Africa revisited through the Dark Star Safari

From the comfortable security of my modern cocoon in Seattle, Wash., I am vicariously reliving some long-ago travels I made in Africa during the summer of 1997, which already was 15 years ago. I have the often cynical but always observant and honest Paul Theroux to thank for being lifted out of my quotidian boredom and back to my brief five-week journey in central and East Africa.

Sunrise on the Serengeti, a magnificent sight indeed.

In June 1997, I travelled to Rwanda, just three years after the genocide. I arrived there, hoping to try my hand at freelance journalism and perhaps cover some of the genocide trials that were underway in the aftermath of the horrific crimes against humanity. I lacked two of the most critical elements to pull this off: connections and cash. Maybe I lacked cajones too. I also was floored by malaria once I arrived in Kigali, Rwanda, and I pulled out in two weeks, having lost a lot of weight and having determined I would not have the resources to succeed in my original plan. As to whether I would have succeeded as a freelancer if I stayed longer is hard to say, as Rwanda then was in the throes of an incredibly violent civil war that had claimed thousands of lives. That conflict, which involved the stopping of microbuses—like ones I was riding—and the slaughtering of all passengers, was pitting the Tutsi-led forces of the new post-genocide government of Rwanda against the extremist Hutu militias who had taken hold in then eastern Zaire. This was just before Zaire’s own meltdown into violent civil war, tribal violence, and foreign interventions that remains unresolved to this day.

Passing the time in Moroti, Uganda, on my way to the north of the country in 1997.

Theroux’s book, called Dark Star Safari, is typical and classic Theroux. It recounts a year-long trip he made from Cairo to Capetown in the early 2000s, mostly by land transportation, using local means such as the back of trucks, buses, microbuses, and sometimes rides in Land Rovers and overland safari trucks with the many white Westerners he sees. Theroux is unforgiving in his criticism of both Africans and of outsiders, who are mostly Westerners but occasionally Indians, Japanese, and Chinese. Theroux often savagely skewers this mostly Western crowd as if they were the marabou scavengers, the quite ugly and ubiquitous large storks seen throughout eastern Africa, which lurk about and wait for carrion to devour.

I like Theroux because he attempts to put what he sees into context, with the perspective of a man who spent two years of young adulthood as a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi in the 1960s and later several years as a lecturer in Kampala, Uganda, before the despot Idi Amin took over and destroyed that nation. To his credit, Theroux’s comments on the failures of aid projects, for instance, are based on his first-hand encounters. He credits foreign aid organizations and Western governments for creating a culture of aid dependency in many African nations. But his biggest target is corruption by African leaders and its military and civilian rulers. Writes Theroux of the large cities he visited and detested on his trip: “Scamming is the survival mode in a city where tribal niceties do not apply and there are no sanctions except those of the police, a class of people who in Africa generally are little more than licensed thieves.“

Traveling by bus in Uganda, rarely a dull moment.

I have exchanged a few emails about this book with a friend of mine who also did a Peace Corps stint in Africa and who thought Theroux was honest about what he observed. I told my friend that Theroux’s description of traveling through a inhospitable, mostly lawless area from Mega, Ethiopia, to Isiolo, Kenya, where two white Westerners refused to give him a ride in their Land Rover, brought back my own memories. Like Theroux, I saw plenty of those same Land Rovers in Kenya, Rwanda, and Uganda and also never got a lift. (Did I deserve one—no, but they could have been offered; I did refuse a ride once too because I wanted to walk, but the driver was African and a decent guy.) I too wondered who are these privileged outsiders anyway? I remember distinctly two haughty U.N. officials—an African and European—sniping like French lords at low-paid Rwandan hotel staff while wearing stylish dark shades and expensive suits, angry dust got on their suitcases, as they disembarked at Milles Colines Hotel, made famous during the genocide where Tutsis hid while surrounded by killers. The cost for a room in 1997 was about $150 a night as I recall, or about half of what a Rwandan then earned in a year. I could not afford the place and luckily found accommodation with a great aid worker I met who I thought was doing good work.

Like Theroux, I travelled by truck to some remote parts in the bush. This trip took about 12 hours and was among my most memorable.

I also remember Italian missionaries in Northern Uganda, near Karamojo, in the deep bush who ran a furniture shop and spoke the local language and seemed completely at ease and in their element — like some of the Italian missionaries Theroux met in Ethiopia and Kenya. And, like Theroux, I remember these “overlanders,” the white tourists on coverted safari trucks crossing Africa, when I stopped at Lake Naivasha, Kenya. In my case, the passengers expressed excitement about seeing mountain gorillas in Rwanda without having a clue about the raging conflict there or another violent uprising that was occurring in southwest Uganda. And one has to wonder about two female aid workers he disparaged for their peddling of a Plumpy’nut type nutritional food product to poor children in person cause they reportedly didn’t trust the mothers to deliver the aid themselves? Is that true? I believe it is. Just this spring I heard an announcement by U.S. AID that the United States is pushing corporate food aid with corporate food giant Pepsico, in Ethiopia. What’s good for Pepsico is also good for U.S. AID and Ethiopians, if I am to believe the facts in this press release.

Anyway, not everyone agrees with Theroux, and here’s one attack, by John Ryle from 2002 in the Guardian, of the book and of the writer himself. Personally, I think Theroux is smart and clearly sees the public health, economic, political, and outsider-driven problems that challenge the countries he visited. I also do not think one sells books being nice or being 100 percent true. Theroux is a strong brand, and you know what you get when you read his brand. And it remains exceptionally enjoyable.

I shot this photo near Mt. Karamojong, a mountain that is home to a rebellious group who were known to rob locals with AK 47s when they were not fighting with other cattle raising tribes in Kenya. Or maybe they are just a tribe trying to survive in a land with few resources and many threats.

Dogs and pets provide meaningful therapeutic benefits

A smile and a wag — the universal language of happiness.

Today I read yet another article on the healing power that dogs have for humans who have experienced trauma, in this case sexual abuse. According to a Sept. 23, 2012, story in the Seattle Times (Courthouse dogs calm victims’ fears about testifying), King County Washington’s seven-year-old practice of using assistance dogs to provide comfort to victims in a courthouse setting has been deemed legal in an appeals court ruling. I have previously written about how pets are used in prison settings, leading to better outcomes for both the state and prisoners (see my May 3, 2012, post: Cats behind bars — more proof of how pets bring out our best). I do not think it is a surprise to anyone who is familiar with the value of using therapy dogs that dogs could and should be used to assist young persons who are crime victims. They are commonly used by many people with illnesses and disabilities, like this instance with a college student who has spina bifida.

The powerful bond between humans and dogs is well-known and about as old as civilization itself.

In this particular case reported by the Seattle Times, a lab-retriever mix named Jeeter helped two female victims of molestation heal and also testify in trial, as a means to alleviate their reported fear and discomfort. The decision deemed the dog to be a neutral agent, not siding with either party in the legal process and being an equal opportunity dispenser of affection. As one of the two females victims told the Seattle Times, “What we want people to know is that they can have a dog to help them, too. We’re not ashamed about what happened. We didn’t do anything wrong.” In fact, the Seattle Times reported the National District Attorneys Association passed a resolution last year supporting the use of courthouse dogs.

Another famous instance of therapy dogs being used to assist crime victims was at the campus of Northern Illinois University, where a murderous gunman killed five students and injured nearly two dozen others in 2008.

As the final report on that gun-related massacre from NIU highlighted, in addition to more than 500 counselors who assisted victims and the campus community, there were dozens of volunteers who assisted by bringing “comfort dogs” to the NIU campus in DeKalb, Ill., after the shootings. The report noted, “many of our students hugged those wonderful dogs and wept openly, some for the first time since the tragedy.”

A wonderful book that I read this summer on the powerful bond between humans and other species called Kindred Spirits: How the Remarkable Bond Between Humans and Animals Can Change the Way We Live, by DMV Allen Schoen, highlights how powerful this connection is, including on the health of humans and the species with whom they interact. Schoen has attracted attention for research and efforts exploring the ways science and larger culture understand how humans interact with their many animal friends. His description of his former golden retriever, who he rescued and who then became his assistant caring for his animal patients, is wonderfully touching. He eventually had to put his beloved assistant down. When I shared this book with a member of my family, she broke down into tears, thinking about her former dog.

My former grad school experience vastly improved when I moved into my new apartment and made friends my always cheery neighbor, Balloo.

Schoen has his own web site and a blog here: http://www.drschoen.com/. His web site notes that he continues to practice what he calls integrative veterinary healthcare, which brings together holistic and natural techniques such as acupuncture and homeopathy along with the best of conventional veterinary medicine to provide animal healthcare services.

There are peer-reviewed journal articles being published about the power of animals, including in the work setting, where an abundance of anecdotal reporting and research has occurred. An Associated Press story from Feb. 9, 2012, described the “growing phenomenon” of dogs in the workplace in America, according to Rebecca Johnson, director of the Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction at the University of Missouri’s College of Veterinary Medicine, in Columbia. “People are realizing we need to do things to reduce stress in the workplace,” Johnson told the AP. She said dogs can build connections among co-workers and create healthy diversions from work. People interacting with dogs have a hormonal reaction that causes them to “feel more relaxed and more positive.”

All I can say is that nothing beats a dog or purr on a bad day. Even the worst day improves the moment there is that amazing interspecies contact.

A tale of two farmers-food markets and what it means

I love fresh food markets. I had a fruit, vegetable, and fish market near me growing up, the old Market in the Loop, in University City, Mo. To this day I remain a loyal supporter of local food and local businesses that sell fresh fruit and vegetables. Today, these markets are very much at the center of the national health discussion on nutrition, healthy food, obesity, and politics. So I decided to examine this issue using two examples in Seattle–one where I shop and the other where I mostly people watch and occasionally will buy some food. (Please go below for my photo essay of both venues.)

For  the last decade, the public health community increasingly has been focussing on how to increase fruit and vegetable consumption by Americans, improve Americans’ nutritional intake, and address the complex systems that are making this country the fattest on earth. Research has shown that Americans still do not consume the recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables, and government research is showing that lower-income consumers eat fewer fruits and vegetables than higher-income consumers do.

According to research by public health experts, communities that lack full-service grocery stores and neighborhood food markets have less access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Since 2009, the CDC, in its list of strategies to reduce obesity, has called for making healthier food choices available in “public service areas.” Specifically, the CDC says local governments can make healthier foods accessible through policy choices and offering vouchers that can be redeemed for healthy food choices. This is happening nationally at farmers markets, where technology to read food stamps, or EBT, cards (known today as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP), is being made available to merchants so they can serve lower-income consumers.

The Food Research Action Center (FRAC) has called for increasing participation in SNAP; improving those benefit levels so lower-income persons can afford adequate diets, including healthier foods; promoting fruit and vegetable purchases with SNAP benefits, which is taking place; and boosting the access to healthy and affordable foods in “underserved communities.” To that end, the CDC is making available more than $100 million (chump change, really, when you compare that to funding made available to corporate farms through the U.S. Farm Bill) to promote policy, systems, and environmental change through Community Transformation Grants (CTG).  This is designed to “to reduce chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, stroke, and diabetes” — all major health issues that are also bankrupting our health care system and treasury.

A 2010 White House report on childhood obesity notes that in the last three decades, prices for fruits and vegetables rose twice as fast as the price of carbonated drinks, and a bump in the cost of fruits and vegetables relative to less healthy foods can reduce consumers’ desire to buy fruits and veggies, leading to unhealthy Americans. Pricing is of course a key issue impacting purchasing decision of lower-income consumers, among other factors. U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) research found that a 10% discount in the price of fruits and vegetables would increase the amount purchased by 6-7%.

So, yes, price matters a lot, along with access. Where I live (Seattle), the Farmers Market Alliance claims “the vast majority” of the fruits, vegetables, herbs, and berries are the same price or less expensive at farmers markets, especially with organics, than at conventional grocery stores (QFC, Fred Meyer, Safeway, etc.). The organization further claims that the quality and variety of its produce exceeds the quality sold at the chain grocery stores. The farmers market movement is truly national in scope, and a network of nonprofits like the Philadelphia based Food Trust is partnering with local farmers to promote farmers markets in underserved areas.

The Atlantic in May 2011 published an article noting that farmers markets were less expensive than supermarkets and provided better food. The article challenges the criticism that farmers markets catered to mostly wealthy white snobs who drive Subarus and Prius’s, and it argues that no formal research supports “this widely accepted contention, and the few studies that have been conducted call its veracity into question.” Of course the movement to support “local food production” and farmers markets has both national and local critics, including conservative bloggers, who call it a trendy cause. Some have blasted the use of electronic EBT card readers as a wasteful expense ($1,200 to purchase, $50 to lease).

The closest market to my home, about one mile away, called the Ballard Farmers Market, most definitely is more expensive than grocery stores and independently owned produce and grocery stores where I also shop in Seattle. Its clientele, based on my many trips there, is decidedly and stereotypically upscale, white or Asian (I’d say 90% white, 5% Asian, 5% other), and professional. I haven’t conducted a poll to actually verify this, but this corner of Seattle is not that diverse, and it is close to a neighborhood where homes fetch $600,000 and where condominiums are sprouting on many major intersections. No, I can’t afford to buy anything there, with the exception of a good bargain, like beets today ($3 a bushel of three). I have bought a few apples and heads of lettuce and other veggies in the past, but not much else — not salmon, not herbs, nothing. For my part, I grow some of my own food, pick some (like berries or tree fruit that abounds in Seattle), and wish I caught salmon like I did in Alaska.

I don’t begrudge the vendors there for selling produce at a higher price point, which shuts out low-income persons like me. (I may have a few university degrees, but I am by all measures very low-income now.) As one food blogger and jam-making blogger from San Francisco notes: “People selling at the markets have priced their products according to a wide range of criteria. First, many of the farmers who sell at markets are smaller operations than those who sell to grocery stores. Maybe they have 10 acres of land compared to 60 or 100 or 200 acres and rely almost exclusively on markets for income.”

I try to support my favorite produce store in Seattle, called McPherson’s Fruit and Produce, in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood. First, their selection is usually excellent–fresh but not organic food in season. I find their produce is fresher than most grocery stores. Their vegetables and fruits are always cheaper than any grocery store I visit, including stores with hefty supply chain advantages like Costco. They cater to a full spectrum of clients, and that clientele is more low-income and more ethnically diverse than what is found in Ballard. (Beacon Hill is much more diverse ethnically.) I’m as likely to see Hispanic, African American, immigrant, and Asian-American shoppers as I am those who look like me (white). However, McPherson’s is located about seven miles by car from my home, while the Ballard Farmer’s Market is a mile away, making it impossible for me to bike to Beacon Hill, and there are some serious hill and traffic issues. So I drive there, but usually combining outings and errands with a stop. I have been shopping at McPherson’s for years, during my previous and current stays in Seattle. I do not know if their model can be replicated in other cities–unique private owners, a great location on well-travelled road, proximity to distributors, an ability to attract shoppers with and without cars.

Perhaps instead of throwing all of our support into the farmers market craze, more can be done to help smaller businesses and producers. This would require the proverbial “upstream intervention.” For instance, our government tells people to eat five servings of fruits and vegetables a day, but is not providing the supports through federal legislation to make that possible. The White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity notes that by 2020, the country needs to boost the availability of fruits and vegetables by 70%, or 450 pounds per person a year (that’s an enormous pile of food by the way). It is not doing that now because of our dated, bloated Farm Bill.

Such upstream actions, to grow the intake of healthy food consumption, in a policy sense, have the biggest bang for the buck, compared to downstream actions. Many wise and smart persons who follow food and nutrition issues have long said that the pork-laden, decades-old Farm Bill needs to be overhauled to create true change. New York Times food blogger Mark Bittman notes “agricultural subsidies have helped bring us high-fructose corn syrup, factory farming, fast food, a two-soda-a-day habit and its accompanying obesity, the near-demise of family farms, monoculture and a host of other ills.” The farm bill, up for renewal in 2012, offers an agriculture subsidy worth $30 billion, $5 billion of which is direct payments to farmers. Conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation even blast this.

Bittman suggests that a revised Farm Bill–which I believe no one involved in policy-making believes can occur in the current political climate–should support farmers who at the moment now grow unsubsidized fruits, vegetables, and beans, while giving incentives to “monoculture commodity farmers to convert some of their operations to these more desirable foods.” This is food that would make us healthier compared to factory raised meat fed on subsidized grain, which is what our current system promotes. Bittman also calls for incentives to help medium-sized farms, those big enough to supply local supermarkets but small enough to care what and how they grow, compete better with corporate agribusiness.

Personally, I would love to see both farmers markets and McPherson’s in most neighborhoods in most cities. Right now, I’m going to stick with shopping primarily at McPherson’s, despite the inconvenience. And I’ll keep growing a garden where ever I live, too.