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new internationalist
issue 254 - April 1994

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 : [email protected]

The Ruined Maid
Cover of the NI Issue 252 Here is a postscript by the British novelist and poet Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) to last month’s issue on Prostitution (NI 252). It is from a poem entitled The Ruined Maid:

‘O ’Melia my dear, this does everything crown!
Who could have supposed I should meet you in town?
And whence such fair
garments, such prosperity?’
‘O didn’t you know I’d been ruined?’ said she.

‘You left us in tatters, without shoes or socks,
Tired of digging potatoes and spudding up docks;
And now you’ve gay bracelets and bright feathers three!’
‘Yes, that’s how we dress when we’re ruined,’ said she.

‘I wish I had feathers, a fine sweeping gown,
And a delicate face, and could strut about Town!’
‘My dear – a raw country girl such as you be
Cannot quite expect that. You ain’t ruined,’ said she.

Peter Little
Henley, UK

No judgement intended
By mistake a sentence on Brazil and a paragraph on Africa were inserted into the article by us entitled ‘The Healthy Hooker’ (NI 252). The information in those passages is fragmentary and capable of a variety of interpretations. Some come from controversial studies whose ethical standards are viewed by many of our colleagues as falling well below what is acceptable. Furthermore it may be taken as implying a judgement on sex workers in Brazil and Africa, which was not intended.

Catherine Healy and Anna Reed
New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective, Wellington, Aotearoa/New Zealand

Telly – no thanks!
I read Teeare Scarrott’s article in your issue on Mexico (NI 251) with great interest, and agree that we can do without so many ‘essentials’ in our homes.

But I am surprised that he does not mention television. In a lifetime spent without it, I find I am well-enough informed about the world by publications, and, feeling I can spend time better than being entertained by pictures on a box, I am relieved of the distress of seeing the violence friends describe on television.

Surely of all the unecessary items in our lives, television is the one we need least; surely we would all be happier and healthier without it?

Isobel Shepherd
London, UK

Grassroots work
Congrats on your timely re-examination of the issues surrounding AIDS (NI 250). Thanks especially to Maggie Black for highlighting the work of TASO and Sister Ursula in Uganda, and her exposé of larger agencies’ lip service to the ‘community response’.

I worked on a Community AIDS Project in Rakai District in Uganda, where among other activities we were involved in training people to care for AIDS patients at home. The health service in Rakai has been decimated by war and health cuts.

I must, however, take issue with your statement that ‘in some villages there are only children and grandparents’. This is simply not true and inaccurate reporting like this is not of benefit to those working at the grassroots.

David Joyce
Limerick, Ireland

England’s rule
As an Englishman living in Scotland I am painfully aware of the abuse of the word ‘England’ when ‘Great Britain’ or the ‘United Kingdom’ should be used. To refer to the UK as ‘England’ is to further advance the already considerable cultural dominance of the rest of the UK by England.

Your issue on History (NI 247) pointed out how, by the way history is written, cultural suppression is achieved. Imagine then my great disappointment when reading this issue of NI to see mistaken references to ‘England’. Please wake up to your ignorance and prevent such mistakes in future!

JP Hollands
Glasgow, Scotland

photo by VIV QUILLIN

Steiner schools
Thank you for your issue on Education (NI 248) which so clearly demonstrated the threats facing educational ideals world-wide. As a parent with children at a Waldorf (Steiner) school I am conscious that my children are privileged to be treated as being of body, soul and spirit by teachers who work hard both outwardly and inwardly in their study of the development of a child. The combined threats from the commercial/economic sphere on the one hand and by State domination on the other suggests to me that we need to find other models of social and political structures within which education can develop in greater freedom. Waldorf schools are one of the largest-growing educational movements in the North at present with over 500 schools.

Steiner himself offered such a model when he suggested that it was the task of government to ensure that all children have the right and means to obtain an education, and the task of the economy to provide the resources. He foresaw the need to distinguish more clearly between three ‘spheres’ of society: rights and the law; economic life, and culture. If the characteristics of each sphere can be adequately recognized in future, there is a better chance of establishing harmonious and sustainable development.

Sebastian Tombs
Edinburgh, Scotland

People of colour
You list groups in Aotearoa/ New Zealand that deal with certain aspects of Liberty (NI 249).

In this country, as in other white colonial societies, liberty is of great concern to people of colour, and there are many organizations in their communities which have been active on these issues for decades.

Two of these are: Nga Kaiwhakama- rama i Nga Ture (Maori Legal Service), PO Box 6528, Wellington, Aotearoa/New Zealand. Ngati Te Ata, c/o Ms Waatara Black, PO Box 138, Waiuku, Aotearoa/New Zealand.

Sue Culling
Corso, Dunedin, Aotearoa/New Zealand

In praise of porn
I consider the ‘Sex and Freedom’ article in your issue on Liberty (NI 249) to be very exaggerated and extreme in tone.

Speaking as a man of 70 who has no sex-life outside masturbation, I do buy so-called ‘soft porn’. I don’t know where Catherine Itzin lives, but she implies that the sort of material I buy is in the same category as the appalling and depraved material where unmentionable things are done to women and children. This kind of material must surely be bought by a tiny minority. All that nearly all men need and want from pornography is enough exposed female flesh to bring them to erection and ejaculation.

A crackdown on pornography that worked would simply drive a minority of very tense, frustrated men into rape, indecent exposure and abuse.

Gloucestershire, UK

World without hope
After reading some copies of the NI, I feel that the world is left without hope and that there are not enough people willing to do something about it. Furthermore I am not sure that the number is increased by your readers. Do you ever ask your more candid friends what effect an article or an issue has on them? Does it inspire or depress? Do they know what could be done about it, how and by whom? Haven’t you become too much like professional journalists?

I realize that my letter may sound negative, the very thing that must be avoided. There really are, in my opinion, plenty of achievements to applaud and sound idealists to record.

Nicholas Gillett
Malpas, Cheshire, UK

Editor: We try to have a fair number of campaigning issues, and give ideas for action wherever possible. We are also instituting a regular slot later in the year, which will be an interview with some of the ‘idealists’ you mention. We hope this helps!

Back issues
Many thanks for placing an advertisement for my back numbers of NI. I had 5 enquiries within a week, and sent them on a first-come-first-served basis to a school in Birmingham. I wonder whether is is worth your while encouraging other people to offer to pass on back numbers. I don’t suppose I am the only squirrel among your readers!

Jennifer Zarek
Surbiton, UK

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

Letter from Lagos

Vanity Fair
To dye or not to dye? Elizabeth Obadina learns her lessons as hair
and skin become victims in the battle for beauty in Nigeria.

Illustration by MIRIAM McCURDY Midweek. Midmorning. A time when I should have been working. A time when visitors rarely call. But I’m not working. I’m lurking furtively around the remotest garden tap. My hair appears to have had an affair with the compost heap. It is full of green bits and every now and then a trickle of rust appears on my neck and face to dry like blood on my skin. I am not a pretty sight. I am undergoing a beauty treatment.

At forty-something, and greying, vanity has got the better of me. It was a chance encounter with Ilona, my Hungarian friend at the school gate that began my transformation into a mildewed vision from hell. ‘Eleezabetta. Oh Eleezabetta,’ she warbled. ‘Why you no look beautiful any more? Why you let all this grey come? Don’t you know we married Nigerians eh? So you want to let a young and beautiful second, perhaps third, wife to come and share your husband now? Yes? No: you must get rid of the grey. Yes.’

Now my husband had never mentioned my grey hair or much else for that matter about my appearance. Maybe he was quietly casting a roving eye elsewhere. Ilona was positive he had to be. She arrived that evening with a ‘nearly-black’ wash-out-in-six-shampoos hair colour. It was past its sell-by date; common enough for Nigerian imports which range from British right-hand-drive cars which have failed their roadworthiness tests – Nigerians need left-hand-drive cars – to Italian toxic wastes and ancient EC beef surpluses.

That night I had nearly-black hair. My husband didn’t notice. However, he did notice my purple hair the following night. I don’t know whether it was the out-of-date chemicals or the tropical sun that achieved the purple look but my husband waxed scornful about people – like me – who risk their health using lead-based blackening pomades (another British export) to destroy the ‘distinguished’ look of grey hair. He’s getting grey hair too. I told him I hadn’t used lead, arsenic, asbestos or any other poison or carcinogen as a beauty aid. He said the results spoke for themselves and lapsing into sarcasm said I was clearly the sort to try out a skin-lightener to restore my weather-beaten white skin to a pink and creamy childhood complexion.

Mercury-based bleaching creams, another British contribution to the dermatological health of African nations, were banned by the Nigerian Government in 1988, but are nevertheless freely available and used by many Nigerian women who believe that black is not beautiful. ‘Fanta faces,’ the local kids call them after the fizzy orange drink. ‘Fair-skinned’ is how the consumer sees herself, and mercury-poisoning and taut, paper-thin, permanently-ruined skin seems a small price to pay.

By the same token visiting whites sacrifice themselves to melanomas, despite vastly superior European health education, by sunning themselves under the scorching tropical sun – and all for a more beautiful brown skin.

But back to my purple hair. My kids thought the purple was deliberate; a calculated act designed to embarrass them by adopting a pathetically dated punk hairstyle. I was ordered not to show my face near the school gates until ‘something had been done’. There was only blond hair-colour left on the supermarket shelf. I baulked, fed up with out-of-date beauty aids from a bottle, and went to the market in search of something ‘natural’.

The herbs and spices trader didn’t speak English. So a lot of people volunteered to explain my need for something to turn my hair another colour, preferably brown. She understood and shovelled a medium-sized plastic bag full of crushed leaves I took on trust to be henna. She mimed that I should mix them to a green gunge with water and plaster this over my hair. I got the message and headed home. I went to the bathroom first but soon discovered that henna leaves a trail like the aftermath of a chainsaw massacre.

Out in the garden I thought I would never wash the gritty green particles from my hair. It didn’t help that the government water tap ran dry halfway through the palaver. But I did get rid of the grey and the purple. My natural brown looked browner, and the grey... ‘What do you call that colour?’ asked my youngest. ‘Autumn leaves,’ I said, pleased with myself. ‘What’s autumn?’ he said. ‘A time when Europeans become senile and their brain cells die off,’ said my husband, who at last has begun to notice my appearance.

Elizabeth Obadina is a freelance writer and journalist who lives in Lagos.

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