Monday, 30 December 2013

The Story Ritual

The end of 2013 saw the launch of Flight Press, a new publisher of short fiction. Its first collection, Edgeways, collated the winning and shortlisted entries in the 2013 Spread the Word short story prize which I judged alongside Courttia Newland and Tania Hershman. The Edgeways anthology also featured a new short story by me, entitled The Comforting of Children, and this essay on the ritual of reading short fiction.

Everyone knows the story ritual. It begins with ‘Once upon a time’ and it ends, in childhood at least, with ‘And they all lived happily ever after.’

As we get older the stories become more complex, more shadowy and circumspect. Perhaps yearning for some comfort and familiarity we turn back to the fairytales, fables and adventure stories we knew from childhood, only to realise that even they contain striking ambiguities and subversions. Bluebeard: wife killer. The wolf in Little Red Riding Hood: murderer preying on the elderly, human eater, sartorial necrophiliac and cross-dresser, child groomer. The prince in Cinderella: foot fetishist. The prince in Rapunzel: hair fetishist. The prince in Sleeping Beauty: rapist. Snow White: female masochist who finds happiness as seven men’s domestic drudge.

Even these stories, with their generic, Disney-colonised contemporary names, arise from rituals of recounting adventures, creation myths and folklore which long predate written culture and are strongly echoed by countless narratives all over the world. They are full of death, betrayal, selfishness, desire, heroism, ambition, bloody-mindedness, defiance, friendship, sadness, enmity: the stuff of life. The stories embody near-universal hopes and fears, provide escape, give warning, reprove or reward certain desires. They reflect both the time of their telling (and retelling) and the universality of our own impulses.

The story ritual isn’t about whether the narrative is committed to paper or to the air and the ears. It’s not even about literature, as such. Journalists and news crews pursue emerging stories, fashion spreads in high-end magazines are referred to as stories, private investigators try to get to the bottom of a story and witnesses of crimes give their stories to the police. Con artists have their stories too, often very elaborate ones. Part of the ritual is that you follow a story, if it’s a good one, all the way to the end. The mark of a rich tale, whether it’s epigrammatic or epic, is that you want to know what happens next. And if that ending is weak, the reader feels not irritated but actually betrayed. We are galled and disappointed, as if we were set up in good faith and then sold a dud.

I’m always intrigued by nurseries and prep schools that have a soft-furnished, quiet, special story corner, as if stories deserve their own place as well as their own time in which to flourish. Similarly, the ritual of parents reading their kids to sleep, which always struck me as incredibly narcissistic on the part of the adults, is a memory apparently cherished by many. My own childhood story ritual was listening to a tape of The Snow Queen every night as I attempted to drift off. The sound of the queen flying up to the children’s attic window, tapping on the glass and keening their names in a ghostly voice is one of my most harrowing, vivid recollections. It was only fiction, but fictions provoke real reactions.

Later, I was given a wonderful hardback book of hundreds of stories, each exactly a page long. One was about a young woman with waist length blonde hair. She was so tired of being teased (or as we say these days, sexually harassed) about it that she tried to dye it black in the kitchen sink. It turned green and she was mocked even more badly when she went to school the next day. I never quite worked out the moral of the story. Either it was ‘just be yourself’ or ‘just be sexy’.

Readers have rituals: they read before bed or on a long afternoon, in the chair they always use, or on the commute to work. They do or don’t fold pages, break spines, underline things or read the last paragraph first. Writers also have rituals, some more OCD than others. I know some who kiss their copies of Pablo Neruda or George Eliot when beginning a new book, put a lucky charm on their desk or, getting to the trickier end of common behavioural disorders, make sure they’ve washed their hands three times before they touch the computer keys. Others go to their study with just the right cup of tea and just the right biscuit.

We are hoping that if we get the ritual right, it’ll repay us in words, in inspiration, in insight and good judgement. All of us are striving to write that one, perfect, satisfying thing. Every word has to count, every shift has to happen at the right moment. It goes deep yet seems light; it’s a structure of iron hung with silk. I once met a writer whose story had won a competition I co-judged. She hadn’t expected to win. ‘I just wrote it in a week,’ she said, exhilarated and disbelieving. I reeled back. It takes me months.

The story ritual is so powerful that we carry its psychological imprint with us for the rest of our lives, even to the point of naivety. We assume that our lives will have a coherent narrative balance, moral shape, emotional form. We go into our thirties and forties believing that things will always work out in the end, with a natural karmic equilibrium; that we will fall in love, perhaps even at first sight like so many fictional characters; that we deserve or are justified in pursuing adventure; that any event or act can be explained and therefore understood; that any pathology or feeling can somehow be decoded. We assume that this mysterious thing called karma will eventually repay the balance of evil and good. We believe that every story we live through must have an appropriate end, which we call ‘closure’, and that we can bring this about as though we are protagonists. It is from stories, nothing more, nothing less, that we believe that everything that has begun will be ended, and will end somehow fittingly. This does not happen often in reality, yet still we keep the faith.

I had to come to faith sooner or later. Underlying all world religions is an indissoluble trinity of faith, story and ritual. The great books of nearly all the world’s major religious belief systems are really just short story collections presented either as emblematic myths or as faithful accounts of true events. And all the rituals of the world’s religions are built on those stories, and everything we believe is built not on the evidence of our own eyes but on stories. Angels and other supernatural harbingers do not exist. The Garden of Eden did not exist. A man cannot walk on water. A god can’t have ten arms or four arms or a monkey’s head or an elephant’s head. The part-animal sentinels and judges of the Egyptian underworld do not exist. But it doesn’t matter. We read the stories, we heed them and we invest them with meaning, regardless of whether they are true or possible. We extrapolate their conclusions, build them into morals and use them to structure the laws, beliefs, values and customs of societies of billions of people. We use the stories to justify both our violence and our generosity, our exploitation and our humanity, our abusiveness and our self-sacrifice. We perform various rituals we invented, inspired by the stories, and have done so for thousands of years. That is the power of the story ritual: to underpin, explain and motivate human society for as long as we have existed.

Further reading:

  • All Bone and Muscle, an essay on the art and craft of short fiction which I wrote for the University of Chichester’s short story module. 

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Spread the Word about a gorgeous new anthology called Edgeways

Carol Ann Duffy and Warsan Shire
Photo (c) Spread the Word
I've worked with and admired the London based literary organisation Spread the Word for as long as I can remember. Spread the Word support the city's most exciting writing talent, seek out new voices, organise public panel discussions about topical issues in literature and publishing, launch writing competitions, support the development of new work and generally inspire creativity and energy in anyone who encounters them. This autumn, their great achievement was to bring to public notice one of the most thrilling, searing and original writers I've ever read - the poet Warsan Shire, who is the inaugural poet laureate for London. Read the BBC's coverage of her appointment here. As The Bookseller and The Evening Standard report, her appointment was announced by Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy. I believe that Shire, along with Malika Booker, are the two most exciting poets and riveting performers creating in the UK today.

Totally fab image of Malika Booker taken by Naomi Woddis for Femficatio.
Visit the source site by clicking here.
After many years of hosting panel discussions with critics and authors, mapping the changes in the industry and encouraging fresh work from hundreds of writers, both emerging and established, Spread the Word are stepping up and becoming publishers in their own right. Introducing.... Flight Press:

I love that inky, indelible looking black block-printed star and punky grassroots Soviet template font. Initially producing sleekly formatted e-books, Flight Press plans to create limited edition, lovely-to-have-and-hold publications like the gorgeous volumes made by Pereine Press and & Other Stories, who published the 2012 Booker-shortlisted breakaway hit, Swimming Home by Deborah Levy, which I discuss here in an essay entitled Even The Rich Suffer.

The debut release by Flight Press is an anthology called Edgeways. Initially an e-book, the anthology brings together the winning and shortlisted writers of the 2013 Spread the Word writing competition for short fiction, which I judged alongside the writers Courttia Newland and Tania Hershman. In judging fiction I am always reminded that talent is not scarce but common. It's waiting to be discovered and is richly deserving of a platform, publication, critical attention, readerly celebration and support from the wider industry.

Courttia Newland's fiction is passionate, topical, fierce; he writes with urgency, great observation and grit. Tania Hershman's short fiction combines cerebral intensity, bullseye imagery and technical precision. And I'm super company at lunch. The winning story in the competition was Living It Edgeways by Claire Sita Fisher. We loved it for its upfront, fresh, mobile voice and impeccable creation of character. The story's narrated by a young guy whose humour and streety restlessness hide perceptiveness and vulnerability. Fisher's story was cut through with witty observations about city life, street slang and the effects of one incident on an entire family.

Edgeways the anthology has been edited by Courttia Newland, who's written an introduction about the competition's shortlisted entries, explaining what we were looking for, where we agreed and where we politely diverged. Tania Hershman has also contributed a piece of her unutterably perfect short fiction. The competition entrants whose pieces made the shortlist are Claire Sita Fisher with her winning story, Nick Black, KJ Orr, Toby Litt, Deirdre Shanahan and Saradha Soobrayen.

I have contributed an essay called The Story Ritual, about the art and craft of the short story. I've also written a new story entitled The Comforting of Children. It's my first work of original fiction since Dust, in November 2011. The success of that story, which can be read here, reprinted by the University of Chichester, gave me the faith to write The Comforting of Children. I can't think of a better way to explore the craft of short fiction than by being a small part of  new anthologies whose originality make such a strong case for the power of literature and the excellence, diversity and prevalence of new voices.

Further reading:
  • All Bone and Muscle: an essay on short fiction written for the University of Chichester short story syllabus. 

Edgeways is available now as an ebook, published by Flight Press and edited by Courttia Newland. 


Thursday, 5 December 2013

The Cut: daughters, elders and local health workers speak out about female genital mutilation in Western Kenya

If you’re interested in the issue of female genital mutilation you might also want to read Cutting Us Down To Size: Working To End Female Genital Mutilation

An excellent film called The Cut by Beryl Magoko – not to be confused with the equally impressive recent British documentary The Cruel Cut – received its UK premiere at the 2013 London Feminist Film Festival and was awarded the Best Feature prize there a couple of weeks ago. Filmed in Uganda and Kenya, The Cut is a careful and intelligent documentary which enables diverse members of the featured small, rural communities where FGM is practised to speak about its meaning and history, while maintaining a clear but unpressing authorial sympathy towards the girls who undergo it. Despite comprising interviews and talking heads as well as some close documentary observation, ultimately the body language and silent reactions of the young women speak the loudest. The Cut has already won Best East African Film at the Kenya International Film Festival as well as many other plaudits.



The Cut establishes female genital mutilation as a social practice with a history so longstanding that even its apologists cannot explain it adequately. Both those who oppose and those who defend it mention the pressure girls are under to have it done.

Watching some of the older male apologists for FGM is a chilling experience. They display an odd, chippy defensiveness at being challenged and their comments are shot through with contempt for the (as they insinuate) wilfulness and irrational bloody-mindedness of women. One man says, “If a girl wants she will be circumcised. She runs away and goes for circumcision.” What we see in the film, instead, is the establishment of a haven for countless girls who have gone there to avoid being cut. Despite the existence of this refuge some parents, of both sexes, take the girls away against their will to be cut.

“They make a small mark on the knee,” says one man dismissively. I do not think he is lying outright, although he is speaking with heavy euphemism; I think he genuinely does not quite know exactly what is involved. As the film goes on to show, FGM is a female-perpetrated community act in the moment, although as a cultural practice it is endorsed by both sexes and it is ultimately approved, instigated and organised by men with social power. As one woman warns, “the sons of council elders inherit the right to organise circumcision.” Despite FGM being presented by detractors and apologists alike as something done to women by other women, often those women who are closest to them, its survival as a tradition can only be ended officially by council sons of council fathers, not mothers, wives or daughters.

Another man in the early minutes of the film insists,  “We don’t force them, nobody forces them.” But force is not always physical and momentary. Peer pressure, the weight of long tradition, the heat of expectation, the actions of the majority and the social cost of resisting the practice constitute different types force in themselves – forces which are sometimes harder to resist than the application of physical power. One adult woman explains how an uncircumcised girl will be ostracised and describes being shouted at, verbally abused, mistreated and cold-shouldered at her school, where 98% of the girls had been circumcised. The girls are caught between forces which are at once oppressive of their own instincts and free will and yet socially inclusive, communally approved, deemed to bring order and harmony to all. Another woman says carefully, “a good child has to obey the parents.” Her personal pain and regret are subsumed into a wider vision of what would please the people beyond herself.

One of the many subtle arguments The Cut makes is that female genital mutilation is related to poverty and education. One man says that when a girl has been cut “she can get married, give birth and handle a family,” even though it is obvious that the girls in the film are still virtually children. The under-education (in terms of both social values and academic status) of the parents creates a cycle in which the under-education, physical brutalisation, sexual and labour exploitation and social disempowerment of girls is perpetuated. The cutting of a girl is presented as a sign of her initiation into womanhood and therefore her readiness to marry and procreate. Anti-FGM speakers in the film rail against “illiterate parents” who do not see the value of education for a girl; they circumcise and marry off daughters who might have wanted to continue with their studies.  

However, The Cut also conveys how strong the anti-FGM movement is, with leadership coming from both sexes. Indeed the defensiveness and vehemence of the apologists, virtually all of whom are of an older generation, shows that the drive to end the practice is gaining ground. We see groups of very little girls chanting and holding up signs reading, “Don’t circumcise me! Don’t hurt me!” and “When you circumcise a girl, you destroy her life.” Male preachers urge, “Leave this outdated cultural practice.” Handsome men of marrying age have a pretty persuasive line that makes me smile: they say that FGM excises “the sweetest and most delightful part of a woman.” I always thought that my most delightful parts were my brain and my heart, but there you go. Another man says he doesn’t want to marry a woman who has undergone  FGM because “I want her to be sexually satisfied.” Another man tells a crowd, “You can tell the difference between [happy] wives who have not had it done, and [unhappy] wives who have.” 

The Cut is expertly structured, with a sense of foreboding that increases with every testimony. The women who have been cut, some of them looking barely ten years old, seem bashful, not angry, when expressing their pain and disgust.  “It was very painful. I will never forget,” says one, her eyes sliding as she remembers. Another represses a shudder as she describes the way she was mutilated: “They would use [the razor] to cut everything [around the genital area].”

The Cut’s masterstroke – to use exactly the wrong word – is the access Beryl Magoko has gained to the circumcision rituals themselves. These happen for both sexes. The boys are circumcised in one area and we see them surrounded by countless male friends, neighbours and relatives, whooping, hopping, singing and celebrating. Then we see them standing with their willies hanging out, all looking like skinny kids. Each one clenches his jaw and keeps his chin up, lips firm, eyeing the boys on either side, full of determination not to show any pain. Despite that, quite clearly, it hurts a hell of a lot. When the circumcision is done the boys look dazed and miserable, oblivious to the partying around them. They’re escorted back home by all their friends, bleary eyed and unsteady, silent, as though all they want to do is lie down in a darkened room.

The girls are in a different area. Just like the boys, they are surrounded by their same-sex relatives and supporters. The atmosphere is wonderful, full of celebration, connection and encouragement. I can well understand the sense of rejection and chagrin, even confusion and blame, that a community would feel and then bring vengefully to bear on a girl who refused to undergo FGM. And I could well understand the conflicted feelings of any girl who does not want to be cut yet who is naturally drawn – as anyone would be – to a celebratory event in which everyone participates and supports each other. This is not about girls being too weak to say no, but about the strength of a culture in persuading, muffling, denying or overriding that no. Additionally, The Cut makes it painfully clear that the girls who submit to FGM do not do so because they are passive but because they are innocent. The reality of what exactly will be done to them is concealed from them until it’s too late. 

At the FGM ceremony there is an atmosphere of frenzy, an undercurrent of brisk determination to see it through despite anyone's hesitation or aversion and a core of dark zeal, as at any rite where blood is to be shed. Amidst the celebrations of the brightly dressed older women around them – a celebration in whose rhythms and music I can’t help but hear the refrain cycle-of-abuse, cycle-of-abuse – the girls themselves are subdued. They become increasingly and instinctively nervous as they are jostled to stand in a line and then pushed down to sit on the ground, then lie back when their time comes. We see money changing hands as women buy pairs of surgical gloves from a vendor.

The innocence of the girls is such that one casually helps her mother get a fresh surgical blade out of its sterile packet. The girls are forced back and told to relax with their legs bent and naturally apart. Fear spreads from girl to girl to girl. The older women grow carping, bossy and a little physically rough, relishing their one moment of power. They bully the girls and egg each other on. One of them holds the razor and cuts a girl. It’s unwatchable.

Afterwards, there is silence. The girls look sick, queasy with pain. Their faces are rubbery with shock and, for some, tears pour thickly down their cheeks. Their eyes are dead. The girls are unable to sit up. They are clearly, obviously, visibly traumatised, in shock. A sizzle of glee passes through the older women who throng, dance, gather. They look triumphant, like bullies who’ve gained a point.

A health worker filmed in her clinic says, “after FGM you can have death from bleeding out. You can catch an infection. There can be a cross-infection.”

A male apologist insists, “girls don’t bleed and are not cut painfully.” His comment is not just motivated by an arrogant dismissal of female pain but - as echoed by many of the speakers - a suspicion of health workers. Multiple commentators hint that “the negative effects come from doctors” who they say are misleading people about the risks of FGM despite having to deal with the consequences when things go wrong. There is, overall, a resistance to the kind of change that the clinic symbolises: a national, standardised and networked healthcare system relying on medicalised, non-naturopathic treatments. Something very simple lies at the heart of all this: resistance to change and fear of the loss of defining and unifying rites. “It may end gradually. We can’t stop abruptly. We say it’s an initiation and we believe it’s good for us,” says one man. Another person repeats fervently, “It will not end” because “culture doesn’t end. Ever.”

The girls are escorted home. Their faces have been daubed in talcum powder to mark them as ‘initiated’. With colourful hats and parasols held over their heads they look like little ghost emperors. The pressure of the bodies around them and the willpower of the crowd seem to be the only things holding them up. The people are singing, dancing and jogging alongside the girls.

A still from The Cut by Beryl Magoko
It’s a terrible journey back. The girls pass in and out of consciousness, crying, staggering, fainting, sweating and collapsing, barely able to walk. Their eyeballs roll, their necks go floppy. Blood runs down their legs. They are shaken firmly, scolded and harangued. There is no tenderness whatsoever. Never before has it been so clear that FGM – the entire day, not just the moment of cutting – is not about celebrating the start of womanhood but about forcing female obedience, beginning a trauma which makes girls mentally vulnerable and therefore susceptible to further control and abuse, women bullying girls and the deliberate debilitation and weakening of strong, healthy female flesh. FGM is a socially sanctioned brutalisation process justified as a rite so ancient that nobody can remember its purpose, thereby leaving it usefully open to conventional patriarchal justifications.

A woman describes the “excruciating pain” of female genital mutilation.

Another woman says, “I regretted having gone there – but it was too late.” It was done.

We see the girls being taken home, glassy eyed. They are so traumatised physically and mentally that they’re unable to speak. They are encouraged to lie down. They can barely manoeuvre themselves. We see one mother trying to get her daughter to eat a biscuit. The daughter is unresponsive. She is too weak to chew.

In the aftermath there are countless physical problems, in addition to the mental trauma. It is difficult to urinate and it can take up to three weeks to walk properly. One woman says she “can’t even bathe alone. You need to be held.” Much older women describe how they “staggered” and “couldn’t sleep or walk for ten days with the pain.”

The wound must be left to heal in a certain way. If a girl sleeps with her legs closed the wound is forcibly re-opened.


“It’s so painful that I can’t even explain,” says a woman.

“It is like taking a hot nail and putting it on the wound,” says another woman.

A health worker explains the biologically necessity of the clitoris, which helps the vagina to stretch during childbirth. But FGM can remove the clitoris, leaving scar tissue: “Scar tissue doesn’t expand, which leads to tears, which obstruct labour. This leads to tears upwards and also down to the anus in childbirth. So a woman can develop a third degree tear – vagina to anus.” It’s not the word ‘tear’ that gets me about that quote, it’s the phrase ‘third degree’. Because I’m guessing there aren’t a whole load of degrees to get though and third is pretty much the worst. From this, a woman can develop a fistula, which means that she passes faeces through the vagina, the barrier separating the vagina and anus having been ripped. 

Another health worker adds, “I feel [FGM] should stop. It’s just humiliating. If they want to do it let them do it on adults who can sign their own consent form.” For the villagers shown in The Cut, the power to end FGM officially and decisively is in the hands of the new generation of men, the sons of the council elders.

A woman who underwent female genital mutilation says, “If I could stop it, it would have ended.”


Further reading:
·           An interview with Beryl Magoko about The Cut and the issue of female genital mutilation.
·           The official press pack for The Cut, giving full credits and further details of the film’s history and making, can be accessed here.
·           Read Beryl Magoko’s directors’ notes about the challenges she faced when filming.
·           Listen to award-winning reporter Juliet Spare’s feature on female genital mutilation for Voice of Russia

Bidisha is a 2013 Fellow of the International Reporting Project, covering global health and development.

The night I callously defrauded a penniless Burmese child

The eyes of the world are on Burma as the fight continues to move towards democracy and away from militarism, division and violence. The incarceration and liberation of democracy and human rights leader Aung San Suu Kyi followed a longstanding and powerfully mythic template of gendered superstition, symbolic objectification and beatified mortification: female strength, female isolation, female suffering, female stoicism, female beauty, female purity, female fortitude, female spiritual endurance despite being stripped of everything, female forgiveness towards persecutors and a victory gained through surviving the longest under unjust mental and physical duress, not fighting the hardest in open and equal mutually granted combat. In the years that follow the unglamorous, quotidian labour of working towards democracy, development, integration and sustainability must be undergone and there are many problems to solve.

As one strand of their global activities Health Poverty Action have launched a campaign reaching out to thousands of struggling people living in rural, remote areas of Burma. They write,
In this forgotten area of Burma, conflict has forced 100,000 people - mostly women, children and the elderly - to flee their homes and live in displacement camps.  They have no access to running water. There is not enough food. The freezing conditions and lack of toilets make them vulnerable to disease.
Nearly 50% of children under the age of 5 in the region will die, usually from easily treatable conditions including malaria or diarrhoea. Medical teams are working there to assist children and their families in providing vital basics: HPA has been helping feed 9,500 people, immunising 2,000 children, assisting over 500 women to give birth safely in the camp clinics and installing 350 toilets to improve sanitation. 36,000 people are currently living in the worst affected areas and money is needed to provide basic support there. Health Poverty Action stress that a £20 donation could immunise four children, provide two months’ food for a child living in a displacement camp, provide three quilts for families in mountainous areas which get very cold or provide two days’ training for camp volunteers looking after the whole community.

The charity ActionAid are also advocating and campaigning on behalf of Burma, which they are terming Myanmar. I call it Burma because Aung San Suu Kyi does. Although Burma has more international links and exchanges than it did before, there are still very few outreach, aid and charity programs serving its poorest communities. ActionAid’s vision takes in the country as a whole and its focus is on broad-scale development and the establishment of basic services and infrastructures. In particular, they highlight the necessity of access to clean water, to education and to healthcare. They also point out, shockingly, that in Burma “one child in every 10 dies before the age of five.” A basal 10% infant mortality rate, rising to nearly 50% in displacement camps in remote regions, is extremely alarming.

Conditions were worsened by Cyclone Nargis in 2008, in response to which ActionAid mobilised to assist 200,000 people in Burma and established a national system providing staple food supplies, educational facilities and health stations to those most in need.

ActionAid also offer international supporters the chance to sponsor a child in Burma, in a scheme which first launched in 2012. They cite a Fellowship Programme which trains young Burmese volunteers (er – if they’re unpaid volunteers then where does the sponsorship money go? Labour should be paid – white ActionAid staffers in the UK get paid a salary after all) to work with remote communities, tackling the complex challenges that arise when trying to lift societies out of poverty. The work needed varies from establishing infrastructure like well-maintained road networks, agricultural training for sustainable farming practices and microfinance to empower people in starting up small scale enterprises.

ActionAid state,
We have worked with over 390 communities, supporting more than 150,000 of the most vulnerable and marginalised people [worldwide].
Although I know their intentions are good, I am very wary of child sponsorship after I once half completed an ActionAid Burmese child sponsorship application in a not-drunken-but-humanitarian stupor in the middle of the night.

As I filled out the first part of the form I felt increasingly self-critical about sponsoring another human being, like hiring some sort of pity pet, an individual I would never meet or speak to, just to make myself feel good. This person would never be positioned as any kind of equal but instead would be a distant and exotic source of self-congratulation, a faraway star lighting up my own ego, a collection of clich├ęs about poverty and development, an object onto which various fantasies could be projected. Here are some subtextual justifications, arrogant self-compliments and snobby secret thoughts which underpin the actions of a child sponsorer (it’s just like being a horse whisperer except that you don’t even need to get close to the recipient to establish that special connection):

  • I am a good rich person of conscience helping a poor grateful person with no house/education/food/family/shoes with my few pounds a month.
  • Even if I’m not rich I feel rich because I’m so much richer than someone who’s got nothing that I can afford to give them a tiny little amount every single month and not even miss it.
  • I would like to pay them a few pounds but I wouldn’t want them living in my house or saying they want to visit. But I might want to go there and have a look one day out of curiosity.
  • I am happy to correspond by letter to maintain the romance of the thing but not by phone because that would be a massive imposition.
  • I am happy to pay my money but would not like to be troubled by any further demands as that would really be pushing it.
  • I will pay ten pounds a month but not twenty even though I spend sixty pounds a month on giant lattes at Costa and I just happily bought a £200 Zara winter coat made by exploited brown child labourers not unlike the kid I’m sponsoring. Yet somehow I’m sure it all balances out.
  • I have never been to the country and know absolutely nothing about the location where the child I’m sponsoring lives but I know the conditions are dreadful.
  • I didn’t care before but now I’ve received an endorsement from a likeable, sensible and unaggressive white person like Emma Thompson I’m willing to get on board. After all, she played Eleanor Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility so she's got a combination of feminine sensitivity and English brains I'm willing to listen to.
  • I can’t remember the exact name of the child I’m sponsoring as it’s very long and foreign but I’m sure she or he is just absolutely lovely. They’d better be.
  • It’s just like sponsoring a panda/goat/donkey/snake except that pandas etc don’t give you the extra satisfaction of writing you a letter to show you how grateful they are.

So, I had some ideological oppositions to it. I would much rather donate directly to projects for everyone and, let me make this pledge to ActionAid now, I would be very happy to travel to Burma to volunteer in the long term doing anything you want, from manual labour to teaching, and also report back and raise consciousness.

I junked the application midway, before I'd given the Internet my credit card details. A few days later I received a piece of paper from ActionAid. It was green and on the front was written in jaunty white lettering, ‘Child Message from Myanmar’, above a cartoon of a big-eyed, happily smiling yet barefoot kid in traditional Burmese dress, with, yup, a flower in her hair, holding a brightly coloured parasol and with not one but two extra parasols lying on the ground next to her. Part beanie baby, part Disney Princess, part prostituted child in brothel window forced to eye the punters beguilingly.


At the bottom of the leaflet it said, “The illustration above depicts a girl wearing traditional Myanmar costume and carrying a traditional umbrella made in Pathein. Pathein umbrellas are a popular souvenir from Myanmar.” I love it when sexism and racism come together: it’s like acquisitive colonial nuclear fission. An infantilised female, used as an object to unthreateningly boil down and sell an exoticised region to a cultural tourist. The message is loud and clear: this is what you’ve bought. Burma: she’s cute, she's not pushy, she's definitely not angry, she’s innocent, she’s traditional (note the word being repeated twice in the leaflet sentence) and she’s designed to please. You don’t get an actual photograph of an actual human being because, North or West, South or East, whatever the language or culture or country, the objectified, sexualised, depersonalised, minimised, infantilised all-purpose female cartoon image is easier to use and provokes more sympathy than a real human female.

Coming next in the series:
  • Sponsor an Indian child and get a cartoon of a barefoot Indian girl in pastel kurta pyjamas or full-on wedding sari, bindi, khol, jewellery, red bangles, jasmine garland and ankle bells, next to a sacred cartoon cow.
  • Sponsor a Japanese child …okay, Japan really doesn’t need your money… and get an impeccably realised Manga geisha with detachable wig, whiteface panstick makeup, stiffly alluring smile and fully rigged sushi-printed kimono, standing either barefoot as mandatory or on wooden soled platform sandals.
  • Sponsor an Arab child and hit the jackpot: child in a veil, everyone, child in a veil, yet still somehow conventionally pretty around the eye area. Camels, pyramids, deserts and palm trees in the background. Angry brown male hordes (rebels, breakaway militia, idealistic students, army or government – or choose an assortment) to be Photoshopped out, or in, depending on your preferences.
  • Sponsor a Chinese child. Much like the Japanese child option but with a kiddy cheongsam and chopsticks in hair. Lit alluringly by paper lanterns hanging from a pagoda/noodle restaurant in the middle of a rice paddy in which Pokemon creatures and Moshi Monsters cavort. Or maybe that’s the Japanese option. Whatever, right?
  • Sponsor an African child (any southern African country will do) and get a very colourful cartoon! This time your child comes swathed in richly patterned kente cloth in the form of a head wrap, blouse and skirt, stretched-lobe beaded earrings, tribal lip plate, multi-stranded beaded neckpiece, rough hewn walking staff with feathers attached, ceremonial facial tattooing and extensive decorative scarring. Mud hut and red earth in background optional.

I opened the leaflet and there was a hand drawn picture inside:



On the back was a message from Mar Ku, the field worker looking after ActionAid’s project in the village of Yae Twin Kone. It was handwritten in careful English capitals.

Dear Supporter, 
Warm greetings from Myanmar
How are you? I hope you and your family are in good health. Now, I am writing about the update of your child Moo Keh Blute and his family.
He has drawn a picture for you. There are flag, ship, fish, tree, school, vase and flower. There are six family members. He has two brothers and one sister. He is the second one in his siblings. His father works in making bricks. He lives with his parents. His mom is a housewife.
Thank you for your kind and generous support to this child and his community. We will update more about your child in the next child message card.

And then, obviously, I felt dreadful.

“You mean,” said my mother, “you’re sponsoring a child, without paying anything?”

It seemed so, mum. It certainly seemed so.

What does this signify on the part of ActionAid? That when you think you are sponsoring an individual, you are not really doing so but instead having your money pooled and used generally for everyone? I am not against that. That when you provide your name and address via a web site, it will immediately be sent to a Burmese community project that has various already-done kids’ drawings on file to send to you to make you feel like they’re responding directly, when really no individual child has any idea who you are? That a field worker like Mar Ku, who no doubt has plenty of much more worthwhile work to do, has to go through the charade and labour of hand-writing updates to each supporter so that they feel they’re getting their interpersonal money’s worth? That when you think you’ll strike up a relationship of patronage with one kid - or, to put it less cynically, you will have the feeling of supporting one child's path in life - you will actually receive standard communications from a field worker writing automatically on their behalf? I am not against that, either. In fact I approve of what is really going on. I am critical, instead, of the illusion: that patronising, ignorant westerners think they are reaching out to one grateful Burmese child in a million and that a charity would encourage this problematic illusion when the reality of its work is much more credible and worthy of respect.







If any established charity is doing medium to long term outreach work in Burma, I would love to be involved and can be contacted at bidisha.contact@gmail.com


Bidisha is a 2013 Fellow of the International Reporting Project, covering global health and development. 

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Taking action on the global health worker crisis

A couple of weeks ago I covered the importance of a well-trained, well-paid and well-respected human resources system in providing free universal healthcare globally. I analysed the challenges of doing so and examined some of the factors which can enable or inhibit good practice. Since then I’ve become aware of a new drive, flagged up by Health Poverty Action, which highlights the UK’s responsibility when it comes to global human resources in the field of health. It emphasises a developmental imbalance - with serious consequences for developing countries - created by the Western exploitation of global health worker labour.

Health Poverty Action has identified more than fifty countries, mainly in Africa and South Asia, which suffer from a “critical shortage of health personnel” while simultaneously carrying “a large part of the global burden of disease.” At the same time the increased necessity of long term care for ageing populations in European countries is creating strong demand for health workers, fuelling the migration of health workers to Europe from developing countries in today’s heavily globalised labour market.

Image of health worker in clinic in Tsumkwe in Namibia (c) Health Poverty Action

Health Poverty Action has been calling for the UK to “compensate developing countries for its role in the global health worker crisis.” There is a cached copy of the call here; I'm not sure what has happened to the plan to get supporters to write to UK MPs. The charity points to the shortage of health workers in developing countries and the UK's strong record of employing health workers who are originally from developing countries and migrate to the UK to work. HPA is not challenging people’s entitlement to move for work, to earn, to study and to create better lives, but instead seek simply to raise awareness of the consequences of the health worker shortage in developing countries. The responsibility for this must be on world governments engaged in large scale health infrastructure and planning. The shortage of health workers in developing countries results not only in poorer treatment there but in a variety of deficits which weaken the entire health system in the long term, from the under-staffing and under-maintenance of hospitals, clinics and rural health stations to poorer quality and less up to date training and education, the under-provision of medical equipment, the reduced chance of future investment when a future workforce cannot be relied upon and much more.

The charity adds,
It is estimated that 1 billion people [virtually all in developing countries] will never see a health worker, putting them at risk of dying from easily preventable diseases, from childbirth and basic health conditions.
The report Aid in Reverse challenges the UK government to play a conscientious and responsible role in ending the global health worker crisis, which Health Poverty Action labels a developing world “brain drain.” They suggest that in the UK the Departments of Health and International Development could work together on two complementary issues: first, treating the roots of the UK’s own shortage of health workers through better planning, training and education; second, giving something back to the developing countries whose health infrastructures are being weakened through lack – with severe ramifications for those nations’ own long term development – while they contribute so much to developed nations’ healthcare systems.

The challenge to developed nations who use the labour of talented health workers from developing countries to ensure their own citizens’ wellbeing is part of a pan-European initiative aiming to create a sustainable global health workforce. One of the main directives of the project is the implementation of a World Health Organisation Global Code of Practice on the International Recruitment of Health Personnel. The project’s tagline runs,





Bidisha is a Fellow of the 2013 International Reporting Project, covering global health and development.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Are you a woman who respects, supports, promotes and wants to hear expertise and analysis from the Red Cross? The feeling's not mutual.

On August 30th 2013 I receive the following very promising email:
From: averynicewoman@redcross.org.uk 
Dear Bidisha, 
Hope you are very well. Just to introduce myself, I work as part of the media and external relations team here at the British Red Cross and am currently managing various projects and activities that will mark the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Red Cross Movement. 
We are hosting an event on the evening of the 29th of October entitled: 
From Solferino to Syria - 150 years of Humanitarian Action
An event to mark the 150th anniversary of the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement 
It is taking place on Tuesday the 29th of October 2013 at BAFTA, 195 Piccadilly, London, W1J 9LN. The event is due to start at 18.30, with a drinks reception and exhibition to follow a panel style debate and discussion. We will be framing the panel discussion and debate around the importance of neutrality and our emblems,using the current situation in Syria as a context for the discussion. 
We would be delighted if you would consider appearing as part of the panel at the event, having written about the situation in Syria and having a great understanding of the humanitarian consequences of the crisis. 
As well as the panel, we will also have a photography exhibition from Ibrahim Malla, a Syrian now working for the Red Cross, featuring shots he has taken within Syria and the surrounding areas. We are also hoping to get a Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteer to speak as part of the event, to tell us about first hand the challenges they face on the ground. 
Attached is a more in depth summary of the event for you to read through. 
If you have any questions at all, please don't hesitate to drop me a line. 
Best Wishes,
Very NiceWoman.

Very NiceWoman
PR Manager
Media and External Relations
British Red Cross
[Personal email address and phone number edited out]
44 Moorfields, London , EC2Y 9AL8:
Blogs | Twitter | YouTube | Facebook | Flickr

The document which is attached to that email reads as follows, stressed words made bold by me:
British Red Cross event marking 150 years of the Red Cross movement

Date: 29th October, evening.
Venue: 195 Piccadilly, the BAFTA building 
Introduction 
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement and we want to use this occasion as an opportunity here in the UK to engage with key stakeholders and the general public on issues that define both who we are and the work we do.

A high profile event allows us to recognise 150 years of the Red Cross Movement and is a great moment in time to celebrate and demonstrate pride and confidence in our work.  It is also an opportunity to tell our story, develop greater awareness of who we are and position ourselves as unique within the aid sector through our guiding fundamental principles.
The Approach 
Looking to the past year and the current news agenda, Syria has dominated. Often questions around the Movement’s neutrality in this crisis have been posed and we would like to use this event as a means of engaging key stakeholders on this issue. We hope through our panel debate to discuss the importance of neutrality and the emblem, what it means to us and how we can ensure that neutral access is granted so that we can continue to help those in Syria most in need.

This discussion will be framed by the backdrop of the date the event is being held on – the 29th of October, which marks when the first national societies were recognised and the Red Cross was adopted as the emblem.

Audiences/ Invitees
  • Numbers of approx 150 – 175.
  • Other national societies and partner national societies
  • IFRC and ICRC.
  • Relevant media and journalists 
  • Think tanks, partner organisations and relevant external stakeholders. 
  • Major and high value giving donors.
  • Prospective donors.
  • Corporate partners, current and prospective.
  • MPs and relevant government
We are keen to invite our colleagues in Geneva as well as other national societies to share the event with them, as this is a movement wide anniversary and a theme that involves the whole of the Movement’s discussion and input.

In terms of external stakeholders such as think tanks, MPs and Government ministers – we are inviting them to develop a greater understanding of our work and the challenges that we face, with the aim that they can support our need for neutral access and put pressure on those that aren’t granting us this in current and future crisis.

The event provides an opportunity for corporate partners and major donors to engage with us on what we see as key issues and hear more about the work we are doing in Syria.
Format

• It will take place in the evening from 6pm onwards.
• The event will be opened by Sir Nick Young to set the context for the  evening and introduce the thematic discussion, emphasising its relevance to the Movement, our history and our current work and challenges.
• The main event will comprise of an on stage panel debate and discussion
The panel will consist of 4-5 knowledgable, well known and reputable guests.
• Questions from the audience to the panel guests and Sir Nick or other relevant BRC or Movement spokespeople, will be taken at the end of the discussion.
• This will be followed by a drinks reception for guests where the work of the photographer Ibrahim Malla, who has worked with us in Syria, will be showcased.
• There are also private rooms available, should any media interviews need to take place in a quiet space. 

I respond on the same day, August 30th 2013, two months before the event:
Dear Very, 
Hello - I would love to be a part of this panel. Thank you so much for the invite and count me in! 
I will await further orders but am very happy to be asked, 
Best 
Bidisha 

On September 2nd 2013 I receive a reply:


Hi Bidisha,

That's fantastic - we'd be delighted to have you as part of the panel, thanks so much!

If you can pencil the evening of the 29th October and I'll send through further briefings in the coming weeks.

Many thanks and any questions just let me know,

Very.

On October 9th 2013, 20 days before the event and more than five weeks after first being contacted, I receive an email featuring the following advert:



Hi Bidisha, 
Hope you are well. Please see attached the most up to date invite for the event - in case you want to invite anyone as a guest yourself. 
The final panel will consist of Terry Waite, Robert Mardini head of Ops in the Middle East for the ICRC, Simon Jenkins and yourself. 
Dr Hugo Slim will be chairing. I'll send through the panel briefing in the next few days. 
Do also let me know if you need me to book you a car to get you to the event? 
Many thanks! 
Very.

The attached, official invite is below:



There is an introduction from Sir Nick Young at 6.45pm. The panel is made up of me and Simon Jenkins, Robert Mardini, Hugo Slim and Terry Waite. Photographic work exhibited as part of the event is by Ibrahim Maila.

Men named on invite: 6 
Men present at event: 5, all white
Women: 1 (that's me, brown, double points)

I reply the same day, October 9th:
Dear Very, 
Hello and many thanks for your email. My main job is actually not with the Huffington Post, it's [I explain my International Reporting Project Fellowship].

The panel looks interesting. One query - if you include Nick Young then in the entire evening the speakers are 5 white men and 1 woman (me). Surely this is not quite right? In your last email to me the banner shows an image of two women looking aggrieved, with the tagline, 'A crisis can happen to anyone'; and your motto is 'Refusing to ignore people in crisis.' We all know, from the work we do, that women and children often bear the brunt of natural disasters, social breakdown, responsibility for all childcare, subjection to judgement and control, militarised violence (and the vast brunt of sexual violence and subsequent stigmatisation) and so on; and we also know that women are the majority of all charity workers, volunteers, fundraisers and aid workers; and indeed this panel event is organised by women.

Your event implies that women can be victims; women can work for free to help 'the cause'; and women can work hard behind the scenes. And we know that the Red Cross does incredible work all over the world, much of it in places where the majority skin colour is not white. Why do you have 5 white men and just 1 woman and 1 person of colour (combined in the same person - me) on this very high profile panel? 
You are implying that women are not worth listening to and that the correct make-up of a celebration of global aid work should be that 5 out of 6 authoritative speakers are white men. I'm sure you know, too, from experience, that the audience will be dominated by brilliant, humanitarian, engaged, experienced and amazing women. 
I am not enjoying writing this email as I so admire the work of the Red Cross and have been both keen on and honoured by this invitation from the very beginning. I have already covered this issue in The Guardian and as regards Amnesty International's television projects and comedy projects - I am shocked are [sic- and] surprised to see the Red Cross, which surely stands for humanity and for seeing all people as equal, is doing this.

Bidisha

On 11th October, after a thoughtful pause which I can sense across London, I receive the following: 

Dear Bidisha, 
Thank you for your email. 
I am sorry to read the below [sic] - I hope you understand there was no intention in anyway to exclude women or have a male bias for this panel, nor was the panel intended to give out any wider messages or implications about inequality of women. Quite the opposite - we have been very much trying to achieve a balanced panel and guests in attendance. 
Sir Nick Young is our Chief Exec - and so for an event like this it is appropriate for him to open. He is not sitting or chairing the panel - merely just welcoming everyone to the event. 
In terms of the panel - we have made every effort to ensure that women from the sector and media were represented. Lyse Doucet from the BBC was very keen to chair the panel - but could not commit in case she had to go overseas for a report. Though if she is able to attend - we will have her as part of the panel, that is something we will only know in the days running up to the event. The same goes for Sarah Montague from the Today Programme. 
We had also been speaking with Kristalina Georgieva, from ECHO to attend and although she very much wanted to - other commitments now means she is unable to join us and so is sending a deputy instead to attend as an audience member. 
We are also liaising with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent to hopefully get volunteers over to speak of their experiences. 
I'm sure you understand that the nature of these event often means that guests are confirmed last minute - and we do hope to have a wider ethnic and female representation on the day. 
However, if you feel that you would rather not participate, then please let me know. 
Many thanks,
Very.

I reply the same day:
Dear Very NiceWoman [whose name I'm now using in full],

Hello and many thanks for your email. The thing is, I have written many emails like my last, to my enormous regret and disappointment, and the result is always the same: the perpetrator mentions a few amazing women who might almost have been involved but by the caprices of the gods just somehow couldn't make it, or you haven't heard back, or it didn't work out with that one woman, and so on.

The upshot of all your efforts is that you have put together a formal invite headlining 5 white men and 1 woman.

As I mentioned above, the use of female Red Cross volunteers does not change the power dynamic of the event: women's hard labour has always been used up for free, while the authority - the introducing, the panel speaking, the definitive declaiming, the star spot on the bill/invite - is reserved for men.

I am cancelling my attendance at the Red Cross event, I will be publicising my reasons why, and your explanation, and I am enclosing a list of more than thirty-five relevant and brilliant women who would be exactly right for your panel.

This list took me no more than fifteen minutes to make. All the women combine a strong journalistic and speaking pedigree with knowledge and experience of international issues and passion for humanitarian work. If you want 3 speakers to make your panel equal, that would be less than 10% of my list.

Bidisha
London, 11th October 2013, 10.55am

The list of 37 women I sent to the woman from the Red Cross reads as follows:

Chitra Nagarajan, Homa Khaleeli, Alicia Izrahuddin, Soraya Chemaly, Kristin Aune, Lola Okolosie, Hannah Pool, Selma Dabbagh, Rachel Shabi, Michela Wrong, Frances Harrison, Victoria Brittain, Gareth Peirce, Zarghuna Kargar, Shereen El-Feki, Rahila Gupta, Heather McRobie, Rita Chakrabarti, Razia Iqbal, Rana Jawad, Catherine Mayer, Yvonne Roberts, Natasha Walter, Joan Smith, Joy Francis, Farah Nayeri, Caroline Moorehead, Petinah Gappah, Sonya Thomas, Susanna Tarbush, Rosie Garthwaite, Anna Blundy, Dina Matar, Bridget Kendall, Lindsey Hilsum, Helena Kennedy, Gillian Slovo

In the five minutes following me sending that last email to the Red Cross I think of 11 further names:

Helen Bamber, Karma Nabulsi, Mako Fitts Ward, Tazeen Ahmed, Joyce Adjekum, Kiri Kankhwende, Samira Sawlani, Monisha Rajesh, Asiya Islam, Anita Anand, Vera Baird

This brings the total up to 48 brilliant, worldly, humanitarian and knowledgeable women. I do hope that the next time the Red Cross puts on an event discussing its global humanitarian work, much of which is necessitated by the damage wrought by militarised, macho, misogynistic behaviour, it will not do so by headlining five white men and one non-white woman.