Somalia: “Once more unto the breach”

It was great to see two op-eds in The New York Times the other day that talked some sense on the crisis in Somalia. The piece by Bronwyn Bruton, “In Somalia, Talk to the Enemy,” was particularly well put. She writes,

There are better ways for the United States to prevent the rise of terrorist groups in Somalia. A strategy of “constructive disengagement” — in which the international community would extricate itself from Somali politics, but continue to provide development and humanitarian aid and conduct the occasional special forces raid against the terrorists — would probably be enough to pull the rug out from under Al Shabab. This group, led mostly by foreign extremists fresh from the battlefields of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, is internally divided, and is hated in Somalia.

In “Tea with a Terrorist,” Aiden Hartley provides insight into the leadership of Al Shabab, which he gleaned through his personal encounters with the group while reporting for Channel 4 TV of Britain. Hartley echoes many of the sentiments found in “Talk to the Enemy,” arguing that Al Shabab need an outside enemy to gain support and thrive in Somalia. He comments,

With an exterior enemy distracting Somalis from their clan divisions, Al Shabab’s insurgents gained support among some clan powerbrokers while at the same time terrorizing the people into submission. While Ethiopian troops pulled out early last year, they were replaced by Amisom, a force of African peacekeepers mostly from Burundi and Uganda ordered to protect a Western-backed government. It hasn’t hurt Al Shabab and other Somali hard-line groups that the peacekeepers have a tendency to fire mortars into civilian neighborhoods.

Despite the logic contained in the arguments provided by Bruton, Hartley, and other experts, there remains an inability to disengage from the conflict. Following the July 11th bombings in Kampala, for which Al Shabab claimed responsibility, Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni expressed his intent to “eliminate” the group. Unsurprisingly, leaders at the African Union summit in Kampala this week approved a request to send an additional 2,000 troops to reinforce the 5,000 African Union peacekeepers currently in Somalia. Moreover, the rules of engagement will be changed to allow troops to “fire first if they are facing imminent attack.” Meanwhile, here in the United States we continue to prop up what remains of the Somali government, paying for and arming its soldiers.

The international conflict with Al Shabab is only the latest episode in Somalia’s long and traumatic history. However, the way that this crisis is handled by the Obama administration and the African Union will likely determine whether or not Al Shabab fizzles and dies out or continues to gain strength and momentum. In light of recent events and past history, I am not hopeful for a sudden policy revision, but perhaps if enough Brutons, Hartleys, and others continue to make their voices heard things will change.


Peepoo: The End of Flying Toilets?

Can you imagine living without a toilet? One reporter recently chronicled her personal ordeal in “Two Weeks Without A Toilet,” for The New York Times. “Without A Toilet” doesn’t exactly live up to its name, as the reporter simply used bathrooms in stores, at the YMCA, as well as at neighbors’ and friends’ apartments. Still, she managed to turn a minor inconvenience into a three-page article in The Times.

A week before I read the Times piece I came across a story on the BBC, “Fear of Rape in Kenya’s Slums ‘Trap Women,'” about lack of access to sanitation for women and girls in Kenyan slums. While the article focused on the problem of sexual violence keeping women and girls away from public latrines at night, it also highlighted the often neglected point that access to sanitation worldwide is a huge problem. In fact, World Health Organization figures for 2010 state that 2.6 billion people or 39 percent of the global population live without access to improved sanitation. Thinking about that kind of make you feel less sorry for that reporter who had to use a hotel bathroom…

Piles of rotting waste line the streets of a slum [AFP]

But “Fear of Rape…” was about more than just reporting on a problem that some of us already know exists. It introduced an exciting new public health technology that may help solve or reduce some of the most pressing sanitation problems. Known as the Peepoo (don’t ask me why they had to name it that–the nutty Swedes are behind this one), it is described on the website as

a personal single use toilet, that sanitizes human excreta shortly after defecation, preventing the faeces from contaminating the immediate and larger environment.

The Peepoo is in the form of a slim elongated bag measuring 14 x 38 centimeters. Within the bag there is a layer of thin gauze that measures 26 x 24 cm. The inside of the Peepoo is coated with a thin film of urea. Without sacrificing ergonomic function, the bag’s design is adapted in every way so that it might be manufactured at as low a price as possible and sold to groups with the weakest purchasing power in the world.

The Peepoo is designed to be used once, sitting, squatting or standing. If one uses the bag by holding it with only the hand, the thin gauze prevents all contact with the excrement. The bag can also be placed in a cut plastic bottle or small bucket and used as a chamber pot.

Peepoos are odor free for at least 24 hours after use and can thus be stored in the immediate environment.

Child with a Peepoo bag []

It is basically a biodegradable bag that is “coated with chemicals that turn human waste into fertilizer.” So if you wake up in the middle of the night and are worried about getting to a toilet (assuming there is one) safely, you could use this product without worrying about a mess or odor. Moreover, they make a great replacement to the “flying toilet:” plastic bags of human waste, thrown from homes, that often litter slums and linger for years.

The Peepoo seems like an exciting new development, I just hope that they are priced to sell to the people that need them most. As sanitation is a daily need, these could be a constant expenditure for many people. Clearly they are not the solution to the global sanitation crisis, but they are a good short-term measure.

Film Review II: Lumo

  • Lumo
  • The Goma Film Project
  • Produced by Lyn Lusi
  • Run Time: 1 hr 12 min.
  • 4 out of 5 chapatis

Lumo is a documentary about the journey of one woman struggling to heal emotionally and physically from sexual violence. About five years ago in Democratic Republic of Congo, twenty year-old Lumo Sinai was attacked and raped by Interahamwe rebels in her village. Lumo was assaulted so violently that she developed a fistula, which left her incontinent and leaking urine constantly. The stigma of rape, along with the smell from her fistula made Lumo a pariah in her village and an outcast among her family. Fortunately, through outreach provided by Heal Africa Hospital in Goma, Lumo’s case was discovered and she was brought to the city for reconstructive surgery.

Many complicated themes emerge in this film, including: Why are some women healed while others aren’t? Is a fistula a punishment from God? What happens when you lose your faith? Are there real solutions to the problem of fistulas in DRC or will women  who return home be caught up again in the cycle of violence?

In my opinion, this film has many merits. Among them, is the fact that the filmmakers didn’t inject themselves into the film. The result is a fly on the wall feeling, and a Congolese perspective on an issue that is too often told through a Western viewpoint. Furthermore, the choice to examine the emotional, social, medical, and religious components of the healing process adds a great deal of depth to the film. For example, observing Lumo’s struggle with her faith as she looks forward to her fifth surgery after four unsuccessful operations, allows us a window into the important role that religion and clergy members can play in providing strength during times of illness. One area that the film might have improved upon, was in fleshing out the origins of the conflict in DRC. If viewers didn’t already have a substantial knowledge of the history of the Great Lakes Region, it might be difficult to understand exactly why sexual violence is so prevalent now.

In conclusion, I would recommend this film. It is thoughtful and not gratuitous. It presents insight into an important issue. However, if you are a survivor of physical or sexual violence this film could be triggering, so please take care.

Book Review IX: The Last Taboo

Human waste and sanitation are subjects that are rarely discussed outside the world of public health. However, none of us can avoid the fact that we all create waste, and benefit immensely from proper sanitation. For most people in developed countries at least, not a lot of thought goes into finding and using a toilet, but for others across the globe, the lack of facilities or ‘improved facilities,’ causes huge difficulties.

Before diving into my review, some food for thought:

  • “Every day, each human being emits an average of slightly more than 100 grams (3.52 ounces) of faeces and roughly one and a half litres of urine (3.17 pints)”
  • “According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), 1.5 million children under five die each year due to a diarrhoeal disease in which lack of decent toilets and poor hygiene are deeply complicit.”
  • “Over 40 percent of people in the developing world still depend on a bucket, a bush, the banks of a stream, a back street or some other sheltered place for their several daily emissions.”
  • “…the numbers of people estimated to be living without access to a decent toilet facility – 2.6 billion – are almost equivalent to the 2.5 billion estimated to be living on less than US $2 a day.” [All quotes taken from The Last Taboo]

With The Last Taboo, Maggie Black and Ben Fawcett succeed in making an esoteric and touchy subject accessible and interesting. When I bought this book online, I worried that it might turn out to be dry and filled with public health jargon. Fortunately, anyone can understand and enjoy it.

The authors begin with a quick history of sanitation, which takes the reader all the way from the lateral drains and water-flushed toilets of Mesopotamia to the decidedly less sophisticated method of emptying chamber pots into the streets in Medieval Paris. Accompanying the prose, are intriguing and sometimes frightening pictures of historical toilets.

The base of a contemporary sanplat toilet, yet to be surrounded by walls (

Journeying into modern times, we discover the crisis of urbanization and what this means for sanitation. The authors make many important points here about slums and ‘illegal’ shanty towns, which exist on the margins of society, and the excuses that governments make to resist providing services and access to sanitation. This is also where the reader is introduced to different types of sanitation options and their costs.

One excellent feature of this book, is that it integrates lots of anecdotes and case studies from communities and individuals around the world, who are struggling to access sanitation. There are failures and successes, and each case offers lessons. One lesson the authors underscore, is that you can’t just dump aid on people. For example, NGOs that gave people toilets and then came back a year later, were often disappointed to find that the toilets sat unused. A far better plan, it seemed, was to subsidize the toilets, by having people pay for what they could afford, and also educate and treat them as consumers who had to want the product. If there was no demand for the item, no understanding about how and why to use it, and no investment in it, it makes sense that it would not be utilized.

Single-pit pour flush toilet (

I could continue on with a summary of the entire book, but it’s a long book, and this brief introduction should give you an idea of what it’s about. Suffice it to say, that I would very highly recommend The Last Taboo to anyone who has even a passing interest in learning more about the history of or current issues in sanitation.

The one aspect I found lacking, was the section devoted to disabled sanitation users. The entire section was one paragraph long, which is really inexcusable, especially when you consider that as many as one in five of the world’s poorest people are disabled. What’s more, the authors realize that the disabled have been marginalized when it comes to sanitation, expressing, “An even more neglected group in sanitation are the disabled.” If they know that, then they should have done more to address that problem in their book, by researching the sanitation technologies that are available to disabled people or noting if there aren’t any. One paragraph is not good enough.

Stand Proud

If you’re looking for a charity to support before January 1st, hopefully this plug will convince you to give to Stand Proud. Stand Proud is a non-profit that works in six cities in the Democratic Republic of Congo, to:

provide corrective treatment, locally-crafted leg braces, and accompanying rehabilitative services, at no cost to poor families with children who have been disabled by polio or who have similar disabilities, and promote the full integration of disabled persons into society.

The people who work for Stand Proud are a pretty awesome bunch, and have currently helped over 2,500 children and adults access rehabilitative equipment, casting and corrective surgery, pre and post-operative care, and education. Additionally, the people who are employed in Stand Proud’s workshops to create and fit new braces, were rehabilitated by Stand Proud, and now lead typical lives.

Over the past several years, renowned photographer Finbar O’Riley visited Stand Proud sites in Kinshasa, Goma, and Bunia, and his powerful images provide a window into what the organization is all about. Here’s a small selection:

Stand Proud takes children, teens and adults who have been relegated to crawling on the ground, and offers them the chance to walk and reach their full potential. While no organization can undo the damage done to the nerves by the polio virus, Stand Proud works to improve mobility, and to increase the dignity and quality of life experienced by the people they support. That is huge.

UNICEF Photo of the Year 2009

I realized that the last handful of posts have been “debbie downers,” so it’s time for something a bit more light-hearted.

UNICEF announced their Photo of the Year Contest winners earlier this week, and the first prize picture from a photo essay about children living with albinism in Tanzania, is truly touching. Admittedly, the subject matter is anything if carefree. Still, it’s really nice to see a candid image of joyful friendship despite the stigma that often prevents people with albinism in African countries (and many other places as well) from living any kind of mainstream life.

(Photo by Johan Braevaman, 2009)

Click on the link above to visit the UNICEF Contest site, and peruse the photo essays by the winners and many honorable mentions. Photographers covered a broad range of topics concerning children, such as living with autism, growing up in a refugee camp, and the dealing with the trauma of war.

Half the Sky: Holding Up One Man’s Massive Ego*

You know that uncomfortable feeling you get when you realize that someone who is involved in genuinely important, ‘selfless’ work, is beginning to use that work as a stepping stone for their own self-promotion (major offender: John Prendergast)? Well I’ve had that feeling about New York Times op-ed column writer and journalist Nicholas Kristof, for quite a while. At first, it was little things, like excessive name dropping and complimenting himself all the time:

People always compliment me on being a great crusader, and I always wince at that. (On the Ground Blog, NYT, April 28, 2006, in reference to choosing not to speak at a rally for Darfur in Washington DC). For serious? Apparently it didn’t make you wince enough to keep from repeating it in your column.

Or is it, as Muhammad Yunus once told me, that the models in Africa sometimes haven’t been quite right, but that when they are introduced properly they work as well in Africa as in South Asia? (On the Ground Blog, NYT, June 1, 2009, referencing microfinance and Grameen Bank founder).

A couple of anecdotes probably don’t sound like much, but if you read Kristof’s On The Ground Blog on a regular basis, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Things really took off though, when Kristof and his wife, journalist Sheryl WuDunn, published a book called Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. Kristof made sure that the word was out about his book well in advance of publishing, and the New York Times was only too happy to assist in promoting it, with an entire special magazine issue entitled, “Saving the World’s Women.” In the weeks leading up to the book’s arrival in stores, the promotion grew frantic:

The nightly news piece is reported by Ann Curry and dates from a trip we made together to Pakistan in July, and it will also be used to promote a piece Ann is doing on Sunday night for Dateline about Half the Sky, the book about the world’s women that my wife, Sheryl, and I have just finished. That should be a very moving piece, with great footage. (September 3, 2009) Actually, it wasn’t a moving piece. It was really f’ed up. Once again, I wanted to stomp on journalists for displaying insensitivity towards rape survivors.

A number of folks have complained that the Sept. 15 Times Talk with my wife, about our new book, “Half the Sky,” has been sold out. Sorry about that — although not, in all honesty, very sorry. (September 8, 2009) I think this speaks for itself.

Bill Gates Sr. has an interesting review on Huffington Post of “Half the Sky,”in which he calls the book “stunning” but mostly ruminates on the strong women around him all his life. (September 14, 2009)

I haven’t contributed much to this blog lately because I’ve been taking vacation time to promote my new book, co-written with my wife Sheryl WuDunn, “Half the Sky.” (September 30, 2009)

Good God! And these excerpts are only from his blog. The point when I finally began to crack, was when I noticed that he was holding a “Half the Sky Competition,” and that the prize was A SIGNED COPY OF HIS BOOK. Oh the hubris.

Plus, I read the book when it came out (thankfully I borrowed it from the library), and it does not live up to the hype. First of all, probably about 80% (at least) of it has already been published in some form on Kristof’s blog. Secondly, to me it read like a bunch of hyperbolic anecdotes that always seemed to conveniently place Nick at the center of the story (and by hyperbolic, I mean that Mr. Kristof’s writing was often ridiculous and overwrought, not that the women’s stories weren’t legitimately tragic). People would be much better off to read a less trumped-up but thoroughly researched book by someone who has actually worked on the front lines of development, such as “The Blue Sweater: Bridging the Gap Between Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World,” by Jacqueline Novogratz.

Also, here are a few choice gems from Kristof’s Twitter feed and Facebook page:

Knopf ordered a 16th printing of Half the Sky today, almost 200,000 in print! Thanks to all for spreading the word. (December 15, 2009 Twitter)

My essay in Outside Mag about how to get people to care abt humanitarian crises is generating much debate (December 9, 2009 Twitter)

For those interested in Half the Sky, Amazon is for some reason now offering a full 50 percent discount. I assume they’re losing money on each one at that price, but making it up in volume. (no, no, that’s a joke: it’s presumable a loss-leader). (December 19, 2009 Facebook)

NPR’S “On the Media” exposes me as an advocacy journalist. I flinch at being called an advocacy journalist; should I? (December 15, 2009 Facebook) Yes, they exposed you as a do-gooder. How dramatic!

I guess what it comes down to, is that Nick Kristof has been in the process of building a cult of personality, which in many ways overshadows much of the decent or at least generally good intentioned work that he has done and continues to do. I would hate to see him become a running joke in the development and aid community, but he needs to check himself before he wrecks himself.

*”Women hold up half the sky,” is a Chinese proverb, and the origin of the title of Kristof and WuDunn’s book.