New Internationalist

Letters

Issue 304

Letters
The New Internationalist welcomes your letters. But please keep them short.
They may be edited for purposes of space or clarity.
Include a home telephone number if possible and send your letters
to the nearest editorial office or e-mail to : ni@newint.org

[image, unknown] Total indifference
I do appreciate your magazine but I was sorry to read in NI 302 on blue jeans, under the title ‘Pesticide suicide’, the story of the cotton farmers of Andhra Pradesh in India, re-lated in such a heartless and incomplete way. Many more than 20 farmers committed suicide: on 12 January there had already been 50 suicides and they were still taking place at least until the end of February. Farmers swallowed pesticides or jumped into wells.

Maybe one of these suicides ‘grabbed’ the headline as your journalist says, but almost every day the facts were re-ported in the local newspaper. Misled by local government, cheated by pesticide- and seed-vendors, forced to borrow money at prohibitive interest rates… And all this in a climate of total indifference.

This is a tragedy that went almost unnoticed, presumably because of other greater tragedies. But can you imagine the commotion in Europe if this happened to one of our artichoke farmers?

Katherine Carré
Versailles, France

Label campaign
Your issue on Jeans (NI 302) provided a welcome insight into conditions on the global factory floor. It is essential, however, that a better-informed public should also be given the means to express its concern and respond practically. ‘Labour Behind the Label’ is a UK version of some 10 European campaigns formed to raise public awareness of the issues and put pressure on companies to improve working conditions. It has just produced a card which people can send to clothes companies asking them to adopt codes of conduct based on the UN Conventions on workers’ rights and to accept independent monitoring of working conditions among their suppliers.

UK readers can obtain the card from
Labour Behind the Label, 38 Exchange St, Norwich NR2 1AX.

Chantal Finney
Norwich, England

Raison d’être
I write in response to Richard Bryant-Jefferies letter (NI 300). I too feel a focus on responsibility is long overdue.
For example, Amnesty International recently accepted Mr Blair’s signature for the ‘Get up, Sign up’ Campaign. However, days later, Mr Blair and Mr Clinton debated the destruction of thousands of Iraqi lives. Noam Chomsky has stated that if the Nuremberg Laws had been correctly applied every US President since the Second World War should have been imprisoned. These examples serve to highlight that human rights are not viewed as an individual as well as a collective endeavour. Surely our responsibility is greater than merely mouthing support for the less fortunate? In order to ensure that responsibility is more than lofty rhetoric we need to become active ourselves. But what then do we consider appropriate enactment of human rights both on our doorsteps and beyond our borders? Do we consider it beyond the scope of the individual but firmly within the jurisdiction of the State? Should we act as individuals within our limited means leaving to hope, charity and government the resolution of larger issues? Or assert that as ‘rights and responsibilities’ are a critical shadow dance, human responsibility should be the raison d’être for any and all human-rights declarations? I think we should.

Mitch Lawson
Burgess Hill, England

Illustration by VIV QUILLIN
Illustration by VIV QUILLIN

Women in Cuba
What a pity Wayne Ellwood didn’t have a feminist companion on his travels in Cuba (NI 301). He missed a golden opportunity to examine the real gains which the Revolution has brought for women. For example, an in-depth interview with Vilma Espin of the Cuban Women’s Federation (FMC) might have highlighted both the ways in which women have made enormous progress since 1959 and the resistance there has been to women’s genuine equality with men.

Cuba has made tremendous progress through its revolution. If ever there is to be a revolution in the relations between women and men, we need to know how it’s to be brought about. A feminist consciousness at work during the research for this issue would have addressed this most fundamental of inequalities and had something worthwhile to report on Cuban women’s experience.

Ruth Margerison
Christchurch, Aotearoa/New Zealand

Iranian veils
The photo that you printed (NI 300 page 9) of ‘women in Teheran trying to navigate kerbs and potholes via the tiny “permissible” slit in their “veils”’ is pure fiction. I suspect it was not even taken in Iran. I recently lived there for a year and there is no such rule. No-one in Iran is required to cover their face.

If you wanted to search for women going out with their faces covered you can find them here in Egypt, no doubt forced by family pressures or stupid husbands; in Pakistan too – but that doesn’t mean it is required by state law.

I don’t need to remind you of the gullible trust that most people have in the printed word. Has it come to the point where the Western press can print any rubbish and get away with it if they are writing about Muslims?

Nafisa Abdelsadek
Cairo, Egypt

Editor: we have checked with the library that supplied the photo, Rex Features, who confirm that the photo was taken in Teheran in 1985. There is no legal requirement for women to be veiled in this way.

Crippling debt
The leaders at the G8 summit of rich nations in Birmingham made pitiful progress on the issue of debt relief for poor countries. Do they fully comprehend the extent to which debt is crippling developing nations and condemning them to an irreversible future of poverty? During the period from the 1980s through to 1997 the debt load of developing countries has doubled from $1.1 trillion to a stunning $2.3 trillion dollars. According to the World Bank, 40 countries, most of them in Africa, are heavily indebted and in fact spend more than half of their nations’ budgets on debt interest. Mozambique spends more on debt interest than it does on health, education, policing and its justice system. In this extremely poor country, where 200,000 children die every year from the effects of poverty, two-thirds of money that comes in from foreign donors goes right back out to foreign banks.

When over 12 million poor children in the world die every year mostly from preventable diseases and malnutrition, who are we kidding? Debt is causing poverty in the Third world and without debt-forgiveness these countries have no hope of recovering and growing into healthy trading nations with stable economies.

Karen Hodgson
Victoria, Canada

Web Editor: see (NI 312) Drop the Debt, published in May 1999.

Best system?
It amazes me that people can read the NI and still think capitalism is ‘the best system we have’ (Letters NI 300). The issue on Mining (NI 299) for example, showed just how far capitalism is prepared to go. Huge multinational corporations, more powerful than most governments, raping the earth and condemning people to misery, all in the endless pursuit of profit for the shareholders.

If this is the best system we have – God help us!

Jo Makepeace
Brighton, England

TOPIC TIME
We are holding our annual meeting to decide on topics for next year’s issues. If you have ideas that you would like to send in, please send in a paragraph (not one line and not three pages!) on each proposal to Nikki van der Gaag in Oxford by October 15th. You can post it or e-mail me on nikkivdg@newint.org


The views expressed in these letters are not necessarily those of the New Internationalist

[image, unknown]

Secrets and skies
Louisa Waugh gives secret lessons to a government official
and ends up drinking vodka with his family.

It all had to be kept very quiet. No-one, certainly no other government official, was to know about my dealings with Sumiya. The daily visits were discreet. Sumiya’s driver would pick me up at home and whisk me to the fifth-floor Ulaanbaatar apartment where Sumiya would be waiting. Two or three hours later I would quietly leave and Sumiya would either return to his government office (which I never saw) or start his homework.

I never really understood why our English lessons had to be kept such a secret. All I was told was that Sumiya had applied for a masters in economics in England and I had just six weeks to turn this senior government official into a fluent English speaker. I only agreed to do it because I was broke.

Illustration by SARAH JOHN

Sumiya and I spent several hours a day poring over grammar books and copies of English-language test papers, while the old ladies sitting on the wooden benches in the sunshine outside his block gossiped about my visits.

His mobile phone was initially welded to his left hand, but after five lessons I banned ‘that damn phone’ and my 37-year-old student meekly gave in.

This large courteous Mongolian, who trained in Hungary and speaks five languages, told me on our first meeting: ‘my wife is good looking, so you see I am fat man.’

He introduced his wife, Enerel, and the four kids, took me out for dinner and dedicated himself (when his mobile phone wasn’t beeping) to hastily mastering the English language.

Sumiya’s older kids study in Europe, his wife works in a Western embassy and the whole family hoards foreign gadgets. But Sumiya confided in me that he visited a local lama (Buddhist priest) to receive inspiration in his English studies and, out of the office, he often wears the traditional Mongol deel — a calf-length silk tunic buttoned down the right side.

After a month of lessons, Sumiya asked me to spend a weekend in the countryside with his family. ‘A few old friends’ would be visiting, but, he assured me, we would cram all weekend. I had my doubts. Mongolians drink vodka at any get-together. But I love the countryside and I liked Sumiya and his good-looking wife, so I was persuaded to join them.

Even as we drove out of Ulaanbaatar, the beer cans were popping. The driver swilled away and Sumiya caught my eye and said sheepishly: ‘maybe no lesson today, but you can give me worst test tomorrow.’ I had to laugh. We drove 50 kilometres, stopping to circle a sacred cairn, blessing our drunken journey.

We arrived in a cool green valley just before a purple and orange sunset. We camped in a traditional Mongol felt ger, friends arrived and I gave in and got wasted with the rest of them. I slept with Sumiya’s family cozily sardined together on several large mattresses and, after a late-night pee outside, drifted into a peaceful drunken stupor.

I woke early, remembered where I was and sat up in my sleeping bag. My pupils dilated — the ger floor and walls were littered with corpses. Large sections of a sheep were hanging from the wooded ger supports. Five dead marmots (large hay-coloured rodents) were casually strewn on the floor — one with its throat missing. Lunch and dinner had been caught.

Sumiya and I sat outside in the brilliant sunshine practising adverbs while Enerel and the kids pottered about the ger. The valley was decked in wild flowers and the herders next door (well, nearby) were milking their mares and fermenting the milk which they drank fresh and warm. It was idyllic.

Sumiya and his family were definitely city folk on a rural weekend. They drove their white Korean saloon car into the distance to go to the bathroom and 15-year-old Nara screamed when she was finally persuaded to mount a horse.

But they all tucked into the pungent flame-roasted marmot meat and that night our ger echoed with a crowd of voices singing beloved ancient Mongolian laments.

Two weeks later Sumiya took and passed his English test (his mobile phone was forcibly removed after disturbing the beginning of the exam). After a flurry of phone calls about the climate, customs and student life in England, he and Enerel were off. But only for a year — Sumiya and his globetrotting family can only live under Mongolia’s piercing blue sky.

Louisa Waugh is a freelance writer who lives and works in Mongolia.

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