Saturday, July 17, 2010

A Matter of Oil and Death

Recently, I’ve been researching Kenyan slums for the novel I’m writing. I learned some harrowing facts about the impoverished state of that country. Over 50% of the population lives in abject poverty, existing on less than $2/day, and 40% of the people are unemployed.

Kibera, which is about five kilometres from Nairobi City, is the most densely and highly populated slum in Kenya, with between 800,000 and a million inhabitants—one of the biggest in the world. It is a microcosm of most of the slums in African urban centers and it exemplifies the appalling living conditions for many in the cash-strapped continent.

Like many of the urban slums, Kibera lacks basic services such as infrastructure, sanitation, a sewage system, and a clean water supply. As a result, diseases like malaria, cholera and typhoid are highly prevalent; and with no public healthcare, there is little hope for the sick but to languish and die under dire circumstances.

Charitable organizations have set up health-care clinics and schools, and are trying to alleviate suffering; but their efforts are often impeded by gang warfare and political tensions. Since the last election in 2007, crime and violence have increased, including the torching of dwellings and indiscriminate violence.

Basic human needs such as food, clean water, sanitation, health-care, security, and education are not even close to being met. If a woman gets gang-raped on her way to the latrine, ten minutes away from her shack, there’s no point going to the police because they may have been involved in the rape themselves.

HIV/AIDS is another major problem. A woman has virtually no control over her body and is forced to submit to her mate’s desires despite his multiple exploits. Once infected, treatment is difficult to obtain and many young parents soon die, leaving their children orphaned and abandoned.

When I see the pictures and read about the lives of these people, I can’t imagine a more horrible existence.

Yesterday the media highlighted the state of Haiti, still writhing from the devastating earthquake, six months ago. Not much has changed for the people there, despite the billion dollar pledges of public and private aid from concerned citizens and organizations everywhere.

Simply scanning the paper, we see articles about misery and suffering every day, sometimes provoked by man, sometimes by nature. The BP oil spill (the quintessential manmade disaster), is an example of extreme capitalism gone wrong. I am a capitalist through and through, but I have concerns about multi-billion dollar mistakes that destroy the environment and cause economic havoc.

Having just read that the cost of the BP oil clean-up will cost an approximate thirty billion dollars—that’s $30,000,000,000 (including clean-up costs and liabilities) See Globe and Mail article: Spill costs to cut BP tax bill by $10-billion—I can’t help but think about our impoverished global neighbours and their dismal lives.

For many of us, it’s the luck of the draw that we were born in North America. Either our ancestors or our parents made the wise decision to travel to this land in search of a better life. We are the beneficiaries of their sacrifices. Is it therefore not incumbent upon us to live up their hopes and dreams and to also help others less fortunate?

When thirty billion dollars (which is probably a conservative estimate) goes into fixing a corporate mistake, I am sickened and saddened—for the people who are directly affected, and for victims of poverty at home and abroad, who could have used that wasted cash to build better quality lives. Thirty billion dollars would go a long way in helping impoverished nations with food and clean water, sanitation, infrastructure, schools, healthcare facilities and security—the things we take for granted in the west.

The BP shareholders are suffering financial misfortune, much of their investments gone down the tubes (or to the bottom of the sea). Perhaps in hindsight they should have invested their money in NGOs (Non Government Organizations), whose product is improved human lives. The big picture shows that the greatest returns are best measured in human terms. This may not be the strongest argument for investing in third-world countries, but I know if I’d lost a chunk of cash with BP, I’d have wished that I’d sent that money to Haiti or Africa instead.

I wonder if Bernie Madoff’s clients, who lost billions to his ponzi scheme, would also have preferred to use their cash for more constructive purposes than lining that crook’s pockets.

We cherish our free markets and our individual freedom, but clearly there is a continued negligence when it comes to oversight, transparency and accountability. Governments need to enforce stronger regulations and individuals should be more discerning when it comes to investing.

Maybe I’m naive and idealistic, but I do believe that the global community is getting smaller and that our interconnection is getting closer. We still have to look after ourselves, but we can’t forget our global neighbours.

And when we help our neighbours, we help ourselves.

Sunday, July 11, 2010


Thank you to Ann Kristoffy for passing this message along. We don't know who wrote it, but we like the wisdom in the words!

Carrots, Eggs & Coffee

A carrot, an egg, and a cup of coffee... You will never look at a cup of coffee the same way again.

A young woman went to her mother and told her about her life and how things were so hard for her. She did not know how she was going to make it and wanted to give up. She was tired of fighting and struggling. It seemed as one problem was solved, a new one arose.

Her mother took her to the kitchen. She filled three pots with water and placed each on a high fire. Soon the pots came to boil. In the first she placed carrots, in the second she placed eggs, and in the last she placed ground coffee beans. She let them sit and boil; without saying a word.

In about twenty minutes she turned off the burners. She fished the carrots out and placed them in a bowl. She pulled the eggs out and placed them in a bowl. Then she ladled the coffee out and placed it in a bowl. Turning to her daughter, she asked, 'Tell me what you see.'

'Carrots, eggs, and coffee,' she replied.

Her mother brought her closer and asked her to feel the carrots. She did and noted that they were soft. The mother then asked the daughter to take an egg and break it.. After pulling off the shell, she observed the hardboiled egg.

Finally, the mother asked the daughter to sip the coffee. The daughter smiled as she tasted its rich aroma. The daughter then asked, 'What does it mean, mother?'

Her mother explained that each of these objects had faced the same adversity: boiling water. Each reacted differently. The carrot went in strong, hard, and unrelenting. However, after being subjected to the boiling water, it softened and became weak. The egg had been fragile. Its thin outer shell had protected its liquid interior, but after sitting through the boiling water, its inside became hardened. The ground coffee beans were unique, however. After they were in the boiling water, they had changed the water.

'Which are you?' she asked her daughter. 'When adversity knocks on your door, how do you respond? Are you a carrot, an egg or a coffee bean?

Think of this: which am I? Am I the carrot that seems strong, but with pain and adversity do I wilt and become soft and lose my strength?

Am I the egg that starts with a malleable heart, but changes with the heat? Did I have a fluid spirit, but after a death, a breakup, a financial hardship or some other trial, have I become hardened and stiff? Does my shell look the same, but on the inside am I bitter and tough with a stiff spirit and hardened heart?

Or am I like the coffee bean? The bean actually changes the hot water, the very circumstance that brings the pain. When the water gets hot, it releases the fragrance and flavor. If you are like the bean, when things are at their worst, you get better and change the situation around you. When the hour is the darkest and trials are their greatest do you elevate yourself to another level? How do you handle adversity? Are you a carrot, an egg or a coffee bean?

May you have enough happiness to make you sweet, enough trials to make you strong, enough sorrow to keep you human and enough hope to make you happy.

The happiest of people don't necessarily have the best of everything; they just make the most of everything that comes along their way.

The brightest future will always be based on a forgotten past; you can't go forward in life until you let go of your past failures and heartaches.

When you were born, you were crying and everyone around you was smiling.

Live your life so at the end, you're the one who is smiling and everyone around you is crying.

You might want to send this message to those people who mean something to you; to those who have touched your life in one way or another; to those who make you smile when you really need it; to those who make you see the brighter side of things when you are really down; to those whose friendship you appreciate; to those who are so meaningful in your life.

May we all be COFFEE!!!!!!!

Monday, July 5, 2010

Life is a ‘Dog’ Walk in the Park

Every evening, starting at about 5:00, our Havanese dog Taffy reminds me to take her for her walk. During the day, she gets intermittent walks around the block; otherwise she goes out whenever she wants, having in-and-out privileges through the back door. She’s a small dog, ten pounds, so she doesn’t have the same 90-minute exercise needs as do many of her peers. Nonetheless, she lives for those evening walks and by 5 p.m, she begins following me around the house with her guilt-trip stare.

So off we go on our regular half-hour route, which she knows by heart. If I sent her off on her own, she’d likely do the circuit and come straight home. Her favourite part of the excursion is our romp through the park, where she connects with her friends and sniffs to her little heart’s desire. Last night, after a stifling hot day, the entire neighbourhood seemed to be walking their dogs at the same time; the park a bustling doggy retreat.

Like a United Nations of canines, it seemed like every breed was represented, with a few mixes and mutts to round out the crowd. There’s Nessy the 40-pound sheepdog puppy, Bernie the Bulldog, and George the Porgie, not to mention the Rhodesian Ridgeback, the Wheaten Terrier, and the German Pointer (I can’t remember all their names; name tags might help). When Taffy arrived the dogs ran to greet her as if they’d been waiting for her all day. Oh, to be so popular.

After sniffing each other in salutation they usually run off to play, a new dog bringing fresh excitement to the games. The owners, like their dogs, come in all shapes and sizes, happy to talk and share stories of everyday life. During these 5-20 minute gatherings, we cover topics like the G20, the recent earthquake, the oil spill and the upcoming Canadian Open, which will take place at the golf club just a block away.

Last night a woman told my husband and me that she’d spent the weekend at the cottage, where it was oppressively hot, the bugs were atrocious and the drive home a four-hour traffic jam, taking twice the normal time. “I’m so happy to be back in the city,” she said. “But at least the dog had fun up there.” While we talked, our two dogs seemed to have their own conversation through sniffs and starts and simultaneous rolls in the grass.

Without Taffy, I’d have no idea how friendly our neighbourhood was, given that most people jump in and out of their cars for work, for sport and for play. Always on the go, there is little opportunity to stop and say hello. The dogs slow us down, push us out the door, and force us into social interaction, creating a community that might otherwise stay hidden.

I’ve yet to meet a dog person in our neighbourhood whom I haven’t liked. And if the dog is rude, the owner is quick to apologize. For instance, heading back home after our walk last night, we came across the ugliest dog I have ever seen. Bearing its teeth at Taffy as we passed, the couple graciously smiled and said, “So sorry. He’s friendly, but not toward other dogs.” Perhaps he’d been bullied by the more attractive dogs when he was a pup.

One of my favourites in the neighbourhood is my cousins’ Woodle (Wheaton and Poodle mix). Like a forty-pound teddy bear, Crosbie is a huggable beast. Her way of guarding the house is to jump up with pleasure when she sees you and to throw herself onto her back for a tummy rub. I think it's true that nice people often beget nice dogs.

An old friend, who was visiting from Nova Scotia this weekend, suddenly became the caregiver for two dogs—her daughter's 4-pound teacup Pomeranian and her parents’ 40-pound Golden Retriever. “I can’t believe that, on top of everything else I’ve got going in my life, I now have these dogs to worry about,” she said, as she lovingly showed their pictures. Then she told me that she totes tiny Ella around in her purse.

We love our dogs: they are our babies who don’t grow up. They teach us patience, bring us joy, keep us fit, socialize us, relieve our stress and make us nicer people. They even love us unconditionally—and who really deserves that? Okay, so they cost us a lot of money, but in my mind, a dog in the home is worth all our electronic gadgets put together.

They say “It’s a dog’s life” but, the reality is, “With a dog, it’s a better life.”