Scroll to the bottom for links to websites of the organizations/projects mentioned, as well as a podcast link.

“No one knows everything, we all know a little bit. Let’s look at our realities together,” says Amanda Garcés of Mobile Voices (vozmob), an IT platform that helps Latino, immigrant workers in Los Angeles create and distribute stories about their lives and communities directly, using cell phones.

“Video has immense capacity to generate action,” says Priscilla Néri of Witness, a New York based organization whose mandate is to provide training and support to local groups worldwide to use video in their human rights advocacy campaigns. Witness has coupled this mandate with the outreach and in-reach capacity of the internet.

Garcés and Neri were two of ten panellists at “Citizen Media Rendez-vous,” a one-day event held in Montréal on August 23, 2010, co-sponsored by international and local civil society and media organizations and the Department of Canadian Heritage.

I was curious to check out this event given the panic about “the disappearance of the print media as we know it”, contrasted with the proliferation of new media technologies and usage, and accelerating audience fragmentation. Perhaps new “Citizen Media,” whatever that was, would present the empowering face of this cataclysmic change, largely depicted as negative. This is what I learnt:

Craig Silverman from MediaShift, a PBS, U.S.A., funded “guide to the digital media revolution,” is currently working on OpenFile, in Toronto. This is a collaborative, local news site where stories are suggested by readers, then selected and investigated by OpenFile journalists.

Apart from producing journalism that is much more locally responsive, OpenFile can get actual intervention, for e.g., a municipal staff person may be called on to answer a question about tree cutting in a particular neighbourhood,

Tim McSorley is a Montreal editor at The Media Co-Op, a Canadian coast-to-coast network of local, media co-operatives. “We want to be accessible, accountable, democratic,” he said. Their open publishing site allows citizens to upload text, audio and video reports, while also funding professional journalistic reports. Media Co-op is independent – reader funded and member-run. They believe in talking to people directly affected first, then, time and resources permitting, the journalist brings their questions to those making the decisions: politicians, corporate executives. Typically this is the opposite of how mainstream media operate.

Georgia Popplewell, MD of Global Voices, started Caribbean Free Radio with the aim of broadening the stereotypical coverage of her country, Trinidad and Tobago. This expanded into “an international, volunteer-led project that collects, summarizes, and gives context to some of the best self-published content found on blogs, podcasts, photo sharing sites, and videoblogs from around the world, with an emphasis on countries outside of Europe and North America… and on voices that are not ordinarily heard in international, mainstream media.”

With 300 bloggers and translators on board at Global Voices, the content is translated into 18 languages. Amen.

Norman Cohn, the Canadian-American co-founder of IsumaTV, among the most politicized of the presenters, had an urgent mandate: to stop the disappearance of the 4000 year-old, Inuit language and culture, which he said is melting away as rapidly as Arctic icebergs. (Isuma, means “think” in Inuktitut.) IsumaTV is an independent, interactive network of Inuit and other indigenous multimedia that offers 200o plus films in 41 languages for free online.

The project started years ago with the idea of Inuit filmmakers and communities being able to film their own stories. Some of the ensuing products, like the not-to-be-missed Atarnajuat, the Fast Runner, were a critical and commercial success. “Our films were being seen elsewhere, but not in the Inuit communities, and there is still a problem of access,” says Cohn.

Remote communities in the Canadian North (as well as parts of rural Canada, another participants added) lack affordable, usable internet access, and the situation is getting worse. “There’s a class system here; there’s colonization,” Cohn reminded us. He is working with a community-oriented, internet company to improve access.

Jean-Noé Landry from Montréal Ouvert (Open Montreal) is working to get Montreal to adopt an open data policy. This would allow citizens to understand better how the city operates, and analyze and use municipal data that is usually kept private. A handful of cities have adopted an open data policy, and they have been able to save money, he said. This project is trying to promote grassroots democracy and transparency.

Other projects presented were the Indian CGNet Swara and Ushahidi. Swara is an audio website where people can call a phone number to record news, and listeners can call in to hear the recorded news. It serves tribal people in remote areas in the state of Chhattisgarh, India. Community members sometimes have cell phones, but hardly any other technology. (Electricity is not a given.)

This pilot project, like Mobile Voices and IsumaTV, is about disadvantaged minorities generating their own news to build identity, solidarity and community while also presenting their realities from their own perspective to the larger public. While these kinds of initiatives are not new, marrying them to the potential of new information technologies gives them wider scope.

Ushahidi (Swahili for testimony) is a platform that enables a person to send in information by phone or e-mail that can then be electronically mapped. It has been used in several crisis situations. Jaroslav Valuch, who works with Ushahidi, recounted the fascinating story of its deployment during the Haiti earthquake this year, when trapped Haitians were calling in from various parts of the country, and Haitian expats, mobilized through Facebook, were translating the messages and helping localize the calls, putting their geographic and cultural knowledge to use. Click to listen to a podcast about Ushahidi and its larger implications.

Many challenges also surfaced – sustainable funding, ensuring data accuracy, quality control, maintaining independence and not getting coopted, increasing public awareness and engagement, how to protect people’s identities in human rights abuse contexts, and others.

While not being naive about the obstacles, the presenters came across as committed and positive, which was truly inspiring. If a key goal of civil society organizations is promoting citizen involvement, and giving citizen’s voice and agency, then new Citizen Media, whose potential is just emerging, is surely a good thing. I welcome the decentring and opening up of media creation and diffusion as never before. Do you? It may be bewildering and a tad scary, but it looks like it is going to be an exciting ride!

Accessing citizen media panel:
• Norman Cohn, co-founder IsumaTV (Montréal – Igloolik)
• Tim McSorley, editor Media Co-operative (CAN – Montréal)
• Georgia Popplewell, Managing Director Global Voices (TRINIDAD & TOBAGO)
• Craig Silverman, Managing Editor MediaShift (USA) & Digital Journalism Director OpenFile(Toronto)
• Jean-Noé Landry, co-founder Montréal Ouvert (Montréal)

Use of new media for human rights panel:
• Jaroslav Valuch, Haiti Project Manager Ushahidi (KENYA – Boston)
• Priscila Néri, Program Coordinator, Witness (New York)
• Shubhranshu Choudhary, CGNet Swara (INDIA) *via Skype
• Martin Lessard, Zéro Seconde (Montréal)
• Amanda Garces, Project Coordinator Mobile Voices (Los Angeles)
(This is a mostly Spanish site.)

The 9th CIVICUS World Assembly is in Montreal from August 20-23, 2010. CIVICUS is a network of civil society organizations working to strengthen civil society and citizen action worldwide. At the Assembly they are discussing democracy, human rights, citizen media, how to forefront youth voices and more.

On August 23 an interesting event on Citizen Media is taking place in parallel with the Assembly.

Watch this space for my blog entry of this event.

(Click on the names for music samples)

Throw a stone – hit a festival – that’s Montreal. Jazz, African music, percussion, Arabic and North African music, and music from Francophone countries, all warrant a festival each. Apart from the “normal” International Film Fest, there’s Fantasia (yah, far out fantasy flicks), FIFA, a festival devoted to films on art, and another that showcases Haitian films. (Just how specialised can you get?!) There’s literature fests like Blue Metropolis; dance, theatre and modern circus fests, and a comedy fest – Just for Laughs/ Juste pour rire. There is the Montreal First People’s Festival and Accès Asie (Asian Heritage Month in other Canadian provinces). I saw an ad for a fashion and design festival and the latest I heard about was a Nomad fest! Every time you turn around they’ve added a new one…

When I first got here, a wannabe Montreal culture vulture – I threw myself zealously into festivaling. By year two, festival fatigue set in. Year three and I have picked my two favourites – the Montreal International Jazz Festival and Nuits d’Afrique (African Nights).

These, like the other major music festivals, feature free shows; the jazz fest in particular gives away amazing music for nothing. Both have a great vibe. Yes there’s a crowd, but it’s made up of nice folk, there to enjoy music joyously and respectfully, often with the family members.

At this year’s Jazz fest we were blown away by the nimble finger work of award-winning Cuban pianist Rafael Zaldivar and energized by the “we are having so much fun making good music together” gypsy meets techno sound of the Eastern European Slavic Soul Party. I discovered, and Marc-Antoine learned to appreciate Dan Bigras. A Quebecois rocker and former bar singer with a big voice, he put on a big, brassy, entertaining show. He coupled fun standards like Hit the Road Jack with spunky French numbers, among them a bawdy retelling of Red Riding Hood.

I find French and Quebec music that I have come across really different from the music I know in English or Indian languages. The lyrics are poetry, or pieces of text, set to music. Often a kind of musical storytelling which covers a wide range of themes. Most singers write their own lyrics and music, and are then called auteur-compositeur-interprète. No wonder Montreal is home to the famous, English-language, auteur-compositeur-interprète – Leonard Cohen.

The rousing festival finale had a Mardi Gras theme and featured musicians from the New Orleans area, among them, Acadian-French singer Zachary Richard. I was excited as I had been introduced to his music in French class! He was good, though it was the youthful Trombone Shorty‘s (he’s not short!) who stole the show. Man, could that guy blow!

For Nuits d’Afrique we focused on four, emerging divas. Marc-Antoine faithfully went to see Chiwoniso, a Zimbabwean musician he has seen at the great Zanzibar Music fest – Sauti Za Busara (Sounds of Wisdom). I broke ranks to check out Dobet Gnahoré from the Ivory Coast who mixes styles and genres but is very rooted in African traditions. Singing, dancing, looking great (!), exuding a relaxed confidence, she had us eating out of her hand at Cabaret Mile End, a venue worth checking out if you’re visiting Montreal. Both these ladies sing about African issues in several African languages.

The festival “finds” were Hindi Zahra and Nomfusi (and the Lucky Charms). Hindi, a blues singer influenced by her Moroccan background and the music of that sound-rich region, has an original, contemporary style that weaves a spell . Nomfusi brings incredible passion to each number. Her style is influenced, among others, by legendary singer and civil rights activist Miriam Makeba. Nomfusi comes from the townships of Cape Town, and sings about life here in her native Xhosa. Langa and Khayelisha, the places she mentioned, were the very ones I visited in the recent past!

It was a pleasure and a privilege to hear all these talented, committed artists, who infused our life with their vibrant music for a few days.

Lac Village, Mai Chau district, North West Vietnam
Tuesday, May 10, 2010

We are in a tranquil, green, watery, pastoral paradise in North West Vietnam. The Mai Chau district is home to the White Thai, one of Vietnam’s 54 minority groups, though the population here now is more ethnically mixed than it used to be.

I am sitting on a platform under the floor of a high, wooden, stilt house. Traditionally the poles on which these homes rested were wooden; now they tend to be concrete. The house has many windows that let in a much desired breeze, and a balcony on one side. The floor is covered in plastic mats and we sleep on narrow mattress, under spacious mosquito nets. There’s nothing else in the room but for too much of our city stuff.

The platform, which looks out on small, fish-breeding ponds, has bamboo tables and chairs. Cattle used to be kept here in the past, but they now build sheds for them. Beyond this are rice fields, and then mountains. There’s a profusion of plants and trees; the breeze brushing against leaves is a constant, soothing shimmer, at times punctuated by low voices, a dog barking, or a cock crowing.

In Hanoi we were besieged by motorcycle horns and all kinds of grating city noises. The Ancient Quarter, which housed our hotel, was an atmospheric warren of shops selling everything imaginable under the sun. The tiny shops took up the house fronts of incredibly long and narrow buildings – a traditional architectural style. Business and life spilled onto pavements, which also provided parking for the inevitable mo-bikes. Everywhere, small eateries spread out their tentacles, particularly at dawn and dusk.

The goods sold were cheap local or made in China, with the usual coke and cosmetics made by regional offices of multinationals. The more touristic parts of the Quarter sold t-shirts, crafts, jewellery, clothing, paintings and supposedly safe water in plastic bottles. The Quarter’s life breath is the bustle and hustle of commerce.

Now, as I look upon emerald fields stretching to the base of hills, close enough for a giant to reach out and touch, I feel a burden fall off. The same feeling had engulfed me when I got to the beachfront in Cape Town, to a narrow strip of sand, rock, the ebb and flow of waves and the sea stretching to the horizon.
This morning there were women in conical, Vietnamese hats working the fields. A narrow concrete road cuts through them, allowing passage for a loaded up bicycle or motorcycle, and a very occasional mini-van.

There are no cars.

Stilt houses line the small streets, and sell lovely, ethnic goods; pieces of elegantly patterned cloth made on looms, and purses and other small items made with these fabrics.

There is minimal electric gadgetry.

With daily power cuts, the homes run generators frugally. This rather cramps our city lifestyle and computer dependency. (By the way, we are here for a work retreat!)

The students find an internet cafe that was not there last year.

(Two cute little French-speaking girls, children of a Vietnamese colleague and her French hubby, and a Hanoi-based caterer who’s organizing our meals, come by and invite me to a balloon blowing fest. Even though I demur, they sportingly serve me French food fashioned from twigs, seeds and leaves.)

This quintessential, agrarian, tropical landscape happens to be among my favourites and I am drinking it in with all my senses, and especially my spirit.

The simple rurality (this is English, you can make words up on the spot!) strikes me with the force of a wooden gong hitting a heavy, brass bell (a common feature in Vietnamese pagodas). What a contrast to our whirlwind tour, our attempt to comprehend urbanity and its ills (mostly), with glimmerings of hope – those valiant efforts to bring equity and environmental sustainability to bulging, crackling, electrifying, terrifying, thrilling cities.

Why do we pour into them? Why do we keep growing them?

City slickers like you could tick off myriad reasons right away, but the main is that life in the cities is an improvement for migrants who come from the towns and villages, even if the middle-class may only see the gaps in their existence, what’s not there instead of what is.

Cities are enterprise, and Hanoi is a prime example of people’s ability to make, or grow or buy something and then sell it for a small mark-up, eking out a living for themselves and their families in the city, while living in sub standard housing if they can afford rent, or building shacks, and sending money back home to degraded and impoverished “rural idylls”.

Vietnam’s rural to urban migrants are increasingly young and female and a quarter of the economy, excluding agriculture, is informal. Policy makers however are slow to acknowledge migration and informality, certainly in Vietnam, even as some interesting efforts to work with this flow, not against it, are emerging worldwide.

And yet, and yet, villages like Lac, which continue to grow food and drum and dance in the evenings, and not just for visitors, while making money from cultural tourism, may suggest another way – of skimming off from the urban traveller and city economy, while continuing a way of life, with adaptations and accommodations, which is more satisfying, at least for this generation and may be for some of the next?

The old man who spoke to us about village customs was happy to be a farmer, and proud of the fact that the village had filled government crop quotas to feed the soldiers, during the wars, despite its poverty. He liked cultural tourism as it kept people better fed. His main concern was for some of the young in Mai Chau who had fallen prey to drugs. The road brought new desperations along with prosperity.

During our journey, we encountered examples of the country in the city – community and roof top gardens, farmers markets and local food systems – existing thanks to a push from state, market or NGO forces, and a drive to create green zones and expand green space. We also saw community-based recycling programs and conservation projects.

There were examples from elsewhere about how former rivers have been reclaimed from under urban concrete and allowed to flow freely (otherwise they would add to annual flooding anyhow), giving nature a chance in thrive in the city. River rejuvenation brings a whole range of flora and fauna to life; the effects of such changes tend to ripple out; they are rarely linear.

In the Brazilian eco-city of Curitiba, former quarries and wastelands have been converted into a range of parks with educational, cultural, historic or recreational functions. This city can pride itself on providing more than the UN recommended per capita green space while most cities are woefully short of the target.

I am not even talking about some kind of a comprehensive, green plan; that would be paradise and we are unlikely to get there anytime soon, if ever, but merely creating an environment that supports local efforts to promote local health, in all kinds of ways.

Instead of allowing developers to go on a wild, spending spree on farmland at the edge of cities to create grandiose housing complexes and gated communities, which even the wealthy can barely afford and seem to mainly benefit speculators, which is clearly happening in Hanoi, if governments worked to protect and include the country in the city, we would be able to feed ourselves – rich and poor – better and longer.

Once City of the Soaring or Rising Dragon now City in the Bend of the
River. I took loads of pix over roughly 3 weeks under a uniform grey

Journey from the Ancient Quarter to a Hanoi Noodle village, from the
tourist-infested but nevertheless sublime Halong Bay to a cockfight
glimpsed in a park, to the impressive Temple of Literature, dedicated
to Confucius, which began its life as an elite university in 1076.


Everyone agrees that Cape Town has one of the most beautiful natural settings in the world, with the iconic Table Mountain as backdrop, flanked by two other mountains – Devils Peak and Lions Head. Driving around the city you see spectacular views of mist shrouded peaks, vast blue skies, azure waters, sandy beaches and a city lying, seemingly peaceably, around its natural harbour. As if this were not enough, the area is bestowed with one of the world’s richest floral kingdoms, containing more than a 1000 species of plants, many unique to the region.

Fringed by comely vineyards, with bird sanctuaries and safari parks nearby, with a world class botanical garden, the city is built to human scale, with few skyscrapers, a patchwork of relatively uncluttered streets and many pleasing, colonial style buildings. Nice looking, modern structures are also not foreign here.

Cape Town’s rich cultural landscape showcases puppetry, film and jazz festivals; a carnival and outdoor music; art galleries and museums, cafes and restaurants featuring sophisticated, affordable cuisine, convivial bars and fun dance clubs.

This is a sporty city. It recently ran an international cycling race and the World Cup is a coming soon. (A state-of-the art, 68,000 capacity stadium with a pricey tag was built for the event.) There are adventure sports that land, sea and sky can offer.

Creativity is in the air; as well as impressive scholarship and intelligent political analysis and debate; while media freedom and social change work are on display.

People are frank and friendly. The weather is mostly balmy, and the howling, South Easterly wind that sweeps through dramatically every so often only serves to brush the place with further romance.

An urban paradise? Sadly no.

Apartheid’s legacy is alive and well here, separating the city into distinct black, coloureds and white neighbourhoods. We, IHP profs, lived initially in a nice B&B in the white, upper-middle class area of Oranjezicht. (NB – most Afrikaans words are unpronounceable). Here, you are greeted by high walls, barking dogs and “armed response” signs. (No one walks save foreigners and non-white domestic workers.)

South Africa is a “middle-income” country, yet 38% of the people are classified as poor (2005 statistics). That figure for 1995 was 25 per cent. The recent financial crisis has made things worse. Twenty two per cent live in informal housing, 58% of which is in slums; 41.8 per cent live in “backyard dwellings,” which are typically shacks built behind regular houses. The government has delivered on low cost housing; and electricity, water and sewage connections, but has fallen way short of the need.

Twenty nine per cent of Cape Townians are unemployed. The city needs skilled workers for its dominant and expanding service sector, but the majority of the black population has access only to sub standard government schools. A lot of blacks also boycotted education, as a political statement, under apartheid. As much as a generation and a half is said to be affected by this.

Here’s a revealing statistic: Only 50% of the coloured and black students will finish high school; of these 20% will go to university; of these 40% will finish that degree; of these only 10% will get a technical degree.

It’s clear who has the financial clout. The political power rests with the blacks, making for increasing socio-political tensions. Corruption is rife.

Some of the results of all of the above: high crime rates, including for rape and domestic violence, and a perception that the city is very unsafe, news reports of people rioting for more service delivery, confrontation tactics and overt expression of bias between and among all the above mentioned racial groups; oppositional feelings towards Africans from other countries who come to take advantage of the economy. (Neo-liberal, the economy reflects all the typical features of a Global City.) The categories white, black, coloured and Indian, established by the apartheid state, linger on.

All this inevitably affects the ‘hapless’ visitor, particularly one who is here to teach and learn about urban issues. While her intellectual life is enviably rich, she finds her emotions ping-ponging as she is ferried from a disturbing film about apartheid to a feel-good NGO project in a township; when a lecture on biodiversity is followed by one on white supremacy; when the enjoyment of brightly painted houses in the Cape Malay neighbourhood of Bo Kaap is marred by the realization that she has lost her wallet.

From Oranjezicht to Langa, the second oldest township in the country, is also a sea change. It is a 20-minute drive from downtown – stark, dusty, flat and park less (though there are a few tall trees here and there). Small houses, and smaller shops selling the basics, dominate. Table Mountain still looms majestic in a distance. Here and there is a crèche or bakery, school or bar. The B&B where we land is managed by Neo (a former primary school teacher) and her mother, simply called Ma Neo (a former nurse).

I find that I have moved into the bosom of a joint family, with people from three generations coming and going all day long. I am happy and at home doing yoga with Neo, visiting the lively local shebeen (bar), cooking and sharing spices. I play with the children and chat with the teens. I commiserate with Ma Neo re her asthma, hear about her informal but important work with AIDS patients and attend a rousing, Baptist service at a nearby church on Sunday morning.

Strong, resonant singing and rhythmic clapping merges with tears, heads are bowed in private prayer, eyes closed in intense concentration. Recurring Hallelujahs, Thank you Jesus’, and Amen’s punctuate the discourse; passionate sermonising from pastors and members of the congregation (it’s not clear who’s who), inflates the space, while a collage of projected texts and photos unroll on a screen.

The church is a large, concrete structure with a solid-looking tin roof. The parking lot outside is full.

I ponder how the minimal of expressiveness on part of the students in class contrasts with the deeply held and moving faith so freely expressed in this church.

We have run into adverse group dynamics in Cape Town and are trying to get past them. It’s tough, but part of the teaching game that I am trying to learn.

I also visit Boulder Beach – a colony of utterly adorable jackass penguins. The trip is organized by one of the student’s and we are happy together as we ooh and aah over the singular creatures, going on to enjoy the earthly delights of the Cape of Good Hope.

I have many good wishes and hope, hope for a peaceful and productive future – for this intense, exciting, contradictory, beautiful and beastly country. And for the vibrant civil society organizations and the citizens who are trying hard to make a difference. And ditto for the final leg of our program in Vietnam.

The Brazilian Landless Workers’ Movement or the MST – Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra

View pictures

Enroute from Sao Paulo to Curitiba, 15-17 February 2010

Fields replete with tall corn stalks nodding in the gentle breeze, goats looking rather sulky in a small pen, while the pigs seemed more content in their larger shed. Fruit trees planted amid food crops, demonstrating the eco-friendly practice of agro forestry. An untidy herbal plants garden that provides the basis for the small-scale production of soaps and home remedies.

At first glance, an agro villa of the MST, the largest and arguably the most successful land rights movement in the world – looks like any medium-sized farming operation in any tropical country. But this estate belonged once to a wealthy, Brazilian landowner, was occupied by MST members after careful planning some 8 years ago, was taken over in stages, settled and cultivated, and now feeds the residents and brings in an income.

“According to the Brazilian Census Bureau, 1% of the landowners control 45% of the nation’s land and close to 37% hold only 1%,” writes academic Miguel Carter. Rooted in the colonial era and worsened by subsequent policies or lack thereof (no land reform for example), these figures point to one of the most unequal land distribution patterns in the world.

The MST strategically uses a clause in the Brazilian Constitution, which says that land must be socially productive, as a quasi-legal basis for its occupations, and its thriving land rights activism. They research and take over (for the most part) estates that are not in good standing. Interestingly, once they settle and start cultivating the land, a process that usually takes many years, and can include being set upon by militia, and resulting violence and bloodshed, the government actually buys the land from the owner and gives it to the MST on a 90-year, renewable lease. It also provides some agricultural subsidies.

The process is long, arduous, complex and very political, in every sense of the term, as a MST documentary film demonstrates. The people who join the movement are typically landless labourers or former peasants who are forced to migrate and populate the spreading favelas in cities like Sao Paulo. (The Roofless Movement is a parallel squatters movement in the cities, but is not as well organized, unified and successful as MST.)

The fact that the government buys these estates and leases them to the MST, shows, in my opinion, the collective clout of civil society and social movements in Brazil, the amazing organizing, bargaining, communication and movement building strategies of the MST, and the essentially democratic nature of the Brazilian state. Don’t you feel that in many other countries this just would not happen? The landowners would mow the settlers down using a kind of private army (while the state looked the other way) or the state itself may take the initiative to imprison them, or more shrewdly, just tie everything up in endless legal suits.

It’s true that this state is denying them comprehensive and legitimate land reform. (A wealthy landowners lobby and other factors sees to that.) But it is allowing a sort of grudging land redistribution to take place through the back door. Consider that 350,000 families have been settled on 1300 settlements and the government has bought some seven million hectares of land on their behalf. (MST has been around for around 25 years.)

Fascinating stuff which makes me applaud the movement, Brazilian civil society and Brazilian democracy. By the way, Brazilian agricultural as a whole is industrialized and modern. Sao Paulo is a competitive, global city (with decrepit parts). Brazil embraced scientific research in all fields decades ago and has for its motto – Order and Progress. It is also one of the emerging economies under the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) rubric.

Middle-class Brazilians and mainstream media are very critical of the MST accusing it of being too radical, corrupt, anti-state, and god knows what else. Since it is made up of humans, it must certainly be very imperfect and far from ideal!

Our 2-day visit to the agro villas in the peaceful, green countryside brought up a host of issues and debates among the students around absolute vs. relative rights to private property, the correct way to address historic wrongs and inequity issues, ideas about civil disobedience, socialism/communism vs. capitalism, cooperative vs. competitive values, and many others.

Each MST settlement organizes itself along different lines. Some are cooperative farms, others not. Some members of the agro villas we visited spoke of social transformation and living by alternative values, including ecological ones. They are likely representative of the MST and this is perhaps what disturbs citizens of neo-liberal and even liberal persuasions?

I adored the politics, ideals and activism of the MST and openly supported them, causing some students to look at me strangely! (That is not the only reason why I receive those looks either!) Since I live to be oppositional, this did not bother me. In fact I loved it! It provided a glimpse of what radical academics must face on a daily basis. Professors must be “rational,” non-committal, dignified and reasonable at all times, don’t you think?!

The MST visit, one of the highpoints of our Brazilian exploration, was certainly very inspirational for me, despite the minimal living conditions that it entailed for a couple of days.

Here are my pix from this vivacious megacity:
(Click on link to view)

I startle out of plane-sleep as we are flying over THE AMAZON, so indicated on the monitors. It is 4 am on the 30th of January.

Travel, though it pleases me, does not make my blood sing anymore. Nevertheless I feel the leap of excitement. Just as we have built a myth around the Amazon, we have raised the idea of travel to great heights, on the ladder of our collective yearnings for … transformation?

Both the Amazon and travel can be astonishing, but what about their underbelly?

The reality of travel is also discomforting, jarring, even gut wrenching. Tropical rain buckets down on you while the sun tries to suck in all your strength. Vegetarian food is unheard of, the tea is weak, spices taboo and sickly sweet cakes are standard breakfast fare.

At the hotel you make for your bed at the earliest opportunity. As you lie down, music from god knows where rushes in to welcome you. You close the open window and put on the AC. (The need for survival trumps environmental ethics.) You wake up after too few hours of sleep with a sore throat, the dozen things that must be done tick-tocking in your tired brain. After all you are in this exotic, foreign land for work, where things that were easy to accomplish in the familiarity of the office environment loom Herculean.

All this is not so hard. These circumstances are “normal” and can be dealt with. The difficult thing is the pressure the traveller feels to maintain and ideally embroider that well-entrenched, collective fantasy of travel and work travel (same thing is it not?!)
Travel as adventure, revelation, pleasure, fun, escape. It is something truly extraordinary and quite distinct from doing laundry in the sink.

Wave upon wave of travel writer, informal or official, has stoked that fire. (There have been a few dissenters.)

So what should I tell you now?

Should I talk about divine coconut water and delicious coconut flesh? Of coconut ice-cream and coconut desserts? The charm of the caipirinha – Brazil’s signature cocktail abroad which tastes pretty darn good at home as well? The creativity of Brazilian design? The colour of its weekend craft fairs where you can buy an amazing array of high-quality goods? The vigour of Brazilian democracy? Describe the amazing helpfulness of the people? The soulfulness of its street carnivals and the totally over the top quality of its garish official parades? Tell you that there are amazingly tall, beautiful, healthy trees amidst the endless skyscrapers? Remind you of the heady aroma of earth blasted by rain?

That the people I meet are mostly light skinned?

That I skipped my survival Portuguese classes but am getting around OK by acting, drawing, pointing, making up words, seeking out English speakers?

That Brazil is a country where I felt at home soon after arrival and that feeling has stayed with me?

That I may be making it all up and if I didn’t, you would make it up for me?

The City as a classroom

Coming to New York I moved backwards in time, dropping the white blanket of Canadian Winter for the russet-brown wrap of late Fall, grass still on ground, dark yellow leaves clinging, here and there to trees, an absence of conifers; the barometer above 0.

My 8th floor window at International House looks out on a small park; the majestic profile of Riverside church; the colossal dome of General Grant’s mausoleum – a silent sentinel – looking down on a stream of cars on Riverside Drive, and the river; the river that opens up the possibility of life and connects it to the infinite sky. Not my idea of Manhattan of the wall-to-wall high rise buildings, and a certain, peculiarly urban ugliness. (Yah, yah, there are many stunning buildings.)

The view makes up somewhat for the pocket handkerchief sized room. Rooms are kept deliberately tiny to tease students out of them, into orchestrated social and cultural activities, I am informed. Sigh!

The program, Cities in the 21st Century, is a whirlwind of activities, both studious and social, comprising of many planning meetings (a necessary evil), tedious “house-keeping” and inspiring guest lectures and site visits; a perfect storm of faces, places, ideas, images, concepts, theories, activism and actualisations. It is an intense experience, both exciting and draining.

The students, all 33 of them, are a wonderful surprise, each with a distinct personality that emerges slowly, in some cases. They are intelligent, thoughtful, articulate, nice, friendly, enthusiastic and energetic. And most importantly, though they seem pragmatic overall, have not yet had all idealism drained out of them! Nevertheless, I go to my first ever undergraduate “session” teaching Urban Politics and Development feeling hyper and apprehensive, but it comes off OK.

On the NY subway (a student describes it as the World’s Fair), which seems to take forever to get to Brooklyn, one encounter all manner of eccentrics and buskers and panhandlers who range in their claims from war vets to fundraisers for the homeless! I dish out a few coins noticing that most of my fellow passengers do not. The American flag is painted on the subway cars. “Because we are at war,” a student explains. I don’t get it and add this one to my list of incomprehensions.

We are exposed to a range of civil society and municipal actors, including briefly the UN. What comes through for me is the knowledge, conviction and dedication of the people who work here (Americans tell it like it is more than Canadians – which is just great!) and the understanding that it is very challenging to run a functional mega city.

I am also delighted to have free courses in urban planning and urban anthropology. (The disciplines my two colleagues teach.) What’s more, I don’t have any homework. Who said the world was fair?

My last images are of two Latin American men systematically sifting through garbage bags, piled high around I-House, in this city of immigrants. And anxiously admiring row upon row of beautifully lit up trees en route to the airport – how much would these contribute to climate change?!

On the plane to Sao Paulo I read all about the iconic J.D. Salinger in the New York Times. He has just passed away. I too fell under the spell of “Catcher in the rye” as a young woman. Did you?

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