Wednesday, December 19, 2007

US To Phase Out Inefficient Lights

Following Canada's lead, the US will now be phasing out inefficient incandescent lights bulbs in favour of compact fluorescents by 2012. Read all the details here.

Lamu Slideshow

A few more images of a tropical paradise...

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

La Paradise in Lamu

I failed to mention that most of this African experience is taking place on an overland truck tour with a group of other travelers. Though the company is nice, so is stretching the legs out on your own.

So taking advantage of a week long break at the end of stage one, I booked airline tickets to Lamu - small island off the coast of Kenya.

A recognized World Heritage Site, Lamu is the last undiluted outpost of true Swahili culture. Swahili was never a pure group of people, nor language. It grew over centuries through a mixture of the traditional African coastal tribes with Arab, Persian and Indian influences arriving from sea. I never appreciated this before.

My destination was the town of Lamu, the largest town on Lamu Island, which in turn is a part of the Lamu Archipelago. The island population is made up of about 20,000 people and 6,000 donkeys, with the only motorized vehicle traffic being the Island Commissioner's Land Rover and two ambulances - one for people and one for the donkeys. However, they should probably have a third ambulance devoted to tourists who die of heat stroke the second they step off the plane. When the doors opened on my Air Kenya prop, I said to the person next to me, "I think my underwear just melted!"

But that was the only thing to complain about for the next week.

The town itself is a tightly packed outpost of 14th to 19th century buildings that hug the coastline and feature Arab style windows, thatched roofs, rooftop views, and stunning wood carvings that demonstrate all of the island's myriad influences. As for the time spent there, it was nothing but leisure.

The food is picked straight from a tree or pulled from the sea, and my meal of choice was fresh snapper served with a glorious mug of fresh squeezed lime juice, which ran about $5 total. I spent most of the rest of my time making the 50 minute walk to a nearly deserted expanse of tropical sand called Shela beach for sun tanning and swimming.

There was also a day trip in a traditional Swahili sailing dhow to catch lunch from the sea for a traditional swahili meal of fresh fired fish, coconut rice and mangoes cooked on the beach. I should say that my boat mates caught the fish, and our guide did the cooking. I'm alright at negotiating the variables of African travel, but I a fisherman I'm not.

After 5 days of tropical living I've rarely felt healthier. Life remains slow on the island despite the modern world lying just across the sea. To date, islanders have resisted all attempts at rapid modernization or any firm connections to the mainland. From the airstrip at nearby Manda Island the only way to reach Lamu town is by boat. My own motorized dhow featured a diesel engine that used a cooking oil container for a fuel tank, a water bottle for oil, and made about 1/2 a knot at 800 decibels.

Developers have tabled plans to connect Lamu Island to the mainland via road and to build an airstrip, but so far to no avail. With luck it will stay that way. The European travelers who are snapping up land on the island appear anxious to bring in more western amenities and tourist wealth. The islanders could care less. Though poor by any monetary standards, they are rich in health and natural beauty. They have all they need for food and shelter and nobody seems to desire anything other than to carry on as they have for centuries.

I hope the rest of the world gets the hint.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Al Gore Tells World to Go it Alone

It turns out Al Gore reads The Conscious Earth. Back in June I wrote that to solve global warming the international community is going to have to leave the United States behind and go it alone. As long US motivation is to derail international talks rather than join them, the world's efforts will only be harmed by granting them a place at the bargaining table.

Speaking from the United Nations climate change summit in Bali yesterday, Al Gore echoed my sentiments,

The Bush administration is the main obstacle to progress in international efforts to fight global warming, but the rest of the world should move on without it, former U.S. vice-president Al Gore said Thursday night during a special appearance at the United Nations climate change summit.

"I am not an official of the United States and I am not bound by diplomatic niceties," said Gore in an emotional speech to delegates that lasted close to an hour. "So I am going to speak an inconvenient truth: My own country, the United States, is principally responsible for obstructing progress here in Bali. We all know that."

Bravo. Lets hope everyone is listening.

Hat tip to NotaryPublic over at BlogCatalog.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Mountain Gorilla Slideshow

At long last, here is a short photo series of the mountain gorillas....well, except the first shot. Enjoy!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Rwanda from Genocide to Recovery

One of the moments I've most looked forward to in the early part of travel is visiting Rwanda. The genocide that the nation survived is a defining event in the modern era and, touching closer to home for myself, it was Canadian General Romeo Dallaire who led the UN effort here while maintaining a near solitary voice for further intervention - a call that was patently ignored until the genocide was over and nearly 1,000,000 people had died.

We're told that the genocide was the culmination of tribal conflicts between warring Hutus and Tutsis that stretch back far beyond European colonization. In reality, this is a bald faced lie designed to protect the conscience of the developed world while stopping us from understanding the true nature of the killings, and the integral role of the west in bringing them about.

The Germany was the first nation to first to colonize Rwanda during the late 1800s. At that time they found 18 distinct tribes living in relative peace. The labels "Tutsi", "Hutu" and "Twa" did not identify distinct tribes, but rather represented the social standing of individuals within tribes, much like the labels 'doctor', 'lawyer' or 'labourer' might describe a person's status and occupation today.

More importantly, there was nothing about this distinction that was fixed or hereditary, and an individual's standing changed with changes in their personal circumstances. Hutu would become Tutsi if their personal wealth increased through building larger herds of cattle, and a Tutsi who lost livestock through drought or disease would fall in status to Hutu.

This changed in 1932 when the Belgians gained control of the area. Seeing an opportunity to gain a more rigid control of the local population, the Belgians moved to make these distinctions permanent. Anyone who possessed 10 head of cattle at that time were declared
"Tutsi", and those with less were labeled "Hutu". These distinctions remained unchangeable and hereditary, and they were further reinforced by an identity card system that labeled each Rwandan according to their "tribal" status.

Through class distinction and bureaucracy, the Belgians ruled the colony through the Tutsis until the Rwandan independence movement began in the 1950s. At that time, the the Belgians found it to their political advantage to switch their allegiance to the Hutus. As the Hutus moved into power, Belgian support continued despite increasingly oppressive anti-Tutsi policies that included massacres, job quotas, limits on education, and an increasingly sophisticated and coordinated propoganda campaign. In the decades leading up to the genocide thousands of Tutsi died and 700,000 fled into Uganda and other neighboring countries to escape persecution.

By the time the genocide commenced in April of 1994, the doctrine of "Hutu Power" and the plan for the extermination of the Tutsis was well rehearsed and tightly organized. Between 1990 and 1993, Hutu extremists had initiated eight separate trial massacres in preparation for the launch of 'final solution'. During these warm up phases, the French government was fully aware of the situation and continued to guarantee loans to the Rwandan government for arms deals with French companies.

Near the end of the 1994 genocide Rwanda erupted in civil war. The Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) led by Tutsi general Paul Kagame eventually took control of the country, but not before 100 days of slaughter and the death of 800,000 Tutsis and Hutu moderates.

But despite this violence, Rwanda has made a startling recovery.

After becoming President in 2000, Paul Kagame instituted new stability and national cohesion. Tutsi and Hutu class distinctions are now strictly forbidden. All citizens are now known only as "Rwandans". Assuming that mass violence is far less likely to be initiated by women, the new government has also mandated that 39% of representatives must be women, the highest level of female representation in the world. Corruption has nearly disappeared. There is a building boom occuring throughout Rwanda. And though understandably guarded, the people are open, friendly and welcoming, even though there is scarcely a soul who was not touched directly by the genocide. Equally startling is that there does not appear to be a scrap of litter anywhere in the country - a huge difference from Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania where old plastic bags collect like snow drifts.

The most striking aspect of the country is the national recognition of the events of 1994. Driving through the impossibly steep farms of Les Milles Collines (land of 1000 hills), there are countless signs marking mass graves and sites of wholesale slaughter. The look and feel of these memorials is ghostly and rarely do they mark a place where less than hundreds died. The most stirring of all is the Genocide Memorial in Kigale where more than 258,000 people been interred so far, including the parents of the young man who guided us through these memorial grounds. As new buildings go up around the country, more graves are constantly unearthed, and it will be decades before all of the phantoms are finally put to rest.

These are but a few words, and in truth it is impossible to capture the emotion and scale of what occurred here....even 13 years later.

Some readers well versed on the history of the region may point out that the summary above ignores the ethnic clashes between Hutus and Tutsis that took place in bordering countries, especially in neighbouring Burundi where several killings of Hutus occurred at the hands of Tutsi forces throughout recent decades. This omission was intentional.

After spending months reading the histories, and now after speaking to Rwandans first hand, I'm convinced that the story we hear in North America and Europe is one that has been purposely focused on so called "ethnic tensions" in order to spare our collective conscience from confronting our own responsibility. The distinctions between Hutus and Tutsis were consciously established, cultivated and maintained by western powers for their own political advantage. They knowingly ignored the threat of genocide, they armed genocidaires for their own profit, and when the killings began they did nothing to stop them.

If we truly want to stop such a thing from occurring again, our efforts need to begin by accepting responsibility for our role in the genocide. Otherwise it can, and inevitably will, repeat.

The question only is when.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Gorillas of Rwanda

Many thanks to all of my readers for bearing with a lengthy delay in posts since I left for Africa. It's been a few weeks of merciless, ass jarring travel that ultimately led to the portion of my current travels that had most captured my imagination - Rwanda.

After camping overnight in the northwestern town of Ruhengheri, my first full day in the country was the gorilla trek in the Parc du Volcans - first brought to the world's attention by Dian Fossey and her groundbreaking study of the mountain gorilla.

A 6am wake up call had us at the trail head at the mediocre hour of 9am, a level of efficiency I affectionately refer to as 'African time'. When we did get rolling it was bliss stretching the legs as we hiked through the the village hugging the volcanic slopes that led towards the protected parkland. We moved towards the jungle under the escort of a guide plus two armed members of the Rwandan military. The latter being an overcautious assurance of safety due to the ongoing civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo taking place on the far side of the peaks.

With or without automatic weaponry, the initial walk was beautiful as it led us through farming villages of potato, pyrethrum flowers, and maize. However, even with lovely farmland and stunning views of Rwanda's countless hillsides, all thoughts were turned towards the jungle ahead of us and the beginning our hike in earnest. It never happened.

At the top of the farm we arrived at the Buffalo Wall, a six foot retaining wall marking the park border and the supposed beginning of our trek. But after a quick check on his two way radio our guide turned to us and said, "How do you say this?.....the gorillas, they are OUT! They have visited the village!"

Two turns later, we arrived at a small farmland stream, where two gorillas were settled around a stand of bamboo just 20 feet away from us. Making our way closer, the two nearest individuals retreated across the stream, but as we turned around we found we were surrounded. Ten feet to our left was a young mother, and just a couple yards away was a toddling yearling rolling past us in the thick grass. We were almost too absorbed in the intimacy of the scene to see the silverback leader himself, in his awesome 200+ kg prime, seated just a couple steps behind us.

The moment is almost impossible to describe. One instant we were walking through tall shrubs and bamboo, and the next we were within touching distance of every photo shoot I've ever seen. Dumb struck awe is the only way to describe being so close to the gentle power of these creatures. For me, it was some hours later before I could quietly consider the experience and start to feel what it meant. The dexterity of hand, their social nature, the way the look and consider each other, and the feeling when an individual looks you in the eye is unlike any wildlife viewing I've been involved in. I'm not even sure what to call these creatures, but 'animals' certainly isn't it. It's a gift they are still with us. With luck they'll remain so.

The Rwandan government has done an amazing job ensuring the protection of the gorillas since Dian Fossey's murder in the mid eighties. At that time, just 250 gorillas remained throughout the Birunga Volcanoes. Today, that number exceeds 700 with nearly half of them living in Rwanda. Ninety percent of the $500 permit fee goes towards their conservation, and with that support, the 13 groups located within Rwanda receive 24 hour monitoring and study. As for our time, we were allowed just an hour. The rest of the day is set aside to let the gorillas do what gorillas do.

From start to finish the day was inspiring and I would have gladly paid twice the price to support their continued protection.