issue 212 - October 1990
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Your recent issue on how the end of the Cold War affects the Third World (East Meets West, North Forgets South NI 211) was welcome - but puzzling. In it you made no mention of the way in which some Third World leaders are attempting to redress the political imbalance between North and South by resorting to the terrorist tactic of hostage taking. However repugnant, recent events in the Middle East surely indicate that this is the future ahead of us. Saddam Hussein's actions are a response to Third World powerlessness - and one we should expect to see more of. I can only assume that the NI went to press before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait for this important factor to have been omitted. What about an issue on the Middle East now?
I don't expect you to get everything right, but to describe the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception as coming from a 'literal translation' of a controversial biblical passage' is enough to make me chuckle - especially in a piece headed 'Fundamentalism -The Facts' (Reaching for Certainty NI 210). The doctrine states that Mary, the mother of Christ, was preserved from sin from the moment of her conception. And it isn't in the Bible. It wasn't defined by the Roman Catholic church until 1854. And it isn't accepted by Protestants - certainly not by most of those you refer to as 'fundamentalists' in the rest of your issue. I expect you were thinking about the virginal conception of Jesus which is described in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.
I object strongly to the photograph of Ahmadi Muslims that was published in the NI in the context of the articles on fundamentalism (NI 210). The word fundamentalism is unfortunately used by the Western press as the 'thought represented by mediaeval Islam' - rather than Islam at its source or in its pristine form. The Ahmadiyya Movement in Islam was founded by Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad of Qadian India in 1889 and stands for the revival of true Islam. To this, fundamentalism as expressed in the articles is totally alien. Our motto is 'Love for all, hatred for none' and it can be clearly seen in the background of the picture. Using the photo in the context that you placed it damages the credibility of your publication, and I feel that NI owes an apology to the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community.
Rashid Ahmad Chaudhry,
Press Secretary Ahmadiyya Muslim Association,
At one time I could easily have become a fundamentalist advocate of natural childbirth (NI 210). But I didn't because I quickly discovered that I was even more fundamentally opposed to unnecessary pain - and resorted to an epidural anaesthetic. As a result I had a very pleasant, stress-free, pain-free labour and delivery. Moreover I had no guilt about by-passing the pain: after all, I have yet to hear anyone advocate, say, natural tooth extraction. Sometimes I feel the romanticizing of natural childbirth is yet another example of the seemingly worldwide conspiracy - aided and abetted by many women - to make us all feel guilty for not suffering enough.
Perhaps you were right and there is a demon fundamentalist within us all, which we need to be constantly battling against - or at least made aware of.
On the broad definition given by Richard Swift (Reaching for Certainty NI 210), fundamentalism can mean almost anything. More simply, this striving for the clear assertion of 'fundamentals' is an age-old and pandemic aspect of humanity: the striving for certainty and predictability. In the old, inherited sense fundamentalism is a good thing because it alleviates pain and suffering. But it is subject to manipulation by politicians who use it to their own advantage. Never let the politicians get hold of your own particular source of comfort and kid you that without them it will not survive. Refuse to believe them. Refuse to go along. If everyone can manage this we will all be able to go on quietly shaving our heads, lighting our candles, starving ourselves on particular days of the year - and no-one will mind or probably even notice.
Naomi Roberts concluded her period of volunteering early because she felt she was giving Ghanaians something that they did not want (Endpiece NI 209). This is odd because VSO does not impose volunteers on countries. It responds to requests from those countries and usually they only get what they ask for. Of course, we sophisticated Westerners may think they are not asking for the right things. But to impose our views is just as colonial as our forebears. There is a difficult problem here and I should be interested in any answers your readers may suggest.
I am a Ghanaian working as a Field Officer for VSO in Ghana. I read Naomi Roberts' article (Endpiece NI 209) with interest because in a way I was one of the characters in the drama she narrates. She has been honest with herself and the lesson is clear. 'Aid workers' who come to developing countries with a purely altruistic attitude - giving up a good job and staking a lot to help poor people - are doomed to be disillusioned and frustrated. Those who come as partners, patient and ready to learn and therefore better able to adapt their contribution before giving it, stand a better chance of going back happier and with the feeling it was worth it.
In their article on Central America (The Fear of Madness NI 209), Lucy Marks and Val Ford twice refer to the 'new UNO government' of Violeta Chamorro. What on earth does this mean? This 'UNO government' - as the authors acknowledge - was selected by the Nicaraguan people albeit by a fairly narrow margin. Their new leader is a former Sandinista supporter. Is it seriously suggested that she break with her old allies because of her lack of sympathy for their mental-health reforms? If, as I suspect, Nicaragua faces serious economic problems, I would assume that part of the blame lies with the previous Nicaraguan government and that Chamorro may be faced with tough decisions needed to ensure that the 'empty stomachs' of the people are filled. She deserves sympathy in these present difficult times.
As a beekeeper's wife I have to use soap powder rather than scented detergent as bees don't appreciate the chemical scents in many whiter-than-white products (Letters NI 208). I use Preservene's White Snow which is the cheapest soap powder on the Australian market though there is a knack to using it as it is slow to dissolve, being fine lumps of pure soap. On washing day I fill a bucket half full of very hot water and add my cup of soap powder before going back to the house for breakfast. Dishes done, I return to find my bucket full of 'slime' which I pour into the washing machine.
Soaps clean by having charged particles at either end of their molecules - one end 'grabs' dirt while the other 'grabs' water. This means you can re-use soapy water for fresh loads as the 'cleaning' happens in the rinse. The sudsy water continues working while it is slippery and you can still make bubbles by agitating it, no matter how grotty it looks.
The co-operation necessary to combat the threat of global warming (How to turn down the heat NI 206) may be difficult to achieve under our competitive system in which profits seem to be considered more important than safety or even life itself. An escape route would be possible by establishing a society in which industries, land and natural resources are democratically owned and controlled by all the people, and production carried on to satisfy human needs rather than for profit.
The views expressed in these letters are not necessarily those of the New Internationalist
Bonfires in Bolivia
In the contest between the sun god and the ozone layer, Bolivians
know what to choose every time. Susanna Rance reports.
Bonfire night in Bolivia - on 23 June, the eve of San Juan - is reputed to be the coldest night of the year. Stones break open on the windswept high plateau and fires are lit to defy the bitter chill and summon back the rays of the sun god, Inti.
Migrant families have brought the tradition with them to the urban shanty towns. Everywhere San Juan stands for warmth, fun and companionship. Bonfires are built not in people's backyards but on the streets outside their doors. The further you climb away from the town centre, the more alive the custom is. The narrowest, poorest alleyways glow with flames, lighting up the hillside paths. Neighbours sit on each other's doorsteps, chatting and sharing hot punch, jumping over the flames, dancing and carousing until the drink runs out and the embers have died down.
Each year on San Juan, a hundred thousand bonfires dot the slopes of the huge crater which holds La Paz. Next morning the city's crystal-blue skies are covered by a curtain of grey smog which hides the snowy Andean peaks and causes havoc to local flight schedules.
Two years ago, news of the ozone layer hit Bolivia and the San Juan celebrations - and the smoky aftermath took on a new significance. There was serious talk of ecological suicide, criminal irresponsibility and the evils of toxic fumes merging with alcoholic ones. This year fires were banned in the main cities. The La Paz Police Force nobly sacrificed its traditional bonfire party and patrolled the wintry hillsides - some sneakily in plain clothes - to enforce law and order in pagan territory.
Up in the shanty towns subversion ruled. As night fell, the neighbours in our dead-end street furtively stacked piles of wood and old furniture in their doorways, listening for radio reports in the hope of a reprieve. The first bonfire was lit, glasses of punch were passed around and the winter chill started to mellow.
After a while, two soldiers in khaki ponchos came up the hill and asked us somewhat apologetically to put out the fire. When we protested that ours was a dirt track and not a paved city street, they seemed uncertain of the rules and phoned their chief. It turned out he was being bombarded by similar queries and was none too sure of the answer. 'Phone back in half an hour,' he said, and the soldiers went on their way, warmed by glasses of hot liquor.
When they returned, eight bonfires were blazing and our new friends from across the way were dancing to lively Peruvian music. The soldiers got their chief on the phone again and made the situation sound quite dire. 'There's not a lot we can do,' they said. 'There are fires everywhere and some of the locals are getting stroppy. We're trying to deal with it peacefully...' The lieutenant applauded their efforts and said the tactic was to avoid aggro and let the fires die down gradually.
'Well, that's it then. Time for a drink,' said the soldiers, relieved at having accomplished their mission so early in the evening. It was true that things were getting out of hand. On a brief stroll through the nearby alleyways we counted 70 bonfires and spirits were rising.
As our tipple changed from hot tea with grape liquor to Dona Eva's lethal milky punch, previously unknown neighbours became dancing partners, tongues loosened and inhibitions faded. It seemed quite natural for us to end up slumped together on the ground leaning unsteadily against each other, watching the children play while the more resilient dancers still staggered and turned in the firelight.
Next morning, painful rays of sunlight somehow filtered through the haze hanging over the city. Our street was a charred mess and the corner shop didn't open. As the neighbours started to emerge later in the day, everyone agreed it had been a great San Juan. But would it be the last?
Environmentalists and defenders of popular culture launched into a week-long debate about the pros and cons of the bonfire culture. Some went to town on Bolivia's planetary responsibility, warning that such barbarian customs would eventually lead to the flooding of New York and Miami and the extinction of the human race. But as one leading ecologist pointed out, close-knit communities and their traditions tend to stay in greater harmony with the environment than modem urban society. Banning the yearly fiesta of San Juan may be Bolivia's gesture towards fighting global warming. But it also signals the end of an ancient rite rejoicing in human warmth and in the sun's return.
Susanna Rance has lived and worked in Bolivia for several years.