Who Let this Pr*ck Into Sierra Leone?

It’s been a pretty exciting week here on T’ing ‘n Times. The fun began a week ago when I first wrote this post. It started out thus:

“Normally, I don’t blog about personal matters but this Canadian NGO staffer’s blog post got me so fired up I had to share! I clicked a link from Google alerts expecting to read something interesting or informative about Sierra Leone but what I found was disappointing at best. This guy, who’s in the country to “improve governance and overall quality of life for the people of Sierra Leone,” basically runs down a laundry list of things that are f*cked up about Sierra Leone, ending with this paragraph:

I’ve discovered more reasons for my friends and family to worry (hahahha): Don’t get caught in the middle of a “secret society” ceremony. They will initiate you on the spot. This may include crazy piercings and/or drinking animal fluids. What about the Kamajors? The psycho cannibal hunter tribe. Lucky for us, they sided with the peace forces during the war. They believe they possess magical powers. Bullets will pass through them causing no harm. They don’t discriminate either. You can you join the tribe if you make it through initiation, of which, the last phase includes being fired at by an old Russian semi automatic machine gun. [bold mine]

You can read the entire post, entitled Crazy Unknown African Viruses & Psycho Cannibalism here. Then please leave him a comment like I did:

Jason,

I’m Sierra Leonean and I find your attempt at humorously addressing the many challenges of life in Sierra Leone to be rather insensitive and demeaning. Not to mention ignorant. The Kamajors are not a tribe and—regardless of whether or not they practised cannibalism during the war—referring to them as “The psycho cannibal hunter tribe” is downright offensive, and it shows a stunning lack of knowledge about Sierra Leone.

I wonder if the Sierra Leoneans you encounter socially or professionally know about your attitudes. Or perhaps you only express your opinions when you and your expat do-gooder buddies get together.

Either way, I would have expected more from someone who claims to be in Sierra Leone to “improve governance and overall quality of life for the people of Sierra Leone.”

. . .

What you will read from this point on is a rewritten version of this post. I decided to change the text because I wrote the first version in a fit of anger and said many things in it that were insulting of the author, Jason Salituri, and his friends and family. In the ensuing week, I’ve had time to reflect on what I said and on the reaction it caused, and I’ve apologized personally to Jason and his family. I’m not proud of the language I used and the insinuations I made, but I won’t pretend that Jason’s post didn’t anger me or that I never wrote those words. Just to prove that I’m not trying to erase the evidence, you can read the original post as it first appeared here.

This, however, does not change the fact that Jason’s post was offensive to me. His characterization of Sierra Leone as a dirty and dangerous place populated by superstitious and cannibalistic people is offensive to me and other Sierra Leoneans, judging by some of the comments posted here, on Jason’s blog, and elsewhere on the web. So I’m going to take a second stab at addressing the post and explaining why it was so offensive.

Sierra Leone is where I was born and I still have a huge extended family there. I understand that Jason’s post was meant as an inside joke to his friends and family but the characterization was not much different from colonial-era European depictions of Africa. While the dirt and disease and cannibalism may be humorous to some, it doesn’t change the fact that Sierra Leone is home to our friends and families. The description of the Kamajors as a tribe of psycho-cannibals is offensive for obvious and aforementioned reasons so I won’t go back to that. Then there was the description of the initiation ceremonies, which are ancient and sacred rituals for a huge portion of the population—both urban and rural. One of Jason’s supporters who posted a comment under the name “newly” says s/he’s Catholic and so was offended by my mention of Catholicism in a prior post: it didn’t even take a joke about Catholic sacrament to offend him/her. Well, the initiation rites Jason makes fun of are as important to Sierra Leoneans as Catholic sacrament is to a Catholic like “newly,” so I can only hope that s/he and the other people who defended Jason on my blog can begin to understand why his post was so offensive.

I say I can only hope because the one thing that’s stood out most starkly in this whole back-and-forth is the total failure of Jason’s defenders to acknowledge that his post was indeed offensive, or to recognize that I was justified in taking offense to it. Instead, the comments focused on everything from personal attacks against me to reminders of the good work Jason is doing in Sierra Leone. Patrick Mosolf was the one commenter who came closest to acknowledging that the post was offensive, but he spends the bulk of his comment telling me how and why I overreacted. He then goes on to assure me that all White people are not racist, as if that’s what I was saying in the first place. Towards the end, he poses these questions: “Are all white people racist? Have you ever been outside of Sierra Leone and how many white people have you met? How do you know if someone is racist unless they make an overtly racist statement?” In my response to Patrick, I explained to him that I am in fact half White and I have spent over half of my life living outside Sierra Leone. So Patrick, rather than recognize my right to be offended, just assumes that my anger stems from an irrational and uninformed suspicion of all White people, thereby demonstrating that he totally missed the point of my original response to Jason’s post. And, for the record, I’m still working very hard on considering “This may include crazy piercings and/or drinking animal fluids” and “The psycho cannibal hunter tribe” as anything other than overtly racist statements.

The rest of the comments—excluding the respectful and considerate one from Jason’s dad—are even worse than Patrick’s. Kevin, who identifies himelf as Jason’s friend reminds me that Jason is doing good work in Sierra Leone and then asks me if my own “stereotypes” of do-gooders (read foreign NGO staff) doesn’t do equal harm. I fail to see how my “stereotypes” could do more to tarnish the image of NGO staff than Jason’s defenders’ inability to acknowledge that his post is offensive. Then, in a display of what I can only interpret as macho posturing, Kevin invites me to visit his blog and “give him the same treatment,” as if I’m the guy who has nothing better to do than criticize NGO staffers’ blogs. Again, no acknowledgement that the post was offensive or that my response was in any way understandable. Similarly, “newly” starts off calling me a hypocrite and then proceeds to dissect a couple of my top posts in an attempt to prove that I too am judgemental and prejudiced. But what both these commenters fail to acknowledge is that this is not a case of tit for tat. Jason’s post insulted me and I lashed out. Their retaliation to my lashing out is understandable to me—they’re his friends after all—but let’s not pretend that I had no cause to feel offended.

Through all this, one theme comes up again and again. Commenters remind me that Jason is a good guy working under difficult conditions in Sierra Leone. I don’t deny that. I know how things are in Sierra Leone and it’s not the easiest environment. Still, I don’t think that makes it OK for him to have said what he said. Certainly, freedom of speech is on his side, as it is on mine, but when offense is caused, it serves no-one to deny or ignore the fact. But that’s precisely what I got from BigJ, another defender of Jason’s who wrote, “I have spent enough time in Freetown pushing shit uphill (for which, read working to foster any level of, or even a feeling for, financial accountability in the Salone Government) to understand the man’s wish to say something. Laughing to keep from crying springs to mind.” I can understand the wish to laugh but why do so at the expense of the very people he’s trying to help? Psychiatrists help the mentally ill and special ed teachers help the learning disabled, but that doesn’t give them the right to make fun of their patients or students, does it? And if they’re caught doing so, shouldn’t we acknowledge that it’s insensitive of them to do so?

But clearly, none of the commenters who’ve posted comments supportive of Jason have admitted that his post was insensitive or shown any empathy for those of us who were offended by it. Instead, most of the posts have focused on criticizing me personally and on excusing Jason’s behavior: I’m judgemental and biased, I make stereotypes, conditions are hard in Sierra Leone, Jason’s making a great sacrifice to help Sierra Leoneans, etc. But that is not the point. Is there after all an inverse relationship between the wrongness of Jason’s post and my response to it or the difficulty of working in Sierra Leone? Does Jason’s post become less offensive because my response insulted his friends and family? I’m not proud of that fact but it doesn’t change the fact that other Sierra Leoneans who were offended by him didn’t write angry and vitriolic responses too, did they? It is certainly very telling that “newly” accuses me of insulting Jason’s friends and family but cannot recognize that Jason’s post was insulting to our friends and family in Sierra Leone. Those psycho cannibals and tribal initiators who pierce bodies and drink animal fluids are our friends and family too, and we have a right to be insulted when they are caricatured as they were in Jason’s post.

I’ve taken responsibility and apologized for offending Jason, his family, and his friends. It is, however, very telling that no-one on the other side of this issue has bothered to do the same. This fact alone says so much more than my post ever could have.

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Ability is not Obligation: Being Able to Get Pregnant Does not Mean You Ought to

Teen pregnancy has been in the news a lot lately, it seems. First there was Juno, the oscar-winning movie about a pregnant teenage girl. Then 16-year-old Jamie Lynn Spears—younger sister of pop star/basketcase Brittany Spears—made waves when news broke of her out-of-wedlock bun in the oven. And on Friday, just one day after Jamie Lynn Spears had her baby, news came out that 17 pregnant teenagers in Gloucester, Massachusetts—all students at the same high school—had made a pact to get pregnant and have their children together. The pact was discovered after staff at the school clinic noticed an increase in the number of girls coming in for pregnancy tests and reported that some girls seemed disappointed when their tests came up negative.

So what is one to make of this case? Naturally, there’s the obligatory gaggle of Hollywood blamers, who say movies like Juno and Knocked Up trivialize pregnancy and make it seem like a frivolous, fun matter. These same people also blame the gossip mags for inappropriately and disproportionately glamorizing celebrity pregnacies, adoptions, and childbirths. This is to be expected since America has a tendency to seek easy scapegoats, with Hollywood and mass media being convenient and longstanding bêtes-noires. Let’s not forget that Marilyn Manson was blamed for the Columbine shootings and hip-hop has been blamed for everything from carjacking to drug use?

But I think there’s more at play here than the pop culture–haters are willing to delve into. No doubt, the decision to get pregnant shows these girls to be immature and emotionally underdeveloped, precisely the point made by Amanda Ireland, herself a teen mom and graduate of Gloucester High School: “They’re so excited to finally have someone to love them unconditionally. I try to explain it’s hard to feel loved when an infant is screaming to be fed at 3 a.m.” So it’s telling, and sad, that amidst the uproar of righteous indignation over this case, a teenage mom’s analysis is the most insightful and comes closest to addressing the deeper issues—low self-worth and a desire for affirmation—that may be at work here.

So, rather than blame the media, let’s look elsewhere; specifically, where these girls are from. Now, I’ve never been to Gloucester, Massachusetts, but from what I’ve read, it’s an economically depressed community with a majority Catholic population. I can’t speculate on these girls’ domestic situations but I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that girls from stable, nurturing, and affirming environments do not choose to get pregnant before they are 16. I would be interested in hearing about how these girls felt about their lives, their futures, and their odds of getting out of their economically depressed communities, going to college, and getting a real shot at personal and professional success. In other words, I wish the conversation were focused more on the choices open to teenage girls in economically depressed communities with few avenues for escape.

Having never been to Gloucester, I can only speculate, which I’m fully prepared to do since I’m also a gambling man. I wager that these girls were not raised in homes or communities in which they were taught to value themselves or to make decisions that would benefit them in the future. I wager that these girls never saw themselves as college graduates or professionals. And I would wager that these girls considered pregnancy and motherhood to be worthy accomplishments that would win them attention and admiration. After all, these girls are, like all people, rational beings and—despite showing terrible judgement—we can only assume that some thinking must have taken place. Moreover, these girls were definitely not the first teenagers in their school or community to get pregnant. What is unusual is that they got together, talked about why they wanted to all be pregnant at the same time, and then went out and did it. And did it they did—one of the 17 was supposedly impregnated by a 24-year-old homeless guy! That shows determination and planning, and those are rational thought processes.

So, almost half a century after the social revolutions of the 1960s, it seems many American girls are still living beyond the reach of women’s liberation, the movement that declared that women were more than mere vessels for children and could, in fact, become anything they wanted to be. Somewhere along the way, American society failed to teach these 17 girls from Gloucester, Massachusetts that teen pregnancy and motherhood are not the only options open to them, just as it fails to deliver that message to thousands of girls all around the country. It is clear, though, that another message reached these girls. They saw teen pregnancy and motherhood as worthy and worthwhile goals, and they set out in pursuit of them. With limited educational and economic opportunities and an increasingly “pro-family” state, is it any surprise then that the US has the highest teen pregnancy rates of any industrialized country? Should anyone really be surprised to learn that teen pregnancy is once again rising after a 14-year decline?

It really is too bad that nobody is telling American girls that a college education, a profession, and financial independence are also worthy goals—goals that they deserve and are fully capable of achieving. And it’s even worse that nobody is doing anything to make college a more affordable and thus attainable goal for all American teenagers.

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UPDATE — To all the family-values people who blame sex education and contraception for teen pregnancy:

Pathways for Children CEO Sue Todd, whose organization runs the school’s on-site daycare center, told TIME on June 13 that its social worker had heard of the girls’ plan to get pregnant as early as last fall. She noted that some of the girls involved had been identified as being at risk of becoming a teen mother as early as sixth grade, when they began to request pregnancy tests in middle school. “What we’ve seen is the girls fit a certain profile,” Todd said. “They’re socially isolated, and they don’t have the support of their families.”

I seriously doubt these girls were getting sex education in sixth grade yet some of them were already exhibiting high-risk sexual behavior. Where’s the traditional family in this scenario?

No Blood=No Marriage or, Some Gentlemen Prefer Virgins.

A couple of weeks ago, a court in Lille, France, annulled the marriage of a young engineer and a 20-year-old nursing student. The grounds for this annullment were not infidelity, violence, or even the ever-vague “irreconcilable differences.” Rather, the marriage was dissolved because on the couple’s wedding night in 2006, the groom had been unable to present a bloody sheet to the wedding guests who were partying downstairs. The groom, apparently troubled by his inability to produce a bloody sheet—proof of his bride’s virginity—went to court the next day and demanded an annullment. For her part, the new bride confessed to having had sex before the wedding—presumably with someone other than her future husband.

The court decision sparked outrage in France among secularists, who felt that religious beliefs should not be upheld by law, and feminists, who felt that the law should not be used to control a woman’s sexual behavior. I agree with both viewpoints. It seems that some men from some communities value the intactness of a woman’s hymen above all else, which is baffling to me. I mean, who would want to have sex with a virgin anyway? Sure, virginity has it’s place but sex is as important a part of the human experience as nutrition, literacy, or education. As far as I’m concerned, there would be no human species without sex and if sex is so essential to the very existence of our species, then it’s important enough to be done well. I can’t personally speak from experience on the issue of sex with virgins, but I can only imagine it’s not very good. Not the first few times anyway, if the anecdotes I’ve heard from my friends—male and female—are anything to go by. I imagine it would be akin to asking an illiterate person to read you a passage from The Merchant of Venice. Thoroughly unsatisfying.

But that’s just my opinion because apparently, some men—like this jerkhole engineer—don’t really care about the enjoyable side of sex. Not for the woman anyway. I mean, imagine going to bed with someone whose primary concern is to get some blood on the sheet so he can go show it to his wedding guests!! Nice!! And I guess he must not have been that into his new wife because he sent her back to her parents’ house and asked for a divorce the very next day. In fact, the whole story makes me wonder why he decided in the first place that this was the woman he wanted to spend the rest of his life with. His decision must have had everything to do with his assumption that her hymen was intact because, once the traditional test proved negative, he kicked her out.

Now, I’m not saying this woman was or was not a virgin on her wedding night. From what I’ve heard and read, plenty of women don’t bleed the first time they have sex. Different people are built differently and women who engage in some physical activities—like cycling, horseback riding, and running—have been known to bleed very little or not at all. But that’s neither here nor there, because a woman’s worth should not be measured against whether or not she chooses to have sex before marriage. I can think of lots of other variables besides virginity that would make or break the marriage deal. For example, is she nice? Does she give change to the homeless? How does she feel about the Holocaust? Does she vote Republican? (“Yes” is definitely a deal-breaker).

Thankfully, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, and some women are finding ways to have their cake and eat it too. Commenting on the case, French philosopher and feminist Elisabeth Badinter, said, “The sexuality of women in France is a private and free matter. The annulment will just serve to send young Muslim girls running to hospitals to have their hymens restored.” It seems that Ms. Badinter’s prediction is coming true, according to a New York Times article on women who are having their hymens surgically restored. This makes perfect sense to me. The use of surgery by some women to make themselves more acceptable and desirable in accordance with social norms is nothing new, so in communities in which a premium is placed on virginity, it’s only natural that some women would resort to this procedure. The reality is that some men will continue to stupidly insist on women suppressing their sexuality so they can be virgins on their wedding nights. And the reality is also that some women—willingly or unwillingly—will end up marrying such men. But these two realities will inevitably produce a third reality, that some women might choose a middle ground in which they can experience sex before marriage and nonetheless present themselves as virgins on the night of their wedding.

At the end of the day, medical advances like contraception,  abortion, and now hymen reconstruction, have long enabled women to make important choices about how they live, who they have sex with, and when, how, and with whom to have children. So for the women who can afford to pay for hymen restoration surgery, I say more power to you. Someday we might live in a world where men don’t care about your sexual history but, until that day comes, you gotta do what you gotta do.

PETA Video on Chinese Fur Industry

A while back, I blogged about a PETA video lampooning the Olsen twins of Full House fame. Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen are apparently big fans of fur, and their designer label includes a line of fur coats. Personally, fur does nothing for me and I’ve never understood the appeal. Maybe it’s because I grew up in Sierra Leone.

Well, it looks like PETA’s at it again, with another video about the fur industry. But this time, the video is not a humorous spoof on Full House nor does it feature the Olsen twins. This video’s about the fur industry in China and it shows how cruelly fur animals are treated. The animals are literally skinned alive and the fur—these animals’ skin and hair—is made into coats, collars, cuffs, or lining. The fur is often shipped off to other countries too so even if the label reads “Made in Italy” or “Made in France,” if it’s got fur, chances are it came from China.

In most parts of the world, it never gets cold enough for a fur coat. And in places where it does get that cold, it’s easy enough to find a non-fur coat that’s warm enough. I for one would not shed a single tear if the fur industry were to disappear.