My brother Tony challenged me to name 10 books that have stayed with me over time. I am in a longstanding writing group, Big Canvas, with Elizabeth Ruth and Sally Cooper and that I shamelessly promote their writing because they are outstanding novelists.
Once, when our family was gathered at my parents’ house for dinner, my brother accused me of being an anti‑social worker. At the time, I worked in what people condescendingly call ‘the helping professions’. His little jab disappointed me; I did inform them, after all, that I had been telling a story. Did they really expect the humdrum reporting of facts?
A meeting I attended in December, in Khayelitsha, one of Cape Town’s poorest townships, opened my eyes to the human cost of the social science research that fuels good policy—the cost to the people who collect the data.
I spend a lot of time at conferences and meetings hearing about children and families living in the context of HIV and AIDS—about people who cope with the pandemic, sometimes succumb to its ravages, but mostly survive it and live on. I listen to presentations and read studies that report on statistics, studies that try to prove which inputs lead to which outcomes, and which inputs may lead to no outcome at all. These studies help policy wonks and philanthropists make better, more evidence-based decisions in the hopes that they’ll have positive and far-reaching impact. Continue reading
Twenty-six years ago, on a beautiful marble balcony, I shook hands with Mobutu Sese Seko, the former dictator of what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. I was reminded of that day last month while on a work trip to Kenya. In Nairobi, I happened upon a clothing store with a t-shirt bearing the face of Patrice Lumumba. Lumumba was the Congo’s first democratically elected president, but months into his mandate he was hounded from office, then hunted down and murdered by Mobutu following a CIA-backed coup. Mobutu ruled thirty-two years. His regime was brutal and repressive and while his resource-rich country withered, he amassed a fortune so large that he became the third richest man in the world. Continue reading
Flight attendant, loudly, to her seated colleague on the other side of the plane: “Is that smoke? I smell smoke!” Her colleague agrees. Minutes pass as my heart races. “It’s getting worse! Has anyone told the captain?” she gets up and strides quickly to the cockpit.
These are things you really *don’t* want to hear and see as your flight has just taken off, especially after a 3-hour delay due to electrical storms that the crew have been describing as “a code red situation” –a delay that has definitely eaten up your connection time to catch your flight to Nairobi. Continue reading
Listen to John reading this essay on CBC Radio 1’s The Sunday Edition, Nov.17 2013
A demo I attended recently in the sleepy capital of Lithuania reminded me of my long and conflicted relationship with public protest. I know that some demonstrations have changed the course of history. But with a few notable exceptions, the protests I’ve attended have been less Tahrir or Taksim and more Toronto. Less Tiananmen and more… just Tiresome.
I started protesting young, tagging along with my mother to abortion rights rallies, peace marches, gatherings to decry violence against women. These were mostly in Canada, the land of small demos and vast spaces, the vast spaces making small demos look even smaller. But I learned early on that, in a functioning democracy, expressing public anger at injustice is important- alongside political organizing and the occasional snappy letter to the editor. Continue reading