new internationalist
issue 250 - December 1993

The New Internationalist welcomes your letters. But please keep them short.
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Include a home telephone number if possible and send your letters
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Liberal claptrap
Cover of the NI Issue 249 I’m afraid that Catherine Itzin does not, as proclaimed in the introduction to the article ‘Sex and Freedom’ (Liberty NI 249), ‘chart a path through the impasse on the pornography and censorship debate’. She actually charts a cop-out.

We don’t need lawyers and researchers to tell us what pornography is, and how degrading it is to the women and children who are its most common subjects. So let’s stop messing around with this liberal anti-censorship claptrap. Let’s just get rid of the stuff. And if we can’t do it legally, we just have to resort to other means...

Jean Morrison
Stockport, UK

Kosovo in context
Branka Magas (‘The Curse of KosovoNI 247) claims that the conflicts in Yugoslavia are driven by Serb territorial aggrandisement and that the roots of Serb fascism lie in a myth about a medieval battle. It’s true that of all the Balkan peoples, the Serbs possess the most potent set of myths. How otherwise could they have led the way in rolling back the Ottoman Empire, played the key role in freeing fellow Slavs from Austro-Hungarian domination, and had the nerve to say ‘no’ to Hitler in 1941 with the result that Belgrade was bombed into submission?

Magas’ only reference to the Second World War is curious. The Yugoslav People’s Army was ‘born in a national liberation war meant to liberate Serbs and Yugoslavs from the Kosovo curse’. There is no mention here of liberation from the Nazi-puppet Greater Croat state whose Ustashi units, sometimes assisted by Muslim Slavs committed genocide against Serb civilians throughout Croatia and Bosnia.

As for the present, it is not just the Croatian and Bosnian Serbs who are ‘aggressors’ and ‘ethnic cleansers’. These accusations are also levied against the Bosnian Croats, the Trans-Dneister Slavs of Moldova, the Ossetians and Abkhazians of Georgia and the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh. Magas, presumably, would have us believe that all these peoples are cursed with their own malevolent myths.

There is a far simpler explanation: when a federation fragments any attempt to railroad compact ethnic areas into someone else’s unilaterally-proclaimed state will be resisted.

Y Kovach
Twickenham, UK

Mythical murals
Your otherwise excellent issue on the uses and abuses of history (NI 247) appears to contain at least one of the very distortions the issue intended to highlight!

On page 19, under Patriotic History, you state, ‘Much Third World patriotic history is a reaction to Western paternalism but takes on many of its characteristics, as with the murals in post-Independence Ghana which attributed to Ghanaian genius the invention of the alphabet and the steam engine’.

Many Ghanaians would be interested to know where these murals are or were. Or have you repeated what perhaps began as a cynical tall tale to enliven a diplomatic dinner-party?

Whilst a number of our public buildings have murals, they tend to celebrate our cultural traditions or to portray themes of industry or agriculture appropriate to the function of the building. I am unaware of any which fit your description.

Please enlighten us.

VA Sackey,
Office of the President,
Accra, Ghana.

Ed: Our information dates back to the period of Independence, and was supplied by AJ Plumb in his book The Death of the Past.

By word of mouth
I was delighted to see your issue ‘Myth and Memory: the uses and abuses of history’(NI 247). However, my delight turned to dismay as I discovered no reference to oral history or the work of oral historians.

You surely must know that oral historians throughout the world have been at the forefront of work which sets out to rediscover and retrieve past experiences which previously had not been considered part of official and dominant histories.

Such work goes on in many different parts of the world. Should readers be interested to know more, they should contact Rob Perks, curator of Oral History, National Sound Archive, 29 Exhibition Road, London SW7 2AS.

Joanna Bornat
Joint Editor, Oral History
London, UK.

cartoon by VIV QUILLIN

Corporate bathwater
At last! An NI article with which I disagree! What a dismal prospect Kirkpatrick Sale offers us in the issue on Multinationals (NI 246): if we do not immediately and unconditionally forego all commerce and undo all technology we will face global ruin. Apparently there is no way out.

Huge and irresponsible corporations have a lot to answer for, certainly. The misuse of technology empowers the already-rich, and has brought us several times to the brink of nuclear disaster. There can be no enterprise, no technology – ultimately, no human organization – without there also being environmental impact. But that doesn’t make all these things wrong in themselves.

Those who are fortunate enough to have access to the handles of economics and the reins of technology have a responsibility to use these to the benefit of all the inhabitants of the world, present and future, human and non-human. They can’t simply unravel the great tangle of history that brought about this advantage; and they are in a position to make a difference. Let’s not throw this out with the dirty corporate bathwater.

Patrick Ballin
Hove, UK

UK not OK
The human rights ratings (in the facts section) for various countries published in your issue on the subject (NI 244) lists Britain at fifteenth in the world with a 93 per cent rating. Does this take into account the special powers allowed to the British government for use in the North of Ireland which include; no jury courts, denial of access to a lawyer for suspects, erosion of the right to silence, the power to ‘internally exile’ people in the UK?

Aidan McQuade
Tigray, Ethiopia

Kerala insights
Your issue on Kerala (NI 241) was as good as a gift, written only two months after I had returned from volunteer work in the state. But I would like to make two additional points.

First, the chronic shortage of unskilled labourers in the state due to the rise in standards of education. People with tertiary qualifications see unskilled work as personally degrading and hide their poverty whilst devising ways to pay the large bribes necessary to gain suitable employment – often by taking loans at high interest rates.

Second, there are enormous strains placed on women as a result of their menfolk working in the Gulf States. A wife may be subject to suspicion and gossip to the point where a male relative cannot visit her alone.

So despite increasing affluence and educational possibilities, women are under increasing pressure in what is fast becoming a middle-class, nuclear family-oriented existence.

Penny Hartill
Auckland, Aotearoa/New Zealand

Stop ‘ethnic cleansing’
Would it be too much for NI’s writers to stop using that obscene euphemism lately popularized by journalists and politicians, ‘ethnic cleansing’? Orwell must surely be twisting in his grave over that linguistic atrocity. When you mean pogrom or genocide, say pogrom or genocide. Otherwise you collude with the perverted thinking of rapers and pillagers.

C MacLeod
Sirdar, Canada

Sharing stories
The Victoria Storyteller’s Guild has been awarded a small grant to take part in the cultural aspect of the Commonwealth Games in 1994. We are looking for stories that reflect the everyday realities of people, women’s lives, and stories of gentle wisdom. Can you help?

Luda Siegel
Victoria Storyteller’s Guild
118 Wildwood Avenue,
Victoria, BC, Canada V8S 3V9

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

Letter from Lagos

A way with waste
Elizabeth Obadina ponders on what happens to rubbish in Lagos,
where even knickers and nail-clippings may find themselves recycled.

Illustration by MIRIAM McCURDY Nigeria is a nation of hoarders and savers. As someone who compulsively squirrels away rubbish I have found my spiritual home. I spend my life surrounded by clutter. Empty jam jars and sauce bottles weigh down kitchen shelves, cardboard boxes are kept ‘just in case’, stacks of ‘rough paper’, used on one side, litter my office. Although the world's worst seamstress I find it hard to part with any old clothes which might be, but never are, made into something else.

Occasionally storms hit the household, forcing a bout of spring cleaning. Usually it’s an impending visit from Mother, but the recent stay-at-home pro-democracy protests whipped up a hurricane of activity and bad temper as I fought to work at home under a deluge of children’s books, toys, videotapes and grown-up debris.

I sold off the jam jars to the ‘glass-jar woman’. A young man reeled out of my house under a three-foot stack of old newspapers. I sold the stack at 10 naira (20 pence) a foot and made his morning. He will resell them at twice the price. Assorted plastic bottles and plastic cooking-oil cans went to the man who collects such stuff. Old clothes I considered beyond redemption made a miraculous reappearance on the backs of the neighbourhood’s squatter children. The local ‘bender’, or welder, came to take away any old iron.

We carefully stored away old wood. In these days of perennial kerosene and bottled gas shortages and a looming power-workers’ strike, no-one knows when they will be reverting to wood fires for cooking.

A man with a bicycle collects what would have gone in the dustbin, piling all before him in a swaying basket-tower of Pisa. I tried to help him by taking the overflow down to the local dump by car. The help wasn’t appreciated and I soon found out why. I had hardly drawn to a halt before three young men bore down upon the boot of my car, wrenched it open, unloaded the contents and fought over the spoils. They fought over the kitchen-bin contents, broken polystyrene packaging, old lightbulbs, torn and mauled old lino, and various spoilt car parts which even the ingenuity of the local mechanic had been unable to renovate. Clearly I had deprived our regular waste-collector of unappreciated valuables.

One has to take care that nothing of a ‘personal’ nature ever goes into the dustbin. I once caught my next-door neighbour burning her old knickers to prevent them turning up elsewhere. Hair and nail-clippings are always flushed down the toilet for fear of them ending up on the fetish stall of the local juju market. There is very little about waste recycling that the West can teach Nigerians.

Poverty forces people to find a use for virtually everything. Little wonder that Lagos State’s most spectacular white elephants, three American-designed, state-of-the-art waste disposal plants could never be used because the volume of appropriate waste was so low. After a dozen years standing idle they were recently decommissioned, stripped for scrap and sold off for alternative use.

One might imagine then that Lagos is one of the cleanest cities on earth.

It isn’t. The waste that absolutely no-one can use masses in infrequently cleared dumps blocking roads and market-places. The smell is appalling. Everywhere in Nigeria the last Saturday morning of every month is compulsorily devoted to an ‘Environmental’. Movement is prohibited and anyone found out and about doing anything but cleaning up courts arrest and a stiff fine. But when the public sanitation exercise is over, and after the scavengers have worked over the rubbish and gutter slops piled along the roadsides there still remains the final disposal problem. A problem tackled by desultory public authorities.

Public carelessness and the creation of rubbish on a massive scale contrasts sharply with the values of the people who have next to nothing.The paper-feed from my computer printer went mysteriously missing for months until it turned up posing as an ornament on my housemaid’s shelf. ‘I liked it’s shape’, she said, adding, ‘I thought it was a broken toy.’

‘It’s a real shame’, said Aji, my lawyer friend, when I told her the tale, ‘because for most of our people that’s all life in the late twentieth century means: a collection of alien artefacts. Some can be found a use for, but most are simply ornamental curiosities.’

Elizabeth Obadina is a freelance writer and journalist living in Lagos.

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