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photo credit: CBC

photo credit: CBC

When Prime Minister Stephen Harper weighed in on the tragic story of Rehtaeh Parsons, the 17-year-old Nova Scotian who was driven to hang herself in April 2013 after months of bullying following an alleged sexual assault, he echoed the national revulsion at the event, saying he was “sickened” by the story. He also said he thought that it was time to stop using the term “bullying” for some of these things because that connoted “kids misbehaving”, when some of these circumstances were “simply criminal activity”. That they may be. But no one can deny that it is the bullying itself that in recent years has been driving so many young Canadians to depression, despair and suicide.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that Mr. Harper wants to downplay the term “bullying” by suggesting it’s just the kind of shenanigans that children get up to in a sandbox. If he were to admit that bullying was morally wrong and deeply dangerous, a pervasive social ill that has become common in all walks of modern life and among all ages, he might have to change the way his Party does politics and fights elections. Bullying, which has become such a scourge in our schools, workplaces, social media and arenas, is now also a political tool in this country. Continue reading Conservative attack ads are bullying

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The AP headline read “Thousands of caterpillars seized at UK airport”. Under it was the story that UK Border agents had seized several bags of dried caterpillars that they found in the luggage of a 22-year-old man from Burkina Faso when he landed at Gatwick Airport. Countless media outlets picked up the report and ran with it, from the Washington Post to the Jordan Times, from Fox News to the Winnipeg Free Press. The Independent in the UK produced its own version of the story and gave it a catchy headline that set a jocular tone, “Monkeys in my pants? No, just 94 kg of caterpillars in my luggage.” It cited an insect expert from the Natural History Museum who said that the caterpillars were likely mopane worms, the larvae of emperor moths, species name Gonimbrasia belina.

The British Government deemed the story so important that it ran a version on its official Home Office page and earnestly reported that the discovery of the dried caterpillars at Gatwick was “among the largest of its kind at the airport”. This struck me as curious — were smuggled caterpillars a common occurrence at Gatwick then? Continue reading Saved from those dangerous dried caterpillars

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In 2002, even if Mali wasn’t literally my home, my native land it sure felt it was. At that point my family and I had been living in Bamako, the Malian capital, for five years. On summer visits back to Canada to visit with family and friends, my son usually gave it two or three weeks before he started telling me that it had been a “nice holiday” but now he thought it was really time we went “home” to Bamako. He missed the group of friends with whom he played soccer on the narrow dusty roads near our house, dodging vehicles and regularly retrieving wayward soccer balls from fetid gutters. My daughter greatly missed her friends, who hailed from all over West Africa, and the weekends when they all headed off to explore the crazy markets or just to make the rounds of each others’ homes sampling wonderful African dishes and trying out new dances they were learning in a Senegalese dance troupe.

I had no interest in ever leaving Mali. I was working as a journalist, reporting for the BBC World Service and any other international media that showed an interest in the country, its fabulous history, culture, music, or its politics and the already worrisome meddling in its internal affairs of foreign powers, particularly American, French, Algerian, Libyan and Saudi.

But — barring the BBC World Service that broadcast to Africa and enjoyed its largest audience growth on the continent — few international media outlets seemed very interested in Mali. At that point, the country was not generating the kinds of stories that editors in distant newsrooms seemed to expect from Africa. These tended to star bloodthirsty youths in rebel garb hacking off limbs of innocent civilians, white saviours trying to stem the outbreak of some new and awful disease, or perhaps a Western celebrity cuddling a starving child. Continue reading Grieving for Mali

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Abdelkader Haidara inspects ancient manuscripts in his Mamma Haidara Library in Timbuktu

Abdelkader Haidara inspects ancient manuscripts in his Mamma Haidara Library in Timbuktu

First published 18 December 2005, Toronto Star

Time has not been kind to this once-great centre of civilization, which in the early 1500s inspired the Spanish explorer Leo Africanus to paint a picture of a learned, cultured and peaceful place where books were the main industry, where one literally walked on “gold.” Lured by this promise of riches, European explorers tried for centuries to find Timbuktu. By the time the first ones finally arrived in the 1800s, they found a desolate desert outpost not all that different from the sand-swept town of today, with no evidence of all the fabled wealth. Hence, the Western myth about a never-never place with little to offer the world — a myth that is about to be exploded.

Today, treasures are being unearthed here that are radically changing the way the world views Timbuktu, Africa and her history. They’re called the “Timbuktu manuscripts” and they disprove the myth that Africa had no written history. While many thousands have been recovered, there are still hundreds of thousands of manuscripts hidden away in wells and mud-walled storerooms in northern Mali. Huge collections have been passed down in families over many centuries, kept out of sight for fear that European explorers, and then French colonists, would abscond with them.

“Before, all the manuscripts were kept in our homes,” says Abdelkader Haidara, who has inherited his family’s collection of 9,000 written works dating back to the 16th century. “Then, in 1993, I had an idea to open a private and modern library that would be open to everyone.” Thanks to funding from an American foundation, Haidara has been able to open his Mamma Haidara library and catalogue 3,000 of the manuscripts, some of which date back to the 1100s. None of this would have been possible had not Henry Louis Gates Jr., chair of Harvard University’s African and African-American studies department, visited Haidara and realized the importance of preserving these documents.

“When Professor Gates came here and saw the storeroom full of these manuscripts written by African scholars centuries ago, he started to cry,” says Haidara. “He wept like a child, and when I asked him why, he said he had been taught at school that Africa had only oral culture and that he had been teaching the same thing at Harvard for years and now he knew all that was wrong.” Continue reading The treasures of Timbuktu

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