My day with Mobutu

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

A flight attendant who could learn to whisper

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

Demonstrating on a Sleepy Sunday in Lithuania

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

Malaysia 20 years later

I’ll be going to Kuala Lumpur this July for a conference—a very different experience from my last trip twenty years ago during a backpacking adventure through Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. Though I’ll be heading to a meeting where treatment advances in HIV will be discussed, my hotel will be comfortable, I’ll be stuck in a conference centre and I will no doubt feel very much removed from the lives or ordinary Malaysians. Continue reading

Remembering through stories

The events of Sandy Hook Elementary and other tragedies have me thinking again how storytelling can help heal. Twenty-four years ago, I lost my best friend to gun violence. Naomi was a bright soul extinguished at twenty-one and for a few years after her death, her mother and I met occasionally to check in and reminisce. Then one day I received a letter. Naomi’s mother explained that she had spent the better part of a year writing a small booklet, and would I like to receive a copy. She had written her daughter’s story, she said.

Her daughter’s story. At first, the phrasing rankled. Surely one story couldn’t possibly suffice. Furthermore, the attribution seemed wrong. In English, we have a convention of naming a story that is about a person after the person, but any writer knows that a story first belongs to the teller and once told becomes shared property. Finally, it seemed too definitive. Where was the room for my point of view? Continue reading