; it is assumed that I do not intimately know the poor communities where we work; it is assumed that we could learn much and teach little, and it is assumed that I have (or do not have!) money, depending on who I speak to - mostly because of the color of my skin and (maybe) location in Africa.

I have learned much about diversity in Religious Studies; and I have learned more about it in our own home where all were always welcome. Lately, it has been virtual worlds that taught me new lessons about identity and culture: I have two avatars in Second Life (R) - Alanagh Recreant, a pale-skinned and slender English speaking woman and Wilberforce Rau, a dark-skinned and slightly overweight English-speaking African male. There is a reason for choosing these two avatars and over the past year and a bit I have seen how people react VERY differently to each, UNTIL they understand the one to be an alternative of the other, which I may already know. I am fascinated by this observation and wonder how much of it is a reflection on reality. I have never bothered to declare my ethnicity inSL and interestingly, in all this time, only two people have asked me straight-out, "Are you black, Ally?" (In this regard, if you have some time, please read Marion Walters personal observations about identity and Second Life Skin in 2007. I quote a bit: "That said, I really hate the fact that the default color on the Second Life avatars is white, and that you just never see dark-skinned avatars in these online environments. Most people in the real world are dark-skinned, dammit. There are probably a couple of reasons for this. For one thing, global economic and geographic inequities mean that you don't find many Africans playing online games!" I have found that there are many many more dark skins inSL today than in 2007. An analysis needed!

Am I seen in virtual worlds as part of the 'white tribe of Africa' ??? Nope. I don't think so! I am cautiously embraced by the African-American community and welcomed at vibrant initiatives, but the realities of free enterprise and sustainability inSL, fear of the unknown, a desire to do your own thing on your own terms, geographic distance and using the right lingo define me quickly as an 'outsider' from the inside Africa. I also don't think my African brothers and sisters here in South Africa really see me as a 'tribal person' - black or any other shade! :)

I am an Afrikaans-speaking forty-something business woman living in South Africa and being accepted by other citizens - not for my language (tribe) or my skin-color (undefined for the purpose of this discussion) but for my day to day actions, for building relationships one at a time in each circumstance; for breaking down age-old barriers of racism and prejudice through conversation and by not 'fitting' into the mold that history so tragically and painfully tries to pour me and others, into - on a daily basis. I defy definition. I am. And this, "just being" is no less true for virtual worlds than it is for my first life...(I use the term 'first life' as oppose to 'real life' as I believe all of what I do is 'real' and an extension of reflection of my personality). I do, however, debate issues of unity and respect (not tolerance!) and agree it is much needed in the world and in South Africa. We some times tend to be so politically correct, that we walk on eggshells when we talk about issues of race, creed, color, gender, sexual orientation, religion and culture. These are the matters that are part of humanity. Lets not wish it away by not raising the issues.

I am a 'tribe' member, I guess. If one listens to Seth Godin in his video presentation, it is simply clear that tribes are here to stay in the new economy of scale. And, that we all belong to one tribe or another... However, let me at least choose my leaders and my tribe members and don't cluster or box or associate me - merely because I look a certain way or speak another way. I am too much of an individualist to be defined by anyone's prejudice or tribalism... or is that socialism?

One thing I do agree on, and do believe as surely as the sun rises in the morning: I am African and I am serious about doing business whilst trying to do some good.

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The Nobel Prize Winners

Recognition of South African Nobel Prize winners...

Monday, January 12, 2009

"On my way to Court", she said...

I was driving back home. I was 23:30 and I saw her from the side of my eye - the small woman pushing a pram on the dusty sidewalk in the dark. A pram?? I looked again in the mirror, and eventually stopped. It is a dangerous stretch this time of night with many lurking drug lords and gangsters. No place for a woman and a baby (?). She looked no closer than eighteen years old and the baby was tiny and quite wet.

Her name is Shereen, with baby boy Chadley and she is on her way home to Ocean View, she said as I stopped beside her, having turned again. "Get in, I'll take you", and I threw the passenger door wide open. "Why this time of night... with a baby so small?", I inquired, as she started breast feeding to get the baby to quiet down. "I am on my way to Court... tomorrow", she added.

So, this is how my rather full day ended - taking Shereen to her home close to midnight, so she could get a lift from family who demanded she be there tonight already in order to be driven to the Court house: in the morning. She is claiming R800,00 from the father in the SA Navy for "child maintenance" (as she calls it) and described to me how baby boy Chadley needs "way too much" for an eight-month old and she can't keep up. She never asked me for money or for any other help. Maybe the drive in the middle of the night from a perfect stranger, when she so clearly feared the walk, was quite enough. And maybe she will get the R800 for little Chadley tomorrow.

As for me, I know I will return to their shack - "that one without the windows and the door wide open" where the drunken man was scratching his stomach and the rubbish was rotting outside the front gate. I want to keep track of little Chadley...

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Chilbo Road Press

I found this fascinating quote today in an excellent article:

President-Elect Obama’s planning team is using web-based and social media tools in unprecedented ways to encourage participation and feedback from US citizens. Draxtor reports on how virtual worlds like Second Life might extend their reach beyond the Change.gov website to include citizens who might not be able to attend community discussions in the real world.The Chilbo Road Press, Jan 2009

You should read the whole article, which also highlights the great value of using Second Life for discussions on public matters.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Lunch with the Birds At Glencairn

This beautiful seabird, I don't think it is a gull, joined us for our work lunch close to GlenCairn, Cape Town. It was good watching him/her.

I wish I knew more about birds, but not really into bird watching. One of our clients want us to facilitate a bird photography competition for conservation - I better get my act together and starting with lunch among the sea bird may take me in right direction...

I was also disturbed to see the lovely tourism posters of the Southern Right Whale (many in the area!) damaged by vandals. So unnecessary.
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