new internationalist
issue 251 - January 1994

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Include a home telephone number if possible and send your letters
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Flawed evidence
Cover of the NI Issue 249. The issues raised in Catherine Itzin’s feature on Sex and Freedom (NI 249) are not as clear-cut as fashion and intuition might seem to indicate. For example, women with shaved pubic hair are not always the victims of ‘child pornography’. In Japan the portrayal of pubic hair in any medium is an offence and as a consequence even the sexually explicit, mutually consensual erotica of which Ms Itzin is less disapproving would have to reflect this.

A second point concerns the allegation that people were being killed in ‘snuff movies’. This was first made in the 1970s by the head of an American ‘Decency in Literature’ organization. The FBI were called in to investigate the claims but they found no evidence and were forced to abandon the enquiry. David Friedman, producer of pornographic films, put up a $25,000 reward for anyone who could come up with evidence. It remains unclaimed.

And finally, the use of pornography by rapists and child sex abusers is undoubtedly high, but it is not clear whether sexually criminal urges lead to the consumption of pornography or the other way round. Certainly liberalization of the laws relating to pornography in Scandinavia was accompanied by no change in the rate of sexual crime, and rape is a feature less frequently seen in pornography than mainstream terrestrial TV in the UK and US.

I would support Ms Itzin’s call for an end to denigration and abuse of women in a sexual setting, and a lot more mutuality and equality in sexual images but I do not think that pseudo-rational arguments and flawed ‘evidence’ are the best way to do this.

J S Barnett
London, UK

Grass-root change
As an ex-subscriber I found your issue on Education (NI 248) disappointingly familiar. To a large extent my disappointment reflects our differing interests: you say you wanted to concentrate on the economics of education, while I get excited by interesting changes and innovations. The trouble is that your approach produced the traditional NI conclusion that all that is evil in the world is the fault of governments and business interests, which allows your readers a rather self-indulgent wallow in indignation without being able to do anything about it.

Stories of successful educational reformers, on the other hand, illustrate what individuals can achieve, sometimes with government co-operation, but more often – and I would suggest, more interestingly – by ignoring governments and existing power-bases and working initially on a small scale to achieve grass-root change which spreads.

Heinz Hellin
Bramley, UK

Positive energy
Thank you for my monthly dose of solid, positive idealism. I don’t know what I would do without it. I’ve just spent the afternoon reading your issue on education (NI 248) and have emerged from it refreshed and envigorated.

Tonight I am showing a group of my pupils ‘Manufacturing Consent’; a profile of Noam Chomsky. Next Thursday I am taking a group to interview and video a local organic farmer for a broadcast in the school. And next month I am taking a group to an Amnesty International conference in Birmingham. All these activities are mostly due, I’m sure, to the burst of positive energy that I get from your magazine.

Huw Peach
Shrewsbury, UK

Milked by the ilk
I note no mention in Geoff Sayer’s report on East Africa (NI 248) of the butchery of citizenry and the draining dry of treasuries by Idi Amin and his ilk. While the governments of industrialized countries must be held responsible for inhuman economic exploitation of African (and other) deprived populaces, attention should also be drawn to the criminal support, via aid and trade, of corrupt leaders by their counterparts in the West (eg Reagan, Thatcher, Kohl, Bush etc).

Chris MacLeod
Sirdar, Canada

Education otherwise
I was disappointed not to see any mention of parents who choose not to send their children to school in Back to the Drawing Board (NI 248). Schooling can be, and often is, a far from liberating experience. It can be used to socialize young minds – instilling competition, using threats or bribes to teach obedience to authority, pushing a particular world view, and often crushing our natural curiosity and desire to learn.

As anyone who has ever been involved in any campaign work knows, a questioning attitude and an ability to accept new ideas are even more important than literacy. A compulsory school system is a wonderful device for the powers-that-be to produce a standardized, graded product – a population of worker-consumers who have had little chance to question the status-quo. The most inspiring projects described in October’s issue were the voluntary, small-scale initiatives such as the community-schools movement in Brazil.

Anyone who wants to find out more about learning outside of a school system can get information from Education Otherwise, 25 Diabaig, Torridon, Achnasheen,Ross-shire, IV22 2HE.

Patrick Holdsworth
Hull, UK

photo by VIV QUILLIN

Science, please!
Obviously Richard Swift had to be very selective in his coverage of history (NI 247), but I was greatly disappointed by the absence of even a passing mention of the history of science and technology and the history of medicine, given the central roles of those disciplines in creating the problems with which the NI is concerned.

Over the last 40 years historians in these fields have produced some of the most radical, innovative and challenging historical work to be found anywhere. For example, they have demonstrated the extent to which ‘science’, far from being the embodiment of objective rationality, is always thoroughly embedded in specific socio-economic and cultural contexts. These govern and constrain not only priorities and funding but the very nature of scientific theorizing itself and the personal motivations and goals of scientists. ‘Social constructionist’ and feminist perspectives have been deployed with great effect-iveness in achieving this. As an antidote to patriotic and ethnocentric heroic history this wide-ranging and exciting corpus of work ought surely to have been drawn to your readers’ attention? Or perhaps you are wisely planning to devote a future issue entirely to this topic? If so, all is forgiven!

Graham Richards
Tunbridge Wells, UK

Dependent Tibet
In a letter in NI 247 headed ‘Independent Tibet’, the author expresses surprise that Tibet is not shown on any maps as independent of China. That is because it is not. I think Richard Whitecross could look at a very large number of maps over the last 200 years without finding one which shows Tibet independent of China.

Does this make the Western Powers’ utter failure to protect the Tibetans from China’s influxes, cruelty and other malpractices somewhat less dreadful than if Tibet had been independent? Surely we do not really believe that the Western Powers would have stood idly by and watched the ‘invasion’ and subsequent spoliation of Tibet if Tibet had ever been independent of China? You do really think so? Well, perhaps you are right.

Alec Vans,
Newnham, UK

Controlling shares
In response to Ruth Crossley’s letter (NI 248) concerning multinationals and how we might best influence them by opting in, this has often seemed a good idea to me, but I suspect that it is ultimately flawed. I would like to be wrong but wouldn’t such a move be useless unless the ‘network of like minds’ could acquire a controlling share? Highly unlikely.

Peter Corke
Watford, UK

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

Letter from Lagos

No polish for Mercedes
Nigerian parents long for a better education for their children.
But all over the country attendances are dwindling.
Elizabeth Obadina reports on a fading dream.

Illustration by MIRIAM McCURDY There has been no school for primary children in my neighbourhood since last July. Pro-democracy stay-at-homes fused with the annual long vacation led straight into a teachers’ strike over non-payment of salaries.

‘Now we’re hearing it’ll be the new year before the schools re-open,’ says Mamamercedes whose seven- and nine-year old sons, Eric and Sunday, attend the local primary school. Mamamercedes would prefer private schooling for her sons but her income from petty trading in groceries and her husband’s as a driver just can’t stretch to find the 700 naira ($21) per term needed to put each child through the cheapest private school.

‘I’m so worried,’ says Dickson, their father. ‘What these boys are missing now is so much more difficult to make up when they’re older. What chance had I to catch up? I want a better life for my children.’

Dickson believes in education. He called his baby daughter ‘Mercedes’ after a character in The Count of Monte Cristo, which he finished reading the day she was born. He shouldered a lot of teasing as a result: ‘Why for you name your pikin after car?’; ‘He’s just hoping she’ll bring her daddy plenty of money and a Mercedes of his own’.

Dickson’s protestations that he named his daughter ‘for book’ and not ‘for money’, are laughed off. But most of those who tease Dickson – street traders who pause for a drink outside Mamamercedes’ stall, building workers waiting to be called for a job, the unemployed whiling away time playing ludo or draughts – are also anxious about the fate of their children’s education.

Primary education has been free and compulsory in western Nigeria since 1955. Lagos is used to 95 per cent of its primary children attending school. School systems used to crash in other parts of the country but never in Lagos. Now Lagos primary schools are joining the chaos. Enrolments fell two per cent between 1992 and 1993.

This figure is nothing compared to national statistics. Since 1988, when 80 per cent of eligible children were enrolled, attendances have dwindled to only 60 per cent last year.

Teachers’ strikes are the immediate cause of parents’ disaffection. Arbitrary education levies also discourage schooling. And there is discontent about the wretched learning environment of primary schools everywhere in Nigeria. Most are tin-roofed shelters in varying stages of decay. Few have toilets and those which do are in such a foul state as to discourage use. Classrooms lack electricity and water. When the sun shines the children bake. When the rain falls they cannot hear the lesson for the thundering of rain on the tin roof – if there is a roof. Books? What books? Writing materials? Few authorities provide them.

I find it amazing therefore that a recent, unpublished nation-wide survey of Nigerian women conducted by the United Nations Children’s Fund finds that 98 per cent, whether from north or south, town or country, Christian or Muslim, literate or illiterate (and 70 per cent are illiterate), still want their children to go to school. Not only that, but most want their daughters as well as their sons to go on to tertiary education. There are communal differences. Only 45 per cent of Muslim women in the North want university-educated daughters, compared to 73 per cent of pagan women and 72 per cent of Christian women.

I came away from reading the report wondering whether the researchers – all Nigerians – had strayed into a Nigeria hitherto hidden from government planners and other aid agencies. All the high-profile educational programmes are about educating ‘ignorant’ women through vocational training and literacy classes. But here are Nigerian women saying ‘What we want is education for our children’. I knew this had to be the authentic voice of the married woman because the researchers also found out that 96 per cent of women had no concept of leisure time, and 84 per cent would like to attend literacy classes but three-quarters wouldn’t be able to find the time.

Sounds a bit like me trying to find time for some self-improvement scheme – and I’ve only got three children. Most Nigerian women have six. But they know what they want for their children. They would prioritize education. Unfortunately, it seems that the Government is unlikely to listen to them.

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

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