Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Buganda Kingdom

In Acholi they understand why I say my name is Gwyn not Gwen (a distinction even some friends I've known for 10years don't hear).  Because why would you name someone gwen?  That is something you eat.  Gwen means chicken.

Week one Kampala:  This is the start of three months of fieldwork I have planned in Uganda.  A large part of my time will be spent in intensive language lessons to learn the Luo language Acholi.  It is mostly spoken in the northern part of Uganda where I will be headed next.  (see Gulu on the map)  It is one of 41 languages spoken in here by a little over 1M people (also in South Sudan)

Since I come from the US and the state of Indiana, staff at the language school thought I might have knowledge of 'red indians.'  They particularly wanted to know why they never see any.  This was one of the more interesting and complicated follow-ups to: where are you from I've ever gotten.

Due to some combination of my politically correct American upbringing and the fact that we were in a language school where words matter, I informed them that the people who originally inhabited the US were now referred to as Native Americans.  As the words came out of my mouth, I realized this change came about not long after it was decided that the inhabitants of Africa should no longer be called Natives and simultaneously with African diaspora claiming skin color as a referent.  In one context, the word native has been adopted as more appropriate and respectful of origins while rejected in another case along with its connotations of primitivism.   We agreed the use of skin color in categorization was ok if it was the choice of the group.  English is very concerned with categorizing and naming.  This we also agreed.

Isn't every language?  That is what I'm here to explore.  In fact, I don't believe they are, not in the same manner or to the same extent.  I am a linguistic relativist, which is to say, I think the language we are using influences the sensory information we attend to in our environment.  That's not to say that you can't think or experience or imagine beyond the words and grammar you know.  It is just a starting point for entering the world, and the mode we habitually convey these experiences becomes familiar.  Having learned more than eight languages after my native English, each requires breaking down my English way of thinking to try and adopt the new language's way of parsing and framing life (to varying degrees of success). 
To get back to the problem put before me: where are all the Native Americans?  After doing my best to explain the centuries of political, social, and cultural factors resulting in few Native Americans venturing to Uganda, the Ugandan staff felt these Indigenous American nations could use some African-ness to confront the injustices they faced and to coalesce in stronger numbers and affect change.  African-ness, it was explained to me meant:
  1. pride in themselves
  2. pride in their culture, enough to protect and evolve it as time passes
  3. motivation to educate their people, this is way to prosper  
Everyone I've met is ready to problem solve.  There is a positive attitude in the city (among the students and employed people to whom I've spoken) about the changes they've witnessed in their country in recent years.  This comes out in how they are ready to approach life.  With calm confidence.

week two coming soon....

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Make PCs not War

Philanthropy is fantastic-- whether you have gobs of money you could never spend in 20 lifetimes like the Gates Foundation or donate a few dollars within your budget like Albert Lexie did with his shoeshine tips-- giving to research, NGOs and projects that need support to do their work is swell. Furthermore, learning throughout our lifetime is awesome.  Be a tax attorney and also an expert on exotic fern species.  Learn a new language.  Teach one.  And certainly we should have more than one career.  Be in ad sales then get another degree and become an architect.  I support all these endeavors. But when titans of industry gingerly step into another line of titanry as though it was a lateral and completely natural move, this is where I draw the line.  Tiger Woods did not join the NBA because he reached his peak and got bored.

I recently listened to Google's former CEO, Eric Schmidt, explain his approach to conflict resolution at a 4-day seminar series at Cambridge University.  He talked about his trips to hotspots such as Libya, Pakistan, and North Korea, about the use of drones, cyber warfare, and the future of conflict.  He drew extensively from Stephen Pinker's 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined which gives evidence about humanity's decreasing levels of violence and why our very sense that this is not the case, our sensitization to suffering, is part of that evidence that life has become increasingly precious.

The culmination of Schmidt's  observations seemed to be that he wanted to put his expertise to use in the field of conflict resolution.  It seemed to him, a trained engineer, that humanity should quite simply be working toward the goal of diminishing loss of life.
fewer deaths= winning
Who could argue with that, he asked? Throughout the four days, he had generously given nearly half his talk time each day to interact with the audience through questions.  He had deftly maneuvered a few barbs about corporate actions with politesse, and his lack of defensiveness had kept the debate environment open and inviting for both students and faculty.  He was clearly skilled in this format.  However, when the discussion on the last day circled around his central point, the foundation of his post-Google foray into world peace, he did not remain as cool.  The black and white simplicity of his claim wasn't sitting well with the room of academics, and one faculty member made reference to the history of philosophical debate around the issue of a just war.  Schmidt rebuked a rebuttal based on St. Thomas Aquinas and Catholic doctrine because he suspected it was coming from a non-Catholic and delivered without conviction.  He went on to challenge anyone in the audience to argue with his principle that humanity should have one basic goal of diminishing death. How could that not be good?  

Well, I'll tell you Mr.  Schmidt.  

First, Robert McNamara was also a fan of the engineering-based solution.  That mathematical strategy that makes the corners of your mouth curl up unconsciously bares a striking resemblance to the one discarded decades ago.  It lacked both nuance and consideration of context making it fantastically unsuccessful during the Vietnam War.  Those black and white numbers you find so familiar and appealing.....added up to disaster.

Second, for anyone who has interviewed victims of torture, rape, modern-day slavery... they describe an experience in which their suffering has been so extreme that they may not have wished for death, but it might have been a mercy.  We don't have to imagine a fate worse than death, for some tragically unlucky individuals, it exists.  However Schmidt liked to employ what he called 'thought experiments' or hypothetical narratives to make his point ... so imagine if we could do away with death in war as he aims to do and achieve a world where no one died, but instead the people who would have died become prisoners, slaves, and live a tortured miserable existence.  Would they have preferred a world where they could fight, where they could be free?  In this thought experiment,  I satisfied Schmidt's criteria, but is it really an upgrade?  Quality of life, context for why people are willing to fight to certain death even in a losing battle, pressures that motivate people to participate in violence all need to be part of this equation (and start by bending your mind to think outside the concrete, the strategy, the benchmarks, and so on... continuing to think like an engineer in a totally new field isn't very innovative Mr. Schmidt).

I trained as an engineer originally too.  I left because I found the solutions too neat and clean.  You build something to specification and you're finished.  Politics, conflict among humans is forever messy.  It can't be managed and refined like software.  The global, big-picture view glimpsed from the seat of a titan is reductionist at best, but potentially harmful if foreign affairs are the next venture for former CEOs.