Dare you to dance at your orientation

It’s 7.15am and my alarm is blaring inconsiderately. I’ve already hit snooze three times, so I finally silence the thing to quit annoying my flatmate in the next room. Forty minutes later, I clamber down the steps from my apartment as I leave for my first class – yes, some of us have already started class.  I’m running late, so find myself half-running past a mountain, baseball stadium and skyscrapers before scrambling into the arts building at the centre of McGill campus. So begins another day on the international exchange programme.

Having abandoned George Square and the dingy basement under the Pleasance that is The Student’s office, I have been in Montreal, Canada for the past three weeks, an exchange student at McGill University for the next year. As I mentioned, classes have started already, and I am surrounded by a pile of books almost as big as I am as a write this. It seems that there is no gentle induction week here – the workload so far seems to suggest that that whole ‘academic growth’ part of my application wasn’t exactly a matter to be taken lightly.

But I am getting ahead of myself. Back in Edinburgh, you will just be beginning Freshers’ Week, and the reality of actual work to do is more of a vaguely familiar notion that you might remember from before those long months of summer. Out here, we don’t have Freshers, we have ‘Frosh’. It lasts a weekend, rather than a whole week (which may account for the reduced numbers of those incapacitated by Freshers’ flu) but it has all the traits you might associate with Freshers’ Week – slashed t-shirts, wristbands and even green plastic beer mugs. Plus huge club queues – sorry lines – excessive alcohol consumption and throngs of first years going wild in celebration of their recent escape from parental curfews.  However, there’s also plenty this supposedly well-seasoned third year hadn’t seen before. You know those stereotypical red-cup ‘college parties’ of American TV fame? Oh yes, they actually happen – complete with beer pong, flip cup, punch and the arrival of hundreds of absolute strangers. It could only spell hilarity, especially as my fellow exchange students marvelled at the red plastic cups and failed miserably at beer pong.

While we’re on the subject of stereotypes, a note on orientation. Edinburgh Freshers, this is my prediction for you: a 30 minute talk somewhere in the depths of DHT, Appleton or KB, followed by the retrieval of a few guidance sheets and maps that you will forget to look at, well, ever. If you’re particularly keen you might take a campus or library tour, then it’s on with the Freshers’ festivities. Foolishly, I had similar predictions for the Canadian system. Nope, orientation here is an all-singing, all-dancing event oddly reminiscent of High School Musical on tour. Megaphones, acapella, mass dance moves and 1000 pizzas were the order of the day. I can say in total honesty that I did not see that one coming.

To the Freshers – or should I call you Froshies? – I wish you a Freshers’ Week full of fun, new friends, and hopefully little in the way of Freshers’ flu. And I dare you to dance at your orientation.

New Articles on Nerditorial

So here are the links to some recent articles on Nerditorial.com. I’ve been really fortunate of late to be able to write on some challenging and important issues, from the bullying tactics of the British tabloids to drought crisis in Kenya, to the Bedfordshire slave scandal.

Feel free to check them out:

The Chains We Didn’t See: Slavery in the 21st Century

When the Rains Don’t Fall

What Price a Headline? The destructive power of the tabloid press

E-Petitions: Facets of a New Democracy or Fictions of Change?

 

 

“It’s Facebook Official”

It’s 11 pm the night before that horrendous deadline which has been hanging over you for weeks. You are tired, drained, and less than half of that 3000-word essay is actually written. You are firmly in what can affectionately be termed ‘the screwed zone’ and it is increasingly clear that this is going to be a very long night. Then your phone beeps: one new message. You cannot ignore it; it might be important. When it transpires that it is merely your flatmate in the next room informing you that they are also in ‘the screwed zone’, you know you should just put the phone down and carry on typing, but you cannot resist. You text back, informing them of how you are actually going to die and have no hope of finishing said essay.

Then, considering that you are already wasting time, you figure that you might as well check your email account. And the other email account. And Facebook. Now you’re in trouble. An hour later, you realise that you do not actually care whether or not that annoying girl you knew at school has changed her relationship status, and that you don’t even like the guy you are Facebook-chatting with.

By now it is clear: the interruptions and distractions of technology are endless. Our dependency on technology is ever-increasing to such an extent that it has been called an addiction. We are all too aware that our irresistible urges to obsessively check our phones, emails and Facebook are detrimental to our studies. Recent research from the University of Kent has now highlighted the way in which even small interruptions such as a flashing Blackberry or one-minute phone call can increase our reading time by up to 17 per cent. This means that if you hypothetically spent 20 hours over the course of the week ‘focussing’ on reading for an essay, you would waste an additional 204 minutes re-reading sections of the text because of these small technological distractions. Unfortunately, this doesn’t even account for Facebook and all its glorious opportunities for procrastination.

The statistics for Facebook usage are nothing short of incredible. According to the statistics, there are over 200 million active Facebook mobile users who contribute to the 500 million people that have logged in during the past month. Moreover, a report by the Global System for Mobile Communications Association showed that people in the UK collectively spent 2.2 billion minutes browsing the social networking site in December alone. With such figures in mind, it seems social technology is nothing short of a national obsession. Moreover, these ‘addictions’, aside from their grievous effect our time-keeping intentions, can also have a significant impact on other areas of our lives. Research is consistently showing that, for better or for worse, our friendships, relationships, privacy and even our safety can be affected by our obsessive emailing, texting, BBM-ing, phoning, IM-ing, tweeting, blogging and especially Facebook-ing.

In some respects, social networking can be seen as good for our friendships and relationships. As students, we often live miles and miles away from our closest school or ‘home’ friends, and it would be nothing short of idiotic to say that it isn’t useful to have such a cheap and easy means of communication. Snail-mail seems to be a rare thing these days, despite the student enthusiasm for post that isn’t bills or bank statements. Texts, Facebook wall posts, threads and the odd phone or Skype call are now the way we do things. It’s called ‘social’ networking for a reason. Never has it been easier for us to keep in touch with old friends, stalk new acquaintances and spy on distant enemies.  We can keep in contact with more people than ever, no matter where they are in the world and all for the minute price of an internet bill and some evil glares when you log on in the library. Group messages are simple; events can be organised and social lives managed all with a few clicks of the mouse. It definitely has its benefits.

However quick, easy and convenient such ‘social’ interaction might be, it can also be impersonal. Sending an instant message just does not compare with an actual conversation, whether this involves a phone-call or – wonders will never cease – a face-to-face catch up. Who can honestly say that a Facebook chat session, which is conducted whilst the half-hearted participants lazily scroll through the pictures from last week’s trip to the Hive, is as valuable a contribution to their social interactions as actually speaking? Plus, if you’re spending your life tapping away at a computer keyboard in perfunctory efforts to catch up with your nearest and dearest, the relationships that you could be developing in person may well suffer for it. As Jackie Ashley, a Guardian journalist, wrote in 2009: “You cannot have a full human relationship without being in the presence of another person”.

Furthermore, research suggests that having so many ‘virtual’ relationships can cause further social problems, with our relationships becoming increasingly superficial. Diana Palmieri, a philosophy instructor at Concordia University and the University of Western Ontario, claims that the issue here is not merely one of time consumption, but that “the ‘positive feedback’ we get from superficial online interaction may take away our desire or our perceived need for further, more intimate, real-life relationships.” She continues, “the need may very well be present, but it isn’t perceived or ‘felt’ right away because we seem to be getting all that we need in our superficial interactions”.

Partly due to the time constraints and partly because of our emotional capacity, the average person does not have the ability to sustain many particularly close relationships at any one time. So the idea of attempting to keep up with dozens, maybe even hundreds of ‘friends’ at once suggests that the relationships we have with people – perhaps including our ‘closer’ friends – do become shallower and less meaningful. If we see and share what we’ve been up to, comment on what’s going on and generally have an idea of peoples’ lives without so much as even speaking to them, can we genuinely expect this to constitute a real friendship? Surely, when you discover big events in your ‘closest’ friends’ lives because you saw it on Facebook, something has gone askew. Furthermore, experts have professed a belief that our obsessive use of social networking sites can lead to an increased sense of social isolation, especially amongst introverts or those who do not use the sites, as a sociological study by McMillan and Morrison argued.

Whether you love it or loathe it, in light of the popularity – and the addictiveness – of social networking and communications technology, things are not likely to be changing any time soon.  Chances are that we will continue to check our emails, Facebook and text messages multiple times per day. We probably won’t stop turning up late to social engagements because we were instant messaging someone else, or switch off our phones to prevent interruptions when we meet friends for a catch up. We almost definitely won’t be able to resist that flashing red light on our Blackberries when we’re supposed to be finishing that essay. But we can be aware of our addiction, and make the effort to sustain our ‘real’ as well as ‘virtual’ relationships. Meanwhile, I will ignore the fact that since beginning writing this article, my phone has been defiantly bleeping at me, and I have checked Facebook more times than I care to admit.

[Originally published in The Student, March 2011)

Summer of blurs

This short piece was written for the Ampersand Journal (McGill University) Summer Issue 2011.

It was a summer of blurs. Six cities, five addresses, four countries, three jobs, two suitcases, one girl. A student summer – when it’s not spent wasting away in front of the TV in that new-found post-finals freedom – generally consists of one or more of the following: job, internship, travel. This summer, my last in Europe before coming to Montreal as an exchange student, I decided to try my hand at all three.

First on my list was Edinburgh. I’ve lived there for two years, and yet in my post-exams freedom, it struck me anew just how beautiful a city it is – domes and steeples, bathed in light, tripping over history in the streets.  A short flight later and it’s on to Oslo, in all its artistic grunge and glory, set against the clear and pristine glass surface of the fjords. When we heard about the shootings there two months later, the memory became inexplicably more sombre – the peacefulness we remembered was so distant, as if underwater.

By that point, I was back in England, having braved the five hour drive from Edinburgh to Birmingham. By British standards, that’s something of a long journey. A few weeks later, I had spent a few days in Nottingham and was living in London, reminded daily to mind the gap as I left the tube. The London life was everything I could have imagined – a magazine internship, dinner on the South Bank of the Thames, underground cocktails – and the photocopying, book-logging and coffee-runs at the office. I remember struggling down the street with six cups of coffee in hand (I say in hand – I mean cradled precariously in my ungainly arms) prompting a passer-by to yell “Intern?” with a look of simultaneous amusement and pity.

Regardless, interning in London was more glamorous than the jobs which followed it in my attempts to save for the year ahead of me. Having received job rejections almost everywhere from Selfridges to Starbucks (and Starbucks in Selfridges, come to think of it), I found work as a cleaner for a little old woman in Staffordshire who took rather too keen an interest in my love life. Many, many hours of vacuuming and many cups of coffee later, I left to work in Edinburgh for the Festival. The atmosphere was astonishing. Each day, when I left my job as a kindergarten worker, let my hair down and changed out of my uniform, I was struck anew at the vibrancy and life of the city around me. People swarmed in masses of colour as singers, dancers and mimes performed in the streets, offices, pubs, parks, and alleyways.

And all too soon, it was the last week of August. Several trains, two flights and a few minor immigration issues later, my two suitcases and I find ourselves in Montreal for my exchange year. And so begins another blurry adventure.

Inspirational: Chouchou Namegabe

This article was written for a special double-page feature for International Women’s Day, which discussed inspirational women in the world today.

Chouchou Namegabe

You don’t need me to tell you that there are hundreds of inspirational women out there. We females make up one half of the world’s population, so there’s plenty of choice. So when I sat down to think about who I would choose to write this article on, naturally there was an array of choice. Audrey Hepburn came to mind, with her immortal style and humanitarian work. Mother Theresa seemed another obvious choice, with her selfless love of Calcutta’s poor. I thought of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi in all those years of house arrest in Burma. More and more names darted into my head: Marie Curie, Emeline Pankhurst, Florence Nightingale, JK Rowling, and – dare I say it – Margaret Thatcher. Each of these exceptionally well-known women achieved something remarkable, something truly inspirational, but there is another woman, a little less famous, whom I believe to be truly inspiring.

Chouchou Namegabe is a self-taught radio journalist from the South Kivu Province in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo. In this area, she has emerged as a passionate voice for her people, speaking out for the countless women victimised by sexual violence in the civil wars that have ravaged the country, bringing this brutalisation to global attention. Having started her career as a presenter at local radio station Radio Maendeleo in 1997, Namegabe turned her microphone into a weapon for activism in the late 1990s as Eastern Congo was overcome by violence. “Why do they fight a war on women’s bodies?” she asks.

Her coverage of the intense suffering of women and girls subjected to rape and torture during the twelve-year conflict has come at a great personal risk, as she travelled great distances to give a voice to the women traumatised by their ordeals. She had the courage to publicly denounce the corruption and mismanagement of ruling authorities, and still continues to face severe threats, especially after her powerful testimony to the International Court of Justice in 2007, which urged The Hague to classify rape as a political weapon in the Congo.

Moreover, in 2003, Namegabe founded the South Kivu Association of Women Journalists (AFEM) to further her activism, train female journalists and equip more women with microphones.  Together with AFEM, she continues to cover more stories, on topics from women’s health and human rights – which are considered to be her areas of expertise – as well as government mismanagement and corruption.

Namagabe’s fearless work continues to act as an inspiration as she brings brutalisation to global attention. In addition to giving a voice to the otherwise voiceless victims of unthinkable atrocities, and demanding the global attention these issues deserve, she is actively equipping others to do likewise. Her efforts and selfless determination to find justice for the Congolese people are nothing short of heroic, and should be an inspiration to us all.

Nerditorial – The Ecological Crisis: Biodiversity in Freefall

New feature just published as Nerditorial‘s most recent featured article.

http://www.nerditorial.com/featuredarticles/the-ecological-crisis-biodiversity-in-freefall.html

I’m so pleased with my new role as a contributor for this site – hopefully it should keep me writing nice and prolifically…

Nomad: Memories from the middle of nowhere

I cannot believe that three years have passed since I last saw Africa. The montage on my wall is daily reminder of the places I went to, the experiences I had and most of all, the people I met. Ghana, Burkina Faso, Mali – to Timbuktu and back. Amazingly, I still miss it. And I still can’t believe I made it to Timbuktu. Here’s some recollections from that little place in the middle of nowhere. [Originally published in Nomad Magazine]

***

The sun glares down on the legendary, mysterious town of Timbuktu, in the deserts of Mali. The streets are narrow, dusted with sand from the encroaching Sahara. The mud walls of the houses and mosques are cracked and dry, and the few intrepid travellers run for every possible shaded area, desperate to keep out of the sweltering 50◦C heat, even at 9.30 in the morning.

As we enter the old town, we see two men undertaking rather unorthodox construction work. One is standing at the top of a ladder, whilst his partner throws fully formed bricks up to him. He catches them with such precision and in such quick succession that it seems as though some powerful magnetic force must exist between them and his hand. Utterly enraptured by this display, which so dramatically surpasses the building skills I had attempted to acquire over my previous few weeks in West Africa, I suddenly notice a boy my age standing next to me, evidently entertained by the Europeans’ fascination with ‘everyday’ building. Mohammet, who was indeed my age – seventeen – then proceeds to show us around the rest of the old town and the marketplace.

As we walk, he asks me about my journey to Timbuktu. I tell him how I had travelled by tro-tro (a form of minibus that I have every confidence would never pass an MOT) from Accra, on the south coast of Ghana, through Burkina Faso into Mali, where I had taken a land-cruiser down the 10-hour, potholed road into the middle of nowhere, and then taken a boat across the river into the port near Timbuktu. It had taken about a week and a half, if you counted a few stops for leisure and plenty for chaos. ‘So short a journey?’ he laughs. I can’t deny that I am a little taken aback – I had thought my mammoth trek was quite an impressive feat. He goes on to describe his journey to me, from the salt mines, which were 3 weeks’ camel ride away. You see, Mohammet is a Tuareg – a member of a nomadic tribe which crosses the Sahara desert from Mali to Algeria in huge caravans of camels (which I soon learn to be a huge herd of camels carrying goods and people, as opposed to a mobile holiday home). He and his father had come to Timbuktu to sell the salt they had transported across this vast distance. He shows me a slab of the salt, still in its huge crystallised form, glistening in the sunlight. The Tuaregs have been trading salt here for centuries – in Timbuktu’s heyday as a Saharan outpost, it was worth as much as gold.

The culture difference could not be more pronounced as we walk along; I am clad in my linen trousers and H&M top, whilst he wears his turban and blue desert robes. Just as I find the prospect of a three-week camel ride absolutely incredible (not to mention more than a tad uncomfortable), he cannot comprehend the fact that we do not keep camels in Britain.

We carry on chatting in a mixture of broken English and French as we reach one of the Tuareg camps, just on the edge of the city. At the extremity of it, just at the point where town meets desert, a huge monument has been erected. Upon closer inspection, we discover that the base of it is adorned with dozens of rifles and firearms. This, one of the Tuareg elders explains, was a symbol of the ceasefire called in 1996 between Tuareg rebels and the Malian authorities in Timbuktu. The monument – the ‘Flame of Peace’ – stands where their two worlds meet, where the town disappears into the vast expanse of the desert.
Later, we are welcomed into one of the Tuaregs’ desert camps, after a rather uncomfortable camel trek to reach it. After two hours, I am in serious pain, so how Mohammet manages three weeks travelling this way is a complete mystery to me. Here, we discover something of the rich culture of this fascinating nomadic tribe. To welcome us, the nomads serve us their speciality tea, which custom demands you drink in three batches. These signify the three certainties in this world: death, which is bitter; life, which is significantly sweeter; and love, the sweetest of all. As we drink the tea, we barter for silver jewellery, swords and pipes – an age-old tradition. The men explain to us the meanings of the engravings on the silver – the story of the nomads tracing their route across the desert by the stars, until they finally reach the mosque in Timbuktu. Meanwhile, as is Tuareg custom, the women set about preparing the meal and the children attend to the camels. Talking with Abdullah, one of the elders in the camp, I realise what a special and ancient tradition these people belong to. Their route begins in Algeria, where they trade spices and silver. They then travel to the salt mines, and down to Timbuktu, and occasionally as far as the Niger Delta for festivals, where nomadic tribes meet to socialise, trade and arrange marriages for their young daughters. It is rumoured that the Tuaregs are aided in their toil by slaves, but they vehemently deny any involvement in slavery. On their journeys, in the middle of the Sahara desert, huge caravans sometimes happen upon each other, and their leaders trade silver and livestock, exchanging stories, advice and parts of their cultures.

It is utterly incredible to think that in this moment, thousands of miles away, hundreds of people are still living their lives according to these ancient customs. They have remained resistant to and virtually untouched by the changes in the surrounding world; urbanisation, technology, even roads and clothing! What we must hope now is that these extraordinary people can continue with their way of life unhindered by the problems that we in the developed world have unleashed – especially that of climate change. Whilst desertification may not sound like an issue for a civilisation that has lived in the world’s largest desert for generations, it may well have adverse effects on the towns upon which their trade and hence their livelihood depends. The mystical Timbuktu where I first encountered the Tuaregs might be one such example, as the desert inches into the streets of this small town, the last outpost of the Sahara.