News & Current Affairs

November 11, 2010

Location, location and how the West was won

Filed under: Politics News, Reviews — Tags: , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 8:38 pm
Union flag hoisted in Beijing

On his current visit to Beijing, UK Prime Minister David Cameron has said China will soon reclaim its position as the world’s biggest economy – a role it has held for 18 of the past 20 centuries. But how did the US, Britain and the rest of Europe interrupt this reign of supremacy? It comes down to location.

Why does the West dominate the world?

Europeans have been asking this question since the 18th Century, and Africans and Asians since the 19th. But there is still not much agreement on the answers.

People once claimed Westerners were simply biologically superior. Others have argued Western religion, culture, ethics, or institutions are uniquely excellent, or that the West has had better leaders. Others still reject all these ideas, insisting that Western domination is just an accident.

But in the last few years, a new kind of theory has gained ground.

What is the West?

image of Ian Morris Ian Morris Professor, Stanford University


Distinctive ways of life began emerging in different parts of the world 11,000 years ago, when the first farmers created more complex societies. Great civilizations grew out of the original agricultural cores (in what we now call southwest Asia, China, Pakistan, Mexico, and Peru), all of which steadily expanded as population grew.

The westernmost of the Old World’s agricultural cores, in southwest Asia, was the foundation of what we now call Western Civilization. By 500 BC, the Western core had expanded across Europe, its centre of gravity shifting to the Mediterranean cultures of Greece and Rome. By 1500 AD it had expanded still further, and its centre was shifting into Western Europe. By 1900 AD it had expanded across the oceans, and its centre was shifting to North America.

People, it suggests, are much the same all over the world. The reason why some groups stuck with hunting and gathering while others built empires and had industrial revolutions has nothing to do with genetics, beliefs, attitudes, or great men: it was simply a matter of geography.

China and India are, of course poised to pick up the baton of global superpowers, but to explain why the West rules, we have to plunge back 15,000 years to the point when the world warmed up at the end of the last ice age.

Geography then dictated that there were only a few regions on the planet where farming was possible, because only they had the kinds of climate and landscape which allowed the evolution of wild plants and animals that could potentially be domesticated.

The densest concentrations of these plants and animals lay towards the western end of Eurasia, around the headwaters of the Euphrates, Tigris, and Jordan Rivers in what we now call south-west Asia. It was therefore here, around 9000 BC, that farming began, spreading outwards across Europe.

Farming also started independently in other areas, from China to Mexico; but because plants and animals that could be domesticated were somewhat less common in these zones than in the West, the process took thousands of years longer to get going. These other zones of complex agricultural societies also expanded, but the West long retained its early lead, producing the world’s first cities, states, and empires.

But if this were all that there was to the story – that the West got an early lead and held onto it – there would be no controversy over why the West rules. In reality, when we look back across history, we see that things were more complicated. Geography determined how societies developed; but how societies developed simultaneously determined what geography meant.


The first city – 6,000 years ago in Iraq

image of Richard Miles Richard Miles Archaeologist and historian


The ancient Greeks called it Mesopotamia, the land between two rivers – Tigris and Euphrates. But it is also the land between two seas – the Mediterranean Sea and Persia Gulf. It is also the land between mountain and desert, lagoon and salt marsh. All these geographical features have to be borne in mind when considering the birthplace of the first civilisations.

Geography v history – it’s impossible to know which takes precedence. There’s no getting away from the brutal facts of nature – rivers that flood will dry up, rainfall that’s intermittent, mountains that are impassable, deserts that are hostile.

Applying this kind of analysis to Mesopotamia, where summers are hot, winters are cold and rainfall is low, I’d sum it up like this: difficult but not impossible. No garden of Eden, but no howling wilderness either.

In the earliest days of agriculture, having the right temperatures, rainfall, and topography was all-important. But as villages grew into cities, these geographical facts became less important than living on a great river like the Nile, which made irrigation possible.

As states turned into empires, being on a river began mattering less than access to a navigable sea like the Mediterranean, which was what allowed Rome to move its food, armies, and taxes around.

As the ancient world’s empires expanded further, though, they changed the meanings of geography again. The long bands of steppes from Mongolia to Hungary turned into a kind of highway along which nomads moved at will, undermining the empires themselves.

In the first five centuries AD, the Old World’s great empires – from Rome in the West to Han China in the East – all came apart; but the political changes transformed geography once again. China recreated a unified empire in the 6th Century AD, while the West never did so.

For more than a millennium, until at least 1700, China was the richest, strongest, and most inventive place on earth, and the East pulled ahead of the West.

East Asian inventors came up with one breakthrough after another. By 1300 their ships could cross the oceans and their crude guns could shoot the people on the other side. But then, in the kind of paradox that fills human history, the East’s breakthroughs changed the meaning of geography once again.

Dr Richard MilesPlease turn on JavaScript. Media requires JavaScript to play.

Richard Miles at Tell Brak – a city first excavated by Agatha Christie’s husband Max Mallowan

Western Europe – sticking out into the cold North Atlantic, far from the centres of action – had always been a backwater. But when Europeans learned of the East’s ocean-going ships and guns, their location on the Atlantic abruptly became a huge geographical plus.

Before people could cross the oceans, it had not mattered that Europe was twice as close as China to the vast, rich lands of the Americas. But now that people could cross the oceans, this became the most important geographical fact in the world.

The Atlantic, 3,000 miles across, became a kind of Goldilocks Ocean, neither too big nor too small. It was just big enough that very different kinds of goods were produced around its shores in Europe, Africa, and America; and just small enough that the ships of Shakespeare’s age could cross it quite easily.

The Pacific, by contrast, was much too big. Following the prevailing tides and winds, it was an 8,000-mile trip from China to California – just about possible 500 years ago, but too far to make trade profitable.

Geography determined that it was western Europeans, rather than the 15th Century’s finest sailors – the Chinese – who discovered, plundered, and colonised the Americas. Chinese sailors were just as daring as Spaniards; Chinese settlers just as intrepid as Britons; but Europeans, not Chinese, seized the Americas because Europeans only had to go half as far.

Europeans went on in the 17th Century to create a new market economy around the shores of the Atlantic, exploiting comparative advantages between continents. This forced European thinkers to confront new questions about how the winds and tides worked. They learned to measure and count in better ways, and cracked the codes of physics, chemistry, and biology.

As a result, Europe, not China, had a scientific revolution. Europeans, not Chinese, turned science’s insights onto society itself in the 18th Century in what we now call the Enlightenment.


Will China soon rival the US?

George Bush

Many observers think so, but not George W Bush. In an interview with the Times this week, he said that “internal problems” meant it was unlikely to rival the US any time soon. “Do I think America will remain sole superpower? I do.”

By 1800, science and the Atlantic market economy pushed western Europeans into mechanising production and tapping the power of fossil fuels. Britain had the world’s first industrial revolution, and by 1850 bestrode the world like a colossus.

But the transforming power of geography did not stop there. By 1900 the British-dominated global economy had drawn in the resources of North America, changing the meaning of geography once again. The US, until recently a rather backward periphery, became the new global core.

And still the process did not stop. In the 20th Century, the American-dominated global economy in turn drew in the resources of Asia. As container ships and jet airliners turned even the vast Pacific Ocean into a puddle, the apparently backward peripheries of Japan, then the “Asian Tigers”, and eventually China and India turned into even newer global cores.

The “rise of the East”, so shocking to so many Westerners, was entirely predictable to those who understood that geography determines how societies develop, and that how societies develop simultaneously determines what geography means.

When power and wealth shifted across the Atlantic from Europe to America in the mid-20th Century, the process was horrifyingly violent. As we move into the mid-21st century, power and wealth will shift across the Pacific from America to China.

The great challenge for the next generation is not how to stop geography from working; it is how to manage its effects without a Third World War.

Why the West Rules – For Now: The Patterns of History, and What they Reveal About the Future is published by Profile.

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March 7, 2010

Bitterness and unease in bankrupt Zimbabwe

Filed under: Latest, Politics News, Reviews — Tags: , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 3:48 pm

Bitterness and unease in bankrupt Zimbabwe

Courtesy BBC

After 30 years in power, Zimbabwe’s veteran leader Robert Mugabe said this week he was ready to stand for another term as president. BBC Africa correspondent Andrew Harding finds Mr Mugabe’s party in angry mood, and others – the white minority and the former opposition MDC party – full of foreboding.

People on the street in Harare

The law intends to redistribute more wealth to the black population

It has been a grey, drizzly week here.

In the wealthier suburbs of Harare, Zimbabwe’s shrinking white population is once again feeling nervous.

Pat, who runs a small hairdressing salon, and whose family has lived here for four generations, is finally planning to leave.

They don’t want us “whiteys” here any more she says. The writing is on the wall.

Pat has been spooked by a new law, introduced this week, which is supposed to correct the enduring economic legacies of colonialism, and give black Zimbabweans a controlling stake in almost all companies.

The main focus is Zimbabwe’s rich mines and its industry.

But the indigenisation law also seeks to prevent white people from owning things like hairdressing and beauty salons.

In a few years, says Pat, we will be like an extinct species. They will come for our houses next.

The reaction may well be extreme.

Many white Zimbabweans have been slow to acknowledge the debt they owe to the black majority here. Economic empowerment is clearly necessary.

But after a decade of economic chaos, horrific violence, and the brutal seizure of white-owned farms, it is easy to understand why so many Zimbabweans – of all colours – are hair-trigger tuned to expect the very worst.

Bitter words

Saviour Kasukuwere, ZANU PF Party member
Our children are dying because of sanctions
Saviour Kasukuwere, Zanu PF

Saviour Kasukuwere does not exactly try to smooth the waters.

“You people,” he almost spat at me, as I sat in his office on the ninth floor of the squat grey building that houses President Mugabe’s Zanu PF Party.

Mr Kasukuwere used to be a member of Mr Mugabe’s notorious state security.

He is a hardliner and a rising star.

“You British, you could learn a lot about democracy from us,” he says with a thin smile.

Mr Kasukuwere, a tall, heavy-set man, was at primary school when his country won full independence from Britain 30 years ago.

Unlike Mr Mugabe’s generation, he did not fight and suffer for freedom. But, full of passionate intensity, he seems to wallow in his bitterness.

In his eyes, and words, everything can still be blamed on what he calls the “genocidal” West.

Zanu PF’s current preoccupation is with what it calls “Western sanctions”.

The state media makes it sound like some overwhelming economic blockade.

“Our children are dying because of sanctions,” says Mr Kasukuwere.

But as diplomats and economists here point out, the reality is less extreme.

The European Union is currently imposing a travel ban on 198 individuals. Thirty-five companies are also frozen out.

“This is about Mrs Mugabe not being able to shop in Paris,” one diplomat put it. “Zimbabwe can’t borrow money, not because of sanctions, but because it owes $6bn, and can’t pay it back because it systematically wrecked its own economy.”

Train smash

Within Zimbabwe’s unity government, sanctions are a poisonous issue – one of many.

The unity government, formed after bitterly disputed elections, has survived a year now – President Mugabe’s Zanu PF sharing, or at least pretending to share power with its enemy, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

“It’s a train smash, warfare every day,” one MDC minister told me.

But the government has survived and on some issues is clearly making progress.

The MDC is hoping now to water down the new indigenisation law in order not to scare away foreign investors and potentially plunge the economy back into chaos.

Posters for President Robert Mugabe are covered with graffiti for  the opposition Movement for Democratic Change June 27, 2008 in Harare,  Zimbabwe

The 2008 elections saw MDC supporters beaten and killed

Both parties are now gearing up for new elections – possibly next year. It is the only way to settle Zimbabwe’s political deadlock once and for all.

The sanctions issue and the indigenisation law, are key campaign themes for Zanu PF.

If the MDC tries to question either of them – it is accused of being a stooge for colonial Western interests.

The MDC can probably handle that sort of criticism. It has got a strong support base, and at least one recent opinion poll showed it would crush Mr Mugabe and his party at the polls.

Any credit for the economic stability achieved here during the past year, seems to have gone to the MDC.

But the party is not nearly as well organised or ruthless as Zanu PF.

We are floundering, one MDC insider told me dejectedly. And of course, past experience in Zimbabwe shows that elections here are won by intimidation, not popularity.

Unless we have foreign peacekeepers to protect us, it will be another bloodbath
Senior MDC official

In 2008, Zanu PF orchestrated a campaign of terror – killing and beating MDC supporters – in order to hold on to power.

Now at the age of 86, after 30 years in office, President Mugabe has announced he is planning to run for yet another term.

Elections could be held next year, he says.

Mr Mugabe controls the police and the army, and under the current constitution, most of the electoral infrastructure.

Will he play fair this time?

We are heading towards another big fight, a senior MDC official told me anxiously.

Unless we have foreign peacekeepers to protect us, it will be another bloodbath.

July 20, 2009

Enduring allure of Egyptian belly dance

Enduring allure of Egyptian belly dance

Ahlan Wa Sahlan belly dance festival

The Ahlan Wa Sahlan festival has been a big hit this year

Hundreds of women of all nationalities sway their hips and twirl in time to the beat of a drum in a hotel ballroom by the pyramids in Cairo.

Belly dancing is said to have been practised in Egypt since Pharaonic times and now it has caught on around the globe.

It is well-established in Europe and the US and has recently spread to Asia. This year dozens of dancers travelled from China for the Ahlan Wa Sahlan belly dancing festival.

“Because this is the land of dance, women have to come!” declares Raqia Hassan, the festival organiser.

“When she comes she can meet famous dancers and musicians. She can see the pyramids. Anyone who comes to Egypt one time, she cannot stop coming back.”

Japanese belly dance fan

Safa Bakr’s shop attracts women from all over the world

Raqia, who has taught many belly dancing celebrities, leads her large class through the basic moves of the dance putting together a routine.

“It’s fun and you can do this at any age,” says Ewa Horsfield from London. “You can express your own personality. It’s an individual dance. You just listen and respond to the music.”

Many speak of the fitness benefits of belly dancing.

“In China all ladies like for their health,” says Angel from Shanghai.

“This kind of dance began here. Here teachers [are] very, very good so all Chinese ladies want to come.”

Contradictions

Belly dancing is big business in Egypt thanks to the global market.

Designer, Safaa Yasser Bakr, runs a belly dancing costume shop in the historic Khan el-Khalili bazaar.

She helps a Brazilian woman try on a sky-blue sequinned bra and a matching skirt with a split up one side.

“In one show big stars change costume many times,” she tells her. “You need maybe five different pieces.”

Nowadays Safaa sells most of her alluring outfits to foreigners.

Safa Yasser Bakr

Safa sells her wares in Khan el-Khalili – Cairo’s Islamic heart

“I see people coming from France, Italy, United States, Argentina, Spain, Japan,” she says.

But in Egypt at large, many experts fear the dance is losing its appeal.

Society has become more religious and conservative over the past generation and belly dancing is not considered a respectable profession.

“I don’t like belly dancing. I don’t like to see a woman half-naked dancing and moving her body like that,” says one man on the street in central Cairo.

“It has a kind of sexual movement. That’s why I don’t like to watch it,” adds his friend.

An older passer-by remembers the famous dancers of the 1960s with affection but says he would not let his wife or daughters dance in public today.

“I liked the old belly dancer because you could not see a lot of her body,” he remarks. “They were very respectable – not like the new ones now.”

Enduring art

Dance historian, Mo Geddawi, accepts belly dancing is facing a challenging time in Egypt but says this must be seen in perspective.

“Forget about different governments and religion,” he says. “When Christianity and then Islam came the dance was taboo, but people continued to dance.”

“Sometimes in public it is less but the dance never died.”

For now though international devotees help to ensure the dance goes on.

Diana Esposito from New York came to Cairo on a scholarship to study the social and economic reasons for its decline but has become an accomplished belly dancer herself.

“The first time I saw it I thought the movements were so sensual,” she says. “I decided to try something new and it became an addiction.”

“I don’t see the dance being done properly anywhere else in the world. That’s why everyone flocks here – this is the capital of belly dance.”

July 12, 2009

Russian Roma face image problem

Filed under: Latest, Reviews — Tags: , , , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 5:03 am

Russian Roma face image problem

As part of a series on Roma Gypsies in Europe,we examines how their reputation has changed in modern-day Russia.

Burned Roma house

“Houses started to burn”: a Roma drug dealer’s house

Russians have traditionally tended to think of Roma (Gypsies) in two ways: as horse-dealers and rustlers, or as rolling stones, wandering around the world in colourful costumes and singing romantic songs.

But in the new Russia this old image has been replaced by a different one – one generated by media reports from villages where Roma drug dealers sell heroin.

And although pro-Roma organisations try to argue that this picture does not apply to all Roma, their voice is drowned out by the media.

“All of a sudden, their houses started to burn because of some electrical problems, and entire clans would leave,” remembers Yevgenii Malenkin from Russian non-governmental organisation City Without Drugs, pointing to a burned house not far from Yekaterinburg, in central Russia.

Mr Malenkin says that about seven years ago Roma people living in the house were openly selling heroin.

“Right here on the crossroads crowds gathered, waiting for drugs to arrive. Those who had received their dose were lying in the bushes nearby. And police cars would be there too, providing security for the Gypsies,” he says.

There are no Roma engineers, no Roma doctors, they are all drug dealers
Yevgenii Malenkin

City Without Drugs started fighting drug addiction and drug dealing in Yekaterinburg 10 years ago.

But it seems Mr Malenkin’s attitude towards Roma has been tainted by his experience.

“There are no Roma engineers, no Roma doctors, they are all drug dealers. There are five Roma villages in Yekaterinburg and all five trade drugs,” he says.

Misrepresented

Nikolai Bessonov, one of the best known Russian specialists on Roma, believes that they are misrepresented in Russia.

“The real number of drug-dealers among Roma is exaggerated. The news only shows the drug-dealers. We never hear about Roma who study in universities, work on a farm, we don’t see Roma engineers or Roma doctors,” says Mr Bessonov, whose daughter and son-in-law are actors in a famous Moscow Roma theatre, the Roman.

Mr Bessonov lives in a village near Moscow where, he says, there are many Roma of “respectable” professions: a lawyer, a jeweller and a number of legitimate traders.

But the media tends to ignore them and this leads to misunderstanding.

A recent poll by the independent Levada Centre found that 52% of Russians think negatively of Roma.

According to Russia’s 2002 census, there are 183,000 Roma in the country.

But Mr Bessonov estimates the number to be nearer 250,000.

Secret identity

Nikolai Bugai, foreign relations counsellor at the ministry of regional development, says that Roma are able to live in harmony with the rest of the community.

Traditional Roma

Can reviving traditions improve the image of the Roma?

He recently visited a village in the Krasnodar region in the south of Russia, where out of a population of 13,000, at least 5,000 were Roma.

“There is a farm there of 220 hectares, which is headed by a Roma and the workers are also Roma,” says Mr Bugai.

Nikolai Bessonov believes that Roma people themselves are partly responsible for their negative image, in that they prefer to keep their identities secret.

“When I try to write about Roma who work, I ask a Roma doctor if I can talk about him, but he refuses, saying that he doesn’t want his patients to find out who he really is because that might create work-related problems. I approach a teacher and she tells me the same thing,” he says.

It has been said that those Roma who have assimilated into society have therefore partly lost their Roma identity.

But Mr Bessonov disagrees.

“When Russians stopped wearing beards and woven bast shoes, stopped farming and went to work at a factory or became, for instance, engineers, no one said that they ‘assimilated’. So why when a Roma goes to work in a mine or study at a university, do people say that he has assimilated?” asks the historian.

Our women want to work, but they can’t find anything because they are illiterate
Elza Mihai

He says it is important that Roma continue to respect their traditions, no matter what they do in life.

Many Roma are afraid to assimilate and so they don’t send their children to school. And if they do, it’s only for a year or two, so that children learn to read and write.

But the lack of a complete education makes it difficult for these children to find a job later on in life.

“Our women want to work, but they can’t find anything because they are illiterate,” says Elza Mihai, a teacher from a Roma village in the Leningrad region.

Myths and prejudices

Ms Mihai hopes that with such difficulty in finding employment, Roma people will eventually be convinced to send their children to school for longer than just a couple of years.

But better education alone will not improve the negative image of Roma in Russia.

After all, there are many myths and prejudices about other, well educated peoples.

Nikolai Bessonov hopes that revival of Roma folklore will help improve the image of Roma in Russia.

Together with his daughter and Roma son-in-law, Mr Bessonov has created a folklore group “Svenko”, where artists in typical colourful Roma costumes dance and sing Roma romances.

July 2, 2009

Americans seek their African roots

Americans seek their African roots

Oprah Winfrey

Oprah Winfrey originally thought her ancestors were Zulu

First it was Oprah Winfrey’s wistful reach for the continent, now other prominent African Americans are finding their roots.

In 2005 Oprah Winfrey underwent DNA testing in an effort to determine the genetic make-up of her body’s cells.

The popular American talk show host wanted to know where her ancestors, taken as slaves to the United States, had come from.

Famous genes

Since then thousands of other African Americans have followed suit, many of them household names in the US.

Comedian Chris Rock discovered that he was descended from the Udeme people of northern Cameroon.

Chris Rock

Chris Rock is descended from the Udeme people of northern Cameroon

LeVar Burton, an actor who played the slave Kunta Kinte in the TV drama Roots, linked himself up genetically with the Hausa in Nigeria.

Civil rights leader Andrew Young traced his lineage to the Mende people of Sierra Leone and is also believed to be a distant relative of one of the leaders of the 1839 Amistad slave ship mutiny.

DNA testing has also resulted in some African Americans being bestowed with honorary African titles.

The Oscar-winning actor Forest Whitaker, who portrayed the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, was made an honorary chief of Igboland in south-eastern Nigeria.

He was given the title of Nwannedinambar of Nkwerre which means “brother in a foreign land”, during a visit to Nigeria in April.

Getting results

There are more than two dozen genealogy organisations in the US selling genetic ancestry tests but African Ancestry is the only black-owned firm.

It is also the first to cater specifically to African Americans. Of the half a million Americans who have purchased DNA tests, around 35,000 of them are African American.

African Ancestry charges $349 to test either a person’s maternal or paternal lineage.

Once the fee is paid, swabs used to collect a DNA sample from the inside of the cheek are sent to the customer and then back to African Ancestry’s laboratory.

We did not talk about where we came from when I was growing up
Lyndra Marshall

The DNA’s genetic sequence is extracted and compared to others in the firm’s database.

The company claims this contains 25,000 samples from 30 countries and 200 ethnic groups, and is the largest collection of African lineages in the world.

African Ancestry say that they are very precise in tracing where a person’s ancestors originate from.

Once this is known, a “results package” is sent out, including a print-out of a person’s DNA sequence, a certificate of ancestry and a map of Africa.

“It’s a kind of welcome to Africa package,” said Ghanaian-born Ofori Anor, editor of the African expatriate magazine, Asante.

Transformation

Gina Paige, a founder of African Ancestry, wants to transform the way people view themselves and the way they view Africa.

When many African Americans visited Africa in the past, they were interested mostly in kente cloths and masks, nowadays they want to know more about the country they are visiting.

A poster for African Ancestry

The company has been accused by critics of being inaccurate

Although they still visit the slave castles, they are now also interested in the price of property.

Purchasing a townhouse in the Ghanaian capital Accra or a commercial property in Sierra Leone’s Freetown feels less implausible.

“What we need now is for people to get deeply involved in one particular country or region or culture,” said Andrew Young, the civil rights leader whose consulting firm acts as a liaison for American companies wanting to do business in Africa.

There has been a change too in the way Africans see African Americans and claims of kinship that were once viewed with amusement are now embraced.

This is partly due to the emergence of President Barack Obama and because of the role played by African Americans in his historic election.

As a result, African politicians and businessmen want African Americans to lobby in the US on the continent’s behalf.

Traditional African rulers have also been busy handing out honorary chieftaincies to African Americans in the hope it will lead to an increase in investment and a boost in tourism.

With Obama being both African and American, and our president, this has made many of us interested in where we came from
Lyndra Marshall

Guinea-Bissau’s Tourism Ministry encouraged comedian Whoopi Goldberg to visit when in 2007, DNA tests showed she was descended from the Papel and Bayote people of the country.

Unfortunately, Goldberg has not taken up the offer as she has a fear of flying and has not been in an aeroplane for 20 years.

Unlike the Hollywood actress, as soon as Lyndra Marshall, a 56-year-old retiree from Maryland near Washington DC discovered her African heritage, she immediately boarded a plane for Ghana’s Ashanti region.

“We did not talk about where we came from when I was growing up,” said Ms Marshall.

Since she found out she was of Ashanti descent, she has been trying to get other people to visit and invest in the country.

Along with DNA technology, Ms Marshall credits President Obama with kindling an interest in Africa.

“With Obama being both African and American, and our president, this has made many of us interested in where we came from, too.”

Getting it right

Although many people are excited about the prospect of tracing their ancestry, critics say the work of America’s genealogy companies is far from accurate.

African Americans just want to be able to say they were once kings and once ruled the world
Ofori Anor
Editor, Asante magazine

On a visit to South Africa in 2005, Oprah Winfrey said that DNA testing had conclusively revealed where she is from. She thought she was Zulu but subsequent DNA testing showed she was a descendent of the Kpelle people of Liberia.

Professor Deborah Bolnick of the University of Texas is particularly critical of African Ancestry.

She says its database is too small to fulfil its marketing promise that it is “the only company whose tests will place your African ancestry in a present day country or region in Africa”.

“Consumers should know the limitations and complexities before they spend hundreds of dollars thinking they’re going to find an answer to who they really are,” said Professor Bolnick.

“It’s really much more uncertain than the testing companies make out.”

Despite these limitations, African Ancestry customers like Ms Marshall are convinced her results are correct.

“I have lots of family that look very Ghanaian, they are short like them, dark like them and I have a cousin that looks just like the Ashanti king.”

However, comments like this offend the Editor of Asante magazine.

“African Americans just want to be able to say they were once kings and once ruled the world,” said Mr Anor.

He feels that African governments and traditional rulers should stop the practice of granting citizenship and chieftaincies to African Americans.

“Just because your genetics show you came from a place, should that mean you can lay claim to that group of people or place now?”

Student maintenance cash frozen

Filed under: Business News, Latest, Reviews — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 8:30 am

Student maintenance cash frozen

Graduation ceremony

The system of student finance is different around the UK

Student maintenance grants and loans in England will be frozen for the academic year 2010-2011, the government has announced.

However, loans to cover tuition fees will be raised in line with the increase in the fees themselves.

Tuition fees will increase by 2.04% from September 2010, higher education minister David Lammy said.

He insisted that “difficult decisions” had to be made in the current economic climate.

The full maintenance grant, payable to students whose family income does not exceed £25,000, will remain at £2,906.

Maintenance loans and thresholds will also remain at 2009/10 levels.

Grants available for trainee teachers will also be reduced to be brought into line with amounts available to other students, Mr Lammy said in a written ministerial statement.

He said: “In these difficult economic times, we are continuing to take difficult decisions in the interests of students, universities and taxpayers alike.

“We have therefore decided to maintain the current package of maintenance support for full-time students, reflecting the current low inflationary environment.”

Recession

The Russell Group of 20 leading universities said it was “vital” that income from tuition fees kept pace with inflation.

“The introduction of fees has managed to halt a long-term decline in funding per student but funding for higher education in Britain is still significantly lower than in most other OECD countries,” said its director general, Wendy Piatt.

“The system of student support in England remains one of the most generous – and expensive – in the world.”

But the National Union of Students President, Wes Streeting, said: “Students are already racking up thousands of pounds of debt, and in a recession every penny counts.

“It appears that the inflation rate is being applied where it suits universities, but not where it will improve student support.

“In the context of the current recession, these real terms cuts in student support will be felt in students’ pockets.”

And the General Secretary of the University and College Union, Sally Hunt, said ministers had “failed” to ensure higher education was not a victim of the recession.

Loans

Students in England can apply for a means-tested grant to cover living costs – the value of this depends on their family income.

They can make up any shortfall by applying for a maintenance loan.

In addition, a tuition fee loan to cover fees is paid by the government on behalf of every student directly to the institution they attend.

These are repayable after graduation once annual income reaches £15,000.

Students in Northern Ireland are charged the same fees as in England.

The situation in Scotland and Wales differs – both countries charge higher fees to students from elsewhere in the UK coming to study there.

In Scotland, home students do not pay any fees.

Forced marriage plea to schools

Filed under: Latest, Politics News, Reviews — Tags: , , , — expressyoureself @ 8:07 am

Forced marriage plea to schools

Forced Marriage Unit poster

Forced marriage: Helpline calls up on last year

New guidance is being published urging schools to identify signs of forced marriages ahead of the holidays.

The guidance comes as an official report raises questions about how some schools and councils have failed to act on suspicions or evidence of abuse.

The report calls on schools to play a greater preventative role, saying some are clearly reluctant to get involved.

The government’s Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) says it has received 770 calls for help this year – up 16% on 2008.

The unit, run jointly by the Home Office and Foreign Office, received 1,600 reports last year – and intervened in 420 actual cases.

The courts have also made 36 forced marriage prevention orders, a recently created power designed to prevent people being taken abroad against their will.

Overall, there are estimated to be at least 5,000 cases of forced marriage, but it is impossible to know for certain.

FORCE MARRIAGE HELPLINE
770 calls Jan – June 09
Up 16% on same period of 2008
1,600 calls last year
Courts can intervene to protect victims
Special British team launches rescues in south Asia

But experts say the coming month will be critical because there is growing evidence that abusive families use the school summer holidays to coerce daughters and sons to marry abroad.

The new guidance published by the FMU urges teachers to be aware of signs of a possible forced marriage because school and college is often the only place where the potential victim can speak freely.

The document also provides guidance to doctors, police, social workers and other community workers.

However, according to government research, also published on Thursday, some local bodies are not doing enough to intervene.

This is not something you must be culturally sensitive about – this is a child abuse issue
Jasvinder Sanghera
Campaigner against forced marriages

The report for the Department for Children, Schools and Families details criticisms of some schools and education authorities, accusing them of being “non-responsive” and failing to intervene as they dismiss forced marriage as a “cultural issue” or fear a backlash from powerful figures in minority communities.

“In all areas we noted a variation among key partners in the importance they attached to responding to forced marriage,” says the report.

“One respondent talked about how it was precisely those cases of children [going missing from education] that showed the signs of forced marriage that were less likely to be followed up in schools as this was seen as an issue specific to the culture of the child.”

Act on suspicions

Jasvinder Sanghera of Karma Nirvana, a national campaign group against forced marriages, urged public sector workers, and particularly teachers, to act on suspicions.

“This is not something you must be culturally sensitive about,” she said. “This is a child abuse issue, and you must treat it in that way and follow your child protection procedures. Do not turn a blind eye”.

Foreign Office minister Chris Bryant told the news that professionals needed to have their “eyes wide open”.

“There are key times of the year, particularly if an elder sibling has married very young or suddenly left school, if a youngster is self-harming or if they are constantly being accompanied by parents, even to a doctor’s surgery,” he told Radio 4’s Today programme. “These may be clear signs that there is a problem.”

“I should make it absolutely clear there is no culture and there is no religion in which forced marriage should be acceptable or indeed is acceptable,” he added.

“I know there are maybe some people who think this is an issue about Islam – it’s not. Islam does not recommend or accept forced marriage. Marriage in every religion has to be freely and openly consented to”.


What do you make of these guidelines? Is this the right way to handle the issue? Have you been affected by the issues in this story? Tell us your thoughts

June 30, 2009

Challenges loom as Iraqis celebrate

Filed under: Latest, Politics News, Reviews — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 11:33 am

Challenges loom as Iraqis celebrate

Iraqi celebrate 29 June 2009

Iraqis celebrated US troop withdrawals from cities in a way that has not been seen since the invasion

There was a pop concert and celebrations in the Baghdad zoo park, fireworks in the night sky, and jubilation in the streets.

Security forces were everywhere, all leave cancelled, for fear that the bombers might strike again.

But even the checkpoints were garlanded with flowers and flags, and many had music blaring.

They were marking the arrival of the last day of June, the deadline for US forces to be out of Iraqi towns and cities.

It’s been named Sovereignty Day, and declared a public holiday. Prime Minister Nouri Maliki has said it is a huge victory for Iraq.

But the fact is that for most people in Baghdad and elsewhere, 1 July will look very similar to 30 June or 29 June.

‘A few miles away’

American troops have rarely been seen on the streets in many areas in recent months.

Most of the tasks involving contact with the public have been taken over by Iraqi security forces.

But the withdrawal process did see the US troops either dismantling some 86 bases in the capital or handing them to Iraqi forces.

At one such base, Joint Security Station Comanche on the edge of Sadr City, American soldiers were toiling last week in the baking heat to meet the deadline.

People have tasted democracy, they have worked on democracy… Nobody can enforce dictatorship again on this country
Haidar al-Obadi
Shia MP

Huge concrete blast-walls were taken to pieces and trucked away in the dust to another base outside the city.

The US soldiers from the 1st Cavalry’s Ironhorse Brigade were packing their kitbags and backpacks, stashing them in MRAP armoured vehicles, and being driven away.

“Since we came here in February, our 2,300 men haven’t suffered a single fatality,” said the position commander, Capt Chris Clyde.

“We’re moving to another base a few miles away outside the city, and will continue working with our Iraqi partners from there.”

JSS Comanche is already a thing of the past.

It is no longer a military position. It has been totally dismantled. The building used as its command centre was handed back to its original owners, the Iraqi Agriculture Ministry.

‘Sacrifices’

On Monday, there was a symbolic ceremony at the old Iraqi Ministry of Defence building in the centre of Baghdad, the last US-held position to be handed over to the Iraqi authorities.

At another big ceremony and parade on Tuesday, Mr Maliki paid tribute to the “increasing credibility” of the Iraqi security forces.

Iraqi soldiers on parade 29 June 2009

He said the US withdrawal from the cities vindicated the position taken by Iraqi negotiators in the tough talks with the US that led to the agreement under which American troops should be entirely out of Iraq by the end of 2011, and that the withdrawal timeline would be adhered to.

As far as the towns and cities are concerned, while US forces remain on call outside city limits, their role in urban areas now changes to one of training and advising.

“This is a huge day both for the American and Coalition forces and for the Iraqis,” said the chief spokesman for the US-led Multinational Forces, Brig Gen Steve Lanza.

“This is the culmination of much hard work and sacrifice over the years, as Iraqi security forces now have primacy and control in this country.”

Election test

Much now depends on whether Iraqi forces can prevent the upsurge of violence which heralded the approach of the US withdrawals from triggering another spiral of sectarian violence – the clear aim of a series of deadly bomb attacks directed almost exclusively against Shia neighbourhoods and markets.

It was just such attacks which provoked Shia militias to take brutal revenge against Sunnis in 2006 and 2007, taking the country to the brink of civil war and disintegration.

US soldier in Baquba

More than 130,000 US soldiers remain in Iraq, with full withdrawal due in 2011

“Iraqi society, two years and more ago, looked into that abyss and rejected it, and that is the trend now,” said British ambassador in Baghdad Christopher Prentice, looking ahead to key general elections scheduled for January.

“The concentration and effort across Iraq now is on a very vigorous political campaign. Six months from a landmark election, this is almost unique in the region, a country that is focusing on coalition building, on real politics, and the question is which politicians can win the trust of the electorate to deliver better services and build on the improving security in the way that meets the national needs.”

The period leading up to the elections will be a real test for the Iraqi forces.

They still have 131,000 US troops standing by to help if they run into trouble.

But if they do have to call them back in, it will be seen as a reverse for the Iraqi government, and for President Barack Obama’s hopes of getting all of his forces out of Iraq by the end of 2011 without leaving chaos in their wake.

Changed society

Last January’s provincial elections set an impressive model of democracy in action, with powerful parties in some cases losing out, but accepting the results with good grace.

Will they do so in future elections, when the Americans are no longer around to stiffen the resolve of security forces? Is democracy now sufficiently rooted that it will survive the US withdrawal?

Haidar al-Obadi, a Shia Member of Parliament and close adviser to the prime minister, believes it is.

“There is no going back to a dictatorship or a one-party system in the country now,” he said.

“People have tasted democracy, they have worked on democracy, it is an operation not only at the centre, but also in other areas, in the governorates and in the regions. Nobody can enforce dictatorship again on this country.”

June 24, 2009

Right ear is ‘better for hearing’

Filed under: Health and Fitness, Latest, Reviews — Tags: , , , , , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 5:50 pm

Right ear is ‘better for hearing’

Ear

The left-side of the brain processes much of what is heard in the right ear

If you want to get someone to do something, ask them in their right ear, say scientists.

Italian researchers found people were better at processing information when requests were made on that side in three separate tests.

They believe this is because the left side of the brain, which is known to be better at processing requests, deals with information from the right ear.

The findings are reported online in the journal Naturwissenschaffen.

We can also see this tendency when people use the phone, most will naturally hold it to their right ear
Professor Sophie Scott, of University College London

In the first study, 286 clubbers were observed while they were talking with loud music in the background.

In total, 72% of interactions occurred on the right side of the listener.

In the second study, researchers approached 160 clubbers and mumbled an inaudible, meaningless utterance and waited for the subjects to turn their head and offer either their left or their right ear.

They then asked them for a cigarette.

Overall, 58% offered their right ear for listening and 42% their left.

In the third study, the researchers intentionally addressed 176 clubbers in either their right or their left ear when asking for a cigarette.

The researchers obtained significantly more cigarettes when they spoke to the clubbers’ right ear compared with their left.

Brain

In conclusion, the researchers said: “Talk into the right ear you send your words into a slightly more amenable part of the brain.

“These results seem to be consistent with the hypothesised specialisation of right and left hemispheres.”

Professor Sophie Scott, of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London, agreed.

“Most people process speech and language on the left-hand side of the brain and while it is not cut-and-dry a lot of what goes in our right ear will be dealt with by the left-side of the brain.

“The other side of the brain is more involved in things such as interpreting emotion and that is why we have these kind of findings.

“We can also see this tendency when people use the phone, most will naturally hold it to their right ear.”

June 23, 2009

Sarkozy stirs French burka debate

Filed under: Politics News, Reviews — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 6:25 am

Sarkozy stirs French burka debate

Montage of women wearing the Islamic veil

The use of the head-to-toe veil is dividing opinion in France

Since this was the first time in almost one and a half centuries that a French president had been allowed to address parliament, President Nicolas Sarkozy’s speech was already on course to ruffle a few feathers.

The Greens and Communists refused to attend and the Socialists left early, claiming the venue for the address – the Chateau of Versailles, which was home to King Louis XIV – smacked of monarchy and a thirst for power.

But it was the French leader’s attack on the burka that really caused a stir.

He expressed his strong distaste for the head-to-toe Islamic veil, calling it not a sign of religion but a sign of subservience.

“It will not be welcome on French soil,” he said.” We cannot accept, in our country, women imprisoned behind a mesh, cut off from society, deprived of all identity. That is not the French republic’s idea of women’s dignity.”

President Sarkozy’s comments have not come out of the blue.

They are in response to a call last week by a group of 65 cross-party MPs, led by the Communist Andre Gerin, who wants a parliamentary commission set up to investigate the spread of the burka in France.

They want to see whether such a spread is indicative of a radicalisation of Islam, whether women are being forced to cover themselves or are doing so voluntarily, and whether wearing the burka undermines French secularism.

Mr Gerin believes the burka “amounts to a breach of individual freedom on our national territory”.

Because, if the mention of monarchy triggers warning bells in France, the mention of religion triggers much louder ones.

Ban in schools

The concept of secularism or “laicite” is sacred in France.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy
We must not fight the wrong battle. In the republic, the Muslim faith must be respected as much as other religions
Nicolas Sarkozy,
French President

The separation of church and state is jealously guarded by everyone from school teachers to government ministers – and the constitution states the republic “does not recognise, subsidise or remunerate any religious body”.

It underpinned the French Revolution, and has been a basic tenet of the country’s progressive thought since the 18th century when French Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire, Diderot and Montesquieu regarded religion as divisive, benighted and intolerant.

It was this same concept that was invoked five years ago to ban conspicuous signs of religion – including Islamic headscarves – from schools.

That decision sparked controversy and debate across Europe, with critics claiming it stigmatised Muslims at a time when France needed to be stepping up its fight against rife discrimination in the job market, which had caused so many youths of Muslim origin to feel forgotten by French society.

This latest call for a potential ban of the burka has prompted the head of the French Council for the Muslim Religion to warn MPs they risk stigmatising Muslims again.

But the special inquiry does have the backing of Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Paris Mosque and a former head of the Muslim council, who insists that Islam in France should be an “open and convivial Islam that allows people to live side by side”.

He fears that anecdotal evidence that more women are wearing the burka in France is linked to an “excess, a radicalisation” among some Muslims.

Find out about different styles of Muslim headscarf

With five million Muslims living here, France is home to Western Europe’s largest Islamic community and the government will be anxious not to isolate the Muslim population by being seen to be trying to dictate to women what they should wear.

The issue has even split the French cabinet.

Rama Yade, the Muslim human rights minister, said she would be open to a ban if it was aimed at protecting women who wore a burka against their will. The immigration minister, Eric Besson, believes a ban will only create tensions.

President Sarkozy may have given his backing to an open debate on the burka, but he also insisted France needed to make sure it knew exactly what it was debating.

“We must not fight the wrong battle,” he said. “In the republic, the Muslim faith must be respected as much as other religions.”

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