Power to the people!

For the last week, we’ve been researching various aspects of electricity generation and distribution, and assessing different ways in which Myanmar could substantially increase its electricity supply … in less than a year. The ruling USDA is aiming to eliminate power blackouts in Yangon by April 2014, supposedly in order to improve the foreign investment climate in Yangon. The urgency of the situation is, undoubtedly, heavily influenced by the need for the USDA to be able to show tangible improvement in the quality of life of Myanmar citizens ahead of the coming elections in 2015 in order for them to stand a chance of re-election … and what better way to do that than improve energy access?

Those controlling the diesel market in Yangon have placed their bets on off-grid diesel generators being the answer to Yangon’s energy crisis, and have allegedly already begun hoarding diesel in anticipation of a run on diesel in the near future. Our task was to try to come up with feasible alternatives to diesel generators which, with such a short timeline, was difficult to say the least. We were also asked to draft conceptual roadmaps on a variety of infrastructure project and electricity generation related issues. I worked primarily on compiling a guideline for government officials tasked with appraising infrastructure project proposals, as well as different project financing options (which, needless to say, there weren’t many considering the fact that April 2014 is only 8 months away!)

Energy access is one of the most important, and most political, issues in Myanmar today. Approximately 75% of Myanmar citizens have no access to electricity, despite Myanmar having substantial reserves of oil and natural gas, as well as notable hydropower and solar potential. Without improved energy access, much-needed social and economic reform in Myanmar will not be possible. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the country’s oil and natural gas were signed away to Thailand and China by the previous military regime, who were unable to access crucial foreign exchange in any other way due to the significant international sanctions against the country. The current regime is now under growing public pressure to renegotiate the existing oil and natural gas contracts in order to better provide for Myanmar’s growing energy needs. The Myanmar government has also halted several large-scale hydro projects in the last two years in the wake of public outrage at the fact that almost all (and, in some cases, all) of the power they were to generate was to be exported to China, Thailand or India. Drastic changes to Myanmar’s energy policies are urgently needed, and such policies will need to prioritise the energy needs of Myanmar citizens if social unrest is to be avoided.

This weekend marked the 66th anniversary of the assassination of Bogyoke (General) Aung San and six of his cabinet ministers. Bogyoke Aung San is considered to be the founder of modern-day Burma, and was the father of Nobel laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Every day on the way to work, we pass by his house, the same house where Aung San Suu Kyi grew up and where she later spent many years under house arrest. The gate is decorated with a portrait of Bogyoke Aung San and the flag of Aung San Suu Kyi’s political party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), which is emblazoned with the peacock, the symbol of the Royal Court of Ava, the once capital of pre-colonial Upper Burma.

better entrance

We took the circle train around Yangon with some work colleagues yesterday, and saw parts of Yangon that we would never have otherwise had the opportunity to see.

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… and we received so many smiles from strangers and waves from playing children!

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Some kids showed off their juggling skills for me, tossing small fruit into the air:

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It was certainly the first train that I’ve been on that does not quite come to a stop at each station – rather it slows right now, and then rocks backwards and forwards gently until it’s time to slowly move on!

A week of great discussions

Our host organisation in Myanmar, the Centre for Economic and Social Development (one of three sub-divisions of the Myanmar Development Resources Institute) has recently started a weekly lecture/training/discussion series where an expert (or a relative expert anyway!) speaks to CESD staff about a topic of current importance or concern in Myanmar. Of late, we’ve been lucky to have more than one of these sessions every week.

This week, one of our co-workers, a Yale law student who is also interning at CESD over the summer, led a session on the WTO and it’s relevance to Myanmar at a time when Myanmar is slowly re-establishing trade in ASEAN and further afield. It is a little-known fact that Burma was one of the founding members of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which was inaugurated in 1948 and later “housed” by the WTO. Burma’s early involvement in the GATT, followed by six decades of lack of participation, is very symbolic of Burma’s disappearance from international trade and relations until now, despite its enormous promise at independence. However, entering international trade so late does mean that there is much scope for Myanmar to benefit from the experiences of other countries that have gone through the process of trade liberalisation already (which is basically every other country except North Korea).

Another visiting Yale law student spoke on federalism, which is historically one of the biggest and most controversial issues in Myanmar. In 1947, under the Panglong Agreement, federalism had been promised by General Aung San to the Shan, Kachin and Chin ethnic groups. However, General Aung San was assassinated later that year, and calls for the federalism promises made at Panglong to be respected have been ignored ever since. Now, in order for the Myanmar government to end the ethnic conflict that has plagued the country since 1948 (as well as for the government to be able to access the vast natural resources located in these ethnic areas), the issue of federalism needs to be comprehensively addressed. However, the idea of transferring a degree of power to states under a federal system is terrifying to the Myanmar government, which is still largely composed of former military generals who are deeply uneasy at the prospect of relinquishing any power. The current climate of reform in Myanmar is allowing Burmese citizens to discuss this touchy issue openly for the first time in decades, and it is a great privilege to be part of these discussions.

We also had an interesting discussion on hate speech, facilitated by Dick Winfield, a media law professor at Columbia Law School. The timing of this discussion, coming as it did less than a week after the Myanmar government banned circulation (in both hard and soft copy) of Time magazine’s article on buddhist-muslim violence in Myanmar (the edition was infamously  titled “The Face of Buddhist Terror” and had Monk Wirathu, an extremist monk, on the cover). Our Burmese counterparts spoke about how they felt about the article, specifically how they felt about Time’s crude blanket association of all Burmese buddhists with the extremist views of Monk Wirathu, and its arguably even cruder cover title. We also spoke about whether the title and article would constitute hate speech under various different legal systems, and whether the Myanmar government was justified in its decision to ban the article (and what kind of precedent the Myanmar government has set by the ban). It was very sad to see first hand how hurt and offended our Burmese co-workers were by Time’s cover page, especially knowing that its arguable exaggeration was likely influenced by the desire to sell as many copies of the magazine as possible.

Finally, I attended a round-table discussion hosted by the Myanmar Peace Centre on environmental protection in the context of increasing investment (both foreign and domestic) in Myanmar. Myanmar currently has no environmental regulations or guidelines and, whilst drafting and enacting such regulations will take time,  investment permits continue to be issued daily, including those for the production of oil and natural gas and the construction of pipelines, all of which have been devastating to the environment. The round-table discussion brought together government officials and civil society leaders to discuss how best to deal with the situation, both short-term and long-term. It was encouraging to see government officials taking this important issue seriously, and it will be very interesting to see how they go about enacting, implementing and enforcing compliance with environmental regulations in Myanmar.

It is after weeks like this that I sometimes feel as though I am taking more than I am giving in my summer placement. I have learnt so much about so many different things since arriving in Yangon – I only hope to be able to contribute something of equal value in return. This week, I will be starting to put together a proposal for the establishment of a sovereign wealth fund in Myanmar, which should be interesting – and hopefully will soon lead a CESD staff discussion on sovereign wealth funds 🙂

We spent last weekend in Kyaiktiyo in Mon state. Kyaiktiyo (or Golden Rock) is at the top of a very steep mountain, which you can either walk up or ride up in the back of an old truck (which fits about 30 people in). We decided to ride up … and driving up those unbelievably steep and narrow roads in such an old and overly-packed truck was terrifying. I was convinced we would not make it up to the top alive. The first day was very foggy, we couldn’t see more than 10 metres in front of us – in fact, we initially walked past the golden rock without seeing it.

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But the next morning was clear and beautiful, and we got to see the incredible views finally:

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mon colour

Needless to say, we opted to walk down the mountain rather than experience the terror of the downhill ride in the truck … and were subsequently very stiff for most of the week!

“You have a floor, right? Good. Having a floor is key.”

Min-găla-ba! (hello in Burmese/Myanmar language).

The first two weeks in Myanmar have been great and we’re slowly getting used to the very hot and wet season here (as opposed to Myanmar’s other seasons, being very hot and very wet, and hot and very wet … seriously, that’s how the Lonely Planet describes seasons in Myanmar!) The monsoon season is starting and it’s becoming increasingly unusual to have a rain-less day.

In our first week here, we had an amazing opportunity to travel around Myanmar with some visiting SIPA / Earth Institute professors – Glenn Denning, Jessica Fanzo and Shiv Someshwar – in what felt at times a combination of field work and the Amazing Race. The road trip took us to places we would probably never had got the chance to visit (Shwebo), places we’d love to go back to (Mandalay and the magical pagoda city of Bagan) and places we’re kind of hoping to never have to go back to (Nay Pyi  Taw, the new capital). Nay Pyi Taw is undoubtedly the strangest place I’ve ever been to – a half-constructed city of mansions and hotels, part Las Vegas and part ghost town, with six or eight lane highways but almost no cars on the road, and no street lights but A LOT of Christmas lights … everywhere. It will be very interesting to see what Nay Pyi Taw is like in 10 years time.

In Shwebo we interviewed rice farmers who are part of an irrigation scheme in the middle of Myanmar’s central dry zone. They use water brought from a far away dam by gravity and via a series of ever-narrowing canals to grow (if they’re lucky) two rice crops per year, making them relatively more secure than those farmers with no access to water outside of the monsoon season. In Mandalay we met with commodity traders trading rice, sesame, mustard, groundnuts, pigeon pea and many other crops, and toured Myanmar’s oldest commodity trading floor. And somewhere between Mandalay and Bagan we spent some time with a family who live off sugar palms – the father climbs the palms to harvest the fruit (as his father did, and no doubt his grandfather before him) and his wife makes jaggery from the palm’s sugary sap for commercial sale. Here we all are outside their jaggery processing shelter, with the palm trees that they rent in the background:


Bagan, the city of pagodas, was our final stop on the trip, and watching the sun set behind the pagodas was truly breathtaking.


Our host organisation is a sub-division of the Myanmar Development Resources Institute: the Centre for Economic and Social Development. You know it’s a great organisation to be based with when their wifi password is “senstiglitz2015” and there is a continuous supply of really good coffee! There are a number of visiting grad students and academics at CESD, including a very funny Italian economist. One of the first questions he asked us was whether our apartment had a floor: “You have a floor, right? Good. Having a floor is key.” We were very confused, obviously assuming that all apartments would have a floor (even if not a proper one)… but apparently it’s not something to be taken for granted in Yangon!

We have been welcomed into the circle of friendly researchers at CESD, going to yoga sessions (taught by a SIPA grad nonetheless!) and having a couple of beers on downtown Yangon roof tops. We’ve all been given very interesting projects to work on during our time here (more on that at a later stage), which I for one am very grateful for.

In many ways, Myanmar is a country of contrasts right now, due largely to being part-way into its transition process. Western influences clash with local Myanmar influences everywhere you look – which is sometimes sad as you can see the loss of local culture happening before your eyes, but it comes across in funny moments too, such as an elderly commodity trader’s B.O.B ‘Nothin’ on you’ ring tone ringing in a meeting (it was SO hard not to laugh!)

Yesterday, an international human rights and dignity film festival opened in Yangon, showing mainly locally-made short films on different human rights themes. What a great testament to the change happening in this country! We tried to get in to watch a few of the films, but were not up to joining the long, winding queues of people waiting patiently for tickets, so we’ll give it another try in the remaining days of the film festival. It was great to see so many people coming out to support the film festival – and hopefully it will be the start of many more such festivals to come in Myanmar.

Chiang Mai: summer series installment I

As promised, I will be writing a number of blogs on my summer adventures in Burma/Myanmar (what you call the country depends largely on whether you recognise the military regime that’s led the country since a coup in 1962, as it was the military regime that replaced the country’s colonial name, Burma, with “Myanmar” in 1989). I quickly learnt that the surest way of avoiding offense when talking to Burmese people about their country is to wait for them to refer to their country by name … and then simply refer to it by the same name. That and the fact that it’s likely that anyone living outside the country in exile (self-imposed or otherwise) is opposed to the military regime and will therefore most probably call it “Burma”. But you need to be a careful chameleon about it.

However, this is a pre-Myanmar blog edition – I came across to South East Asia a week before my June 1 start date and spent some time in Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand. I caught the overnight sleeper train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai – I highly recommend the overnight train to anyone making that journey – you wake up in the morning to incredible views of rural Thailand… and it really is a journey that a plane trip cannot begin to capture:


View from the Bangkok – Chiang Mai train in the early morning

Chiang Mai itself is a lovely little city, divided into two distinct areas: the “New City”, where most of the entertainment areas are, and the “Old City”, which was built over 700 years ago in the shape of a big square (about two kilometres squared), surrounded by a high wall and moat. The four corners of the wall remain today, as does the moat and the main gates on each side, the most famous being the Tha Pae Gate on the south side of the Old City. [As an aside, I took these photos early in the morning when few other people were about… the streets are usually far more crowded than these photos show!]


The Tha Pae Gate, the main gate to the Old City (south side)


Part of the wall near the north-east corner of the Old City, with a songthaew driving by. Songthaews are Chiang Mai’s version of taxis/ETs/commuter omnibuses, etc


The moat on the south side of the Old City in the early morning – notice the monks walking in their bright orange robes

Chiang Mai’s Old City is made up of numerous winding roads, some regular sized …


… and some so narrow that cars cannot pass through them … which isn’t a problem since most people get around Chiang Mai on motorbikes (even school kids!)


And everywhere: colourful buildings and small buddhist shrines:


Another fascinating aspect of the Old City is how new and old exists side by side, with the Old City walls and wats (temples) interspersing coffee shops, restaurants and clothes stores.


The main road along the south side of the Old City, with the Tha Pae Gates on the left


One of the many wats in Chiang Mai’s Old City

One of the best things that I did in Chiang Mai was to go on a two-day “trek” into the jungle several hours to the north-west of Chiang Mai. I was promised that it was a non-touristy tour, that we would see no other tourists for the entire duration of the trip and that I would have a great time. It certainly delivered on every one of those promises. And, as a bonus, we were issued with a set of jungle-green “roughing-it” gear:


My favourite part of the gear? Why, the awesome machete of course! (The fact that I didn’t actually use it at any stage of the trek is totally beside the point… it totally added legitimacy to the jungle trek!)

There were 8 of us on the trek – 3 Finnish guys who were visiting Chiang Mai from Bangkok, where they are doing a year study exchange at a local university. When I asked them what they were studying, they replied, “In Finland  we were studying electronics, here we study nothing, we just have to spend a couple of hours in class 3 days a week and we pass. The classes don’t even have to have anything to do with electronics. It’s great.” Then there were 2 German girls on a gap year after finishing high school, our guide Den, his assistant (whose name I never got) and myself.

We began the tour by riding elephants in a village not far from Chiang Mai. The Thai government recently banned logging in the country (better late than never) and many people who owned elephants and used them to carry felled logs have been left both without livelihoods and with the big problem of what to do with their elephants. Many end up selling them to whoever will buy them as they simply cannot afford to look after them. The guys who run the tour company that I was with are related to a number of people in the particular village we went to, and they have an established agreement with the village: once a week or so, tourists ride the elephants, and in return the tour company contributes to the upkeep of the village’s elephants. Not ideal, but certainly more “sustainable” a situation than it could be. The elephant ride was a lot of fun, and we got to feed them copious amounts of lady-finger bananas in the process 🙂

And then we started walking… I can’t begin to estimate how far we walked during those two days, but there were certainly several fallow and dry paddies walked over and many hills climbed and descended (and much subsequent pain and stiffness!) We spent a few hours resting in a small Karen village [the Karen are a marginalised minority group in both Thailand and Burma] on the first afternoon. A view of the village as we approached it:


We spent the night in a traditional northern Thai house. Normally, they have only one room that is used for cooking, sleeping and everything in between, but some of the more “modern” ones have two rooms – one for cooking and the other for sleeping.


The floors are made from strips of the outer layer of bamboo, supported underneath by logs, which made walking on the floors feel a bit of like walking on a trampoline. We slept on traditional mats on the floor (which were not nearly as soft as the photo suggests!). Here you can also see the thin bamboo floors:


The view from our little house was amazing!


We had a great Thai cooking lesson that evening, whilst we all contributed to cooking dinner. And “dessert” was sticky rice pudding that was cooked in bamboo poles that were heated next to the fire, and were then cut length-wise for serving:


… “dessert” was also roasted frog, which we caught on the paddies at night by torch-light. Yes, I actually ate roasted frog … but it was so roasted that it (thankfully!) tasted of nothing but crispy smoke!


Den, our guide, took a bit of a shine to me and wanted to catch a flying squirrel (or a “squirrel fly” as he called them) for me to eat. Thank goodness he wasn’t able to catch one … it would have been thoroughly uncomfortable if he had. The next day he bought several dried ones at a local market – they look exactly like bats! The fact that Den spoke passable English made the tour that much more interesting as he was able to explain local Karen and Mon traditions to us and taught us about different plants and mushrooms in the jungle – those that we could eat and those that would kill us, and how we could tell the difference. We came across so many mushrooms: from small luminous yellow ones, to huge multicoloured ones. Den casually strung English words together with no punctuation or joining words (which was often very funny) but what he meant was generally pretty clear – for example “some dogs … careful … crazy!”

We came across a number of hillsides that had been totally stripped of all trees – making it clear why the Thai government had made logging illegal. What hadn’t been cut, had invariably been burnt (following the traditional slash and burn land preparation method), and on some hillsides villagers were beginning to plant upland rice ahead of the rains, which are due to start in the next few weeks. The contrast between the forested and deforested hillsides was shocking:


We ended off the tour by rafting down a river on rafts made of bamboo poles. Trying to keep standing on the rafts as the poles rumbled and bounced over rapids (and while the other people on the raft shifted their weight and tipped the raft) was one of the weirdest things I’ve ever done! And when bamboo rafts hit a snag, they stop dead still, throwing everyone forward simultaneously! We were absolutely weak with laughter most of the time, while the local villagers who accompanied us down the river cackled hysterically (not entirely unlike Gollum). I’m not sure who had more fun – us or them laughing at us! The rafting was undoubtedly my favourite part of the entire tour. Here are the bamboo poles before they were tied together to form a raft:


All in all, Chiang Mai has been a wonderful experience! Tomorrow I catch another overnight train back to Bangkok, starting the trip to Yangon 🙂

“bed hoping”

Can someone tell me about the crazy fad going on in Bulawayo with women scrambling to buy baboon urine (which is reportedly “selling like hot cakes”)? Apparently, the urine is sold in plastic jars, mixed with soil, to give it a solid feel. Seriously? The recommended directions for baboon urine use are: “You grind the mixture before you sleep, but after bathing. You then have to apply the powder in your privates. When applying you do not have to overdose because once you become damp, the urine’s smell is pungent.”

And why would anyone do this you ask? (I’d wanted to say “anyone in their right mind”, but then realised that I was probably setting the standard a little too high). Well, the explanation seems to be women trying to curb their “husband’s bed hoping antics” (I’m sure they meant “bed hopping”, but I guess “bed hoping” works just as well in this context!) The aim is to “drive the man into adopting a baboon’s urinating habit.” Apparently, according to those who peddle the baboon urine, “a baboon by its nature urinates only on one spot. Even if it travels from Matopo to Bulawayo, when it gets pressed, it will travel all the way to Matopo before it relieves itself.” You don’t need to know anything about baboons to realise that there is absolutely no factual basis to these baboon urinating habit claims, so why people believe them is beyond me.

“When you apply the powder, the man will absorb the baboon’s urine and it will start regulating his bedding tendencies… Once you use this (baboon urine), just like the animal does, he will never release his seeds of manhood to any woman but to you only.” You can’t help but admire the entrepreneurial creativity at work here. I mean, who ever said that ridiculousness is an obstacle to business success?

For anyone interested, you can buy the baboon urine for $2 at the Bulawayo City Council-run toilets at Egodini commuter omnibus terminus. Am I the only one who finds it suspicious that the so-called “baboon urine” is being told out of public urinals? At least they should move a block or so away to, you know, make it a little less obvious that it’s not actually baboon urine.

On a sad note, one of Mr Ugly Harare’s top contenders, Charles Tizora, passed away recently. He died after “imbibing” (yes, this word is actually being used in its correct context, weird as it seems) “an illicit brew known in the streets as Zed or as some call it Zimbabwe Emergency Drink”, which is apparently a rather lethal brew of brandy. Only in Zim would a home brew have “emergency” in its name. (Remember those times when cough syrup was used as “emergency” liquor in Zim when beer production was temporarily stopped?) And it seems as though Tizora is not alone in falling victim to cheap brandy, as his eulogy ended with a warning: “Scores of reckless imbibers have fallen prey to abusing illicit brews” … so be careful of imbibing cheap brandy people. If it doesn’t kill you, can you even imagine the pain of that hangover?

I recently came across an article entitled “Man stabbed to death for annoying whistling” and my initial thought was “damn right!” After judging my own callousness, I read on to find that the title (as frequently happens with Zim tabloids) was misleading – the man who was stabbed to death was not in fact the whistler, but rather someone who kindly requested the whistler to stop whistling … and the whistler (somewhat overreacted) and killed him in response. Now the reason why I thought the whistler deserved to be stabbed was because I’m pretty sure I know the particular brand of whistling that he was doing – not the whistling-a-merry-tune whistle, but rather that incessant I’m-trying-to-get-your-attention whistle. There are few things in this world that grate my soul more than that attention-whistle.

For the last six months, I’ve been living in West Harlem (although there have been repeated arguments about whether it is actually West Harlem or some other suburb … but let’s call it West Harlem just to set the scene). Some guy who must have lived nearby spent a great deal of his time attention-whistling outside my window. I thought I was going to lose my mind and/or violently hurt him and/or any passerby who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

What almost rivaled his whistling in terms of driving me into a blind rage was the local ice-cream van, which I learnt (after spending day-upon-day at home trying to study for my final exams) drives around the surrounding blocks almost continuously all day and well into the evening. The ice-cream van was hardly ever out of ear-shot, and the only relief of silence came when it was forced to a stop (due to traffic or customers). It turns out that it was somewhat like a cement mixer – it needed to keep moving to keep playing its same irritating tune (which was literally only 2 bars of 4 notes each) on repeat. I heard that tune so much that a point came when I didn’t know if it was actually playing outside my window… or just inside my head. I’m pretty sure that the ice-cream man must hear that tune in his dreams. I could almost pity him if I didn’t blame him for inflicting the same torture on everyone else too.

All I’m saying is that there are certain attention-whistlers and ice-cream van drivers in West Harlem that should be relieved that New York has one of the strictest gun control laws in the States… because no one would have found me guilty once they’d heard that whistling and/or ice-cream tune for themselves.

“protection orders” and the creepiness of Makombe passport office

Firstly, many apologies for my long silence on this blog – life’s been crazy for the last few months … but I’m now on my summer “break”, and by “break” I mean doing a 3-month internship in Burma (more on that later), so not a break per se, but certainly an opportunity to write more often. In fact, it’s a requirement of my internship that I write a blog at least once a week, so writing more frequently is guaranteed … but not always about gossipy Zim drama!

Unsurprisingly, Zim has not been quiet in my absence. As seems to be happening more and more, Zimbabweans are airing their (ridiculously) dirty laundry in the country’s courts. Every other day there’s some story of a spouse seeking a “protection order” against his/her husband/wife (or ex husband/ex wife) to the point where I’m convinced that the Zimbabwean legal system must have a far more lenient definition of what requires a protection order than is generally accepted … and we wonder why it takes so long for legitimate court cases to be heard?

The thing that makes me laugh about these protection order cases (although I realise there should be nothing funny about protection order cases) is that they bring out in public embarrassing issues that could have been (relatively easily) resolved in private – they seem to do far more harm than good to those involved. Perhaps we should consider granting protection orders to prevent spouses seeking protection orders … for the sake of forcibly encouraging adults to resolve their adult issues in an adult manner (and also for the sake of minimising our gross national embarrassment).

Recently, Lazarus Mashindi “bared it all at the Harare Civil Court where he was seeking a protection order” against Violet Mariba, his ex-wife, on the grounds that she humiliated him by coming to his church and pulling his penis during a church service. Apparently Violet (whose name, ironically, keeps being autocorrected to “Violent” by my computer) also beats him and his new girlfriend up whenever she sees them together and insults them using “vulgar” language. He said that although he divorced Violet a long time ago, it seems that she has issues with him. Seems? You think?!

Unsurprisingly, Lazarus’ relationship with his new girlfriend “has not been good” as a result. I can’t imagine why his new girlfriend wouldn’t be happy with Lazarus’ failure to stand up for himself (or for her). And by “stand up” I don’t mean “take things to civil court”. What makes it that much more difficult to take seriously are the references to Violet as “the alleged anaconda-puller” … and the fact that the Magistrate Vongai Muchuchuti not only entertained the whole scenario, but actually granted Lazarus a protection order against Violet pulling his penis again. Seriously.

And then there was the (very confusing) story about Pepukai Kuzovamunhu seeking a protection order against her husband, Gideon Sumbrero, both of 1248 Hopley Farm in Waterfalls (I love how full address details are given despite the fact that they are irrelevant to the story – no doubt for easy identification of the parties concerned by their local communities, just to maximise embarrassment). The headline of the story claims that there’s a grave inside their bedroom, on which Gideon “regularly defecated on a daily basis” (although using both “regularly” and “daily” in describing the frequency of Gideon’s defecation on the grave inside their bedroom is just the first of many confusing elements to this story).

Despite what the sensationalised headline says, however, the defecating-in-the-house and grave-in-the-bedroom issues seemed to be totally separate problems. Pepukai complained to the court about the smell in their house because of his defecation, and then later added (almost as an afterthought it seems), “there is also a grave in our bedroom and he once placed a cloth and my clothes on top before he covered them with soil.” There are just so many confusing issues going on right there!

Once again, the presiding magistrate (the very same Magistrate Vongai Muchuchuti of the anaconda-pulling fame above) fully entertained the case and promptly ordered Gideon to stop defecating in their bedroom. My real question is what Magistrate Vongai Muchuchuti did to deserve having to hear such cases – she surely could never have envisioned that this would be how she would spend her time dispensing “justice”.

Protection orders aside, there is the particularly curious case of Thomas Reuben (40) of Mbare, who “has confessed to having had remote-sex with more than 6000 women ever since he began the trade 14 years ago.” The trade? #dead. Apparently, Reuben hangs out at the Makombe passport office (just in case that place needed anything more to make your skin crawl), “with his business being entirely to have ‘BLUETOOTH’ sex with women every day” (‘BLUETOOTH’ is capitalised in the original article for, presumably, no other reason than to be melodramatic).

Reuben seems to have mastered “the trade”, but said that his juju doesn’t work on virgins, saying that, “at times I am disappointed with virgins, it does not work.” For non-virgins, however, it usually  takes him only about 2 minutes to “connect” with his “target” – he takes some juju snuff and walks around his target (no doubt staring intently and uncomfortably at them) and then “automatically connects.”

Reuben claims “he was given the juju by a sangoma from Nyamaropa in Madziva who claimed it was a charm for ladies. He said he doesn’t remember the exact number of women he molested but can just peg from more than 6000.” He was finally arrested for his bluetooth sex while in the act of using his mind to make an unidentified woman in a queue at Makombe start “experiencing a strange feeling as if she was in the middle of a sex act”. As you can imagine, he was also making sexually suggestive moves at her at the same time.

I don’t know about his juju, but I’ve spent enough time on New York subways to know that unfortunately Reuben isn’t the only man in the world who believes he can have BLUETOOTH sex. Luckily, we don’t have to worry about Reuben BLUETOOTH molesting us the next time we go to Makombe… we only need to worry about, you know, the bunch of other guys lurking there who are on the same juju.

canine plastic surgeons?

This morning I was in the subway, travelling downtown and minding my own business, when I saw this advert in the subway:


There are so many confusing things about this advert… apart from it being extreme #FirstWorldProblems, Dr Armond (the “Canine Plastic Surgeon”) has superimposed a licking dog onto himself (the awkwardness of which this picture doesn’t even vaguely show). But my favourite part is undoubtedly the “before” and “after” pictures in the bottom right… apart from the dog changing colour, it also miraculously changed its breed: before the surgery it was a bull dog. After the surgery it was a jack russell. Seriously. Are people supposed to be sold by this ad? I can only imagine what Dr Armond would do to my beloved little sausage dog. Labrador maybe?

Check out Dr Armond’s endorsement advert from some actress or something: http://www.comedycentral.com/video-clips/xph4ii/kroll-show-dr–armond-is-here-for-you?xrs=vanity_kroll. It surely can’t be serious. I mean, it’s on Comedy Central right?

In the meantime, back in Zimbabwe, there is a totally different brand of animal issues making news. Like the “chicken thief from Tsholotsho who got a lifetime lesson that stealing does not pay when he began to cluck like a chicken whenever he went near people” … which is even more ridiculous than canine plastic surgeons.

Apparently the man, a guy called Mathe, stole 8 chickens from someone … and then started making chicken sounds a few days later. It allegedly “became worse when he went out or was near other people”. Eventually he went crawling back to the guy he stole the chickens from to confront him about his clucking, which lead to his arrest for theft.

And in typical Zim style, everyone seems to act like this is totally normal behaviour, and it’s reported in a totally serious manner.

“The alleged chicken thief was hauled before Bulawayo magistrate Mr Temba Chimiso and he pleaded guilty to theft charges. He begged the magistrate to be lenient with him as he had already suffered a lot by acting like a chicken for two weeks. Mathe told the magistrate that he was afraid of suffering further if was sent to prison.

“He further told the court that all his efforts of getting help from prophets and traditional healers had been in vain as he was continuously behaving like a chicken.

“Prosecutor Tatenda Dakwa, called witnesses who confirmed that Mathe at times behaved like a chicken. The magistrate then ordered Mathe to pay the chickens before slapping him with 60 days imprisonment with hard labour.”

And then everyone went swiftly on with their lives like involuntarily clucking like a chicken is totally normal behaviour. You gotta love Zim.

The Elephant Whisperer

This morning I received an email that made me remember once more an amazing man, Lawrence Anthony, a brave South African who put himself in danger countless times fighting for the protection of wild animals – danger not just from the (often very abused) animals themselves, but also from the conflict and instability in some of the areas where he did his work. He even worked with the Lord’s Resistance Army in Southern Sudan to promote the conservation and protection of the Northern White Rhino… if that’s not bravery, I don’t know what is. Many know him not by name, but by the title “the Elephant Whisperer”, and it doesn’t take much to understand why he’s called that.

Among other things, he founded Thula Thula game reserve in Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa, where he lived with his family – it had been one of my dreams to go there to meet him, but sadly he passed away suddenly earlier this year just before a gala dinner that he had organised to raise funds for combatting rhino poaching in South Africa. I will still go to Thula Thula though – and I hope some of you do too.

One of the most amazing things about Lawrence’s death was the response of the elephants in Thula Thula and the surrounding areas. Although he wasn’t even at Thula Thula when he passed away, his elephants seemed to sense his death immediately and went into mourning. Those who witnessed it said it was nothing short of bizarre and miraculous, one of those things that human science just cannot explain.

It was almost reminiscent of Lawrence’s return to Thula Thula many years ago after an extended period of time away in Bagdad, Iraq, where he was involved in rescuing wild animals from Bagdad Zoo after the US invasion triggered war in the country and the animals had been left to starve. He’d been away for many months, but his elephants knew the very night he was to return to Thula Thula… and they were waiting for him when he arrived. Neither he nor any of his staff could believe it, nor could they even guess as to how the elephants knew that he was coming back that night. They just knew.

Two days after Lawrence’s death, after friends and family had gathered at Thula Thula to mourn his passing, about 31 wild elephants arrived at his house, led by several matriarchs. They had walked over 12 miles during those 2 days and had very obviously come to pay their respects.

As you can imagine, those gathered at the Anthony’s home were in total awe – not just at at supreme intelligence of the elephants for having sensed Lawrence’s passing, but also because of the profound memory and emotion the elephants clearly felt toward Lawrence.

An expert, asked for his opinion, could explain it no more than to say: “A good man died suddenly, and from miles and miles away, two herds of elephants, sensing that they had lost a beloved friend, moved in a solemn, almost ‘funereal’ procession to make a call on the bereaved family at his home. If there ever was a time when we can truly sense the wondrous interconnectedness of all beings, it is when we reflect on the elephants of Thula Thula. A man’s heart stops, and hundreds of elephants are grieving. This man’s abundantly loving heart offered healing to these elephants, and now they have come to pay loving homage to their friend.”

Lawrence’s wife, Francoise, was especially touched. The elephants hadn’t come to the house in over 3 years, so she knew that it wasn’t just coincidental timing – she knew they had come because Lawrence had died. The elephants stayed for 2 days and 2 nights outside the Anthony’s home, without eating anything, and then one morning, they left, making their long journey back.

There are so many stories in Lawrence’s life that have changed the way I regard animals. Please give his books a read if you can, I guarantee that they will change the way you see life: Babylon’s Ark (on the rescue of animals from the Bagdad Zoo); the Elephant Whisperer and The Last Rhinos. Even if you’re not an “animal person”, in fact, especially if you’re not an animal person, I highly recommend them!


the day I ran across Manhattan in a hurricane

Regardless of where you are in the world, you must know that this last Monday evening Hurricane Sandy touched down in New Jersey, just south of New York (yes, yes, by then she was technically “post-tropical storm Sandy”, which is the lamest name ever, and she’d been a hurricane all along, so she’ll always still be called Hurricane Sandy). The storm had a diameter of approximately 800 miles and New York got hit by the right-hand side of her as she passed over New Jersey, which is the more lethal side to be hit by (but obviously not nearly as bad as having the centre of the storm go over you).

By the time Sandy arrived, the whole of New York was tangibly waiting for her. The transit system had closed the day before, trains and buses had been moved to higher ground to escape any flooding and the subway entrances were gated closed. If you needed to get anywhere, you walked. Homeless people and people living in low-lying areas like Coney Island had been evacuated. Classes were cancelled and all but the most industrious shop and restaurant owners had closed their establishments by noon on Monday. The few that remained open served the late panicked customers searching for alcohol mainly (although maybe a few people were buying tinned food and water) in preparation of the looming storm and potentially countless hours stuck indoors.

For the first half of Monday, things were pretty normal apart from the fact that classes had been cancelled and that it was raining quite heavily. But there was a weird air of anticipation – we were waiting for a hurricane to arrive and no one had any idea how bad it would be. Most of us had no idea what a hurricane was even like. Would we lose power? Would our building be damaged? Would our windows shatter from high winds and flying debris? Would we have to be evacuated? Basically… would it be the zombie apocalypse? (Should we stock up on weapons?)

By mid-afternoon my internet had crashed, and with it any hopes of making my deadline that day. I met up with Miks, a friend who lives on the floor below me and is in the same masters program as me – he’s from Latvia and was a journalist there before starting our masters program. Journalists are fun people to be with when disaster is looming… they are the combination of fearless and adventurous that is needed in such times.

We went up onto the roof of our building … climbing through a small window and then going down the fire-escape (because obviously the doors to the roof had been locked in order to, you know, prevent people going onto the roof in the storm). “How do you know this way onto the roof?” I asked, totally bewildered. “Smokers always know routes” was his reply. True that.

This was our view of the Hudson River from the roof, downriver and upriver (both with New Jersey in the background):












And this is us on the roof:

Police cars and fire engines were trawling the streets, their sirens blaring, and the loudhailers of the police could be heard everywhere. It was crazy and exciting being in the storm on the roof… so obviously we decided to do the next logical thing…. and walk to Times Square in the growing storm. We grabbed an orange each as rations (they were eaten by the third block as were a pain to carry) and Miks considered picking up fallen branches to use as weapons (like some passing people had). I must admit, I started the journey having accepted that we probably wouldn’t make it all the way to Times Square… which is 81 blocks away (over 4 miles and almost 6.5km) from where we live.

We moved quickly, having opted for running shoes in the event of having to run (more from the police than from the hurricane) and saw really interesting things along the almost-deserted way. There were still lots of joggers out (heaven forbid New York joggers would stop for a single day, even in a hurricane) and people walking their dogs, as well as fellow hurricane adventurers. We tried to take photos but it was raining very hard, so our phones were getting wet and the pictures didn’t come out so clearly.

The gyms were still full (there’s a gym on the second floor that was totally packed) and people walking their dogs below:

And shop owners sand-bagging the doors of their shops:

We went down onto a pier on the Hudson and jumped around in the storm. If you jumped up off the ground, the wind carried you and you landed  several feet away from where you were before… it was awesome.

One of the people jumping on the pier with us said he lived in a nearby building and pointed to it. Turns out he lives in the Trump Towers… we totally should have seized the moment and networked with a millionaire in the middle of the storm… but we didn’t, we carried on with our adventure instead.

As we left the pier, the cops arrived and used their loudhailers to yell (and swear) at the people still playing on the pier: “Get off the pier! Get off the pier! Get of the f*ing pier!” It was strange and totally hilarious hearing the cops swearing over loudhailers! Everyone on the pier ignored them and next thing the cop car was driving on the pier after people! It was ridiculous. The pier was undoubtedly my favourite part of the journey!

We saw people who had been evacuated from New Jersey being bussed in to an evacuation centre in midtown Manhattan:

Then we came across “the crane” that such a huge fuss was made of… as well as the crowd of reporters lurking on the street below, reporting live for various news stations (hoping, although they’d never admit it, that the crane would fall and make their reporting career):

Finally we reached Times Square… and there were only a few other people there (but the adverts blared on as per usual). It was deathly quiet and still – the rain and wind had stopped momentarily:

We were soaked through and exhausted so we caught a cab home instead of attempting the return journey on foot. By the time we got back up to 123rd Street, debris was beginning to fly, trees were breaking and scaffolding fell off the roof of our building (the closest we came to real danger all day). We ran inside and the adventure was over.

The next morning, I walked just over 100 blocks with some friends, examining the damage in upper Manhattan, which was extremely lucky and had little more than broken scaffolding and fallen trees. This is the small park attached to the residence where I live. About half of its trees were down.

And Central Park also had many of its trees fall, some onto cars (stupidly) parked nearby:

Power is slowly being restored to areas that lost power, but many in Manhattan are still blacked out, and far more in Brooklyn, Staten Island and elsewhere:

All in all, Sandy was an interesting experience. I’m grateful that our area wasn’t badly damaged and I think often of those who lost loved ones, their homes or valuables in Sandy’s destruction. The skies have been cloudless for the past two days and it’s hard to believe that such a storm passed by mere days ago.

Oh, Gokwe

Some of you may have heard about the drama in Gokwe a few months ago following 26 women apparently waking up without their panties on. The Herald was obsessed with it, providing regular updates on what Chief Njelele was doing to try to solve the “mystery” in his area. I found out about the mystery once they’d already solved it, but I still continue to stumble across pearls of ridiculousness that took place whilst investigations were unfolding… Gokwe and this panties saga really is the gift that keeps on giving.

It seems the whole story started when 26 females, “including schoolgirls” woke up to find their panties gone. All on the same morning. The women were adamant that they had been wearing panties when they went to sleep, but when they woke up, their panties were gone. Needless to say, panic and mayhem ensued and an emergency meeting of all those living in Njelele Village was called.

In addition to calling the emergency meeting, Chief Njelele also reported the matter to the Gokwe Police Station. Eish, the way I wish I had been a fly on the wall of that police station during the reporting of that incident! I’m pretty sure the facial expressions of the police officers as they listened to Chief Njelele’s story must have been absolutely priceless!

Anyway, some time either before or after Chief Njelele’s reporting of the matter to the police, The Herald caught wind of the story and asked Chief Njelele about the incident. “What happened in my area is so scary and everyone is in a state of shock and panic. I have called for a meeting with my subjects in the two villages where the incident occurred and I am scheduled to meet them so that we can chart the way forward,” Chief Njelele said.

The missing panties were discovered later in a “bushy area”, “spreading panic among the villagers”. Chief Njelele confirmed that most of “the owners from the two villages had positively identified their panties”.

So, obviously, a witch-hunt ensued.

In fact, it was more of a “witch-hunting ceremony”, just as Chief Njelele promised it would be when he engaged the police to allow him to conduct it. “I will ask the police to allow us to invite the tsikamutandas [traditional healers] so that we can conduct a witch-hunting ceremony”, he said.

Police in Gokwe confirmed the incident. They said, however, that it was very difficult for them to investigate this issue, they said the only person who could possibly solve the mystery was the tsikamutanda.

So everything was on track for the scheduling of a witch-hunting ceremony. And then, suddenly, Chief Njelele directed village heads in his area to stop the arrangements to invite a traditional healer to conduct the cleansing ceremony in the villages. It was reported that the move came “in the wake of more mysterious happenings in Chief Njelele’s area”.

What were these “more mysterious happenings”? Well, Chief Njelele said a “huge owl invaded village head Pauro’s homestead and grabbed a male mature dog with its legs before vanishing with it while the village head and his subjects were at a meeting to discuss the invitation of a traditional healer following the missing panties saga.” I love the precision of the description of the dog: “a male mature dog”. Just in case we thought it was a female not-yet-matured dog… as though that would make it any less bizarre.

“It is mind-boggling what is going on in the area,” Chief Njelele told The Herald. Mind-boggling.

Chief Njelele stated that most of the women had since claimed their panties from the stash that was found. “Some have burnt them while others said they would perform some rituals before disposing of them. I am keeping them [the unclaimed ones] at my own risk because as the leader, there is nothing I can do”, he said.

At some stage, despite the owl-dog incident, a cleansing ceremony was in fact held in the villages. And then the mystery was solved and reported boldly in all leading Zimbabwean publications:

“A 62-year-old Gokwe man has come out in the open and claimed ownership of a goblin which has been terrorizing women in his village by taking off their panties at night while they were asleep.

“The man, Mr Lameck Ncube of Village Charisekera, under Chief Njelele, made the startling revelations at a cleansing ceremony in the village.

“The cleansing ceremony, conducted by a n’anga from Hwange District in Matebeleland North and a prophet from an apostolic sect, was attended by Chief Njelele, hundreds of villagers and journalists from different media organisations.

“It also emerged during the cleansing ceremony that the mysterious goblin had been tormenting women in the villages since 2004. The ceremony was characterized by drama and chilly witchcraft stories as villagers took turns to stand before the n’anga and the prophet.

“Mr Ncube, who became the 25th villager to appear before the tsikamutanda and the prophet, then confessed that he owned the “menacing” goblin, which he claimed to have acquired long ago to enhance his luck.

“Mr Ncube told the puzzled crowd that the goblin had, however, turned “hostile and weird” to a point of going around sleeping with women. A police officer who had been invited to the occasion to maintain order at one time moved in to restore order after some villagers whose wives fell victim to the goblin’s “sex” escapades threatened to beat up Mr Ncube.

“The n’anga, who was accompanies by six aides, was forced with his team to temporarily stop the witch hunting ceremony as they accompanied Mr Ncube to his homestead to “capture” the goblin which shared a bedroom with one of Mr Ncube’s sons.

“There was more drama as the villagers jostled to have a glimpse of the decorated goblin after the tsikamutanda brought it before the crowd. The goblin, which looked like a living creature, was wearing a pair of blue female panties, which village head Charisekera’s wife, Ms Silvia Marumbe, claimed to be hers.

“Ms Marumbe claimed during the event that she lost her panties in mysterious circumstances in 2004.

“The goblin was later burnt before the crowd.”

“In an interview after the burning of the goblin, Mr Ncube said he was happy that he was now a free man, saying the creature had been giving him sleepless nights for a long time.

“Mr Ncube said he bought the goblin in Chakari near Kadoma in 1983 when he was still working in Kwekwe.

““When I bought this goblin, my purpose was to try and have luck in my life. I also wanted to get promoted at my work as well as acquiring wealth, but when I later retired, I then learnt that the goblin had not performed to my expectations,” he said.

“Mr Ncube said he started having problems with the goblin after he tried to get rid of it through n’angas.

“He said different n’angas he consulted told him that the goblin was now “weird” as it was going around homesteads looking for women to “make love” to.” I’m not sure about you, but I really think that “weird” is rather an understatement.

““As it is I did not know that this goblin has been taking away the villagers’ panties until today. What I only knew was that the goblin was at my home, but we were no longer on good terms,” said Mr Ncube, who at that point looked down in shame.

“Chief Njelele said he was happy that the culprit who had been wreaking havoc in the area had been identified. He warned villagers against engaging in witchcraft. “People in my area need to behave and desist from engaging in witchcraft. Because of this strange missing panties saga, my area is now known the world over for the wrong reasons, which is a shame. I therefore want to warn my subjects that we will deal with the culprits decisively at our traditional courts,” he said.

I just want to know what and/or who they burnt.

And who the headman’s wife had been engaged in “mysterious circumstances” with in 2004.

Such craziness is, however, not limited to Gokwe (although, if we’re honest, Gokwe does have more than it’s fair share of craziness in the news). Montana, USA, also has it’s own brand of crazy. Recently, a man dressed in a military-style “ghillie” suit and ran across a highway, apparently trying to provoke reports of a Bigfoot sighting in northwest Montana.

Anyway, he was hit by two cars and died.

The police ascertained the deceased’s motives by interviewing his friends. They reckon that alcohol may have been a factor. Unsurprisingly.

And then yesterday in Florida, there was a manhunt for a manatee-riding lady. Outraged witnesses photographed an unknown lady riding a manatee:

(She looks like she’s having the most awesome time, right?)

“The sheriff’s department called a deadly serious press conference in which they asked the help of the public in identifying the perpetrator. The lady was wearing a white cap, red shorts and a black bikini top.”

The press conference was described as a “surreal gathering”, which, considering the tongue-in-cheek tone of the news reports on it, basically meant “a total joke”.

The sheriff decried the lady’s abuse of the manatee. “Go ride a Jet Ski. Don’t use animals,” the sheriff said. “She needs to be held accountable for her actions.”

“Under Florida law molesting or annoying a manatee is a second degree misdemeanour.” Manatees are endangered and considered to be pretty much sacred in Florida.

“It’s a wild animal. It’s not something to be ridden,” Susan Butler, a manatee expert with the U.S. Geological Survey in Gainsville, told the Times. “I can’t say that as a biologist I would ever, ever condone that, or say that (the manatee) wanted them to do that.”” Duh. It’s a wonder they had to interview an apparently qualified biologist to get such an obvious (and lame) comment.

Anyway, after the manhunt started and public pressure mounted, 52-year-old Ana Gloria Garcia Gutierrez turned herself in to police. “Gutierrez admitted to the offense claiming she is new to the area and did not realize it was against the law to touch or harass manatees.

“The charges have been referred to the state attorney’s office for prosecution”.