Body Map – Nomawethu Ngalimani (1978 – 2007)

22 04 2017

Today I got to spend an hour at Vancouver’s amazing Museum of Anthropology. An hour is nowhere near enough time to see everything – 90%+ is hidden in the hundreds of drawers that nobody ever seems to think to open. An hour is plenty though – you’re already suffering from sensory overload by that time. It’s been a while since I last visited and this time I was struck by a few life-size art pieces titled “body map”. Next to each was a brief piece by the artist. This one almost made me cry. So full of hope and life, but the footnote reported the brutal killing of the artist at the hands of someone she should have been able to depend upon.

I found the following on the MOA website regarding the South African Nomawethu Ngalimani:

One of the women artists from the Bambanani Women’s Group, who went on to work on the Longlife Project, which raised awareness and campaigned for antiretroviral treatment to be made available in the South African public healthcare sector. The Longlife Project recorded the life stories of the women who were participating in a Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) pilot antiretroviral programme. Life sized body maps were created and published in the book Longlife: Positive HIV Stories together with interviews of people working on the project. Limited edition fine art prints of the original body maps have been exhibited locally and internationally at conferences, fundraising events and in art galleries. The Longlife Project marked a shift from ‘preparing for death’ with the creation of memory boxes to ‘fighting for life’ as antiretroviral therapy was made available in public clinics and hospitals in late 2003. After the Longlife Project the Bambanani Women’s group went on to be trained as field researchers and worked on surveys conducted by the Centre for Social Science Research at University of Cape Town. Some members of the group have continued to do Memory Book and Body Map workshops and presentations for organisations such as VSO, Tateni Home Based Care, Red Cross, Médecins Sans Frontières and medical students at the University of Cape Town.

A photo of Nomawethu’s words is here.

Nomawethu Ngalimani’s words

The text reads as follows:

I’m standing with my hands up and my feet on the snake. In my opinion, the virus looks like a snake. You can’t see it and it’s moving in the secret ways and dark ways. Inkanyamba, a big snake that lives in the water, a destroyer like a hurricane that destroys everything on the earth and makes houses and trees fall down and kills people. But you see I am standing on the snake. With ARVs I destroy this virus too.

Others did not give me a lot of support when I found out I’m HIV positive. I live with my father, a drunk person. I won’t disclose to him and I haven’t told my boyfriend either. Maybe he will leave me even though he gave me the virus.

In January 2007, Nomawethu was murdered by her boyfriend.

You can read a little more about this remarkable woman and her murder on 50.50 by Kylie Thomas.

(Almost) finally, here’s an image of the body map she created for the project.

Nomawethu Ngalimani – Body Map

(Really) finally – consider looking out a copy of the book – LongLife: Positive HIV Stories (Cape Town: DoubleStorey Press, 2003). Nomawethu’s image is on the cover.





Late to the celebration of Ms Earley

13 03 2016

So, as I mentioned elsewhere, I recently read an edition of Canada’s History that highlighted some of Canada’s great women. 20? 30? Let’s try closer to HALF THE POPULATION! OK – that would be quite a thick magazine, I suppose.

Anyway, though the 20 that were featured in the magazine had been selected by a group of themselves relatively well known Canadian women, there seemed to be a skewed representation towards authors. Not that they were any less remarkable for that. They opened up the Canadian literary scene to more earthy examinations of inner city issues, feminism (of course) and simply great story telling. One or two I’d heard of. One or two I’d even read – such as Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel.

Of the 20 that were featured though, my “favourite” – if that’s even a valid concept in this context – was Mary Two-Axe Earley. The accompanying illustration was an interpretation of a CP/Toronto Star photograph on the magazine’s website, and she looked like anyone’s kindly nanna. But what a force!

Canada’s History: Mary Two-Axe Earley

As I read about her life I was struck by how Canadian history – even relatively recent history – was completely unknown in the UK. Things we might reasonably expect and take for granted have been hard fought for by strong women such as Two-Axe Earley. The world – and in this case Canada in particular – is undeniably a better place for the things women like her have achieved.

Born as a Canadian Mohawk on 4th October 1911, she moved to the US and married an Irish/American engineer – Edward Earley – and had a brace of litte ‘uns. Because Edward was non-Aboriginal, she fell foul of the 1876 Indian Act and lost all her rights along with her Indian status. As well as the loss of the right to live on the land she was brought up on, she couldn’t vote in the reserve’s elections or even be buried in its cemetery. None of this concerned her at the time. She was living in Brooklyn and was very much in love. Then…

A friend of hers died in 1966 and she discovered that her friend had been ordered off her own reserve for marrying a Mohawk from a different reserve. No such penalty was suffered by men, and she was pretty sure the stress had contributed to her friend’s death. Written in the Victorian era, the Indian Act simply reflected the prevalent view at the time that women were basically possessions of their husbands.

Enraged into action, Two-Axe Earley founded Equal Right for Indian Women, which later became Indian Rights for Indian Women. The Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada was established in 1967 and gave a platform to present the case. The commission duly recommended that the relevant clauses of the Indian Act be repealed such that First Nations men and women should have the same rights with respect to property and marriage as any other Canadian. So naturally not a lot happened.

It wasn’t until the 1982 Canadian Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms though that her campaign really got the teeth it needed. In 1985 the government finally amended the Indian Act so that it reflected the equality provision in the Charter. As well as returning rights to women who had previously lost them through the archaic clauses in the act and “marrying out”, there were two generations of children from those unions that were now eligible for status. More than 15,000 women were affected by this decision!

When she finally died in 1996, Mary Two-Axe Earley was laid to rest in the cemetery near her birthplace, Kahnawake. A right she had fought long and hard to gain.

If you’d like to learn more about this remarkable lady, check out her bio at Windspeaker.





Ancient & Modern

13 03 2016

As I may have mentioned – though potentially not to you – Mrs E and I marked our 6th wedding anniversary the other week. After 24 years married. The smarter amongst you will figure out how those facts are not mutually exclusive. We went to stay on the west coast of Vancouver Island, at a place called Wickaninnish Inn – a lovely place to go Storm Watching.

Chesterman Beach, Vancouver Island

Anyway, to pass the time on the ferry, I bought a copy of “Canada’s History”. This used to go by the name of “The Beaver” and was originally the Hudson’s Bay Company’s internal magazine. It’s well known for being brimful of Asha Canadiana. This particular edition was celebrating 20 great Canadian women and that was what caught my eye and lured me to part with the $8 required for the privilege to read it.

The very back cover though was also of interest. As is the norm, it was a full page advert. In this case for the Toronto-Dominion Bank . It was advertising the TD Gallery of Inuit Art in Toronto. The image they’d chosen to use was of “Young man with MP3 player” by Pitseolak Qimirpik, a Cape Dorset artist.

There is no denying the skill of the guy, and you can see more of his work at Dorset Fine Arts. The thing that made me pause though was not only the display of traditional carving skill, but the contemporary subject matter. Here was a very contemporary subject (spliff, earbuds and all), but portrayed in a very ancient way. Not with a digital image or some fancy PhotoShop work, but with time, care and skill… in a 17 inch high piece of serpentine with antler and wire. It inspired me to want to learn more. Not just of the work of Qimirpik himself, but of his culture and motivation.

pitseolakqimirpikcopy

Source: Dorset Fine Arts PITSEOLAK QIMIRPIK – YOUING MAN WITH MP3 PLAYER, 2010





Receiving an Education

5 03 2016

I don’t consider myself an activist. Not in the way we normally pigeon-hole people at least. I’ve never felt the need to chain myself to railings (though they’re rare in the Lower Mainland) or throw myself under a racehorse for example. I’ve never even attended a rally or listened to a soap-box speaker. There are some things I feel very strongly about though. Education; women’s rights; recycling; human dignity. To name a few. A few things strike me as fundamental to who we are as a species if we claim to be superior to fungus in any way at all.

I do act on my convictions though. I donate money and time to causes I support. Scouts; young entrepreneurs; amputees; it’s an eclectic mix of course, as am I. Most recently I volunteered to the Immigrant Services Society of BC. They came into being to help BC support the large influx of refugees from Idi Amin’s, er, aberration back in 1968. Since then they have developed processes and services to help newcomers integrate and assimilate into Canadian life. All immigrants, not just refugees. However the recent Syrian situation has caused a spike in calls for their services and they put out a call for extra volunteers. I am humbled to say that BC responded well and now there’s a “better” problem in processing so many volunteers.

I’ve already had my orientation session and fulfilled the Police Criminal Record Check to make sure I’m not a danger to these vulnerable families. The government sponsored refugees are the main target for the help and they were selected as the most needy from the refugee camps around Syria’s borders. That was an important factor for me. I am open to helping anyone that needs it, but a refugee is very distinct from a migrant in my view. ISSofBC agrees and even had a slide on the differences between the two, in terms of attitudes, needs and expectations.

The next phase of training was this last week and involved a 2.5 hour session on cultural sensitivity. I always maintain that no matter how bad a training session is there’s always something to be learnt. It may not be what was intended, and indeed it may actually be about oneself, but I always try to be open to learning opportunities. Last Thursday turned out to be quite educational. Firstly there were the “expected” learnings. We were taught some generalities of Arab culture so we could avoid unnecessary irritation due to differences with “normal” Canadian expectation. One in particular was regarding time. In the west, if we arrange to meet someone at say 9am, we tend to expect them to turn up around then – unavoidable accidents aside. It seems that with our new mentees we should be prepared for some, er, fluidity in the concept of time. The phrase “God willing” should be interpreted as “maybe, possibly, if the wind is in the right direction and nothing more interesting turns up”, it seems. OK – that’s me expanding what was actually said, but “Tomorrow, if God wills it” should not be interpreted as “Yup, tomorrow for sure”. They say forewarned is forearmed, and now I know not to think I’m being snubbed or ignored. I’ll be particularly alert around things like doctor or school appointments. The flip side of this is that if you are in conversation, you are the most important thing. They miss those meetings because of the respect they have for the person they’re already with.

Some of the biggest adjustments for the newcomers are in the smallest things. We were told 95% of Syrians smoke. Now I’m quite sure that the percentage is not scientifically arrived at, but it’s indicative of the issue. When trying to find new homes for the refugees after their 2 week stay in the welcoming apartments, there’s a form (inevitably) to be filled in. One question is “Do you smoke?” They are told “If we tick YES you may be waiting 6-9 months for an apartment. If we tick NO you will have a new home within 2-3 weeks. Now… which one shall we tick?” Adjustments are needed on all sides, it seems.

The part I’m dreading though is where my personal views clash with the cultural expectations of the newcomers. I’m not religious, and have no stronger negative views around Islam than I do around Christianity. The west is far too arrogant in that regard. Check out the Dutch social experiment by “Dit Is Normaal” for an illustration of that.

However, it is true that we have SOCIAL and CULTURAL expectations that may be very different to a newcomer’s and it’s always better to avoid unnecessary conflict and distrust. We don’t all need to agree about everything even within our own society, but offence is best performed deliberately rather than accidentally! 🙂 The learnings here ranged from confirmation of assumption (“under no circumstance should a male mentor touch a female in the family – even to shake hands”) to the less expected (“do not offer ANY advice about females in the family. ESPECIALLY with regards to education or employment”.) It seems that the father is not just head of the family, as might already be anticipated, but is the sole arbiter of the lives of the female members. Even offering advice about higher education opportunities of any male children can be seen as unwelcome interference. This area is going to be the most challenging for myself personally. I have strong views about women’s rights and education more generally. Cultural sensitivity is one thing. Oppression is another. It will be a real test of my mentoring and inter-personal skills. A learning opportunity yet to come.

One of the other volunteers was himself a middle eastern immigrant – there are many Persians in Vancouver – and made the point that all immigrants must follow the law of the land, no matter what their “old country” expected. This was a complete non-issue when I myself immigrated. Canada’s laws and social norms are almost entirely the same as in the UK. But as indicated at the start… I learnt a few unexpected things at the end of the session. About myself and my own sensitivities as an “outsider” – despite my blue passport.

After 90 minutes of lecture about various aspects of integration and sensitivity we were split into groups of 4 and given some case studies to talk about and present. My group was given an example of a Cambodian lady with a long name that was hard for westerners to pronounce. We were asked to consider how we might discuss any concerns with this hypothetical lady.  I mentioned my experience in Taiwan where it was common for Chinese people to adopt English Christian names to help smooth business dealings with westerners. I’d found it notable because many of the names were “old” such as Ernest or Arthur, or just very unusual such as Forest, Ferry or Tiger. One lady in my group gave an example of a Chinese friend who had chosen an Anglicised name to help herself integrate. (The common thread being they’d all chosen these names themselves – the group agreed it should not be an expectation.) She’d then married a Canadian and now was known as Agnes McDougal or something.

This was all just unremarkable chit chat until the lady in the group concluded with “she ended up with such an English name!” From nowhere, my “lizard brain” felt the need to gently jibe “Actually – that’s Scottish”. I was surprised – even shocked – at myself. I consider myself pretty well integrated… and might even have said assimilated up until then, yet here I was still sensitive to subtleties of UK geography that few outside the islands know or care about. I resisted continuing with the lecture on the differences between Britain and England, but it was a not entirely pleasant reminder of the prejudices and assumptions I myself would be bringing to any interaction with Syrian refugees.

Muttering internally to myself about being more observant of my internal compass and not to get unnecessarily bent out of shape, I got the double whammy when a member of the group then suggested that our spokesperson should be “the guy with the accent”. Plainly I was – after 15 years – still not quite acceptable as a Canadian. The irony being that the suggestion came from a young Chinese-heritage lad.

Still smarting from this uncomfortable self learning I had one final jolt as I left the room. Because of the case studies, we were all largely sat in different chairs to the ones we’d sat in through the earlier sessions. We were now at the end of 2.5 hours “learning” about cultural sensitivity. I wandered back to my original chair to collect my belongings and quietly asked the lady sat there if she’d mind me disturbing her to collect my coat and jumper. “Jumper?!” she exclaimed a little too loudly, as she moved. I felt quite small for a moment. After sitting through the same sensitivity training as I had, this lady – quite accidentally and without malice I’m sure – mocked my use of a common English word not typically used in North America. I had just received a timely reminder that feeling “other” is a way more subtle and nuanced situation that how you look, or even the language you speak. Offence and sensitivities can be caused in such casual accidental ways… even after being trained on how not to do it!

I left feeling more educated than I expected, and slightly more self-aware of my own limitations.

Game on!





For the love of Ada! 12 TV show pitches with a female engineering hero

25 07 2015

I always struggle with projects like this. I totally accept that women, “people of colour”, folks who self-identify their sexuality as something other than society might assume etc. are all under-represented in the mainstream, and are often still denied opportunities due to discrimination. Day-to-day ignorance can at best be annoying, and at worst down-right discriminatory.

This I do not dispute. Believe me – after a lifetime of using scissors designed for “normal” right-handers, I totally understand silent institutionalised discrimination, and the very real pain it can cause. Not to be flippant (being a left-hander is hardly causing me the same level of lost opportunities that being born female, even now in the 21st Century might), but there are many many forms of discrimination in this world, and not all are so obvious or acknowledged as is sexism. The power of these discriminations is that they are often unpremeditated. They are endemic in the way society behaves and defines “normal”. In the same way as having only right-handed scissors makes life awkward for me, expecting a nursing mother to use a smelly public toilet to feed the next generation, or only having steps to the entrance of a city building is not an active demonstration of cruelty. It is merely the result of catering for “the norm” and almost accidentally causing discrimination. The deliberate cruelty comes when such situations are recognised, acknowledged and still left unresolved.

On that level then, I applaud attempts to try and rectify the imbalance. The problem though is that it tends to do little to rectify the underlying issue. It simply addresses the results of the discrimination in one or two small, personal ways. This “positive discrimination” helps the beneficiary overcome the prejudice in one small situation – say a job opportunity – but does little if anything to address the underlying problem. This needs a much more slow and steady approach. And education. And consideration.

In the specific case of sexism for example, I firmly contend that to say “women are equal to men” is false. Indeed, in many ways and in many situations, women are far superior.

The real issue isn’t equality of the gender, but equality of opportunities available. There is no reason to exclude women from applying for even physically demanding jobs based on their gender. Based on some objective test of strength, capability, skill, sure, but not explicitly their gender. Many men would fail such tests too. The equality should be in the access to opportunity and the objective meeting of some requirement, not in being of a specific gender.

Particularly in intelligence or creative spheres, women are easily as capable as men, and there is no reason on Earth that women should not be better represented in the fields of say management, software development and car design. Here, the challenge is as much one of perception and the need is at least partially to encourage women themselves to not buy in to the mantra that “that’s a man’s job”. This project – to launch a TV show that has a central female character in an engineering-based role – is an attempt to address the latter. To have a role model for today’s young women that they can indeed excel in what may otherwise be still perceived as a male domain. The recent women’s FIFA World Cup tried for all its worth to portray strong female role models, and I wait eagerly to see if it has had any positive impact.

It was with some shaking of my head then that I read the pitches for the show. They can be found here: 12 TV show pitches centered around a female engineering hero.  Fashion designer Tilly Tailor? Really?! @Gnosis: Veronica Mars meets Gossip Girl meets Hackers? Oh dear Lord… These pitches say as much about the current low expectations of TV as they do about the continued stereotyping of women, but given the project’s goal, I expected more.

The clear leading contender for me was one based at least partially on a real female engineer… though she would never have been called that in her day. Only legitimate daughter of Lord Byron, Ada Lovelace (after whom the programming language Ada was named) was real. As was Charles Babbage. He is much more well known in computing circles as the inventor of “The Differencing Machine” – the first attempt to have a programmable computing device. The technology of the time didn’t allow it to be completed but a working version is now on display in the UK’s Science Museum. Ada though… she developed the first algorithm, intended to run on the machine. Arguably she’s the mother of programming.

Mashable: Ada Lovelace

It’s not clear from the piece in Mashable whether the pitch is based on the recent graphic novel “The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer”. I already have this on my goodreads “To Read” list. I’m waiting for the paperback version. It was only published in April. I hope so – the book looks like a rollicking good yarn by British graphic artist Sydney Padua.

It would behove new students studying computing to not just focus on the likes of Babbage, Von Neumann, Holerith, Turing etc., but also give Ms. Lovelace her due. Credit to my own teachers back in the late ’70s… she did indeed get a mention.





Did sexual equality fuel the evolution of human cooperation?

27 06 2015

So yesterday, my BBC History magazine arrived. I love reading this publication. Pop science magazines tempt you with the sheer breadth of subjects we are researching, with respect to ways to destroy the planet, or at the very least ourselves. Not on purpose, of course. No – we’re motivated by greed. The whole end of the world thing is just a potential by-product.

Pop history illustrates the ways we’ve already tried and what we learnt along the way. Some things are quite spectacular. Crusades; world war; slavery (black on white as well as the more recent and well known white on black)…

July’s edition bridges the gap and refers to a report in Science magazine that suggests that sexual equality may in fact be a prehistoric concept, and that like so many other things, we broke a perfectly good thing along the way. The article posits that later, with the rise of agriculture and its systems of property and inherited wealth, sexual inequality appeared.

Did sexual equality fuel the evolution of human cooperation? | Science/AAAS | News.

By coincidence, July’s edition also reminds the reader that July 1848 saw the world’s first ever Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York. Men were supposed to be excluded, but early #HeForShe advocates were eventually allowed in – as long as they sat quietly and didn’t take an active part in the meeting. No iPhones in those days either… must have been hard for them!





Funny Clothing Tags

27 06 2015

These web pages promising x of the funniest y you’ve ever seen are often disappointing, but I had to admit to sniggering at one or two of these supposedly genuine wash care labels from Bored Panda.

21+ Of The Funniest Clothing Tags Ever | Bored Panda.

Not at all sexist...

Not at all sexist…