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Truer picture
Cover of the NI Issue 268 Chris Brazier’s description of the images of Africa – Heart and Soul (NI 268) – was very accurate. The news media concentrate on portraying the sensational and crisis aspects of African life, to the detriment of the more mundane, not to mention the positive and the exciting.

In Ireland many people who have spent time in the ‘Majority World’ are concerned about this simplistic portrayal of complex and diverse countries. Africans in particular are portrayed as a hopeless dependent mass. This serves to strengthen the sense of superiority many of us already have and clouds the main causes of global inequality.

It is about time that the stereotypes that we are shown of the people of the South were broken down. It is only then that we can begin to co-operate with each other with anything resembling equality.

Comhlámh, the organization for returned development workers in Ireland, is organizing a campaign to encourage the media and non-governmental organizations to present a ‘Truer Picture of the Majority World’. For further information, contact us at: 55 Grand Parade, Cork.

Eilish Dillon
Cork, Ireland

Birth and power
I experienced my usual pang of annoyance upon reading Chris Brazier’s otherwise fascinating account of Sabtenga (Heart and Soul, NI 268). The irritation comes from his (and most other people’s) continual reference to birth as ‘delivery’. This word is incredibly disempowering to the mother. Midwives, doctors, ambulance officers and even fathers do not ‘deliver’ the baby. But they are often given the credit for the birth.

With support from calm attendants, mothers can birth their babies very well in their own fashion. Perhaps the woman in Chris’s story might not have been torn if Mariama the midwife had not been so aggressive in her management of the birth. The disempowerment of women in this most crucial and female of experiences paves the way for disempowerment at other levels, both in the South and the North. I’m hoping that NI can adjust its own language so that others can benefit from this awareness.

Alison Athanassiou
Hendra, Queensland, Australia

Half the story
Steve Eckhardt’s Endpiece NI 268 on the ‘New Conquistadors’ only tells half the story – the easy half. There is nothing new about blaming Mexico’s problems on US imperialism. The untold part of the story is that Mexico’s crisis is to a large extent home-made.

For the past 20 years Mexico has squandered the money received from loans and from selling off its national assets on consumption, prestige projects and populist policies instead of investing it in the country’s future. Sixty years of the ‘revolutionary’ state running major sectors of industry and commerce have resulted in utter inefficiency, corruption and nepotism.

In the eyes of most people privatization cannot make matters worse and even if they don’t like the idea of selling nationalized industries and opening the country up to foreign investors, they see no alternative. Even the left-wing PRD, whose support seems to be crumbling, has grudgingly accepted NAFTA, and while the Zapatistas reject it, they have not so far offered a clear alternative national strategy. It is the absence of such a progressive perspective which to me makes the anti-bloodthirsty-US-imperialism line sound rather hollow, even if its analysis is true.

Klaus Graichen
London, England

Less criticism, more love
In your issue on Nomads (NI 266) the central concern is people’s relationship with the land. You look at one ‘use’ and highlight the economic, political and social causes which threaten this way of life. But what does this change? There is a chance that we all feel helpless and despondent as the world collapses around us.

But I can do something – if I change my life to become part of the cure not part of the problem. I can look at how I use land, air and water and actively work to improve that use by travelling less, by cultivating any land I can in a helpful way, by reducing my own pollution and my greed (not easy!). But if nomadic people in Africa or Mongolia were pushed aside by greed then that is directly related to my own greed.

Yes, there is injustice, violence, greed and disorder in the world, but if we only look at them we ignore the remedies available to us. Information is always welcome but the next step is to take that information and apply it directly to our own lives: what lessons are there for us about how we lead our lives here today. A little less criticism and a bit more loving help is needed, isn’t it?

Sarah Lane
Attiki, Greece

VIV QUILLIN cartoon.
Illustration by VIV QUILLIN

I agree with the suggestion in your magazine on Hunger (NI 267) of transcending the international market as a form of resistance. If citizens of countries in debt can become self-sufficient within each community the demands and quirks of the outside world no longer affect them. If the lower classes refuse to participate, then the debt their government and upper classes incurred is left for the upper class to pay. As history has often shown, physical discontent due to hunger or low standards of living has led to drastic political reforms. In most of Europe and America these reforms were not immediately beneficial, but they did lead to entire new political and social systems.

Hunger is a political as well as a social problem. Communal self-sufficiency can, on a limited scale, not only be triumphant by being independent of the international market system but can help create a new system conducive to local relief.

Melina Hoffman
Lincoln Park High School,
Chicago, US

Botswana ranks top in your assessment of ‘greatest disparities of income’ in your issue on Hunger (NI 267). The figures come from the excellent UN Human Development Report – which all NI readers ought to have by their bedsides. The statistics clearly show that the majority of ‘developing countries’ do not compile statistics on income disparity. Botswana does – and is pilloried.

Those of us from the wealthier countries should be more concerned about the fact that the world’s richest 20 per cent – which includes me; does it include you? – owns 60 times more wealth than the poorest 20 per cent.

John D Anderson
Gaborone, Botswana

Aboriginal absence
I was disappointed that you did not include an article in your issue on Nomads (NI 266) about indigenous Australians. Theirs is a culture of hunters and gatherers which is probably one of the oldest in the world.

Australian Aboriginal people have suffered great harm to themselves and their culture since the colonization of Australia more than 200 years ago. They lost all their land upon invasion. They have lost most of their people through genocide. They have been, and continue to be, deprived of their cultural identity.

There are some groups of Australian Aboriginal people who remain hunters and gatherers in remote parts of Australia. They are so few and the effects of colonization on this land and people are so great, that I feel Australia needs to be mentioned in an issue about the effects of the ‘developed’ world on nomadic peoples.

Debra Pittam
Coogee, New South Wales, Australia

It’s that time again!
We are once again starting to think about our Annual Editorial Meeting and the suggestions for future magazines. A number of you have already sent in ideas, which we will incorporate into our list, but if you have any more, please send in a brief paragraph before October 15th to Nikki van der Gaag at our Oxford address. Thanks!

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

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L E T T E R   F R O M   D A G H E S T A N

Crystal glasses and kidnapped wives
Olivia Ward sips champagne and listens with growing alarm to
the story of her host’s marriage.

Midnight, and the hot dusty wind is merging with the muffled blasts of nearby bombing to convince me it is time to slip into the unconsciousness of sleep. But when Madina comes to my room with her best friend and a bottle of champagne, I am startled enough to put off the much-craved rest.

As a good Muslim wife, my host in this spacious Daghestan home officially doesn’t touch alcohol. But at midnight, with the children asleep, she needs some courage for the story she is eager but reluctant to tell.

‘I was kidnapped,’ she declares matter-of-factly after a few sips. ‘Fifteen years ago my husband took me to his house and kept me there. I had to marry him. I was so angry and depressed I thought I would never forgive him.’

Madina watches my face as she drops this bombshell, her clear blue eyes defiant.

‘You mean that you’re held here against your will?’

‘Not any more. Now everything is normal. I wouldn’t leave – because there’s nowhere for me to go.’

I listen with horror coupled with surprise that this capable woman in her mid-thirties should treat such a bizarre fate as merely routine. But in the Caucasus, she says, that is exactly what it is.

‘It happens to a lot of women. Men take a fancy to them, carry them off and then they are trapped. That’s our life.’

It is difficult to take in what Madina is talking about, here in this comfortable room with shelves of crystal glasses and an enormous television set silently projecting images of scantily-clad women gyrating to unheard rock music.

Illustration by JUDY HAMMOND

But for Madina and her 21-year-old friend Rosa those are exotic pictures from a world they could only imagine. Rosa too was kidnapped while still in her teens – by a young doctor whose mother made her life a misery of abuse and drudgery. After ten months she escaped.

‘Now I have only one possibility,’ she says with little emotion. ‘Somebody will want me as a second wife.’

I try to imagine what it is like to live in a culture of kidnapping, where women are traded off by their parents for sums of money. A world almost untouched by more than half a century of communism and atheism. ‘The custom is that the village elders will come to see the woman after she’s kidnapped, and if she’s unhappy they’ll send her home,’ says Rosa bitterly. ‘If not the man pays a dowry and they get married. That’s the theory. It didn’t work in my case.’

In western Chechnya and Ingushetia, I am told, forced marriage is giving way to mock kidnappings in which women agree to elope with their sweethearts to speed parental consent. But in Daghestan’s Muslim communities in the more primitive eastern Caucasus, marriage is often abrupt and unwanted.

I listen to these stories with a sense of helplessness: the normal-seeming home that is my oasis from the war is little more than a prison. But for a Caucasian woman, Madina assures me, the journey from rejection to resignation is often short.

‘At first I was furious. I wouldn’t even speak to my husband for a year. But once I had children and I got used to the life, things changed. After all, he’s pretty good to me, and I’ve learned to love him.’

I find it difficult to reconcile my ebullient host – a stocky energetic man with a quick sense of humor – with the brute who snatched his unwilling bride from the street.

And I puzzle over my own role. For years in this small backwater the women have waited for someone who would listen to them with more than an apathetic shrug. But does my very appearance, the first Western woman they have ever met, make their fettered lives seem more bearable?

Madina laughs and shakes her head.

‘You know what I’m really hoping for now?’ she says, pulling off the floral headscarf that binds up her sleek dark hair. ‘Old age. In the West women would probably find that funny. Here it’s a time of liberation. Nobody cares what you do any more.’

She pours another tiny crystal glass of champagne.

‘If we meet when we’re 70, maybe we’ll both be free. Come and see me then. I’ll be here. Thinking about it will keep me alive.’

Olivia Ward is bureau chief for the Toronto Star in Moscow.

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