2012 Kenan Summer Fellows

 

In the summer of 2012, the Institute launched its Kenan Summer Fellows Program. Seven undergraduates explored what it means to live an ethical life through work and research both domestically and abroad. The projects included:

Sadhna Gupta (T’13): Politics and Religion in Refugee Resettlement in the US

Sadhna’s project examined how religion and politics affect the refugee resettlement process. Her project addresses issues of responsibility, religious pluralism and tolerance, and the challenges of multi-culturalism. Faculty mentor: Katie Hyde (CDS/Education)

Mark Herzog (T’15): Ethical Duties in the Pharmaceutical Industry


Mark’s project was to map the ethical viewpoints and practices of various players in the pharmaceutical system regarding how incentives are currently used to create and distribute drugs, as well as other models (besides incentives) for encouraging the development and distribution of drugs. He particularly focused on a comparison between the approach and experiences of a not-for-profit vaccine developer in the RTP and the approach and experiences of the more common for-profit manufacturers. Faculty mentor: Jason Cross (DGHI)

Gautam Joseph (T’13): Ethics of Humanitarian Aid in Cairo, Egypt


Gautam obtained an unpaid internship in Cairo, Egypt to address two ethical issues. One raised a question that reflects on a general concern for how to determine what qualifies an undergraduate student to assist people in urgent need of effective and efficient assistance. The second ethical issue addressed by this project focused particularly on refugees and the ethical implications of the legal requirement that refugees tell and retell their stories to complete strangers in order to obtain resettlement. Faculty mentor: Catherine Admay (Sanford)

David Mayer (T’14): Grandfather’s Diary: Documenting a Life’s Search for Meaning


David’s project was to make a film investigating a diary written by his grandfather while living in Germany during WWII. He researched the diary by traveling to Germany and deepening his understanding of the life his grandfather recorded in his diaries before, during, and after his time spent in a German labor camp in the Harz Moutnains. Faculty mentor: Gary Hawkins (CDS)

John McLean (T’13): Personal Computing and Christian Ethics


John explored the moral challenges of personal computing and social media use from a Christian perspective. What would “a Christian ethic of personal computing” entail? John examined personal computing/mobile technology use in a variety of settings and forms, the potential constructive and destructive ways these technologies can be used, and how a Christian ethic can guide Christian communities in their responses to these possibilities. Faculty mentor: Adam Hollowell (Divinity/Public Policy)

Rosaria Nowhitney (T’15): Discovering Radical Hope at Kagoma Gate, Uganda


Rosie’s project took her to Uganda to explore the creation of a multi-ethnic/multi-national community by people who had all experienced violence either in Uganda or in their home countries of Rwanda, Sudan, the Congo, and Kenya. Rosie drew on philosopher Jonathan Lear’s concept of “radical hope” to develop these questions. Faculty mentor: Suzanne Shanahan (KIE/Sociology)

Nyuol Tong (T’14): Leading an Ethical Life: The Moral Dilemmas of South Sudanese Americans


Nyuol’s project examined how South Sudanese Americans live an ethical life. How do they manage the tension between the ethical life defined by their Dinka heritage and the ethical life as defined by many Americans? Faculty mentor: Charles Piot (Cultural Anthropology)

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Sadhna: Politics and Religion in Refugee Resettlement in the US

HOW RELIGION AFFECTS THE EXPERIENCES OF RESETTLING REFUGEES
Posted on May 24, 2012

Hey, my name is Sadhna Gupta and I am a junior studying Public Policy, Economics, and Global Health. I was born in India, grew up in Boston, and have travelled a lot throughout my life—most recently, I just finished a semester abroad in Madrid, Spain. I love watching Duke basketball games, eating Taco Bell, and laughing. Also, I have a deathly fear of cats.

I have been lucky enough to get many opportunities to research social issues in North Carolina and around the world. I became interested in community development doing HIV/AIDS awareness work in a coastal city of Kenya through DukeEngage. Sophomore year, I participated in the Kenan Institute’s Moral Challenges of Poverty and Inequality lab and did an Independent Study on health concerns for American Indian tribes in North Carolina. This past summer, I returned to Kenya and interviewed girls to document barriers to primary school access for the Nike Foundation.

All of these fieldwork experiences have shown me that humanitarian aid and community intervention can sometimes create more harm than good. Although we certainly have an obligation to act and to better our community, I believe that living ethically requires us to honestly evaluate the effects of our work and make sure we are not taking advantage of those who are socially marginalized. Unfortunately, organizations typically act in their own personal interest even if it does not align with the interests of those they are trying to help.

In high school, I met Bhutani refugee families resettling in the suburbs of Boston and was shocked to learn that their aid groups and caseworkers had tried to convert many of them from Hinduism to Christianity. If they remained Hindu, they were given only the basic funding from the government. If they converted, the church groups would give them many extra items and services to help them adjust to the United States. This could be anything from a computer to free transportation to medical appointments. Although these may seem small, many families came from refugee camps in Nepal and were struggling to make it day by day. Many individuals had converted, but it was unclear whether this was done out of free choice or coercion.

I began to see that religiously affiliated groups could have a conflict of interest in their work. Although they certainly want to help the refugees, they may also want to spread their religious beliefs or advance their missionary goals. As a participant in Kenan’s Refugee, Rights, and Resettlement Winter Forum this past January, I became interested in exploring this issue further.

As a Kenan Fellow, I want to examine the way we provide aid to refugees resettling in our country. More specifically, I am interested to see how the religious affiliation of aid organizations affects the resettlement experience of their clients. Beginning this Friday, I will spend eight weeks interning on Capitol Hill in DC and will also use this time to further investigate the political and legal aspects of this controversial issue. Then, I will spend 3 weeks interviewing refugee families in the Boston area who have experienced this religious tension first hand and will record their stories. I will finish up my project in Durham where I hope to speak with refugee resettlement groups and religious leaders, before creating my final product.

Although I don’t expect to get any definite answers, I hope to start discussion on many different questions…
Are religious groups taking advantage of refugees’ vulnerable position and pressuring them to convert unwillingly?
Is it wrong for a church group to want to spread their religious beliefs when helping others?
Where do we draw the line for a group that has good intentions but may actually be taking advantage of somebody else’s situation?

 

SEEING THE IMPORTANCE OF SOCIAL BELONGING FOR REFUGEE FAMILIES
Posted on May 30, 2012

Last weekend, I had my first interaction with two communities of Bhutani refugees that I plan on interviewing later this summer. These families live in suburbs about two hours away from my house and I had never met them before. Luckily, I went with an Indian social worker who has dedicated his free time to helping them deal with their everyday problems. He introduced me into the community and allowed me to establish a sense of trust with the families.

After the long and early morning commute, I arrived at one of their homes. Instantly, they welcomed me in even though they did not know me. They were having their weekly kirtan (a group gathering to enjoy religious song and prayer) and were delighted that I wanted to join. It was humbling to see their kindness towards me, a total stranger, and their eagerness to share the traditions of where they come from. Although for many refugees, it isn’t always clear which country they “belong” to, it was obvious that they still have the same desire to expose others to their heritage and their personal beliefs.

Following the two hour kirtan, I was treated to home-cooked Nepali food and then was able to talk with the families informally about their experiences in the United States with the help of a translator. My translator is a refugee himself and comes from the community. Almost the same age as me, he is working tirelessly to advocate for the rights of his Bhutani community and spends time outside of community college to help whoever in the community is struggling to adapt to life in the United States.

By the end of the conversation, I was already overwhelmed by all the obstacles and stresses facing this community of refugees, who came to the United States with such high hopes to create a new and peaceful life for themselves. I spoke with many elders of the community and I could see their pained faces as they told me about how their young children, or even their own spouses, had converted to Christianity—at times, without even informing them of it first. They shared stories about how their families had split, and they did not know how to keep their children Hindu when churches are offering them much more than they have the means to do themselves. They explained that the local church and resettlement agency provides many benefits to those who convert such as transportation (very few of the families can afford to have cars) to medical appointments and to fun events like beach outings and parties (a huge incentive for youngsters).

One thing that became clearer to me after this initial meeting is that many of these problems are specific to this one town, and are not as widespread in other towns of Massachusetts where Bhutanese are being resettled. I am curious to explore how these experiences compare to those of refugees in other places, both in Massachusetts and in other states.

A few particular things that stuck out to me from the conversation with the families:

The biggest reason cited for conversion is the desire for belonging. Many expressed that: “The Hindu community is very small so our people feel ‘we will get nothing’ if we remain Hindu, we will get many more friends if we convert to Christianity.” Until now, I always took having a social community for granted, but now I see how important it is for refugees to find this when they arrive here. Without this, many live in depression and would rather be back in the countries they temporarily stayed in before resettlement.
The families said that the direct religious pressure to convert comes mostly from fellow Nepalis, which I found to be very startling at first. They said that the converted Nepalese (many of who converted in camps in Nepal itself) are the ones who try to also get them to convert. There have been Nepali churches created with Nepali pastors and services conducted in Nepalese, with the help of money from the resettlement agency. There is no Hindu alternative or community center, and many refugees begin to feel like there is no reason not to convert, when the alternatives seem so much better. This made me realize that there is a lot of gray area and hard to know if someone really is at fault for what is happening…

The sadness of some of the community elders was striking. Their sentiments can be summarized with this quote: “We are very, very, very sad to see the young people here being converted, we might as well have stayed in Bhutan and been converted there…what was the point of becoming a refugee?” The story of one old man, suffering from severe depression and suicidal tendencies, really stands out to me. His entire nuclear family has converted and he is the only one who refuses. His biggest concern each and everyday is how he will convince his family to cremate him (following Hindu religious tradition) rather than bury him in a cemetery when he dies.

Thanks for reading and more to come soon!
Sadhna

 

ORGANIZING TO HELP VS. HELPING TO ORGANIZE
Posted on June 11, 2012

My second day with the refugee families in Springfield, MA was long, slow, and tiring. I attended a four hour community meeting conducted in a mix of Hindi, English, and Nepali and met dozens of adults and small children. It was overwhelming, yet looking back I realize that it was critical in helping me think through the role of outsiders in a refugee community.

I attended a gathering of about 30 refugee families in the Springfield and Westfield suburbs. This was significant because it was one of the first times the group has formally organized to discuss community issues. The meeting was coordinated primarily by the social worker that introduced me to the families and has been working with them for years. The purpose was to establish a group and elect a committee that can voice the concerns of the Bhutani community to local, city, and state government as well as other citizens who are unaware that these refugee communities even exist in their backyards (quite literally).

This is when I realized the importance of organized groups that can lobby for their rights. The Bhutani community faces issues of religious confusion and cultural loss because they do not have public spaces which they can claim and use to develop their identity. I have always taken for granted the temples and Indian community centers that exist around the areas I have lived in; but now I see that without these, my parents probably would have had a much harder time adjusting to life in the United States and I definitely would not have my Hindu Indian American pride.

I watched very closely the role of the social worker, who was the only non-Bhutani refugee involved in running the meeting. He refused to join the elected community or make any important decisions. He was constantly pushing the refugee families themselves to claim full ownership over this community project and he was definitely following the basic principle of community organizing: “Never do for somebody else what they can do for themselves.”

The Bhutani families are completely capable of helping themselves; in fact, the ONLY thing I think they lack is a fundamental system of organization and knowledge on how to organize in their new environment. The social worker fills these knowledge gaps, but pushes the community to take control of everything else.

Interning for my local Congressman on Capitol Hill this summer has again reinforced the power of organization and advocacy for disadvantaged groups. Since we have such an entrenched democratic system, groups can only fight for their fights if they are self-organized and they stand up for themselves. I now see that rather than always organizing how I can help others, I need to change my mentality. The more efficient and effective way to look at these systemic societal problems is to think about helping to organize groups so that they can have the opportunity to live with dignity and independence.

 

WORLD REFUGEE DAY 2012: REFUGEES LEAVE BECAUSE THEY HAVE NO CHOICE
Posted on June 21, 2012

Yesterday, June 20th, was World Refugee Day, a day intended to reflect on refugee issues and think about the 43 million individuals who are currently displaced worldwide. (Check out these powerful photographs to help put a human face to the many refugee conflicts taking place.) To capture the sentiments of the day UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said, “Refugees leave because they have no choice. We must choose to help.”

I have realized that there are, in fact, many people who want to help refugees and do care deeply about displaced persons. Two days ago I attended a Capitol Hill reception in honor of World Refugee Day and recently deceased Congressman Donald Payne, who dedicated a significant portion of his career and his life to bring attention to displaced situations in Africa and around the world. It was inspiring to hear various members of Congress, including the Congressman for whom I am interning, talk about their commitment to address these issues and use their position in government to help those born into harsher circumstances. Perhaps the most touching part was hearing Abdalmageed Haroun, a Darfuri human rights activist who was tortured in prison until Congressman Payne’s person letters to Sudan resulted in his release.

Earlier this week, I also attended a Congressional briefing on United States humanitarian aid and how it can be made more effective. I asked the speakers, many of whom work for religiously affiliated aid groups, if any mechanisms exist to ensure that aid groups are not proselytizing under the guise of humanitarian aid. They explained that many aid groups sign onto ethical standards and personal commitments which forbid proselytism, but no external regulation exists for groups that may want to forward missionary goals when doing aid work.

After reading articles about World Refugee Day, attending these refugee events, and thinking about my own research I have begun to ask many questions about what our ultimate goal is for those who find themselves termed as “refugees.” We know there are estimated to be 43 million individuals currently displaced worldwide, but we do not know what the future of these individuals will be. Ideally, the individuals would be able to return to their home country, but the next best alternative is often seen as resettling these individuals permanently in other countries that are willing to have them.

I will admit that I have grown slightly pessimistic of this option after seeing the many hardships that come with resettling in a new place. During resettlement, families are separated and culture is lost. Individuals do not know how to access mobility, education, or health services in their new country. It was surprising for me to talk with the resettled Bhutani community because, at times, I got the sense that they missed the refugee camps and their old life in Bhutan or Nepal. Although they were persecuted and kicked out of their countries, many wish they had the option to return under better circumstances. Seeing this homesickness not only made me sad, but also made me see something that I often forget to consider—refugees, in fact, did not really choose to leave. They are not immigrants who very deliberately made a decision to leave their homeland in search of a better life. They were kicked out, and there was nothing they could do about it— they had no choice.

Although all of the families I met were very grateful for a chance to come to the United States and start a new life, it is hard to really understand their situation. Seeing the older folks, my parents age or elder than that, made me especially wonder what it would be like to be forced to start all over again in a new place at such a late stage in life. Many people fight to have refugees resettled in other countries and I agree that the United States and other developed nations have a moral obligation to accept refugees from conflicts around the world. We want to help and it is great that the Obama Administration wants to increase our refugee quota.

However, as someone who wants to help, I have realized that we must be more aware of the mindset refugees may have. It is difficult to learn a new language, make new friends, and grow accustomed to an entirely new culture. Many are yearning to go home, and their sadness or lack of enthusiasm should not be at all surprising to us. I know that I would certainly be angry and very homesick to learn that I could never return to the United States.

At the recent Kenan-sponsored Undergraduate Winter Forum we discussed all the options for refugees’ living situation after fleeing. Some felt that camps were the best temporary solution until refugees could return to their homes, while most advocated for resettlement as a durable solution. Yet, I wonder what the refugees truly want. Is resettlement in a new country the life they imagined for themselves? Probably not.

 

REFUGEE CONVERSION IS RARELY EXPLICIT
Posted on July 2, 2012

“The U.S. is a country of Christians,” said the 64-year-old refugee, speaking at her apartment a few days before Christmas. “We have to move toward the side of the majority.”

This week, I browsed the Internet to find articles discussing religious pressure from resettlement agencies or documented conversion of Bhutanese refugees in America. It is important to note that the majority of refugee resettlement agencies do not proselytize those that they serve, but I am focusing on those that may be doing so.

In general, I was very surprised by a lot of the material that I found. One article, “As refugees adapt to American life, competing faiths tug for their attention” (O’Brien, Matt) particularly caught my attention because it does a good job of showing how individuals within a family often have different experiences when it comes to religion and to resettlement. In the situation from the article, the grandmother, Binshu Minali, is the one who finds comfort and a sense of community in the Christian church (her quote is above). She feels that Christianity will ensure her family’s survival in the United States. From my informal meetings with the refugees in the Boston suburbs, however, it was often younger people attracted to church, while the elders were clinging on to their Hindu or Buddhist roots.

In both situations, however, it seems that the refugees did not necessarily feel pressure from outsiders, but rather wanted to change their religion as a way to fit in. In California, more than 1,000 Bhutanese refugees have migrated in the last four years and almost 8% of them have converted to Baptist, Mormon, or another church since arriving.

In the article, it shows that many Christian groups go to the homes of the refugees, give them help and support, and motivate them to start a new life here. This, of course, draws many families in and they, themselves, willingly choose to leave their religion and join the new church. One pastor explains that most refugees “come through word-of-mouth, but he also makes home visits, has trained a refugee to lead Nepali language services and has invested in translation equipment so that the newest churchgoers will soon be able to understand his sermons” (O’Brien,Matt ).

Related to my internship on the Hill, I am also interested to learn more about the laws dealing with this situation. I read about the 2010 controversies regarding the hiring policy of World Relief, a prominent refugee resettlement organization that enacted a policy requiring all their new employees to be Christian. It is interesting to think about how the hiring policy of a group may reflect their primary purpose: either to resettle refugees or to proselytize new Americans.

I also stumbled upon “Friends of Refugees,” which is a U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program Watchdog Group. On their website, the group describes themselves as a “grassroots, independent, nonpartisan citizens group…(that) serves as an ethical watchdog, promoting refugee resettlement agency and government accountability. We are an all-volunteer citizens group composed of people, some formerly volunteers at refugee resettlement groups, who are concerned about the state of the U.S. refugee resettlement program – in particular, the welfare of refugees, who are often neglected.”

Through Friends of Refugees, I found three incidences of refugee conversion issues that stood out to me in particular:
1. December 2011: Missionary Frontier in the U.S.
Describes communities in Houston, Texas and Clarkston, Georgia where many refugees have been resettling. These cities are describes as the perfect location for short-term mission trips for Global Foreigners Missions. The group sets up programs to help the refugees adapt and also to spread the gospel. More specifically, the group often teaches English, runs an Internet café for typing and job skills, creates after school programs, etc.
In a follow-up article, the group also cites that they often use children as a way to reach and convert parents.
2. September 2011: Believers on the MOVE, Christianity Today
This article describes Wheaton Bible Church’s (WBC) MOVE Initiative, a project for its mission and ministry to Muslims both in suburban Chicago and abroad. Locally, the group describes its aim to build relationships with 15 resettling Iraqi refugee families in their Chicago suburb. He article details, “Several staff and church members have moved into the complex to foster deeper relationships, which typically begin with relatively simple tasks when the refugees arrive: picking them up at the airport, stocking their fridges, running errands, and meeting other practical needs involved in resettlement.” Since this project began, some of the Iraqi men have begun visiting WBC in recent months, attending worship services, and taking part in discussion groups.
3. January 2011: “Translation of faith”: converting Bhutanese refugees via English Bible lessons
This article documents the Southern Hills Church of Christ in Albine, Texas which uses English lessons for Bhutanese refugees as a way to convert them to Christianity. The group uses the Bible to teach the English lessons. Southern Hills has become a site for international missions to convert Turkish, Congolese, and Bhutanese refugees. The Church has more than 50 members helping to teach English, and “All the English is taught by reading passages of Scripture from the easy-to-read version of the Bible, which has been used internationally,” explained a Church member.
A coordinator for the program commented, “What continues to amaze me is their devotion and excitement to learn. They are so thirsty for the Bible; they really want to go more deeply.” Several of the refugees in this community have been baptized.

 

VULNERABILITY AND THE INABILITY OF REFUGEES TO PLAN FOR THEIR FUTURE
Posted on July 16, 2012

Imagine fleeing to a country, and then not knowing where you will be a few weeks from now. Or months. Or years. Which country will you eventually be living in? Who will be there with you? There is an unimaginable amount of uncertainty in the live sof refugees, regardless of their situation.

For the past week or so, I have been reading a lot of published research and documents about the Bhutanese refugee conflict as a whole. Although each paper focuses on a different theme or aspect of the conflict, in each paper I have seen the undeniable vulnerability facing this population. Having refugee status means that your fate is no longer in your hands, and you do not even know what city, country, or continent you will end up belonging to. The Bhutanese refugees have waited almost twenty years in camps, living in a protracted refugee situation and awaiting a more stable and certain future.

In a paper titled “Beyond ‘Do No Harm’: The Challenge of Constructing Ethical Relationships in Refugee Research” (written by Mackenzie, McDowell, and Pittaway), I read extensively about the research exploitation that is common with this population. There are numerous cases where refugee confidentiality and safety has been breached due to research data that was used improperly or leaked. Community members talked about people coming, stealing their stories, and using them to get their PhD’s. This made me think a lot about the ultimate role of research, and the ethical obligations researchers have to eventually try to create some change with their research.

Even within the population, there are varying degrees of vulnerability. A 2003 Human Rights Report titled “Trapped by Inequality” details the discrimination Nepali women faced both in Bhutan and in camps in Nepal. Although it seems that conditions in the UNHCR camps have dramatically improved since the publication of this report, it is important to note the history of trauma. In the report, women tell horrifying stories of being raped and tortured by Bhutani officials in order to be forced out of the country. Some girls were raped at age 13 multiple times in Bhutan, and then again faced sexual exploitation and domestic abuse in the camps in Nepal. In Nepal camps, they were forced to share ration cards and depend on abusive husbands. The camp leadership was previously very male-dominated, although singificant improvements have been made since.

A Master of Science in the Department of Global Health thesis, written by Tulsi Darshan Patel, highlights the issues of mental health in this population as well. The mental health disease burden further creates vulnerability for Bhutani refugees, as many of them continue to face depression and PTSD due to their instable past. Depression also largely stems from dependence on foreign aid, the inability to work, idleness, and an uncertain present and future. Tulsi conducted her research through a trip to the Damak camp with the Kenan Institute of Ethics. There is also a booklet and photo exhibition put together by the Duke research team which showed me helpful glimpses into the life of a Bhutanese refugee camp. The booklet further exposes the vulnerability of this population, as many share their anticipations and nervousness for what lies ahead in their future, especially with the thought of resettlement.

Lastly, I attended two events at Capitol Hill this past week related to refugee issues. The first was a lunch humanitarian aid briefing which discussed the strained needs and lack of financial funding for refugee populations worldwide. They explained how refugee numbers are higher than they have been in years, and there are also increasing demands to serve urban refugees who are not living in camps and internally displaced persons (IDPs). Thursday, I attended a documentary screening showing the plight of 151 Hindu refugees who have fled Pakistan due to serious religious persecution. After entering India and expecting salvation, they have been denied citizenship by the Indian government and are currently waiting for the Indian High Court to determine their fate.

Although this documentary featured an entirely different refugee population, the message still hit me hard. Bylosing your rights of citizenship, you lose a lot. You are no longer free to determine your own future, and quickly you become dependent on the will and kindness of other entities and states. A traumatic past, mental health, and gender discrimination only amplify the vulnerability of refugees.

This literature review helped inform me on the necessary backfround of the conflict and will also shape the attitude and perspective as I interview resettled families in the coming weeks. This weekend I met Bhutani families resettled in the Maryland suburbs and the DC area….more on that in my next post!

 

AS•PIRE: TO LONG, AIM, OR SEEK AMBITIOUSLY; BE EAGERLY DESIROUS, ESPECIALLY FOR SOMETHING GREAT OR OF HIGH VALUE
Posted on July 26, 2012

The past few weeks of the Kenan project have been very busy, exciting, and at times, frustrating.

During my last two weeks interning in DC, I met with a community of resettled families in the suburbs of Maryland and I visited their apartment complex three times. Once when I went after work, I remember getting off the metro and feeling quite unsafe even though it was only 6pm. I got into a taxi and the driver charged me double the price. Although I knew I was being ripped off, there was little I could do being a female alone in a part of the state I was not familiar with.

It was difficult to gain trust in this community, but I was lucky to get connected to the families through previous contacts who have been working with them on a continuous basis. I interviewed 7 individuals in person, 2 on the phone, and I will soon post a more detailed analysis about about these interviews, which I am still working on transcribing (it takes forever!)

This week, I am back in Massachusetts and have been meeting with community members everyday. Monday and Tuesday I spent both full days in Westfield, MA interviewing families, but also getting to spend some time with them casually—watching Curious George and Bollywood dance shows that they enjoy. Although there were more frustrations with coordinating times to meet with families, I have enjoyed being more immersed and getting a better sense of how the families live their everyday lives.

Today, however, I had a really unique opportunity to do something I love: I taught a 2 hour SAT class for a group of 16 high school Bhutanese refugees in New Hampshire. Through my research project, I became connected with a young Bhutanese refugee in his late 20’s who has organized a “summer camp” for a group of 16 high schoolers to motivate them and help them catch up with their peers. As part of the camp, the students have an SAT class every Wednesday to help them prepare for the big test most of them will be taking very soon. When I got in touch with the community in New Hampshire, they told me about the program and invited me to help out with the class.

I showed up today and was surprised to find the camp organizer waiting for me. He told me that the teacher could not make it, and therefore, they wanted me to teach the class. I panicked for a few seconds, since I only brought an empty notebook and pen with me, and I haven’t thought about the SAT since I took it four years ago. Not a single student had an SAT book, and there were no materials available for the class. However, I realized that I had to do the best I could do with the given situation and I quickly used the available computer to print out vocab words, practice essays, and only other resources I could find.

As I was reviewing vocab words and asking the students for examples of sentences with the word “aspire” used correctly, it really hit me. I saw myself in those students exact same place a few years back, and all the barriers they have had to face became so evident to me. They are all just as bright and hardworking as the students in my high school, but they just recently came to this country. Their English level is a HUGE barrier and they also have no role models or anyone who can tell them about the college application process in the United States. I remember how daunting the process was for me; I cannot even imagine having to deal with that and also learning how to survive in an entirely new language, country, culture, and environment.

In those the two hours, I did what I could to motivate them to study for their SAT’s, give test-taking advice, and shared websites that offer free practice tests. They asked many questions about how they could afford college, what they should expect in college, what “majors” mean, and so much more. I admired their aspirations to go to college, despite the wall of barriers in front of them.

I know that I would not be at Duke today if I had not been able to buy numerous SAT books, take two very expensive SAT classes, and learn about the process from my older brother and already graduated friends and cousins.

Today’s SAT class experience was just another reminder of why it is so important to create community support for the refugee families who are being resettled in the United States—nobody can do it alone.

As the students illustrated the definition of “aspire” with their sentences (I aspire to complete all my homework, I aspire to graduate high school, I aspire to go to college, etc.), this vocabulary word gained an entirely new meaning for me.

 

TWO WORLDS OF RESETTLEMENT: CONTRAST BETWEEN THE YOUNG AND THE OLD
Posted on August 2, 2012

As I just finished transcribing my interviews from Maryland, one of the biggest themes I have noticed is the vast difference for the young and old Bhutanese who are resettling in the United States.

“I cannot live without God, because I have faith in God and if I forget God then I cannot live. It is my culture and from the beginning I am following this culture. It is my life actually.” — 74 year old Bhutanese refugee woman

I was surprised by the religious conviction of the elder refugees, who often cite religion as their happiness in life or even their reason for living. The first woman I interviewed in DC surprised me with her immense faith in God and how she just repeatedly said that the only thing she cares about in life is God. She was also very eager to show me the mandir or small temple in her home, which is typically found in most practicing Hindu homes. One of the questions I have asked during my interviews is for the interviewee to identify a religious object that is important to them. This 76 year old woman immediately showed me a necklace she was given to by her guru (spiritual master) 30 years ago. She has worn it everyday since to keep God close to her, and inside the necklace is the photo of her guru.

The 74 year old woman quoted above is also someone I interviewed in the suburbs of Maryland. Her interview really helped give me a sense of how it might be different to practice Hinduism in the United States as compared to Nepal or Bhutan. She felt socially and culturally isolated, longing for the scenery and familiarity of her life before resettlement. She shared her desires to have a cow and a garden like she did in Nepal, so that she would be able to grow fruits, vegetables, and dairy products and use them to make offerings to God and also to friends and family. In the past, religion was closely knit with her social life: she met friends and family for religious affairs and gatherings. Although she is able to practice in her home, it is definitely not the same because there is no sense of “community.” There are differences in how festivals are celebrated, and she also feels lonely at times because her children have to work on days of religious importance to her. I felt especially sad when she talked about how nobody comes and goes from her home, like they would in Nepal. Language is a reoccurring barrier that also came up in almost every interview. Language is especially an issue for the elderly population because most of them know zero to very little English.

“I am still new here and in my state of affairs, I think religion is not a very important issue because if I say I am a Hindu…then I ought to know all the Hindu teachings and beliefs and I don’t know all those.”—- 28 year old refugee young man

The younger refugees are usually much better at English and are more culturally immersed. Rather than isolation and language, their struggles are typically focused around work and education. Religion also seems to be less important to them, although this is definitely a generalization and varies greatly by individual (I later interviewed younger refugees who were much more firm in their religious beliefs). This 28 year old man, however, gave me good insight into the fact that many refugees from the younger generation do not feel that same passionate attachment and religious fervor that the elders seem to feel. This is partially universal (older people tend to be more religious), but I also think that the younger refugees resettling here are still trying to find their identity and how they fit in. They are more impressionable and more open to changing their religious beliefs.

A common concern of many of the parents I spoke with is looking for ways that they will be able to preserve their religious and cultural background now that they are resettling in the United States. Some are worried that their children will stray, while others are confident that their children will continue to follow their Bhutanese and Nepalese beliefs and culture, despite a new life in the United States. Many of them asked me if I could do something to help teach their children about Hindu traditions. During the initial years of resettlement, which are typically the hardest, it can be hard to make culture and religious teaching a priority.

Although my project aims to look at issues of religion and its effect on resettlement, it is really important to consider how the issues can seem worlds apart between the young and old who are resettling here.

 

GAINING ACCESS: A REFLECTION ON THE RESEARCH PROCCESS
Posted on August 6, 2012

On Saturday, my last day of formal interviews, I experienced some of the most uncomfortable and some of the most rewarding moments of my project thus far.

My community contact person was at work and could not accompany me, but he sent a name, address, and phone number for the family I was to interview. He told me that he had already talked with the family and they were willing to participate in my research.

When my dad and I arrived at the family’s house, it was a different story all together. Although the family knew we were coming and welcomed us into the house, they knew nothing about the research and did not seem enthusiastic to participate. I went through my formal consent procedure based on my IRB protocol, and the head of the household became quite wary. I have noticed that using my written consent procedure is, generally speaking, a huge turn off to the Bhutanese refugee community. There is a lot of hesitancy to sign forms, especially ones written in long English sentences. Although I always make sure to explain all the contents of the form and use a translator as needed, people still seem somewhat nervous and often jokingly ask things like, “I hope I am not signing my life away” or “Nothing bad will happen to me if I sign this, right?” There is a strong community concern of security and confidentiality. Although I read about this in many research papers about the Bhutanese refugees in camps in Nepal, I did not think I would encounter this in my research. Looking back, it would have been better for me to use an oral consent procedure.

The man whose house we were at asked me, “What benefit will my family get from you interviewing us?” I tried to explain that there would be no direct, tangible benefit to him, but that I have taken many steps to try to give back to the larger Bhutanese community: fundraising for SAT/ACT books for high school students, getting involved in community events and spreading awareness to others about how they can help. I will also be presenting my research at a Hindu conference in California in two weeks. He did not seem convinced.

Although I understood his concerns and was not going to pressure him into the research, I was also frustrated that my community contact had told me that the family wanted to participate. We had driven 1.5 hours to his house just to find out that we were not welcome there. This was the first time I had gone to a family’s home on my own, without a community contact physically present. I quickly realized that there is a great wall of distrust between the Bhutanese community and outsiders. Up until this point, the families have treated me like an insider because I have always gone to meet people alongside a well known member of their community.

Although this incidence did not turn out as expected, I learned a great deal about ethical research practices from it and how important the research process is. The man told me about previous instances where he and his family shared a lot of information about themselves to an Indian organization, and later the organization claimed they had given lots of benefits back to the refugee community, but he had not received anything. Each individual has their own personal opinions on academic research (some families I met have told me that more research and awareness of their community is important, while others feel that more action and benefit needs to come with research). It was interesting to see this particular man’s opinion of academic research and his distrust to share information.

The experience made me very glad that I have been able to access these families through others in the communities. I realize now that because I am a Hindu American who knows Hindi and was born in India, the families have definitely trusted me faster than they would have trusted those who may have otherwise been interested in this research. Although I did not get to interview resettlement agencies or Christian refugee families as I had initially hoped to, I was lucky to get such close access to these Hindu Bhutanese refugees. I could build trust with this population due to my community connections. Without this, it would have been impossible, especially given the community’s history with research and the short length of my research project.

This became evident with my second part of interviews in Manchester, where I met with five Hindu Bhutanese community leaders and had a two hour group discussion with them about their religious beliefs and their hopes and worries for the future of their community in the US. After the group interview, one of the men took me to a mandir that they have set up from within their community. They received a donation of space for a house, and inside the house they have created a community temple. They use this space for religious practice and gatherings, yoga classes, Nepali classes, etc. They hope it will save them from losing their culture in America.

 

I CAME TO THE US TO GET MY HUMAN RIGHTS BACK
Posted on August 17, 2012

“After all, nothing is with me now, except for me. To pass 5th was great, 8th a bigger thing, 10th IC board in New Delhi, then Bachelor’s degree then Master’s degree. And now everything is gone in my small drawer, everything is there. Imagine just life where it takes you what it takes you.”

Interview 15 was the most moving and fascinating interview I had. I spent over an hour speaking to a 42 year old man who comes from a wealthy Bhutanese family that owned 50 acres of land and a famous orange orchard before they were forcefully removed from Bhutan. Despite this, this man was able to get a scholarship for his Master’s and Bachelor’s Degree and was a practicing dentist for seven years in Nepal. Now, he says that he has nothing and has experienced withdrawal symptoms and depression from leaving his career and country. He arrived in the United States in early 2011, less than two years ago.

During the interview, we were interrupted a few times because he instantly has to jump up and answer phone calls for his job as a medical interpreter. He was obligated to pick up the phone within 15 seconds and translate between Nepali and English during medical emergencies. For example, when I was there, he had to help give a woman the proper instructions to her child on the phone.

He spoke a lot about his life in Bhutan, and how beautiful and peaceful his birth country was. Then, suddenly, with the new government policy, Nepali books were burned and all schooling was done in the traditional Bhutanese language instead of English or Nepali. He studied hard and was one of very few Nepali speaking children to do so well in a discriminatory education system. He recalled that Nepali speaking children were physically abused in school, and that this motivated him to study even harder: “There is a scar here that my Bhutanese teacher has given me. He made that bamboo stick, the whole one not the cut one. And instead of beating like this he beat like this and it got cut right here because I was not good in their language. So these are all my stories you know.”

While living in refugee camps in Nepal, his father envisioned a better future for his family in America. Unfortunately his father died in the refugee camps due to disease and was not able to come here to resettle with them. When coming to the US, this man could only bring 20kg of stuff, and about 10kg of that weight was from his educational certificates. He left behind all his medical instruments and donated his collection of 180 books to the university library.

Life in the US has been extremely hard for this man, trying to adjust from having a successful career and family life, to barely making ends meet and always being stressed. He talks about how the lifestyle in the two countries is very different: “When I came here, every person has stress in their brain and everyone is worried for something all the time here. It was not like that there. If you have a small house you don’t have to pay rent, you don’t have to buy gas because you have enough firewood, and you have enough rice to eat. If you see a simple life, those days are also equally good I feel like.” He says that although many people say resettlement is a great opportunity, he is still struggling to find the opportunities here, but is hoping that things will get better in the years to come.

He says that he never knew the importance of having citizenship, until he found himself in this situation. “I feel like the most important thing in your life, you should not lose your country…that is what I realize now. Even being specialized manpower, which is so rare in India and Nepal, I have become unemployed because I lost my citizenship.” He longs to go back to Bhutan, but knowing that is impossible, he feels resettlement is the best option and says “there is no life in a refugee camp.”

About religion, he said: “I feel that religion was all my inspiration in life. I believe in God, I believe in a very different way. There is one God, and it is somewhere to rest your heart for some time and your stressful mind for some time. I get a lot of peace.” He also shared many insights on how and why he thinks people may be losing their identity, culture, and religion once resettling to the US.

To me, this interview was an important reminder of how each has their own story and that we cannot make generalizations. I cannot imagine what it would feel like to study for thirty years, and then be placed in a situation where all your accomplishments are essentially meaningless. Although he is not happy with the way things are in the US and he continues to face many obstacles, I was inspired by this man’s strong personality and willingness to persevere.

Mark: Ethical Duties in the Pharmaceutical Industry

THE ETHICS OF ALTERNATIVE BUSINESS MODELS IN THE PHARMACEUTICAL INDUSTRY

Posted on May 24, 2012

Hi all,

I’m Mark. I am a rising sophomore and though I am an undecided major, I have developed some key areas of academic interests since coming to Duke. I am interested in the economics of healthcare, in particular within a rural setting. In terms of economics, I am focused on the distribution and access to a healthcare system and how the level of access impacts the community from both social and health standpoints. I grew up the Appalachian region of north-east Tennessee and south-west Virginia. While growing up, I was able to witness first hand some of the issues surrounding access within the scope of the free health clinics periodically held in the region. While I have an interest in medicine and work experience in labs at both the Duke Medical Center and Georgetown Medical Center, I have been drawn to the policy side of healthcare because of the accessibility of the policy debate at this point in my education.

Before discussing my project, I’d like to highlight a few components of the current pharmaceutical industry and the US healthcare system as a whole.

While I will be explaining the economics of the industry in more detail next week, it is important to understand the current reliance on intellectual property. Because of the high costs associated with research and development (R&D) of drugs, there must be certain incentives in place for businesses to decide to enter the pharmaceutical market. To recoup high costs of R&D, companies receive a temporary monopoly that allows them to price the medicine at their own discretion. Companies have the incentive to price their product much higher than production cost to receive a greater profit. This pricing in turn places the medication out of reach to populations who cannot afford the high prices. It is widely noted that production costs are less than 1% of patented prices in the US. Simply, the system for innovation of new medicines requires limited access to this innovation.

Regarding the healthcare system as a whole, the US was ranked 37th of 191 countries despite spending the highest percent of GDP (16%), according to the World Health Organization. While there are many areas cited as the causes of the US system’s shortfall, much attention over the past decade has shifted towards the pharmaceutical industry. As a result, several proposals have emerged as possible alternative solutions to the high price, low access set up of the industry.

My project this summer will be driven by two questions: what role do ethics play in the decision making process of individuals within the industry and what is the awareness level of the alternative proposals to finance R&D?  In my consideration of the industry, I will be focused on individuals who are in a position to affect business and policy decisions.  This will include business executives as well as proponents of the industry (lobbyists). As such I will largely be working within Washington, D.C. and the Research Triangle Area of North Carolina to conduct interviews.

I hope to gain insight into the ethical viewpoints of people tied to the current pharmaceutical system. What ethical viewpoints are present in the industry? How do ethical concerns affect the policy, practices and discourses employed by key players of the pharmaceutical industry?  In addition, I have decided to focus on the alternative models of financing R&D because while there are other proposed areas of reform, the current system heavily revolves around the R&D costs.

The end goal of the project is to address the ethics of alternatives within the context of the pharmaceutical industry. By understanding the role of ethics and the knowledge level of alternative models, I hope to evaluate the ethics of the current system in relation alternatives. Is there a philosophy of professional ethics where individuals with a capacity to affect the lives of others possess an ethical obligation to be active in a pursuit of alternatives when there are ethical concerns?

I have already started work in Durham to further my understanding on the subject of alternative plans of financing R&D, as well as the economics behind R&D in the current system. So, look forward to next week when I will provide more insight into both of these areas.

 

SOME ECONOMIC BACKGROUND ON THE PHARMACEUTICAL INDUSTRY AND ITS RELATION TO ETHICS

Posted on May 28, 2012

As promised last week, I will be discussing some of the economics surrounding the project and then relate that to the ethics discussion.

From an economic perspective, the industry presents a unique set up. On the demand side (in this case the consumer side) which includes everyday people like you and me, there are several unique aspects: medicines are largely controlled by prescriptions and we place a high value on life. These factors and others lead to a demand from the consumer that is largely insensitive to price changes, commonly called inelastic demand.

On the supply side, there are additional unique factors; most importantly is the high cost of research and development of drugs. The development can be broken down into these simplified stages: drug discovery/development, pre-clinical trials, clinical trials, FDA review. All of these stages lead up to a final cost that can be very high. Industry estimates place the production cost to be $800 million (Sampat, 2012).

Furthermore when we look at the market for innovation of new drugs, we can view it as knowledge. In economics, knowledge is a public good that is non-excludable (can’t hide knowledge from separate parties) and non-rivalrous (consumption by one good does not affect the consumption of another). In an unregulated market such goods are under produced because free riding problems can limit incentives to produce. Therefore government intervention must occur in the market to encourage an increased production, which produces a surplus of knowledge for the whole market.

Under the current system the government intervenes in the market by granting temporary pricing monopolies to companies for their developed product. Many of the debated “issues” in the current system arise from the fact that in this intervention there is a market link between the high costs of the production market and the consumer market selling the drugs. Two of the issues associated with this system are higher prices and subsequent limited access.

For companies to recover high production costs and to make a profit they set prices at a profit maximizing level by targeting prices towards the wealthier populations. As a result, prices can be too high for other portions of the population. The high pricing of copyrighted drugs can be demonstrated in the US where brand drugs are 12 times more expensive than comparable generic drugs (Sampat 2012).

Other issues include high expenditure on marketing, low expenditure on research and development of new drugs and lack of investment in areas of public interest or need. While we don’t have time to cover all of these issues I will provide a brief summary. In a system where the R&D costs are so high, companies have the incentive to produce drugs that are similar to other patented drugs (commonly called “me too drugs”) and then to market these drugs heavily to consumers. Between 1989 and 2000, three fourths of the drugs approved by the FDA were classified as having no therapeutic benefits over existing products (Hubbard & Love, 2004).  As a result of the heavy marketing, companies spend less on R&D (in the current national market only about 10% of pharmaceutical revenue goes into R&D). Simplified, these factors lead to a final result of lowered access and higher prices for little innovation of new drugs.

Many proposed alternative business models seek to correct some of the shortcomings of the current system by separating the market for production of the drugs (innovation) and the market selling products to consumers. One proposed method of doing so is through a prize system. A prize system works by awarding new products by certain measurements from a single pool of prize money.

There are many variants within this one idea but for the sake of time I will focus on the model that was proposed to Congress by Senator Bernard Sanders from Vermont (HR 417). Patents would protect products or techniques up until the point the product is registered to sale. At this point the product becomes available to production by other competitors or in case of new techniques, knowledge becomes open access. Original products are awarded prizes based off several factors: number of patients who benefit, incremental therapeutic benefit over existing drugs or products, degree to which product addresses priority health needs and contribution to improved efficiency of manufacturing process. These rewards are paid out over a ten year period from a fixed prize fund that is 60 base points of the US GDP, in 2008 this was $80 billion (Hubbard & Love, 2008).  While this may seem extravagant, when compared to the current system’s cost, expected savings are cited by some sources to be $200 billion, most notably through decreased prices paid by consumers (Hubbard & Love, 2007).

This economic framework is important background knowledge to the overall project. If an alternative model exists (for example, prize system), what are the ethical obligations of companies to explore the alternatives? How do companies balance business ethical obligations to shareholders with ethical obligations to a wider society? Is there an ethical obligation to at least be aware of alternative models? While many social activists have already answered these questions from a societal viewpoint, in the coming weeks, I will be conducting interviews with people within the industry to help understand the firm perspective. Look forward to next week to read the responses.

If you would like to learn more on the economic discussion of prize funds or the current system I would highly recommend “The Big Idea: Prizes to Stimulate R&D for new Medicines” by James Love and Tim Hubbard. The full document is pretty long but it is well organized and the sections are well defined.

Citations:

Hubbard, T.; Love, J. (2004) A New Trade Framework for Global Healthcare R&D. PLoS Biol 2(2):e52. Doi 10.1371/journal.pbio.0020052

Hubbard, T.; Love, J. (2007) The Big Idea:Prizes to Stimulate R&D for New Medicines. Knowledge Ecology International

Hubbard, T.; Love, J. (2008) Prizes for Innovation in New Medicines and Vaccines. Knowledge Ecology International

Sampat, Bhaven. “Economic Perspective on Pharmaceutical Inoovation” Class Presentation. April 2012

 

WEEK 3: LESSONS FROM INTERVIEWS

Posted on June 4, 2012

Hey everyone,

I hope last week’s economics overview provided a beneficial background to the subject. That background will be important today as I review the past week of interviews. This past week I conducted two interviews—one with the CEO of a small vaccine technology company and the other a chief business officer of a small pharmaceutical company.  During the interviews I was able to learn a few things—1) I still have much to learn on the business side, 2) companies experience financial strain that academics don’t always discuss, 3) in order to avoid financial strain, companies are exploring business alternatives 4) there is unfamiliarity with prize funds and 5) I learned some new perspectives of ethics in the industry. In the subsequent paragraphs I will be elaborating on these points.

In both conversations I quickly discovered the business side of the industry is very complex. There are many factors affecting the development and operations of the business that I had not understood well until the interviews.  Among these lessons was an emphasis on the financial strain businesses face bringing the patent to product.  In the past 15 years, the interviewees stressed the different investment atmosphere. Because of the high R&D costs, companies rely on attracting investors or receiving funding from a variety of sources. I was told that 15 years ago it was possible to receive investment from venture capitalists solely with a patented idea. Now, companies must first be able to demonstrate the efficacy of the product and in many cases safety in the form of stage 1 clinical trials before venture capitalists are willing to invest.

I was also described an additional strain due to unpredictability of the approval process by the FDA. One interviewee described an instance in which a company had worked with the FDA all the way through clinical trials, an incredibly costly process (millions of dollars), only to be told not enough information was provided on a specific age group.

Both cases demonstrate a heightened strain on the R&D side of the business that increase costs due to the unpredictability of the approval process as well as the increased development costs companies must bear before they receive crucial investments.

In both interviews, I learned of the wide spread exploration of various alternatives that are being explored in order to deal with the heightened R&D pressures. One of these alternatives was a public-private partnership. In the case described, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation works with private companies by providing investments in their research (lowering the R&D cost the company bears) and when a successful product is developed the foundation asks for a return on their original investment that they then invest into other promising research.

Another alternative described to me was collaboration between pharmaceutical companies developing similar products. If a company X and Y are developing similar products A and B they can choose to develop products A & B together in order to share together the costs of R&D (subsequently each company bears less cost than before).

I also learned in one interview that there is still limited familiarity with the idea of prize funds and therefore uncertainties about the usefulness of such measures. The concern expressed to me was how the prize fund would be able to help small companies who experience the most trouble in the patent to product stage. In response to this concern, the answer can be summed up as this: the prize fund system would not be any different in this stage then the current model or if the prize model contains interim benchmarks for the development stage, it would actually ease the strain the companies currently face. For more discussion on prize fund system please refer to my post from last week.

Finally I would like to discuss some of the ethical perspectives in the industry discussed in the two interviews. In both interviews I found a strong emphasis on business ethics. Both interviewees placed a strong priority on maintaining a sound reputation within the industry due to its critical role in receiving outside investments. The business ethics were also tied to an ethics of science which was described to me as maintaining research as a pursuit of truth. This “pursuit of truth” would largely be manifested in the case of producing accurate studies that reflected the true performance of the product. The science ethics were an unexpected viewpoint that I had not previously considered. And then of course there were the social ethical considerations for access to medications. In particular this was explicitly discussed in my interview at the vaccine technology company, where the company itself only pursues vaccine technology that can be applied to diseases that affect the developing world. Therefore they have made a conscious decision to address the needs of the world’s poorer populations.

While I am out of space for this blog post, I would love to expand on any of the ideas discussed in today’s post. So please leave a comment and hopefully we can start a great conversation.

-Mark

 

THE WRITING ON THE WALL

Posted on June 12, 2012

While last week I touched on some of the financial pressures facing companies in the industry, this week I was described a heightened situation currently facing companies. Companies are at a crossroads in which they are starved for innovation yet buckling under the financial strain of producing more innovation. While describing the situation, one interviewee summed up the current situation as “the writing on the wall” or in other words, “the end is near.”

I was very fortunate to discuss the issue with Bernard Munos, a consultant to companies and organizations on ways of improving innovation in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries. Much of what I will be discussing today reflects that conversation.

Why the impending doom? Before discussing the insight of Mr. Munos on the factors of the current problem, I would like to discuss again what exactly the issue is.  As you know the industry requires a high cost on innovation, around $200 billion in annual R&D spending globally. In terms of practical sense, this already seems like an unsustainable system. A high cost system could still continue if proportional innovation was produced. But the innovation is not occurring, instead companies produce marginal innovation that requires increased costs in terms of clinical trials and marketing to produce and sell marginally beneficial products. In turn, failures exist on the regulatory side that exacerbates the risk and subsequent costs of developing a product to sell. Simply, the industry now operates in a high cost system that dampens the amount of innovation. Without the innovation there no source of profits, and without the profits there are no incentives for innovation.

With this said, I want to return to the main point of the week and that is why this has occurred, and what changes must occur to fix a broken system While I have up to this point suggested that business reorganization or policies are the solution, Mr. Munos pinpointed the key cause, the culture of the industry. In his mind, innovation is a product of culture. The policy changes and organization approaches can work, but only if they affect the culture. The bad news: the culture is harder to change.

How do define the culture of the industry? We can look to the high production of “me too” drugs and marginal innovation as markers of the current industry culture: limited risk taking and commodification of innovation.

According to Mr. Munos, 10 to 15 years ago the industry walked away from the culture of bold innovation that had made the industry great by abandoning four core values that served as the foundation: ethics, risk taking, real innovation, and patient needs.

All four of these issues can be tied to leadership failures. Over the past 20 years the industry has paid $25 billion for ethical violations, 75% of these in the past 5 years. Violations range from medicare fraud to misleading house data. Ethical viewpoints within the industry are the products of the industry culture in the same sense that our own perceptions of right and wrong are the products of the culture we grew up in.  There has also been a decline in risk taking. Risk taking has been replaced by commodification of marginal innovation because leadership valuation of innovation favored low risk, marginal benefit processes. Again this cultural product results from leadership. While a low risk investment makes practical sense, the marginalized benefit is the key point of discussion and again it is the product of the industry culture. Risk taking and real innovation seem tied together, but it is not necessarily so. The important takeaway is that the current culture of marginally beneficial drugs represents a failing that presents a threefold challenge: more innovation, better innovation, and affordable innovation. The final point to make is that the current culture has forgotten patients. In Munos’s perspective, business priorities have replaced the previously held priority of the patient. This transition becomes amplified in time of continued financial stress. Things such as drug shortages or lower access have become sideline in the current culture.

The good news according to Mr. Munos:  policy reforms can combine these core values while correcting a failed system of innovation and inevitably provide the only way to correct the short failings.

 

A STEP BACK: IMPORTANCE OF PERSPECTIVE

Posted on June 19, 2012

I hope the post finds you well. I am sorry the post is a day behind schedule, but I wanted to wait until I had more insight into the new book I am reading for the project, Bioindustry Ethics.

Over the past week as I continued the interviews, I began reflecting on many of the assumptions/generalizations I have been encountering in the project thus far. These assumptions from outsider perspectives can take many forms and can often be simplistic or misleading such as these following examples: large pharmaceutical companies focus solely on profits; companies do little to address questions surrounding access to their products; companies put minimal effort into R&D in comparison to marketing and promotion of products.

So far, I have used industry wide generalizations in order to reflect the topics of R&D across the industry. Doing so has allowed me many benefits. Often data on things such as R&D expenditure as a percent of sales revenue or expenditure on marketing is easily found in academic articles on the industry as a whole. Even less explicit data such as my discussion of the industry’s culture last week were subject to the industry-wide generalizations.

While again it is necessary to reflect on the industry as a whole, there can be a down side to this approach. Individual company’s efforts to distinguish themselves on the pursuit of ethical business models can be lost in the generalizations. This was apparent to me in my discussions over the past few weeks. Many of my interviewees have sought to highlight differences in their company’s standards when compared to the industry. These differences can range from company programs to provide at-cost pricing of certain drugs for the developing world or research teams in place exploring alternative forms of funding R&D.

These sentiments were echoed early this week when I began reading Bioindustry Ethics, a book detailing various approaches to achieving ethical business models in the industry.  The strength of the book lies in its perspective focusing on individual companies, thus avoiding vague generalizations. Today I’d like to take a moment and share two quick stories from this book and relate it to my growing appreciation for a well-rounded understanding of the pharmaceutical/biotech industries.

In previous posts I have referenced or stated the industry wide estimations of company’s sales revenues on R&D to be around 10% of total expenditure. While these figures remain accurate, I encountered a new firm perspective on these expenditures. While in 2003 Merck’s R&D expenditures were 14% of its sale’s revenues, phrased differently the expenditure was half of its profits (Bioindustry Ethics). For those that have not read my previous posts, one of the currently debated shortfalls of the current system is this low amount of expenditure to R&D, but notice how changing the figures from a percent of sale revenue to firm profit shifts our perception on Merck’s priority for R&D.

Oftentimes, a company’s actions to address ethical obligations can be overlooked. At the start of this post I stated that one generalization of the industry is that little is done by companies to address issues of access. Very few activists will make such a claim, but it is important to acknowledge that companies spend effort and resources into seeing their products reach those in need. One example from the book references an account in which a Wall Street Journal Article from 2004 portrayed Merck as stalling on its promise to make AIDS drugs available in highly effected countries.  The article was prompted by accusations from Doctors Without Borders (MSF) a well-known international non-governmental organization.  The story accused Merck of failing to submit information needed for approval in a timely manner. From the Merck perspective, the story failed to describe the steps that Merck had already made applying for fast track approval yet had not received approval from the government of South Africa (Bioindustry Ethics). So though it may have seemed that Merck had failed to create access for those in need, the company was in fact waiting to proceed further in its efforts to raise access.

I have shared these two stories to show the importance of perspective. I hope that up until now I have not painted this discussion as one that would be capable of a simple judgment, right or wrong. Both stories share the importance a well-rounded view can have.

In no way was this post meant to undermine my message in the earlier posts. I still believe the current system has many outcomes that warrant a discussion. I stand by the information in my previous posts, but I wanted to take a step back this week and acknowledge the limitations of trying to generalize across an industry.

As I continue to discuss the topic of alternative models for financing R&D, and possible obligations to explore these alternatives or the industry in general, I hope that you keep in mind the importance of perspective and the complex nature of the discussion.

As always thanks for your continued reading,

-Mark

 

THE COURT’S RULING: MOVING FORWARD

Posted on July 1, 2012

A lot of yelling. Some jubilance. Some anger. Widespread uncertainty.

That’s how I would characterize the scene Thursday on the steps of the Supreme Court. Few issues have ignited such a fierce debate as the Affordable Healthcare Act, particularly over the past several months. From a legal standpoint the debate came to an end Thursday morning when the court reached a 5-4 decision upholding the most controversial part of the bill, the so called “Individual Mandate.” While I do not want to spend this blog post recounting the decision, I would recommend this article as a good analysis of the Court’s ruling.

Despite this bill’s ability to ignite such an emotional debate, there is still widespread uncertainty on what exactly the bill will do. I believe this video provides a great introduction into some of the reforms without political spin from either side.

You probably noticed the video never mentioned the pharmaceutical/ biotech industries.  But while the industries were not directly targeted, it seems the industries will be affected by default of the healthcare system as a whole undergoing such drastic reforms.

In a way, the Affordable Healthcare seems to have forgotten about the pharmaceutical industry. In fact while reading articles on the reform it is likely that you will only hear the Insurance companies discussed.

How did the industry go untargeted?

Credit for this absence should be given to a man by the name of Billy Tauzin, who at the time was the head lobbyist for PhRMA (the lobbyist group that represents the major pharmaceutical companies). Because of PhRMA’s political clout (largest lobbyist contributor to campaigns), Tauzin was in a bargaining position with the President. Tauzin’s goal: prevent Obama from incorporating government negotiation for prices of Medicaid prescriptions, a campaign promise. Obama’s goal: lock in PhRMA’s support or forget about passing any healthcare reform (PhRMA has an enormous ability to swing votes due to its campaign contributions).

The final reform of the industry managed to decrease costs for Medicare and Medicaid. Notice the distinction between the way the reform handles the Insurance Industry and the Pharmaceutical Industry. Insurance companies face regulations on appropriation of expenditure within the company, regulations on minimum coverage, and can no longer deny on pre-existing conditions.  For more information see this video on the role of politics in developing the bill.

So where does this put the pharmaceutical industry?

From one standpoint, the reforms appear to be a dead giveaway to the companies. They are spared major reform yet will receive millions of new customers who for the first time will be able to purchase their medicines now that they have medical insurance.

But the people I have talked with have stressed that it’s not that simple.

How will the new customer market affect the direction of innovation? Companies direct the development towards the markets that can produce profits. Will the markets change now that new populations will enter the market?

How will the reform affect pricing? Will a higher base of customers incentivize companies to lower prices and reach more customers? Or, will more customers enable the companies to raise prices because there are more customers who can pay more under insurance coverage?

Consequently, what alternative models of financing innovation will emerge?

Undoubtedly, a lot of uncertainty and anxiety exists around these questions. Moving forward I hope to address these questions as they will direct the future of the industry.

 

WHAT ETHICAL DUTY?

Posted on July 11, 2012

As the project begins to wind down, I want to take a moment and reflect on the idea of ethical duties. I began this project in an attempt to understand the current situation of innovation within the industry (how it was being financed, how businesses developed it both within and outside of the company, etc.) so that I could gain a better understanding on issues relating to pricing and availability. I hoped to address the idea that companies may or may not possess ethical obligations to pursue alternatives by combining the new understanding of innovation with firm perspectives on alternatives for developing innovation.

As I listened to people within the industry and continued readings from opposite side of the debate, my understanding of ethical duties has broadened.

What ethical duties do these companies have?

If you were to read papers from the activist’s side, you would likely encounter a focus on pricing and availability for medications. Arguing that rights to healthcare are basic human rights and that since companies have entered into the market for healthcare, pharmaceutical companies inherited a responsibility to ensure that those who needed the medicines should have some way to receive it, whether that is through lowered pricing or delivering medications to third world communities at cost of production. As producers and marketers of medications, companies must shoulder this responsibility as a part of the market.

While I do not disagree with the idea that companies inherit a responsibility to address issues on access to medicines, I believe that a focus on pricing severely limits what constitutes an ethical obligation to consumers or global communities. For instance let’s take into account issues on business practices, for example the ethics of marketing drugs to consumers. Companies have incentives to market their drugs to consumers (raise the number of peoples buying your medication, and you increase your revenue.) Somewhere in your daily dose of daytime soap operas, CNN, or sports broadcasting, you’re likely to encounter such advertisements. These ads encourage listeners to “ask [their] doctors if (insert medication name) is right for you.”  Is such promotion ethical? On one hand these advertisements expose consumers to available treatment options. A societal benefit. On the other hand these advertisements encourage use of drugs, when they may not be needed, artificially increasing demand for the medications. Such practices raise ethical concerns on issues such as safety concerns for these non-essential patients or increased incentives to hide negative data or promote false advertising claims.

Or does this depend on perspective? During one of my interviews, I had asked a question on whether the interviewee observed conflicts between individual ethical beliefs and corporate values. In his response he noted that though I may have noticed in the weekend’s paper that there were exceptions to the rules, in general no such conflicts existed.  Not sure what he was referring, I went through the weekend’s NY Times and saw this.  This past weekend GlaxoSmithKline, the world’s fourth largest pharmaceutical company, was handed $3 billion in fines relating to this ethical issue of marketing drugs. Of course what surprised me was how casually he had mentioned the fine. Is this our  difference in perspective?

But I began this project with a focus on innovation, so how do these relate? How does innovation impact the right to healthcare?

Over the course of my discussions, I believe that people I have talked with proudly bear an obligation to consumers. Most of the people that have taken the time to talk with me stress the importance of addressing their personal beliefs and company statements on improving other’s lives.  But these perspectives also raise a complicated viewpoint.  Companies must address the whole issue of access to medicines. One business executive stressed the distinctions between consumers, on one hand a group of consumers might want access to innovation by lowered pricing of existing drugs, on another hand a different group of consumers might want access to innovation by producing products that address their needs. These two efforts have a direct relationship. More innovation to one group, negatively affects the other group. At least in the current system, decreased revenue from sales in one are means more strain and greater difficulty in producing the medication for the other groups. So when we address the idea that companies possess an ethical obligation we must maintain an understanding of the complexity of the issue.

Of course this all begs the question, should company’s pursue possible alternatives that might better address  this predicament?

Look forward to the post next week, where I will continue my final reflections on “ethical duties.”

 

FINAL REFLECTION: AN OPEN MIND

Posted on July 23, 2012

In my last post, I described my broadened perception of ethical obligations. I began the project focused on alternative sources of funding pharmaceutical R&D that might create better end solutions for society as a whole, my ethical inquiry focused on ethics of an open mind. What I didn’t expect was how integral an open mind was going to be for me throughout this project.  I started the project with clear expectations that I would be focused on two alternatives: public private ventures (PPVs) and prize fund systems. What I didn’t anticipate was the wide variety of “alternatives” in a widely changing and evolving industry.

During my first interview, I quickly realized that I need to adapt my project, to understand what these other alternatives were. I quickly re-evaluated my initial perceptions on static business operation. I believed previously that companies faced a simple decision; participate in an intellectual property system reliant on internal revenues or external funding from venture capitalist funds. Did companies look at PPVs or the idea of a prize fund systems? Did they seem them as pursuable outcomes? In fact, I discovered the ever changing practices of the industry.

For the first time, I learned of changing relationships within the industry between companies. How were companies co-operating in the development or research of diseases? I heard many perspectives on factors affecting the end product of innovation. By some, I was told that the financial down turn in the past decade decreased available money for innovation and by others I was described an increased competition for available money that allows or may allow for more innovation for society.

People described the emerging big sibling/little sibling role in the industry. Small companies develop ideas for innovation (the small cost portion) that they in turn to large companies to take over and develop and bring through clinical trials and market (the high cost portion). Small companies need large companies to provide the financial pay off to their early work, and have few chances of taking their product through the high risk, high cost development stages. Large companies rely on the small companies to not only create the ideas behind the innovation but to help field the risk of drug discovery. Large companies are able to pick which companies to invest in, choosing the promising research that will likely yield an end product.

And while the people I talked with had less to say on the possibilities of a prize fund system, through this open discussion on the industry dynamic I noticed something pretty startling: these relationships between large and small companies reflect and resemble the same dynamic embodied by the prize fund system. Many small firms competing for funding from large stores of cash (the big pharma companies).

My open perspective also enabled me to evaluate my perception of ethics in the industry. To understand the place of ethics in the industry, I was able to talk with people from various backgrounds: CEO, researcher, chemists, CFO, or lobbyists. I talked about ethical duties last week, but what about the ethical characterization of the industry? The characterizations of business people as cogs in a cold, profit driven machines were challenged and replaced by the images of the people who sat down with me to explain their side of the industry. I found people that were seeking a way to bring innovation to patients. These people described a self-imposed obligation to the patient. They viewed patients as their motivation. While this could be written off as complete rhetoric, I do believe there is truth anchoring these statements.

So while I began this project in an effort to evaluate the open-mindedness of pharmaceutical companies, the project challenged my own ability to maintain an open mind. While I have not been able to touch upon all areas of my project in these posts, I will continue to reflect on my interviews and the project as a whole. I will post the end product, a paper, as a final reflection. But until that point, I wanted to take a moment and thank everyone for their continued reading and support of this project.

Gautam: Ethics of Humanitarian Aid in Cairo, Egypt

BATMAN IN CAIRO? THE ETHICS OF HELP AND RETELLING STORIES

Posted on May 24, 2012

“I’m Gautam.” The mix of low voice, Singaporean and Indian accents (with a touch of the American), and the relative strangeness of my name, means I almost inevitably get a blank look or a request to repeat my name again. I have learnt to add “like [Batman’s] Gotham City, but not quite…” over the years. I suspect my persistence with this cheesy line may have something to do with ‘The Dark Knight’ being among the guilty pleasures on my all-time favorites list. Having gotten this far, must I stop short of claiming as my twin superpowers, political science and economics? They are my majors.

On why all this talk about Batman may be related to my project: I like to think every good superhero story, has its moments of deep introspection when the protagonist must come to terms with his or her superpower. When he or she must take stock, look deep into herself to find meaning, ask why she must help, and what it means to help, especially when his or her own flaws and limitations are far too evident. I suspect the questions are similar for those who wish to make a cause and career out of helping others. My own aspirations of pursuing careers related to human rights and international development mean that I must face up to these questions.

In the coming weeks, I will be working in Cairo as a legal intern. The work involves listening to the stories of refugees seeking resettlement from Egypt and subsequently helping write up cases for submission to the UNHCR and other agencies. Below are some of the questions I will be grappling with, broadly categorized into two:

Ethics of Helping 

  • How do you reach out to those whose environments do not afford them the simplest dignities? How can they reclaim their dignity?
  • How do you help without turning benefactor?
  • Why do I really want to help? Why do I think I can be of help?
  •  How do you tell them they deserve better, without degrading their struggles and circumstances?
  • What responsibilities do you have if you encourage them to dream, to see their world differently?
  • What does it mean to be privy to knowledge (legal procedures, languages) that provides power that the refugees do not have? When must you recognize the limitations of that same knowledge?

Ethics of Retelling a Story

  • What does it mean for a story to be re-told and re-interpreted by others so that it can be heard?
  • How do I navigate, deal with stories that may have substantial personal meaning, but does not have legal significance?
  • Does one prioritize the immediate legal consequences or the integrity of the story (and how do we know if the latter does not impact the former in the long run)?
  • How may one’s responsibility as a provider of legal aid, differ from those as just another person listening to stories?

The past few days in Cairo, in the lead up to the presidential elections have been engaging and exciting, and I look forward to bringing interesting stories and reflections in the coming weeks.

 

IN SEARCH OF A SUPERHERO

Posted on July 2, 2012

Little Bruce Wayne walks into his living room one evening to find the bloodied bodies of his parents laying sprawled across the floor, the work of burglars. In his pain and anger, he swears to bring justice. And in that conviction was born the protector of Gotham city.

I catch myself too often in search of similar stories; it makes that almost unnatural drive and commitment in our heroes, a tad more believable. Such deeply personal, and sometimes traumatic stories seem to reconcile the contradictions one must sustain within oneself to achieve something meaningful; an ability to be sober and drunk at once perhaps, to be clear-sighted in action, not delusional about the value of one’s core convictions, yet exhibiting a simultaneous willingness to shield and cultivate an inner realm away from that same constant questioning glare (required for action).

And the stories themselves, they are perhaps but the birthmark by which I identify my heroes, those drunk on the ecstasy of living yet sober in their pursuits and convictions. Because it is my suspicion that it is not indeed incidents that make a story, but a sensitive soul’s desire to create meaning, its ability to sense the significance of events within a plausible wider narrative. And perhaps in the telling of such stories and the search for fitting endings to one’s own stories, is the germ of meaningful action. Maybe here too, all this wild theorizing and my own search for such superheroes in Cairo needs a little back-story.

Many accidents led to my aspiration to public service, a middle school teacher asking me to join the debate team after a homework essay won an international prize, grandparents and great grandparents engaged in public service, parents nudging me in the direction of student governance, a high school that prided itself for producing half the cabinet, a country that prized public service above most other callings, and the confusion that comes with reading relativity over an eighth grade summer… In high school, I applied myself to this aspiration with a fervor and energy that I have in few instances mustered since. At the center of it was a conviction that my sole purpose was to help others. In retrospect, it seems to have been prompted and sustained by a mix of self-denial (central to the self-image of a well brought-up Indian Catholic kid), premature existential musings, and an unacknowledged comfort in the rewards of engaging in student government.

Yet that simple but abstract conception dissolved in time and experience, draining the well of energy that comes from firm positive convictions. I tried to fight this by fleshing out the skeleton of abstract philosophies with experiences – the focus of my time in college and the conscript army. Habit of thought, or perhaps a deeper inkling, has meant that I have constantly found it difficult to accept a job that may serve purely personal interests. But this discomfort has locked heads with the part of me that derides the desire to ‘help’ as nothing but socially inherited feudal pretensions about one’s duty to help the less ‘privileged’, or a mere crass pleasure in the gratitude of the helpless helped. Part of why I attempted to immerse myself deeply in the lives of migrants living below the poverty line in India over the previous summer, was a desire to know if a lack of empathy was what crippled my conviction. While at one level, these experiences gave me a more nuanced understanding of the tragedies of unrealized human potential, of unnecessary pain suffered due to structures of power, on another, it forced me to acknowledge the inefficiencies involved in much of development work, the difficulties in bringing about lasting positive change, and perhaps most importantly brought about a reluctant acceptance that within what may be the rather separate worlds of the helper and the helped, opportunity and disaster, pain and happiness, may be attached to very different objects. What I gained in conviction about the necessity of the work, I may have lost in a more realistic understanding of the effectiveness of what I hope to do.

As I continue my search for contingent truths in Cairo, for stories and heroes that may strengthen my resolve, there are two thoughts I borrow from Charlie Chaplin and which guide my search. The first is a warning, particularly for those of us who wish to help through our understanding of systems of power; the constant possibility that “Our knowledge has made us cynical, our cleverness hard and unkind. [That] we think too much and feel too little.” The second is central to what inspires me to work, a conviction simple enough to not be too wildly wrong, that “We want to live by each others’ happiness, not by each others’ misery.”

Yet to live by one other’s happiness, I must find out if I can be happy myself. Too often, I have seen foreigners in strange countries, trying to prove themselves or help others with a deep emptiness within, an emptiness that cripples them with time. I have heard one too many times that every foreigner in Cairo is running away from something. And it has a ring of truth that makes me sometimes wonder if I must not be too. Yet I remain optimistic that there are those who have been able to sustain an inner world that keeps them happy, energized, and perhaps even at home, while abroad; in wishing to cross this minefield, I want to follow the paths of those who have tread before me.

When I first arrived, my inclination was to categorize those whom I met: the adventurer living life one adrenaline rush at a time; the slightly timider sort who believes in bold initiatives that test one’s convictions; the exotifying tourist looking for an excuse to travel; the messenger of Development Truths out to save the world; his quieter cousin that fights the tide one drop at a time; those escaping a mid-life crisis; yet others recovering from one and starting life anew in a new place. But a few weeks in, I suspect there is a little bit of all of these in varying measure in most of us here, myself included, and my superhero may not be one to easily reveal his or her true identity in the midst of such categorizing.

And so I must give time, travel deeper, and listen. Stories and superheroes rarely reveal themselves in broad daylight.

David Mayer: Documenting a Life’s Search for Meaning

FINDING MY GRANDFATHER IN NAZI GERMANY

Posted on May 23, 2012

My name is David Mayer.  I was born in Durham, North Carolina and have lived there my whole life.  So, naturally, I love James Taylor, Wagon Wheel by Old Crow Medicine Showanything Alison Krauss touches, the Avett brothers, and recently the Mipso Trio – a band from UNC that everyone should check out.  I also love BBQ and sweet tea.

I have a twin brother who plays basketball at Williams College who is 5 inches taller than me and an older brother who graduated from Villanova University who is 2 inches taller than me; everything in life is a competition.  I absolutely love basketball and have played my whole life.  I walked on to the Duke Basketball team at the beginning of my freshman year, but left the team the summer after because I found that my passions mostly lay outside the hardwood of Cameron.

I love puppies (especially my miniature poodle named Chipper) and I dabble on the ukelele.  My go-to songs are You and I by Ingrid Michaelson and Hallelujah (the Shrek version).  

But, more importantly, I am a brother, a son, and a grandson, so with this interest in family, I will be studying my grandfather’s diary, which he wrote starting in 1945 in Nazi Germany.  His diary will be my personal guide to investigating questions that I have about what it means to lead an ethical life as I try to find my place in the world.  Is being a good person enough?  Must I pour myself into charity?  Or, is it ok to be selfish from time to time?  Am I to blame for other’s evil deeds around me?  Is ignorance to evil better or worse than inaction in the face of evil?

Using my grandfather’s experience under Nazi persecution as a personal window into Germany during 1945, I will attempt to answer what it means to lead an ethical life on a daily basis.  My project will take shape in the form of a documentary film retelling his story.

My grandfather’s father was Jewish and was killed in Auschwitz.  However, his mother was Christian, so he and his siblings were raised as Christian Germans.  The Nazi’s, however, labeled them as Mischling (Crossbreeds), and they were immediately made enemies of the regime.  His sister died because the Nazis refused to treat her when she became ill.  And, his brother and he were taken to labor camps in the Harz Mountains before escaping and coming to America.

On Sunday I leave for Italy for film school, then from there I will head to Switzerland and Germany to retrace my grandfather’s diary and meet with family members and friends who knew him.  I will visit the camp he was taken to with a family friend who knew my grandfather, and I will visit many other places where my grandfather lived.

Since my grandfather died before I could meet him, in some ways I am attempting to know my grandfather for the first time.  When he began writing his diary, he was 21 years old.  I am 20 years old now and have begun keeping my own diary in addition to this blog.  So, to put it simply: this is the story of a 20 year old grandson trying to find his 21 year old grandfather in Germany with a camera.

 

HITLER YOUTH MEMBER TALKS ABOUT HALF-JEWISH GRANDFATHER

Posted on June 20, 2012

To see part of the interview and Derenburg, where my grandfather was taken, click the following link: Derenburg.

It was quiet. That was the first thing I noticed. The floor creaked under my weight as I pushed through the door, but overestimating its willingness to open, I slammed the door against its supporting wall, slicing through the silence. The sound echoed across the ballroom walls as Guenther Eisenhauer and I stepped in. Gary trailed behind staring down into the screen of a Sony EX1 pointed at our backs. Large headphones covered most of the top of his head. I stopped moving and let the silence sit. Gary settled into a shot that he wanted. Here, in the Weisser Adler in Derenburg, was where the Gestapo took my Half-Jewish grandfather and his brother as forced laborers. I found myself standing alongside a former Hitler Youth member and good friend of my grandfather. For the first time, I stood in a place my grandfather wrote about as a 21 year old man.

My first interview with Guenther was not what I expected. Nor was my second. Or the third. Gary (my faculty advisor) and I filmed for three days straight in Hannover, Germany, and ate the freshest meats and cheeses one can eat. To get there, we took a taxi, train, bus, plane, then another plane, then a car to a quiet and remote neighborhood with green landscapes that gave any North Carolina countryside a run for its money. Landing in the dark of night, and being driven through quasi-urban streets with rivers and deciduous trees felt very close to home. The stories we heard shortly after, however, did not.

I learned many things about Guenther Eisenhauer this weekend. He is a complicated man and a principled man. We were his guests, and as such, he and his wife treated us with splendor fit for a king. After Guenther and his wife drove us to Derenburg and the Weisser Adler, I figured the least I could do was to treat them to lunch. Guenther and Traute (his wife), however, refused immediately. While we were their guests, they were going to take care of us. And take care of us they did. In the interviews, we talked in great length about his life and my grandfather’s life. They met in Atlanta, well after the war. In a small world moment, Guenther’s daughter ended up staying at my grandfather’s home because of mutual friends. When Guenther came to pick up his daughter, they had dinner at my grandfather’s home. Afterwards, Guenther and his daughter were walking down the hallway, and they saw a picture of a building in Frankfurt. He turned to his wife and said, that is where I grew up. My grandfather overheard him and told him, “me too.” Needless to say, they talked in great length that night. My grandfather talking most of the time, Guenther content to listen.

It is an undeniable fact that Guenther Eisenhauer served proudly in the Hitler’s Youth, but it is also an undeniable fact that this absolutely did not factor into my grandfather’s trusting and respecting the man he met that night in Atlanta. Guenther served the Hitler Youth as a young boy, and, afterwards, carried a heavy burden for what happened, as he grew up and learned the facts. Guenther was also the reason that the diary of my grandfather’s was translated into English and is the reason that I now can use it today for my film.

A lot of our conversations revolved around the time immediately after the war, the time period when Jewish families who were victimized began asking for compensation. My grandfather wrote on this topic when his mother was considering applying for compensation (her husband and daughter were killed by Nazi persecution). Guenther and my reactions to the following quote differed greatly before this weekend; now I am not so sure. While listening to a conversation of politics among workers of the railroad (where my grandfather worked after the war), he wrote on September 26, 1945, “By this I do not mean to shelter any Nazi. Absolutely no way!… Are they (the workers discussing politics) more victimized than, say, a German woman who will never see her sons again or will only see them maimed, and who, beyond that, feels herself deceived in her holiest thoughts? Or are they worse off than the widow of a concentration camp Jew, who, after all the years of struggle, grief and deprivation, can now claim her only compensation, that she is free of the Nazi terror, yet who now finds herself in virtually the same circumstances as before and unable to gain any material advantage there from.
Oh, there is much that is not like it should be or as it was promised.”

The widow of a concentration camp Jew he refers to is his mother. He is putting her situation on par with the situation of a Nazi sympathetic household who lost their sons in the war. Guenther said in response to this, “he is a very un-political man.” He finds my grandather’s personal take on the situation and his ability to forgive to be refreshing. But, he also feels that my grandfather is too unwilling to stand against the forces that caused his family’s and other families’ predicament. My grandfather’s trust in an “un-political” and higher order to the world takes away from his ability to face the reality of the situation.

On the other hand, however, the old saying rings true, “two wrongs do not make a right.” Perhaps his ability to forgive should be commended and, ethically speaking, we should be careful about how we categorize people into good and evil. It is true, that many German’s were victimized by the war in that they trusted a government that led them astray. It is an easy reaction to say that all people who did not stand against the Nazis are wrong. But, I think to myself, would I stand against them if it meant the lives of my own family were at stake? And could I see through all the lies that the Nazi’s told?

It is true that there are irreparable evils that were committed, and never would I consider belittling or forgetting this. And, it is also true that I can not pretend that my grandfather’s story even compares to the horrors of Jewish concentration camps.  But still, I feel we have an obligation to know the facts and to learn from them. So, 60 years after the war, what is ethical? Should we always hate or punish those that played a part, even if it means an elderly man who joined the Hitler Youth as a small boy? I think not. I believe it would be unethical to hold his actions during the war against the man I met. But what about others, people we have never met?

 

A HEINEKEN IN THE ALPS

Posted on July 1, 2012

My train ticket said Milan to Zurich: 5 hours.  It failed to mention that a rockslide would turn what should have been a straight shot to Zurich into a trip that would send me meandering through the Alps with befriended strangers.  The ticket should have read something like this: “Milan to Chiasso: you will have to get off a pleasant, large train and get on a small, cramped train.  Chiasso to Lugano: locals will tell you to get off and catch a bus to get to Zurich.  But, the locals will be wrong.  Lugano to Göshenen: don’t get too comfortable; you will have to get on a bus soon.  Göschenen to Fluelen: you won’t know where the buses are until bus drivers start yelling at you in Swiss-Italian.  Fluelen to Zurich: 2 hours.”  I suppose that is too much for them to print.

The trip proved to be a pleasant reminder of how wonderful people can be and the cause of a realization that an adventure in the Swiss Alps is nothing short of breath taking.  I met a Pakistani family from Maryland who called me their “adopted son.”  Their kids go to my mother’s old high school, and I have a feeling we will stay in touch for a long time (we exchanged email addresses).  I met a girl from Stuttgard, who took immediate interest to my project and made me think in ways I had not previously, and with whom I am now Facebook friends.   I met a girl from Mexico who is studying architecture.  I spoke my broken Spanglish with her and shared many laughs (she spoke flawless English).   We are also now friends on Facebook.   And, finally, I met a girl from Boston whose father works in Zurich, she had just finished an archeological dig in Italy.  The key to international travel, as I found out, is finding competent females who know the way.

This trip served as an interesting reminder of the question we fellows are trying to answer, “what does it mean to lead an ethical life?”   While riding on our last connection, Fluelen to Zurich, the father of the Maryland family and I could finally relax.  So, we snuck on to first class and ordered two Heinekens.  When asked by the railroad worker, “großes oder kleines.”  My response was, “Großes, bitte.”  The big size, please.  So, the two of us enjoyed a cold beer and watched the peaks of the Alps come in and out of our line of sight as the train weaved its way through tunnels and over bridges.  My head was resting against the window, and I was breathing on the window, fogging up a small portion of it.  I loved to do this as a child.  When it was really cold out, I would blow air on the window then challenge one of my brother’s to tic-tac-toe before the fog went away.  I smiled.  This happy moment was given to me by the friendly people aboard “Milan to Zurich.”  I owe them this memory.

So what does this have to do with my grandfather?  In reading his diary, I can’t help but notice that he never once expresses hatred for the Nazi’s.  Instead, he tries to enjoy the simple moments that he encounters on a day-to-day basis.  This may seem like your average frat-boy cliché’: You Only Live Once (YOLO); so try to enjoy every moment.  But, that misses the point because that assumes that every moment should be enjoyed.  This is simply not the case.  I was nervous as hell on that train ride.   My grandfather went through much hardship.   Obviously our two experiences are not, by any means, on equal scale, but we all face hardship in our lives.  An undeniable fact of human existence is that we must overcome hardship.  So, how do we face it?  How do we move on?  When my grandfather’s house was bombed and his family had to find somewhere else to live he wrote, “The damage done here by the bombers is quite considerable.  And still, one must bravely act like a good fellow and do menial work while others throw up their hands and don’t know how to deal with the situation.”  He was not angry.  Or at least seemed not to be when he wrote this.  He refused to allow himself to be defined as the hardships he had been through.  And, he did not allow himself to become defined by a backward-looking need for justice.  He was able to do this by insisting on the importance of “menial work”, the day-to-day moments.  After all, we do not experience life as a few large events that come to define who we are.  He did not define himself as a half-Jew who was bombed out of his home.  I do not define myself as a Duke student who keeps a blog.  That may be the story we tell in interviews with employers, admission officers, and even our friends.  But the fact is, we do not experience life as resume’ builders or hardships we have overcome.

So what’s my point?  We can’t define ourselves by the large events that happen in our lives.  We experience life at a specific and minute scale.  I am hungry, then tired, then full, then happy.  I miss people, I cry, I laugh.  I am not my SAT scores or the places I have been or what I have written. If we define ourselves with large brush strokes, if we call ourselves what we have done or experienced, we risk losing track of how we actually experience the world.  And, we risk losing an ability to overcome failure and hardship.  So, it is necessary, and ethics depend on it, that I do not try to understand my grandfather as a survivor of a labor camp in the Harz Mountains.  Rather, I try to find what his every day experience was.  And I must ask myself when reading his words, why did he write this?  What, in the moment, was he thinking about?

 

MY DIARY, MY MEMORY

Posted on July 13, 2012

I have been in Frankfurt, Germany for 16 days.  My goal has been to recreate some truth of my grandfather’s childhood.  I started with the Frankfurt Jewish Museum where I walked up to the front desk to a man named Ronald.  I was armed with my microphone, camera, tripod, and headphones.  “Hello,” I said. “My name is David Mayer.  I am making a film about my grandfather…” and so on.  He gave me a name, a free ticket into the museum, and his contact information.   Fast forward to now: I have filmed my grandfather’s childhood home, the home that was bombed out during the war, the prison my grandfather’s father was taken to in 1943 for being Jewish, the headquarters of the Gestapo, the train station, their home in the Tanus mountains.  I have met and filmed what seems like every archivist in Frankfurt, an author of a book about Jewish persecution, a cousin of my grandfather’s, a man who was in the Weisser Adler with my grandfather, and a woman who knew my grandfather during the time he wrote his diary.  My hard drives are getting rather full, and my mind is getting stretched to every corner of this city.  And, what’s funny is that after it all, after seeing the places they tortured people in the prison, after seeing documents that my great-grandmother filled out to apply for 1000 Reichsmarks as compensation for the loss of her husband, after seeing these pieces of my grandfather’s home, I remember my own home in North Carolina.  I remember my twin, my brother, my mother, and my father, and I miss them.

It seems to me that much of my life is spent in pursuit:  I must make a film or I must graduate from college.  These facts are undeniable in my mind.  So, I chase them.  And these pursuits create some of the greatest moments in my life.  I remember in high school on our school’s basketball team when we were paying in the state tournament.  The chase was simple: win.  We won our first two games, which meant we now played in our last home game ever, win or lose.  About 2000 people crammed into Riverside High School’s gym to watch the game.  With 3 seconds left on the clock, we hit a three to take the lead.  I was on the right wing and sprinting to the baseline when the buzzer sounded and our crowd stormed the court.  I remember seeing my friend’s faces and my teammates faces all mixed together, all smiling, all yelling.  In that crowd, I hugged childhood friends, teachers, friends’ parents, and my Principal.  These faces come back to me in memory when I think about that night.  I will never forget that because my teammates and I chased that win with all we had.  And, I miss that.  What is strange, though, is that I think of this after all the filming I have done in Frankfurt.  Why, at the far side of the world, does my mind come home?

The obvious answer is that in the absence of what I am used to: my home, I build an appreciation for things I did not appreciate before.  This is probably true: I miss the food, the house, and my dog.  But, it is not simply being there that I miss.  It is not the comforts that come with being in my home.  It is past events and memories that I think of.  I do not want to be home.  I want to be home as it used to be.  I miss things that I can never have again.  So, why is that?  I believe it is because when I pour myself into something with all I have, I do things I have never done before or had to do, and in doing so, I expose parts of myself that have never been exposed.  I learn about myself, and I learn about where I came from.  In this way, my present self tries to make sense of the world that I grew up in.  By making a film in Frankfurt, I begin to learn about why I made mistakes, or why I cried, or why I laughed.  So much of what I do is in pursuit of some goal, that I rarely have time to consider what I am doing or why I did something.

It has dawned on me that writing a diary fits right into this communication between my present day action and my memory.  As part of this whole trip, I have been keeping a daily diary.  And, while writing it in the other day, something hit me: I am really proud of my diary.  I think my grandfather was the same way.  He writes in complete thoughts.  Sometimes, he says “Good Night!” before ending an entry.  He writes in a way to clarify for his reader.  He writes in a way that allows for someone else to understand, but who?  I can answer that question for myself:  I write so that my future self will understand why I did something.  My diary has become an intermediary between my memory and my actions.  It has become a guide for me to analyze my behavior.

So, why does this matter?  I am not even sure.  But, it seems that in my pursuit of goals, I forget where I came from.  When this happens, I lose a sense of what I used to be and, therefore, a sense of why I am who I am today.  Reading my grandfather’s diary is an amazing thing for me.   Especially when I consider the talks I have had with my father about the man he knew.  He said his father never once talked with him about his father’s life in Germany.  Not once.  Knowing this fact, I have to wonder, what did my grandfather think when he re-read his diaries as a man.  Did he even re-read them?  Or did he put them away, deep into some attic, hoping they would never resurface, especially as a blog, or a film?  I like to think he wanted a grandson to read them one day.   That is why he kept them.

 

MY INTRUSIVE CAMERA

Posted on July 28, 2012

Erma bent over to put the finishing touches on the newest addition to her garden where flowers lined a cared-for walkway leading to a beautiful, well-kept house.  She is an elderly woman.  Her view from the deck above, as she would later brag, is spectacular.   Where golden fields of wheat do not cover the land, tall, dark evergreens do.  Through another window, the town is visible.  Her house is the second to last house on the southeast end.  The town, called Wüstems, consists of about 50 buildings and is set in the Tanus Mountains.  Walking through the town, all one can hear is the whistle of a Sycata-like bug or the occasional German leadfoot proving the speed limits wrong as they whip their Audi, Mercedes or BMW through the countryside.  But, she focuses on her garden.  And, when she is finally content, she stands up and finds herself staring down the barrel of a ME66 Seinheiser Microphone and a Canon 60D Camera, hardly even noticing the two tall Americans who speak terrible German.  I believe the American military coined a term to describe our campaign in Wüstems: shock and awe.

What does it mean to lead an ethical life?  It is a strange question to ask myself every day as I work.  The nature of film is that you have to constantly push people and break social norms to get the story you want.  Interviews require all sorts of tactics to get people to open up.  People get irritated, bored, or they even lie, or they brag.  And, sometimes I make them feel this way on purpose because I know they will open up, or talk about what I want them to talk about.  One just hopes that by the end of the interview, the interviewee has expressed some truth about him or herself.  In Erma’s case and in many cases since, I shoved a camera and mic into her face in the hopes to capture a moment.   I wanted to capture her expression when she realized that before her stood the son and grandson of a man she grew up with but had not seen for 30 or 40 years.  Outside of film, most people would call what I did rude.  It was unethical to make an elderly woman feel uncomfortable and probably scared.  But because of film, the ends justify the means.  This has been my experience as I go from city to city and meet all kinds of people.   Don’t get me wrong, I have had some of the most memorable and best interactions one could have, and these positive interactions way outnumber the negative ones.  But, the fact is, I have angered people, been kicked out of places, and been threatened, but I receive none of the criticism from my peers or elders that I would receive if I was not making a film.

Traveling across Germany in hostels means that I have the opportunity to have conversations like this with all kinds of people.  The best argument that I have heard in support of this is that the people I am filming know what they are signing up for.  In other words, they want to tell their own stories – after realizing who I was and what I was doing, Erma did not mind my camera.  This certainly is true in many cases – people who I interview have agreed to help.  However, this argument assumes that it is how everyone feels in the end that makes it moral.  And, it seems to me that this is a terrible philosophy to have when interacting with people because it makes the assumption that, I, as the filmmaker know what is best for my subjects. As long as I think they will be happy afterwards, or I assume they want to tell their stories, I can use whatever tactics I want.

The second argument that I have heard is an argument that I cannot stand:  my film is somehow creating a “greater good.”  Somehow my film will make a difference.  This argument seems a bit arrogant and misses an incredibly important point.  My project is not service in the traditional sense, and the effect it has on the people who see it will be minimal.  I am going to make as good as a film as I can, but even for the greatest films, can we honestly argue that no amount of immoral behavior in the process of making the film could outweigh the positive effect it had on society?   No, it seems that a kind of utilitarianism is not the answer because films like mine — films that will have a very minimal effect on a very few people – would never be ethical.  And, we get into strange waters when we begin defining films or any art as ethical and unethical.

So, back to my original question, how can I feel ok about being occasionally manipulative and forceful?   How can I justify treating an elderly woman who fed me and let me into her home as merely a subject in my film?

 

A LOVE OF WRITING

Posted on July 31, 2012

It’s always quiet.  I always imagine him sitting in a quiet room.   Perhaps a lamp is lit.  Or maybe he writes as the sun goes down, using any light that he can.  He moves into the sun and away from the lengthening shadows, his body contorting to a comfortable enough position to allow his mind to wander.  His head rests against a wall, maybe; his knees come up to form a place to rest his diary while he writes.  Or, maybe he writes, as I do, on his side, or at a desk.  It is always night, or in a park.  I always imagine him writing in a place of rest and reflection.  He settles into a content location, and he loses himself in his writing, as I am doing now.

My grandfather was 21 years old when he began writing his diary.   By this point, he had lost a sister and a father to the Nazi persecution; he had taken over the role as head of the house, along with his sisters, to help provide food; he traveled 30 km to and from his family and his work with food and other necessities in tow; and, he was two months from being taken to a labor camp to an unknown destination and unknown consequences.  In January, I will turn 21.  The hardest decision I have had to make is whether or not to attend Duke University.  I know nothing of loss.

As I read his diary, I try to imagine him.  I wonder if he was hungry, thirsty, frustrated or tired.  Did he just finish eating or was he about to?  I try to imagine his thoughts outside of his words.  Was he thinking about his father or his sister when he was writing about other things?  His words allow for me to have a starting place to feel what he was feeling in the moment he was writing.  One particular moment comes to mind: On April 9th, my grandfather escaped, along with his brother, from the labor camp in Derenburg.  They walked to Schauen, a town near Derenburg, then they caught a train to Goslar at around 12:30 PM.  From there, they met the American troops and made it safely home to Frankfurt.  Up to this point, my grandfather had written nearly every day for months.  But, after writing on April 9, he didn’t write again until June 24.  The following is an excerpt from an entry he wrote on June 26, two days after he began keeping his diary once more:

 June 26.

I am sitting at my desk in Frankfurt, writing, thinking, and remembering.

Times have really changed.  And you, dear Robert, died for this, and you, also, Alfons, and all you others.  And you, father, and you, my sister, you are all sacrificial victims of an age which stormed over the western world like a punishment from God.

 Who and what will survive, what will pass, and what is yet to come?  What is the way and the will of God?

 What particularly comes to mind is the sermon given on Pentecost by the pastor at Reichenbach [Pfarrer Waldeck]) and his closing words:

 God builds his temple out of ruins.

 If I was able to experience spring amidst chaos on my journey home, so now a fall rich in harvest awaits and hence, with the help of God, an important building block to a better future.

 This past week, I’ve been helping with all my strength with the hay harvest at the households of Molls, Steinmetz, Maurer, Kurz and Mina Scherf, at which Heinz and Miss Jürgens officiated.  During a period of favorable weather, a hay harvest was brought in, the likes of which we have not had for a long time. 

This is the first and last time in the entire diary that he mentions his father.  In an entire diary about his life for two years, he does not mention the effect that losing a father had on him.  I struggle to understand why this is the case.  He writes with such grace and compassion.  He is not a cold human being; he worries all of the time about others, and never once does he express hatred toward those involved in the persecution of his family.  But, he doesn’t mention his father.

Now is an appropriate time to make clear the burden that I carry for having just shared this information.  After all, it is only natural for us to feel our most vulnerable after sharing intimate secrets.  This, apparently, is truer when sharing a dead grandfather’s intimate secrets.  My stomach feels queasy knowing that he never talked to my father about any of this, and, now, I have posted for all to read an excerpt of his diary that he wrote as a young man.  Perhaps he wouldn’t mind.  But, I will never know that, unfortunately, and somehow I doubt that. I do not believe in the afterlife in a traditional sense; I have a basic scientific understanding that my mind seems to be a very physical, biological thing and when I die, it goes.  But, it is also true that humans have been so very wrong for so very long, and there will always be things we cannot explain or do not understand.  So, no, I don’t think my grandfather is watching me as I write.  But, the fact is that he existed.  And, in that sense, he will always have existed.   And, he did his best in life to live honestly so that others may judge his character honestly.  Now, however, I have posted a minute part of the man he became, and I have been doing so for a month.  You will inevitably judge him based on this.  I live with that burden.

And so, allow me to not let it go wasted.  I do not willingly except this burden of your judgments for no reason.  I believe that this passage is essential to understanding a very fundamental, but complex question that I have not asked up to this point, but I will now:  why did he write a diary?

The only way to begin answering this question is to ask a follow up question that allows for an investigation of individual entries, thus we are able to build a more comprehensive understanding using specifics rather than just writing a hypothesis and then grabbing at random to confirm said hypothesis.  Our follow up question is: when did he write?

Look at the passage above.  He writes while sitting at his desk in Frankfurt.  This is the most literal answer of that question.  But, the question can be taken with a  much more subjective meaning: in what mindset was he when he wrote his entries?  Instead of asking at what point in time, we can ask in what emotional state was he in when wrote?  So, when did he write?  He wrote while he was “sitting, thinking, and remembering.”  At his desk, he sits, he thinks, and he remembers.  We all know this feeling.  The nostalgic rush that comes from sitting quietly and reminiscing with our writing, talking, painting, or some other form of extroverted catharsis, and, our minds wander through memories, tweaking them how they will, highlighting certain moments.  We are certain to be tired after these experiences.  After all, memories are never true and creating things is always hard.  I’m tired now.

A second hint follows immediately after “sitting, thinking, and remembering.”  He writes a very philosophical and lofty statement, fitting his lost father, lost sister, and lost friends into an overarching theme — “you are all sacrificial victims of an age which stormed over the western world like a punishment from God”  — if it was not in context, I would react similarly to how I react to poetry I wrote to my young love in high school, the same nostalgic gag mixed with an honest smile.  But, when I realize that he is talking about his father and his sister, this drops to the wayside, and the queasiness in my stomach returns.

I look at my father.  I imagine that he, too, walked under “arbeit macht frei” to never return.  I look at my twin. Gone as well.  That is when I begin to cry, and that is when I begin to write.  I have never experienced loss to the extent my grandfather has.  So, when I put myself in my grandfather’s shoes, I find it incredibly hard to understand.  I know my twin will be at home waiting for me when I get back from this trip, as will my father, and my mother.  My older brother will be in Iowa; I can visit whenever I want.  My dog will jump on me with the blank and unabashed, tongue-dangling smile that all miniature poodles seem to do so very well.  These things have been constants in my life.  When I imagine them gone, it is confusing.  So, I write.  My grandfather had a penchant for writing that started simple and flowed into something loftier and more philosophical.  He took everyday events then turned them into life lessons of sorts.  So, like me, I believe he wrote to understand the world he was in.

But, there is so much more behind why he is writing.  He concludes that from ruins, God builds temples; from his sister and his father’s death will come temples.  He offers the hay harvest as an application of this.  The hay harvest gives him a task to accomplish and a start in the right direction.  Focused on the harvest, and appreciating what he has, my grandfather begins to build a new life. He turns to an every day task to make good of all the terrible things that happened.  And, he writes to clarify all of this, to put these things in place so that his emotions have structure.

Time and time again he mentions how much he loves the “quiet moments” of life.  He writes about quiet moments while in the camp in Derenburg when writing about violets he picked, the first violets of spring.  He talks of this after returning home from a soccer match and sitting at his desk in Frankfurt.  And, he talks of this while leaving the port in Bremerhaven for America and his old life.  His diary is a not a backwards looking nostalgia; he writes for the experience of writing.  He writes to lose himself in writing, to let his mind wander through past and future, and to create something that makes some sense in his crazy world.  What is so beautiful for me is that I can relate to how he feels in this moment.  I, too, love to lose myself in my writing.  I feel as if everything is clicking and my talents are at their best.  And, the past makes sense.  The challenge of articulation mixed with the catharsis of nostalgia turn words into something lasting, if only for myself.  That is why I keep a diary.

So, I suppose I should get to the question I am supposed to be asking, what does it mean to lead an ethical life?  Well, I don’t really know, but my 21 year old grandfather taught me something on the topic: lose yourself in something, David.  Love things so much that to lose them means to cry.  Commit yourselves to practicing something you care about, so that you become proud of them, and then become good enough at your trade to continue chasing this experience, this optimal experience.  Because in doing so, you will learn something of your place in the world.  Love things, David; It is unethical not to.

 

What doesn’t come from the heart

Doesn’t reach to the heart

 

The light flaming in your eyes

Shines brightly

And shines more

Than a hundred thousand candles.

– Paul Mayer, my grandfather

 

A LETTER TO A FRIEND

Posted on August 12, 2012

Well, I’m home.  After traveling for ten days through Italy, Switzerland, Germany and England, I now find myself in North Carolina with home-cooked meals and all the Wi-Fi access I need to upload my posts.  My first order of business after getting settled back into my home was to write letters to all of the people I met on my travels.  I would like to share one in particular with you if you are willing.

I met a young man in Frankfurt while working on my film who is around my age and whom I became very close friends with.  I had just taken a train from Zurich to Frankfurt, and was now in a city in which, for the first time in my life, no one there knew me or cared I was there.  This was intimidating.  Not to mention my hostel was located in the Red Light district of Frankfurt, which meant that I had to dodge drug-addicts and prostitutes to get there.  He worked in this hostel, which turned out to be one of the nicest places I have ever visited, and our personalities and ideologies meshed so very well.  On July 2, I wrote in my diary, “I am sitting alongside a kid named Liam, who deserves a good amount of description because I have found him to be as close of a friend as I have made in a while, and it happened in two days. He works in the hostel and treats everyone with respect.  But, he is also one of the brighter people I have ever met.  His views of the world are calm and open.  He is not quick to judgment, and he is able to see outside of himself.   He is also hilariously funny.  I would like to be friends with him for a long time.  In fact, I think I will fight to make that happen.”  After staying in Frankfurt for those two weeks, I decided to join him on a vacation to Berlin for three days as a kind of respite from my filming and perhaps as a way to prove to myself how important this friendship had become.  We had a great time sightseeing and taking in the peculiarities of the city.

When I got home from my trip, I wrote him the following letter:

“What a strange and wonderful thing to have met you and to have grown so close so quickly.  Then, we left.  It has taken me a while to truly understand the extent of the effect those two weeks had on me – like most things once removed one sees things more clearly.  Although, perhaps what is so strange is that the only change in my mindset is that I miss you.  Everything we said and thought during those two weeks holds equally true to me now; we were aware of the importance in the moment.  You once asked me if I considered myself an adult; in an odd way, my answer is now yes, and I think back to my time spent in Frankfurt and Berlin.  I think part of what makes an adult is the ability to understand the significance of things in the moment.  I believe we did that.”

“Being home is not what I expected it to be.  I have changed a lot since I left.  I met and talked with so many different people on this trip that it really changed how I see things.  I feel tired and stuck here.  I’m ready to see more of the world and really investigate my beliefs.  I will finish school first because I can learn so much more from my classes and life in university.  After I graduate, however, I plan on traveling for a couple years.  I want to immerse myself in the world as best I can…

Anyways, I get carried away with these things.  I hope everything is well.  I picked this card as a challenge.  Name the painter then look to the back to check your answer.  It’s like a cereal box.”  – David

Writing things down as a letter makes them concrete.  I will never doubt that this is how I felt.  It gives me a confidence in my memories to write to someone my emotions.  These things that I thought and possibly would forget now live forever in the form of a letter.  There is something ethical about writing letters.  I think I will write more of them.

 

LEAVING HOME

Posted on August 15, 2012

Well it has been a week since I returned from my trip.  I just finished re-reading the diary that I took as I traveled.  As I read through it, I feel as if every day held a new city, new people, and new experiences.  The only constants were a camera, a pen, and myself.  I remember falling asleep on a train to Bremen, waking up, and forgetting where I was going.  It took me a moment to remember – I was tracking down the emigration camp in Bremen from where my grandfather and his brother immigrated to America.  This feeling of jumping from place to place only becomes heightened as I read my diary, and all of the two months of traveling are condensed to about thirty minutes worth of reading, eight blogs, and a small black box that holds my footage.  But, I also have memories outside of these physical things.  I find that when I look through them, they trigger some memory, and I can sit in silence remembering details I had forgotten until then.

On June 6th, my grandfather and his brother, Heinz, were approved as emigrants seeking a new life in America and were taken to Bremen, a city in northern Germany, to begin their voyage.  They stayed there in a camp that, after conversations with two librarians and one archivist, I believe to be called Camp Tirpitz (my grandfather did not give a name of the camp; he only drew the sketch above).  The camp lies on the outskirts of Bremen on a somewhat beaten down area of the town on a street called Schwarz straße.  I got there via the tram, more specifically the 11-line north, until it reaches the end of the line, then a short walk to the building.   What used to be a somewhat organized and open camp has been converted partially into a homeless shelter by a Christian organization and into apartments by the city, effectively making the area a confusing mix of overgrown grasses, walls, and one plaque that tells those who pass that at some point in the history, in a different time with different people, this place was an emigration camp.  I filmed for a bit, then walked away frustrated.  Where is my grandfather in this, I asked myself, so much has changed.  Even his memories would not recognize this.  Where is he?

On June 14, they were sent to Bremerhaven, a port town about 20 km north of Bremen, with instructions to board the Ernie Pyle, their ship to America.  He writes that when they woke that morning and boarded the train, it was raining.  They took the 30-minute train ride to the port.  By noon they arrived at their ship, and the sun had come out.  He writes, “Holding their landing cards in their hands, each person was shown inside. We first crossed the gangway, then walked down three stairways, and arrived at our cabin… Sounding her horn three times, the ship left the harbor. The shore retreated more and more, and we knew our homeland was disappearing from the visible horizon. But the same was not true in our hearts, for there our home-loving youth lives on in our memories. We sent greetings with all ships traveling landward.”

When I got the train to Bremerhaven, it was also raining; I arrived in a torrential downpour.  Hurrying to a nearby taxi, I got a ride to my hotel.  My camera tucked under my jacket, my tripod strapped onto my large backpack, and my sound equipment in a second backpack strapped to my front, I looked the part: an American student trying to be a filmmaker.  Somewhere through it all, though, it dawned on me that my grandfather, too, was doing this for the first time.  He had never been there, and when he left Bremerhaven, he probably never went back.  The same is true for me.  But, after arriving at the hotel and settling in, I took a walk around a port that was totally foreign to me.  No one knew I was there, and nothing there reminded me of my grandfather.  Again, I was frustrated.

But, looking back now, I realize that in my memory, I have images of the places my grandfather lived.  I have emotion and experiences associated with parts of his life.  I can picture the places he has been.  So now, what do I do with these memories?  And, this gets me back to the question that my project has been designed around, what does it mean to lead an ethical life? I believe my grandfather offers me some guidance on the matter in the above passage when he says, “but the same was not true in our hearts, for there our home-loving youth lives on in our memories. We sent greetings with all ships traveling landward.”  After all he has been through, he still tries to remember his homeland as his “home-loving youth.”

We all have memories of our pasts.  We all dwell on these memories at points in our lives.  And, we all have the power to change how our pasts affect ourselves in the present.  The greatest tool any of us have is our mind; and we are obligated to use this to the best of our abilities, to challenge our preconceptions and past experiences, so that we may be able to approach issues that arise in life with a calm, confident, and loving demeanor.   I do not think I am very good at this, but perhaps, with time, I, too, will be able to leave my “home-loving youth” with confidence and love.

John: Personal Computing and Christian Ethics

ELECTRIC ETHICS, OR “HOW TO USE TECHNOLOGY WELL”: A CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVE

Posted on May 23, 2012

Strictly speaking, this ought to be called “Electronic Ethics,” but the title “Electric Ethics” was just too catchy to pass up.

It’s not hard to find a Christian perspective, or ten, on every issue under the sun. But one issue conspicuously absent from Christian reflection is the issue of how we use our technology. Desktops, laptops, gaming systems, TVs, mp3 players, smartphones and even dumbphones occupy an ever-increasing portion of our time, money, and attention. Nearly 60% of American households own a gaming system and overall time spent gaming is up 7% from last year (sourceNielson Wire). Half of American adults own a smartphone, up from a third last year (sourcePew). Personal and mobile electronic use is clearly becoming part of the fabric of our society, but it’s still difficult to find much in the way of Christian reflections on this technology.

And so this is what I’ll be doing this summer: research on personal electronic use through a Christian lens. It’s probably relevant at this point to explain why I’m using a Christian lens. I’m a religion major focusing on the Christian tradition, and as a result the ethical system I know best is the Christian one. And while the Christian ethical framework is unique and particular, it’s my belief that it can also add a lot to the larger discussion on the ethics of personal computing. I will be exploring several issues, including:

  • how personal electronics are markers of social class and creators of social stratification
  • the ways in which this technology impacts our understanding and practice of community
  • how personal electronics provide ways to escape reality or ease suffering
  • the use of conflict minerals in computer construction
  • how this technology changes how we think and process the world around us
  • the ways internet usage can be detrimental and useful for how Christians worship and gather together
  • the impact of the personal electronics culture on the environment
  • how the boundaries between nations are influenced by personal electronics

Because I want my research to be as practical as possible, I will interview many of my contacts in the the IT and programming worlds, along with several of my contacts who participate in intentional Christian communities. These interviews will inform my research as I deconstruct our current culture of personal computing, offering reflection from within the framework of Christian ethics. The goal here is simple: to say something practical and useful. I hope to be part of the conversation of how Christians and others can use technology well at an individual, communal, public, national, and global level. Starting in June, I’ll be posting every week with a new topic for discussion. It is my hope that you’ll join me in conversation in the coming weeks. My first posts will focus on defining “Christian ethics” and “personal electronics culture,” and these posts will set the stage for the discussions to follow.

 

TALKING CHRISTIAN ETHICS: THE CONTINUING DISCUSSION

Posted on June 10, 2012

Christian ethics is a difficult animal. It’s not particularly well defined, and you’re going to get a different answer from everyone you ask, answers that are based on any number of different interpretations of the Bible, understandings of the role of tradition, and theological and philosophical viewpoints. Because of this, I’m going to resist writing about contentious social issues in this post — not because I think that the best position is one in the middle, but because those issues are not the focus of this post.

In the Christian tradition, living an ethical life is about fulfilling our purpose in life as human beings, or put another way, it is simply about becoming more human. Jesus, because he is both perfectly God and perfectly human, provides our definition of what it means to be perfectly human. To become more human is to become more like Jesus, and because Jesus is fully divine as well, doing so is how we participate in the divine life. Humanity is only given definition by virtue of God’s divinity — the Christian life is about God, and we get to participate as humans because of Jesus. Therefore when we strive to become more human, more like Christ, Christians are concerned with three things: loving and worshipping God, living in community together in anticipation of the perfect communion of the Kingdom of God, and loving and serving our neighbor in all that we do.

We love and worship God because Jesus loves and worships God. We live and work together because our God is a trinitiarian God — we strive to be in community with one another because God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are in perfect community with one another. And we serve our neighbors as an outpouring of the gift of life God has given us. We do all these things because we want to become more like Jesus so that we may participate in the divine life beginning in this life. I think it is important to note that this reasoning is different from the prototypical “What would Jesus do?” Asking that question, while useful at times, can also set up misunderstanding because we cannot always do what Jesus would do because we are not Jesus. Christians are more concerned with forming habits to live a virtuous life, so that what we do flows naturally from who we are in Christ.

For the scope of this essay it is too much to try and go into the repercussions of basing an ethic on the person of Jesus, instead of say, for instance, the natural “rights” owed to every human person. What I will say is that Christians ethics is more a continuing conversation than a definitive answer, in the same way that the Nicene creed can be understood, not as setting the limits of what Christians can believe and ending the conversation, but as starting the conversation about what and how Christians believe.

My project will deal with a very small application of this particular Christian ethic, trying to understand what a Christian ethic has to say about the current culture surrounding personal computing. Implicit in such an evaluation is the attempt, after deconstructing the current culture, to build up some sort of coherent alternative narrative that makes sense when viewed through the Christian lens. The next post will focus on what I mean when I say “the personal computing culture.” These two posts, one on the Christian ethical framework and one on the personal computing culture, will serve to set the terms of the conversation, or the discourse, for the remaining posts. The remaining posts will be topical in nature, exploring particular issues of personal computing that are brought to light when viewed through a Christian ethical lens.

 

THE RISE OF THE TABLET: A WINDOW INTO MODERN PERSONAL COMPUTING CULTURE

Posted on June 20, 2012

(Side note: I really wanted to call this post “A Tablet A Day Keeps the Luddites Away” for the sake of humor, but the current title was more descriptive)

The above picture is why my post is a bit late — I wanted to wait to post until after Microsoft’s mystery product announcement on Monday evening.  As suspected by the rumor mill, this is Microsoft’s new tablet, called Surface, and its announcement at this time is indicative of where the personal computing culture has been and where it is going.

News articles are popping up all over the place claiming that tablet sales will soon outstrip laptop sales by 2013, or 2015, or 2017.  While these figures are generally sensationalized claims based on faulty linear extrapolation of current sales figures, surveys do indicate that tablets are becoming more and more popular.  A Yahoo study from only two months ago (link) indicates that the tablet is filling in important place in the U.S. home.  From the article:

The 2,000 U.S. respondents participating in the study were aged between 18-64 years, and were asked questions on their tablet usage and habits, in order to uncover who’s really using them, where they take them, and just how far they’ll go to keep them. Some additional findings are outlined below:

  • 15% would give up their car for an entire year to be able to keep their tablet; that would equate to 45 million fewer cars on the road, meaning less traffic and a whopping 270 million tons fewer greenhouse gases (CO2) emitted per year.
  • Tablets are now the second most fought over device in the living room, just behind desktops/laptops, and ahead of TV remotes.
  • A third of men frequently take their tablet to the bathroom. 40% of women never take the tablet to the bathroom.
  • A quarter of women are happy to give up sex (25%) to keep their tablet. As for men? Only half as many men would give up sex (13%).
  • The tablet is the go-to wind-down device: 91% use their tablet in bed.

The popularity of the tablet form factor tells us a lot about the direction of the current personal computing culture.  The tablet form factor is perfectly suited for the consumption of media, because it offers the portability of the smartphone with the size and general computing possibilities of the netbook or laptop.  Earlier tablets (most notably the original iPad and secondarily the Kindle Fire) filled a niche market where most buyers already owned a laptop and smartphone.  Microsoft’s new tablet is indicative of a changing game, however.  New offerings like Surface, with an attached keyboard cover, or the transforming tablet/netbook hybrids seen at Computex 2012 (hereherehere, and here) are capable of serious work alongside media consumption.  If devices such as these hybrids catch on, and there’s no real consumer-side reason they shouldn’t, the next few years will see the laptop go the way of the desktop — still important, but a niche device.

Why am I fixating on the tablet, especially those that are tablet/laptop hybrids?  Certainly this is only one type of product in the bigger picture of the personal computing culture.  Yet the tablet has captured our cultural imagination.  If you’ve watched any TV recently, chances are that you’ve seen tablets in all manner of commercials.  Even the comparatively poor quality Android tablets find their way into TV ads.  Here’s why I’m fixating on the tablet: its popularity tells us what we, as a culture, value.  I have to be careful not to over-generalize American culture here, but there are a few things we can say about personal computing at large when examined carefully.  The personal computing culture values three primary characteristics: efficiency, individuality, and usability.  There are of course other considerations (design comes to mind), but these three are the big ones.  The tablet is the true general-purpose computer.  With it we can both play and work, and we can do so from anywhere and with few constraints.  It does what the laptop does except better — it’s smaller and lighter when you want it to be, and you can always just attach a keyboard to get real work done.  It’s designed for and caters to the individual (most tablet’s don’t allow more than one user account) but can be used in a group setting too.

Over the remaining six weeks, I will be examining and critiquing these three and other characteristics of the personal computing culture through the lens of a Christian ethic.  I expect that as I learn more about the personal computing culture at a sociological level,  my understanding of what is and is not important will change.  It may be that the three characteristics I identified above will need revising.

 

CAN COMMUNITY EXIST IN A VIRTUAL SPACE?

Posted on June 27, 2012

This is an increasingly relevant question as self-styled “online communities” such as Reddit or Facebook show no signs of slowing down their exponential growth. And it’s increasingly important for churches too, as many churches start up blogs, webcasts, online prayer submissions, bible study chat rooms, virtual worship, virtual counseling, and more. It’s foolish to deny all validity to these methods of communication — after all, being able to remain in communication with friends halfway around the world can greatly strengthen a relationship — but I remain skeptical of community in the virtual space.

Historically, being a member of a community requires a different mode of interaction than does being an individual in a public space. Because communities are locally placed, the individual generally did not have a choice as to what community he or she belonged. The key differences then are trust and accountability — both are required for community to work well but not for a public. As an individual the world greets me as I try to navigate it in a personal journey, but as a member of a community my experiences are mediated by my place in the community and I am forced to realize that I am not the only author in my story. Social interactions in the public space generally occur either with strangers, people to whom we have no specific obligation, or with an association of friends gathered around a common interest. In a community, on the other hand, there are no strangers but not everyone is a friend (where friendship is loosely defined as two or more people bonding over a common goal or interest). In a community, identity cannot be separated from community role.

Obviously the pictures I have just drawn are two extremes. In the real world, one is much more likely to find things drawn on a spectrum rather than a strict dichotomy. The “Duke community” is an example of this. It is a public in the sense that I am not accountable to the majority of the Duke population except in the loosest sense possible (the Duke Community Standard comes to mind), and I cannot explicitly trust people that I do not know (and I only know a fraction of the people considered a part of the Duke community). Yet there is often a shared “Duke” experience, and our identities are to some extent informed by our role in the community. A workplace or school are other examples that share characteristics of a public and a community.

We are now better equipped to respond to our original question: Can community exist in the virtual space? For our purposes, “virtual space” means the Internet. More sophisticated virtual reality technologies such as that found in the movie “The Matrix” require a different response than the one I will give here. It is my contention that community cannot exist solely in the virtual sphere, though a pre-existing community may be able to augment their interactions via the Internet. I say this because the Internet only allows an individualistic mode of engagement — however busy the internet may be or however well one can surround one’s self with other denizens of the Internet, the technology is still designed in such a way that you are alone. It takes no more than a click or two to disengage from an online “community.” The anonymity of the Internet does not require accountability. And the technology is designed in such a way that it is not possible to engage the whole of one’s self — mind, body, and spirit — with an online “community” and so proper trust cannot be obtained.

I want to make it clear that the claim that virtual community cannot exist does not implicitly devalue the Internet as a valuable mode of social interaction and communication. Deep discussions, good times, and a sense of connection and closeness can still be had in the virtual space — but I do not think it can honestly be called community.  This recognition will be increasingly important for churches, as more and more of them utilize online resources.  Talking to church members, I have had numerous people tell me that online resources are very helpful, especially when they want to stay connected to a community they can no longer physically be a part of.  But offloading too much of the “community” of a church can run the risk of hyper-individualizing notions of community.

 

FREEDOM, IMPERIALISM, AND THE GUI

Posted on July 12, 2012

The GUI, or Graphical User Interface, is the graphical environment presented to the user for working with the computer. The four major players in GUI design for general-purpose computers (laptops, desktops, tablets and smartphones) are the Windows desktop interface (though Microsoft is currently transitioning to its new “Metro” interface), Mac OS X, iOS, and Android. These interfaces are all that most people ever encounter in the computer because it requires technical knowledge and skill to break through the interface to access the nuts and bolts of the computer. The creation of the GUI dates back some thirty-odd years, and is largely responsible for the dissemination of the computer to the general public. It has often been hailed as the innovation which wrested control of the computer from the technological elite and placed it in the hands of the non-tech-savvy user — and this is still partially true. Ironically, however, this attempt to make the computer accessible to the general public is socially determinate.

The GUI gives the illusion of control. It allows the user to very easily make certain pre-determined actions but in the process, certain other actions are defined as off-limits by virtue of being difficult or impossible to do within the constraints of the GUI. This is not problematic if the interface is neutral and objective — but such an interface is not possible because computer use is situated squarely within a particular cultural and social location. In his book Critical Technology, Graeme Kirkpatrick writes that “far from being ‘neutral’, ‘technology is a dependent variable in the social system, shaped to a purpose by the dominant class.’ . . . this is likely to be more true of computer technology than of previous kinds, because the computer is a tool that automates social processes. It works according to some notion of what the correct social process ought to be, which will set down in the program.” The interface cannot be neutral because designing a GUI requires that the designer already know what the user wants to do with the computer, thus making the computer more accessible but also more limited. Early GUIs were tested for their ease-of-use through rigorous trials and studies, but many subjects reported that “they were being tested for their ability to use the machine properly, rather than the machine being tested for the affordances it held out to them.” Users had to conform their pre-existing modes of social interaction to those presented by the GUI, where instead the GUI was supposedly intended solely to facilitate those modes of interaction without imposing its own.

This raises concerns for multiple reasons, two of them being primary for Christians. The first is that an interface can enable a cultural hegemony. Because GUIs were designed largely in Western culture, they reinforce individualism as the primary mode of social interaction. There is no room within the Windows or Apple ecosystems for any other sort of interaction. It is difficult to imagine any mode of interaction with a graphical interface other than the current one precisely because none other exists — the cultural hegemony has already been largely established. It is not hard to imagine the sort of damage an hegemony re-enforced by an individualistic and rigorously efficient personal computing culture can do. The second and interrelated issue is that of freedom. Because the GUI limits the ways in which a user interacts with the computer, it can serve as yet another method of control by a dominant social group. This is self-evidently problematic with the standard Western definition of freedom, where complete freedom is the ability of the individual to be unconstrained by outside forces. Christians are less concerned with that freedom (though it is still important) and more concerned with the freedom to be shaped by good outside forces. Put another way, the freedom-limiting nature of the GUI becomes problematic when it interferes with the universal Christian vocation, which is to be more like Jesus, worshipping God and serving others. It is my contention that the individualistic mode of interaction (which among other things habituates the user to prefer efficiency and usability over all else) promoted by current GUIs is problematic in this way, because the Christian lifestyle requires that we learn to replace an individualistic mode of interaction with one in which we are in community with God and others.

Clearly, these are subtle effects. But they are still there, and it is important for Christians and others to recognize these effects and learn to deal with them.

 

GOOGLE, ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE, AND WHAT MAKES US HUMAN

Posted on July 18, 2012

My mentor and I co-wrote a blog post for the blog State of Formation.  State of Formation is a “forum for emerging religious and ethical leaders. Founded by the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue, it is run in partnership with Hebrew College and Andover Newton and in collaboration with the Parliament of the World’s Religions.”

Read our post here: http://www.stateofformation.org/2012/07/google-artificial-intelligence-and-what-makes-us-human/

 

A REVIEW OF THE ONE LAPTOP PER CHILD XO-1 LAPTOP

Posted on August 3, 2012

From their website, One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) aims “to provide each child with a rugged, low-cost, low-power, connected laptop” to “empower the world’s poorest children through education.” To this end, they make and sell laptops to third-world government organizations for distribution to children in local schools as teaching aids. While OLPC didn’t respond to my requests for an interview, I was able to get my hands on one of the first-gen laptops for a (brief) review.

The bright stylings of the laptop immediately capture one’s attention. It’s clear that this laptop has been designed with children in mind. There are no open ports on the outside of the laptop when it’s closed (excepting the power connector), and the plastic has a very rugged design. I feel like I could drop this in the dirt time and time again and it would still work without issue. Opening it up, we see a well-designed child sized keyboard and trackpad, both of which are dust and water resistant. The keyboard comes in multiple languages, per the request of the buyer. Mine is a standard QWERTY layout.

Booting the device up we see the true genius of this laptop. It runs Fedora, a fully open-source linux distribution, and presents a custom interface called Sugar to the user. This interface, also open source, was designed with the small village school in mind. Rather than a traditional desktop layout, the interface is organized spatially, with a neighborhood, group, and home view.

The neighboorhood view is a 2d, birds-eye view of the child’s environment. In this view the child can see other surrounding computers and networks and connect with them if desired. The group view is a zoomed in version of the neighborhood view, allowing the child to see and network with others in her immediate area. The home view zooms in further, and the icon representing the child is surrounded by the activities (Applications) that she uses the most often. Rather than the standard task manager or task bar you might find on a commercial laptop, activities are organized and managed in the “Journal,” which chronologically organizes activities and allows the child to make notes on what they were doing during each activity.

Activities are mostly educational, and are designed to be shared with other children.  Shared activities can be seen in the neighborhood and group views.  Additionally, activities are designed to be completely transparent. The child can see all the source code for each activity, and is encouraged to try writing her own activities. Not surprisingly, given the open source nature of this project, every aspect of the user interface can be customized or entirely circumvented with relative ease. The user can even boot into a completely different desktop environment (Gnome 2, the once-standard linux desktop) with just a few clicks.

OLPC has gone to considerable efforts to make this laptop accessible for children with no prior experience with a computer. As I noted in an earlier blog post, user interfaces carry with them an implicit mode of interaction and thus can be vehicles for cultural imperialism. OLPC has been very careful to mitigate this effect — nearly every complaint I could find with the user interface was addressed handily in some form or another. I can’t imagine much of a better way to succeed at OLPC’s mission.

OLPC has succeeded in creating a laptop that achieves their stated mission in the least problematic and most positive way possible. If you want to distribute laptops to third-world kids, this is undoubtedly the best way to do it. However, I am not convinced that the mission of OLPC is altogether unproblematic.

To distribute laptops to kids alone, for educational purposes, risks the alienation of adults.  This effect has been documented in East Africa, where the school system of the past several decades has been largely the product of white missionaries.  These mission schools taught Christianity in school and taught it as the source of salvation from the backwards and ignorant ways of earlier generations of Africans.  This created an inevitable conflict between children, who had been taught by white missionaries to hold their elders’ ways in contempt, and the adults, who were confronted with children suddenly rejecting the ways of their forefathers.  Clearly, this is not the same situation as with the distribution of OLPC laptops (if only because OLPC laptops are distributed to a number of countries, all of which have different cultures and are in different locations with respect to the integration of technology in their culture)  – but I worry that it runs some of the same risks.

I also worry that the sudden introduction of laptops into cultures that are not prepared for technology will accelerate the deterioration of such cultures.  Jacques Ellul has argued compellingly in his book The Technological Society that when two cultures come into conflict and one of them is a technical culture, the technical culture completely and invariably wins.  While I am not necessarily concerned with the preservation of culture for culture’s sake, I am even less concerned with progress for the sake of progress, if only because technological progress tends to have a homogenizing effect.

I’m conflicted with regards to OLPC.  I have an affinity for open source, and OLPC has done a fantastic job with their stated mission.  This is a pretty cool little laptop, and I want to say that OLPC is doing an excellent thing.  But I cannot shake my concern that their mission may have unintended, unforseen, and unwanted side effects.

p.s. Sorry for the extra-late post.  I’ve been traveling the past week (I visited The Simple Way, an urban monastic community in the heart of Philadelphia, to learn how they deal with issues of personal computing) and haven’t had much in the way of internet access.  I’ll be making another post in the next day or two.

 

INTERVIEW WITH AN OPEN SOURCE ADVOCATE

Posted on August 21, 2012

I’ve been a fan of open source since learning about it in high school.  I’ve been running Fedora linux as my main operating system for the past five years, and my first internship was at Red Hat, the world’s largest open source company.  It was clear to me that open source software is significantly better for the developer, which translates into significant improvements for the user.  Futhermore, I was convinced that open source philosophy just made sense — not only for software, but for other things as well.  For a brief look at the open source movement, read the first paragraph of the wiki page for “Open Source Movement.”

Going into my research this summer, I figured that the typically touted open source values of freedom and equality would correspond very well with Christian values.  I’ve been an open source advocate since high school, and a large part of that was because I believed that open source corresponded with my Christian values.  And I was not alone in identifying the one with the other — this article from the Economist, the now-archival Open Source Theology site, and other sites and blogs have noticed the relationship.  Some of my reading material for this summer confirmed this.  From Kirkpatrick’s Critical Technology: A Social Theory of Computing: “Only from this starting point will we be able to identify virtuous uses of the web — those that everyone can agree ought to be prioritised — and to privilege these by ensuring that they are not disadvantaged, legislated against or otherwise inhibited by the machinations of power.  Examples might well be the open source movement itself. . . .”  Two weeks ago, I interviewed a leader in the open source world, who will remain nameless.  It was a thoroughly enjoyable interview, but not entirely what I expected.  He confirmed that the core value of the open source movement is sharing, but the other values promoted through the open source movement were what surprised me.  In no particular order, the values he listed were:

  • sharing — This is the most important value.  The biggest question right now in the open source world is whether sharing should be compulsory or not
  • meritocracy — The notion that no matter who you are, as long as your ideas are good and you can produce quality code, you have as much a right to participate in open source as anyone else.  My friend mentioned that in practice, this requires the cultivation of certain cultural norms and certain character traits
  • transparency — Everything, from code to data to business practices, ought to be transparent.
  • initiative — The open source community favors people who are willing to put themselves forward and taking risks.  My friend mentioned that this requires having a low respect for authority.

What surprised me the most was that the values he listed, other than sharing, are all born from modern, Western values.  They are geared towards the efficient production of high-quality code, and little else.  And my friend was open about this too — he said that all major contributors to open source come from the US, Europe, and Australia, not only because these are some of the most computer-literate nations, but also because the values promoted by open source movements don’t work well outside of individualistic Western culture.  Someone coming from a culture with a high degree of respect for authority would have a difficult time making entry into the open source world, he said.

We continued to talk about a number of things, from his take on software patents to the developer/user relationship in open source to why open source projects rarely produce elegant interfaces.  But what has stuck with me from this interview was his discussion of the values promoted through Open Source.  I suppose open source now falls into the same category as One Laptop Per Child for me — I remain convinced that Open Source is the best way to write code and produce quality software, but I feel I have been mistaken in perfectly aligning open source and Christian values.  For instance, you’ll notice that equality is not in the above list — it would instead be replaced by meritocracy or equity.  Certainly there’s overlap between the open source and Christianity — but the relationship is much more complex than I had previously thought.

Rosie: Discovering Radical Hope in Uganda

DISCOVERING RADICAL HOPE IN KAGOMA GATE

Posted on May 23, 2012

Hi, I’m Rosaria Nowhitney but go by Rosie. I just finished my freshman year and am interested in studying Public Policy and Cultural Anthropology. I grew up in upstate New York, spending my winters skiing and summers playing soccer. I love it there but could not imagine walking to class through snow and the freezing cold so I was ready to leave the northeast for college and found Duke to be the perfect place.

Throughout high school I volunteered with two organizations based in Uganda—AIDS Orphans Education Trust (AOET) and The Giving Circle. After saving my money for two years I finally traveled to Uganda volunteering for AOET for 3 weeks. There is not a day that goes by that I do not think of people I met there and the experiences I had. This summer I am going back to Uganda for my research project. The Giving Circle works with a village in Uganda called Kagoma Gate that has over 800 villagers today but is not even on the map. Kagoma Gate was built 35 years ago by refugees who were working on a sugar cane plantation in Uganda. Once they were too old to survive the harsh conditions of the plantation and unable to return to their home countries, the refugees built this village. I am trying to discover how after facing such atrocities—including the horrors of war, genocide, famine, and slave labor, the refugees were able to come together and build a civilization and live among each other peacefully. Further, I am exploring a concept I was introduced to first semester while participating in Kenan’s Ethics, Leadership, and Global Citizenship Focus Program. In Professor Shanahan’s class, The Limits of Obligation, we read Radical Hope by Jonathan Lear. While it was never clearly stated, I believe radical hope to be a sense of hope when it essentially appears that there is nothing left to hope for. It is an ability to know that somehow, in someway, things will be okay. I believe the villagers of Kagoma Gate, especially the founders, had a great sense of radical hope. With a focus on this concept, I am exploring how the villagers were able to see past their prominent differences and see each other as equals? How were they able to maintain a radical hope? Were there particular leaders that made this possible? What ideas and models did they draw from? Did those leaders use particular strategies? What role do organizations like The Giving Circle play in the cultivation of this radical hope? I want to understand if, as Jonathan Lear implies, radical hope is something you either have or you don’t or if it is something that can be fostered and developed.

I am very eager to begin this project. I leave for Uganda June 25th and return August 7th. I believe what I discover in Kagoma Gate will be applicable to ethics in our every day lives—seeing past differences, seeing the humanity in every individual, keeping hope and acting for what is morally right. In the fall I will present my findings on living an ethical life and radical hope to public high schools in Durham. I am doing this in hope that Kagoma Gate and the villagers’ ability to keep living and work together in times of such hardship will become a model for people and societies around the world.

 

THE IMPORTANCE OF KAGOMA GATE

Posted on June 24, 2012

Hi Everyone,

I will be in Uganda tomorrow and so my research journey in Kagoma Gate will finally begin. Before I start posting every week about the progress and discoveries of the project, I wanted to write more about the background of the project—specifically about why I find this research to be so valuable.

In my first introductory post, I mentioned that I participated in Kenan’s Ethics, Leadership, and Global Citizenship Focus Program. One of my classes was entitled The Limits of Obligation and taught by Professor Suzanne Shanahan who is now my faculty advisor for this summer research. In brief, the class focused on refugee policy and refugees’ experiences by reading and analyzing different genres of literature from novels to researching specific refugee cases. I can honestly say I knew very little about refugees before participating in this class.  After taking the class, and also participating in Kenan’s Winter Forum: Refugees, Rights, Resettlement this past January 2012, I can say that refugee policy and the plight of refugees, has become one of my passions.

It is the stories of the refugees that spark my interest most. The ability for people to survive horrors that I can never imagine, and still find the effort to build a new life in a foreign place is something I find incredible. When I heard about Kenan’s Summer Fellows Program, I immediately thought of Kagoma Gate. Kagoma Gate is unlike any other safe haven or place of refuge I have studied—it was physically created by refugees. The Africans who faced genocide, famine, war and other atrocities did not just arrive in another country and begin to start their new life. They had to first create a new place to live, essentially out of nothing and nowhere. Their situation is why I believe their ability to carry on extends beyond ordinary hope to radical hope. They hoped for something that could only be miraculous in the end. Most intriguing is that the founders all had to accept each other and work together. In Africa, the country and tribe you come from is important. During times of war, this place of origin only becomes more important. The refugees who created Kagoma Gate had to see past these labels of origin and differences in order to build a village and carry on their sense of radical hope.

I believe it is very important to share the stories of the refugees who built Kagoma Gate because it will give us all insight on an aspect of living an ethical life—hope and acceptance. We are so fortunate to be born in a country where the idea of fleeing America for our lives is never even close to being a thought. However, we live in a society and world, where often times it only takes minor differences in affiliations, beliefs, appearances, etc., to split us so greatly apart. This is especially evident in our country now as the presidential elections are nearing. Consequently, one’s political party and political beliefs further alienate one from others who are not of the same and deter everyone from working together.

Everyone can learn from the founders of Kagoma Gate, their sense of radical hope, seeing past differences and creating a village. How the founders were able to successfully work with complete strangers who lived completely different lives, may be able to give us insight as to how we can successfully work with others with whom we believe we have nothing in common and overcome struggles. While the founders of Kagoma Gate are an extreme example of hope and acceptance, their example is one that everyone can apply to their everyday lives and lead one to living a more ethical life.   I cannot wait to share their stories and messages and look forward to posting next Sunday about my first week in Uganda after finally witnessing the successfulness of Kagoma Gate in person.

 

FIRST IMPRESSIONS OF KAGOMA GATE

Posted on July 2, 2012

I have been in Uganda for a week now and I feel like it has been even more overwhelming than my first trip here a year and a half ago. After missing my connecting flight from London to Entebbe and consequentially being in 5 different countries in the span of 36 hours, I was not prepared for my first visit to Kagoma Gate. I fell asleep on the way there and I woke up surrounded by endless fields of sugar cane on both sides of the car. The sugar cane continued until out of nowhere, straw roofs and eventually the whole village of Kagoma Gate was visible—multiple mud huts in the middle of sugar cane fields. As the children came running and elders came out of the huts, Kagoma Gate became the most impoverished village I have seen yet in Uganda. There is nothing in the village. We traced the closest primary school to be 6.1 km away and the nearest high school and birthing center to be 8.8 km away. Because of this, Kagoma Gate is extremely isolated having no medical care or education. It is too dangerous for the young children to walk to school, having to pass miles of sugar cane, because of child abductions and child sacrifice. No one will travel through the sugar cane past dark because the fear for their lives. Here is a photo of the road that leads you to the village.

This week and the following week I am focusing on getting comfortable with the village and many of the people who live there so that when I begin interviews, I will not be a complete stranger to them. I have talked to some elders but only briefly, mainly because only a couple people in the entire village know English. I had the opportunity to have a conversation with one of the elders in the village who did know English and I found out that in 2008 the Ugandan government searched and listed the top 10 poorest villages in Uganda; Kagoma Gate was number one. This is no surprise. The clothes the children wear are torn, dirty, and literally falling off their frail bodies. The elders sit in front of their huts or stand around together as if they are waiting for something-keeping hope for anything, something radical.

Kagoma Gate is the ideal place for discovering radical hope. After seeing the village and hearing a few stories from some of the people, it is unbelievable that they have managed to keep hope. There were a few times that I honestly felt like giving up hope, especially when a mother handed me her child that had been starving since January or when I had to tell children that we had no more clothes or shoes left to give them. I felt hopeless even more so as I saw a mound of dirt enclosed by little rocks—it was a buried body next to a hut. However, as I walked with a group of villagers I heard one say “Kagoma Gate is benefiting”. Even throughout all this, the villagers are still so positive. I am so anxious to learn how the villagers of Kagoma Gate, especially the founders, have managed to continuously and always keep hope.

While I was talking to the elder who was telling me the history of the village, he pointed out a very old man sitting on the ground. His body looked extremely frail and his eyes stared off into another place. The elder I was talking to said that the man’s greatest desire is to return to his home country of Sudan although he knows it is not possible. At this point he is too old and his village is most likely destroyed and has been gone for years. I look forward to speaking with this old man because he is one of the people who will help me find out what it took to create Kagoma Gate. He will also help me understand how the hope is kept when one knows your old life home and everything you have always known, is forever gone.

 

THE DISPARITIES BETWEEN THE EMPLOYER AND EMPLOYEES: FINDING MEDICAL CARE FOR A SUGAR CANE CUTTER’S SON

Posted on July 8, 2012

As I drove with The Giving Circle Team to visit Kagoma Gate this morning, I reflected on what I should write about in my blog for this week. I came up with a pretty good outline in my head but what we came upon in the village today had to be written about. I am still many weeks and many conversations with the villagers away from grasping how the village was created, however, I believe the experience we had today trying to help an extremely ill child has given significant insight, or at least a possible hypothesis, as to how the founders were able to create Kagoma Gate.
While walking through the village, one of the team members found a young three year old boy whose cheek was extremely swollen. When he turned his face to the side, part of his jaw was showing. Both the inside of his mouth and outside of his face was extremely infected. We did not know what was wrong but it was clear this boy needed immediate medical care. We got in the car and after passing the miles of sugar cane we arrived at the guarded off gate to the sugar cane company’s private village. Inside we passed an outside market, an inside supermarket, offices, extremely nice buildings and well-dressed people—all things completely foreign to Kagoma Gate. This was the home of the executive workers of the sugar cane company.
We arrived at the gate of the “Kakira Sugar Works Hospital” and after some questioning we were let through. We knew the villagers of Kagoma Gate never came here because they cannot afford it on their $8 a month salary, but we hoped the hospital would see the suffering boy and we offered to pay. We brought the child in and said he was from Kagoma Gate, and immediately, the clinical physician said they could not help the child and we would have to bring him to the main city–at least another 20 minute drive further.
In the end, we finally found medical care for the young boy and will keep bringing him back to the doctor for at least the next 5 days. However, that is not the significance of this story. Although the boy was helped in the end, I felt so outraged (and still do) that the first hospital would not help the child. They would not help the child because his parents are not high up in the company. At the very moment we were in the office and the boy was crying in pain, his father was suffering through slave labor in the sugar cane plantation yet still the company rejected to help his son. Without the work of this boy’s father and other cane cutters, the company would not exist but the workers receive nothing in return.
Kakira Sugar Works is one of the top sugar companies in Uganda. Everywhere you go you see its advertisements and it is so clear by their “gated off community” that the company is extremely wealthy. It is more clear, though, that they do not share this wealth with the many employees who are literally working to death for this company—the cane cutters. The differences in Kakira Sugar Works private village and Kagoma Gate are two drastic extremes.
In short conclusion, the refugees who founded Kagoma Gate 35 years ago, were unable to receive any help from the company that had hired them to work the sugar cane and still receive no aid. With nowhere else to go and no one to ask for help, it seems as if building this village was their only option. The founders had to learn how to work together and see past any differences or else death was quickly awaiting them, and no one would be there to save them. I wonder how exactly the sugar cane company influenced the foundation of Kagoma Gate and also how it has affected the sense of hope among the founders and current villagers. I will finally begin formal interviews this week and believe the observations and events that have occurred over the past two weeks will aid greatly in the coming conversations.

 

BEGINNING INTERVIEWS

Posted on July 17, 2012

Before I left for Uganda to begin my research, I had to receive Institutional Review Board approval from Duke because I was going to be working with human subjects. As part of this protocol, I had to make a pretty in depth outline of what my interviews would be like, including specific questions. I created categories of general background, history before Kagoma Gate, working conditions, the establishment of Kagoma Gate, the concept of radical hope, and the future. Within these categories I had many questions. This is what I have been using as a guide for my interviews, however, for the coming interviews I have—whether repeat or new people, I have realized it will be necessary to really focus on just one category at a time to truly discover what makes Kagoma Gate so unique.

Each person provided a different story as to why they left their home village, but with all the stories the main conclusion was they left to find work and make a living. Kakira Sugar Works (KSW), an India owned company, sends representatives to extremely poverty stricken villages to recruit males to come and work as cane cutters or “casual laborers”. One of the men I interviewed said they do this because the company believes that people who have faced many hardships will be able to endure the tough labor of cane cutting longer. Therefore, many of the elder males living in Kagoma Gate came to work for the sugar cane company when they were very young and strong—and quite anxious and hopeful.  When one signs a contract with Kakira Sugar Works they are provided with a wage (although extremely little to nothing) and benefits such as meals, medical care, and housing. These benefits, however, are under the condition that they will not have a spouse. This is where the creation of Kagoma Gate came in. Many of the male elders I spoke to either came with their wives or married while working for KSW—breaking their contracts and losing all benefits. With nowhere to go and working on such little pay, Kagoma Gate became a very cheap place to live with just mud huts and also land to grow their own food. In 2001, however, KSW restricted growing of crops in the plantation and one of the most common struggles the villagers said they faced was finding food.

One of the commonalities throughout all the interviews thus far has been family. Because the male is married is why they are living in Kagoma Gate. What made the male cane cutters living in Kagoma Gate different from the other cane cutters in regards to spouses, however? One would think the other cane cutters who never broke the contract still would yearn for their spouse or to find one. So why did the elders in Kagoma Gate actually go through with it? How did hope play in to this?

None of the people I have interviewed so far have any intentions of returning home. Some say it’s because of civil strife while others say they have lost contact and this is their home now. When I asked the elders how they were able to accept others and live in such a diverse community, all of them responded that it did not bother them. One man said “we cannot be segregated” while a woman said “the only ones I worry about are the mosquitos”. Their responses still left a blank as to how exactly they are able to see everyone as equals. Did their individual hardships help to unite them instead of bring them apart? One lady said Kagoma Gate is a “problem collecting center”.

I unfortunately cannot go into all the details of the interviews in one limited space blog post, but the questions I have mentioned throughout the blog will be ones I hope to answer throughout the weeks to come through specified interviews. One of the last ladies I interviewed said “Kagoma Gate is a difficult place to live in but there isn’t much to do about it so you just live.” While family seems to be a common theme in their motives ability to have radical hope, it is clear by the conditions that no ordinary person could keep going. So what makes the villagers of Kagoma Gate so unusually strong and hopeful?

 

FAMILY’S EFFECT ON HOPE

Posted on July 23, 2012

Throughout my time here in Uganda, when I tell people who are living near Kagoma Gate about my project, they often immediately say “Oh! They have no hope!” But throughout my own experiences with the actual villagers of Kagoma Gate, I have found that to not be true. The villagers so clearly have hope. In fact, many of the people I have spoken to have even said that Kagoma Gate is a good place to live and although they have struggles, their outlook on life is  positive.

As I explained in my last blog, many of the founders of Kagoma Gate established the village after they broke their labor contract by having a spouse. People who have more recently arrived in Kagoma Gate have said to come for the same reason. Every time I go to Kagoma Gate and speak with more people and observe, the importance of family becomes more and more evident. A main purpose of Kagoma Gate is a place for spouses/families to live together. I have asked many villagers what their biggest hope/wish/dream is and the most common answers are to either see their children go to school or to return home to their family. Family always is a factor when hope is brought up.

I interviewed one lady this week who has been the only villager to state that she has no hope. She left her home village in north eastern Uganda to escape the tradjedies of her parents’ death and her marriage that fell apart. This woman traveled to Kagoma Gate alone and also built her own mud hut alone—she cut the grass and trees, and even prepared the soil. The only help she had was putting on the roof. The woman made her own income by growing corn and selling it. She said that when she arrived at Kagoma Gate nothing changed much, she still felt very sad but gardening and finding food for herself kept her busy. Today however, she cannot grow as much corn nor make a great income. She is also suffering from double hernia. The woman stated she has no hope and that she “just watches the day come and go”.

This was one of the hardest interviews I have done. It was incredible hearing the story of this woman—she’s a very strong woman and I admired her perseverance and ability to be so completely independent throughout her life. However, unlike many of the other villagers I have spoken to, I could see the pain in her eyes and she carried herself in a helpless way—like she was giving up. She lives in the last hut at the end of the village in the corner. The school The Giving Circle has just recently built is actually right next to her house and she is going to have a new hut built because she does not want to be next to it.  She said she has always been alone, has lost hope of anyone coming to visit her, and is just waiting for her sickness to kill her.

Besides the fact that she sees Kagoma Gate transforming and growing due to the help of The Giving Circle, the woman said nothing positive, especially about her own life. I tried to rephrase questions to get even the tiniest sense of hope but I did not find any. I find it interesting that the villagers that have been positive and keep hope have had family or friends while this woman had completely no one, and stated to have completely no hope in life.

 

“THE PEOPLE OF PROBLEMS TRIBE”

Posted on July 30, 2012

One of the things that makes Kagoma Gate so unique and intriguing is the villagers’ ability to see past their different origins and cultures and live among each other peacefully. However, when I ask the villagers about this diversity, it appears to be an irrelevant question to them. One of the questions I ask is what is it like living among people from so many different places such as Rwanda, Sudan, Congo, ect. All of them say it does not bother them. Based on observations I believe this to be genuinely true.

An example of this is the interview setting of one of the elders from Burundi. He did not remember his age but assumed he was around 70 years old. Being his age, especially after all the struggles he has overcome throughout his years, his body was not only exhausted but his mind too. It was difficult for him to understand and answer questions. Slowly, villagers including one of chief’s of the village and his neighbors began to stand and sit near us talking. At first I thought of asking if they could stay back for privacy but I noticed that the old man became more comfortable with them there and they even helped to translate the questions in to ways the man understood better. With their help, the elder provided more thorough responses.

The elder told me that his biggest challenge occurs when he falls sick but his neighbor continues to help him. His neighbor helps him by providing food and cooking meals for him. I later interviewed his neighbor who is 48 years old. This man is more able than the elder but I still found it interesting that he provided food to the elder when it was a struggle just to find food for his own self. I asked him why he did it and his response was that he sees the villagers as brothers and sisters “because [they] all come out of need”. He said that everyone has arrived here in Kagoma Gate because of “dire need” and what unites them all is poverty. The man even went to say that looking at other villagers in Kagoma Gate is an inspiration because he is not alone. This type of response was very common among the villagers. All of the villagers have faced extreme hardships and are living in extreme poverty. They all struggle daily to find food and survive. Although they are from different origins, they have arrived in Kagoma Gate for similar reasons that allow them to relate to one another and become, as they have stated many times, brothers and sisters. Two interesting comments I heard were, “Kagoma Gate is a problem collecting center” and “the tribe the villagers now belong to is ‘The People of Problems Tribe’.” When someone new arrives they explain their story then are given a spot to build their hut. Sharing their struggles grants one a place to live in Kagoma Gate.

Something I could not ignore, however, is that many of these people have come from villages that were once peaceful but then extreme civil strife occurred. So another question I also asked was how one believed the villagers were able to avoid conflicts. Repetitively, the response was that there are no conflicts because there is no property to fight over. One stated “people of the same kinship fight because of property”. In reality, Kagoma Gate is an illegal settlement because it was built on government land (although the government knows it exists and claims they will not relocate them). None of the villagers own any of the land they are living on. In terms of one of the villagers, they are all “squatters”.

The fact that there is no property to fight over was the most common response as to how the villagers believed all conflict was avoided, makes me wonder if the amount of material possessions is what allows one to see others as equals?  One man said “Greed steers the conflicts”. There is a lot that can be looked in to based on this statement. The villagers’ views on conflict have brought up questions that extend beyond Kagoma Gate and can apply to the ethics of humanity around the world.

 

A CHANGE IN RADICAL HOPE

Posted on August 6, 2012

In Jonathan Lear’s book, Radical Hope, the story of the Crow tribe leader, Plenty Coups, and his ability to lead the tribe to survival after facing cultural devastation is highlighted. The whole story focuses on Plenty Coups’ statement that “When the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened.” Lear analyzed the actions of Plenty Coups and the tribe to discover what actually did happen and how they were able to keep hope after their way of life ended.

Over the past six weeks this is one of the main things I have been trying to do in Kagoma Gate. Many of the villagers have left their lives that they have always known—leaving their home villages, family and friends whether because of death or necessity to leave, and arrived in a completely foreign place with no known expectations. From the outside, just as many people claim the villagers of Kagoma Gate have no hope, people may also claim that after moving to Kagoma Gate “nothing happened”.

I have learned, though, that very much has happened. Kagoma Gate was created by five men and today over 800 people live there. The villagers of Kagoma Gate have been able to build homes for themselves, protect their families, create new families, build new friendships, gain an income, and most importantly accept and work together with others and keep hope through all hardships.

Jonathan Lear states that what made the Crow tribe’s hope radical is that it was “directed towards a future goodness that transcended the current ability to understand what it is”. What the good was, was unknown, but the Crow tribe still hoped for it. The villagers of Kagoma Gate have done the same. While the villagers continued living and many established families whom they cared for greatly, many of the people I interviewed still said that there was nothing to do in Kagoma Gate—they just kept living to find food. The villagers kept hoping through times of starvation, sickness, and death. While they each had their own specific hopes, none knew how their hopes would come true.

Today, the Crow tribe still exists unlike many of the other tribes of their time. Their ability to hope for something radical led to their survival. And today, I can also say the same for the villagers of Kagoma Gate. Today, Kagoma Gate is no longer the poorest village in Uganda. Because of The Giving Circle Africa (TGCA), the first school ever has been built in the village and a medical center is in the process of being built. Before the involvement of TGCA, the villagers said there was no signs of development in the village and nothing changed over its 35 years of existence except more people. But today, they have, as one said, “something they could have never dreamed of”. The assistance of TGCA with a school and medical centre is something that used to be radical to the villagers, but is now real. The hope of the villagers of Kagoma Gate is no longer a sense of radical hope, but tangible hope. Their dreams for their children to go to school will soon be fulfilled. Their dreams to end preventable deaths will soon be answered. Of course, not all of their hopes, such as going back to their home villages, have yet become answered but as Lear states, radical hope is “committed to the bare idea that something good will emerge”, and the villagers of Kagoma Gate, after 35 years, have finally witnessed good happening and progression.

Here is a photo of a mud hut The Giving Circle built for one of the elders in the village and his neighbor. Before this was built–for only $100, the man was living in a home made out of plastic bags and sheets. He wrote his thanks on the front of his home.

I leave for home tomorrow and will spend the next two weeks analyzing all that I have learned over the past weeks. I will then be taking that information and creating a presentation on radical hope and acceptance for public high school students in Durham. My main focus is to take everything the villagers of Kagoma Gate have taught me on acceptance and radical hope and learn to apply it to other societies and especially our own daily lives.

 

ACCEPTANCE IN OUR DAILY LIVES

Posted on August 17, 2012

I have been home for almost a week now and this week I have been focusing on the acceptance aspect of my research. In short, I found that the villagers were able to create and live in a village of such diversity by sharing their stories. This enabled them to find common ground. Although they were from different tribes and different countries, they all had faced extreme atrocities. So many of the villagers had lost one or both parents, a spouse, children or other people close to them. So many of them have faced violence, starvation, illnesses, and long journeys to seek refuge. When experiencing events and pain such as these, the tribe you belong to quickly becomes irrelevant. The villagers did not even think about the origins of their neighbors. Each villager was looked at as a human being who had suffered greatly and was only trying to survive. So together they all began the journey to overcome their struggles and get through each day.
While the villagers have faced hardships that many of us, cannot come close to fathoming, there is so much we can take from it. In my proposal for the Kenan Summer Fellows Program, I described my experiences working with Latino migrant workers in my community. One of the key things that enabled me to relate to them was telling stories. Although they were from many different countries and cultures that were so different from my own, when it came down to it, we were the same. We all had family we cared about, goals we wanted to achieve, and stories we could relate to in some way. A person can still laugh or cry, or have the same emotions, regardless of where they are from—its part of humanity. If we could all see this more often, many of our problems would be eliminated. All it takes is looking at a person in their simplest form—a human with the ability to feel emotions.
I know actually doing this – realizing and recognizing another’s humanity – is a lot harder than it sounds. However, I believe if we look toward and remember the villagers of Kagoma Gate and how they were able to overcome their difference, we will become inspired to do the same. The United States is one of the most diverse places in the world. It consists of individuals from all over the world bringing their own cultures, beliefs, and dreams. If we all took the time to have a simple conversation with someone who we believe to be “different” then I believe the country could improve greatly. I want to emphasize that it only needs to be a simple conversation—not a debate, not an argument; it should be a talk with no motives than to just listen to others. The most important and hardest part of this conversation, however, is listening. This means people must not just hear what others say but actually pay attention and think about it. Reflect on others stories and compare them to ones own. There is no doubt that there will be similarities. After seeing what the villagers of Kagoma Gate have accomplished, I believe if we took the time to do this, finding common ground would become a lot clearer.

 

HOPE IN OUR DAILY LIVES

Posted on August 20, 2012

In my final blog I am going to talk about hope and how we can keep hope in our own daily lives, even when it seems impossible. One aspect of hope I have not previously brought up is religion. Religion is extremely prominent in Kagoma Gate and in many villages all across Uganda. There are three established religions in Kagoma Gate—two Pentecostals and one Anglican Church. There are other religious beliefs and practices in the village but these are the three largest. At first, it seems like religion is what enables the villagers of Kagoma Gate to have radical hope. However, when looking at what they hope for in their lives, no matter the religion to which they belong, their hopes and dreams were always related to family or others around them. Relationships with others is what I believe enabled the villagers to have radical hope. As I have discussed in previous blogs, villagers wanted their futures to be with their families or they wanted a bright future for their family members. It was often family that enabled them to keep “radical hope” or, in some cases, to not have any hope at all. The lady I discussed in earlier blogs said she had no hope, was religious, and was a member of the Anglican Church. But she, unlike other members of the church who had family, did not have hope. With no one to care about or for, she had no hope.
So how do we keep this hope in our own daily lives? Surely we can look to our family and friends, however, what if one is left with no family or friends such as the woman who claimed she had no hope? This is where the process of acceptance can help. Many of the villagers of Kagoma Gate were left with no one and nothing at all. Many of them lost their actual family but they found new family through their ability to accept and relate to others in the village. If we can learn to accept others and find common ground, as discussed in my last blog, then I believe keeping hope—being positive, will also become a lot easier. If you relate to others and share stories, you will find that there are others in your situations too. Whether you have family or not, you’re not alone because there are other people similar to you even when you cannot believe it. Share stories, talk to others about your struggles and anything about life. What truly enabled the villagers of Kagoma Gate to keep hope were others. Seeing their family, friends, and neighbors, enabled them to keep going.
One of the many things the villagers of Kagoma Gate have taught me is the importance of community. They have taught me how its’ possible to create a community from nothing through acceptance. They also taught me how to keep that community together through hope. Simply put, when it seems impossible to understand one another—just talk to each other, share stories. And when it seems impossible to be hopeful—seek others around you. After reflecting on the past weeks in Uganda, I find it true that one cannot live a full and ethical life unless they remember the others around them.

Nyuol: The Moral Dilemmas of South Sudanese Americans

AN ETHICS OF BELONGING?

Posted on May 23, 2012

Call me Nyuol (no allusion intended). I am from South Sudan (the world’s newest nation). I matriculated at Duke with the intention of studying philosophy and economics, and am still interested in them, but I am currently double majoring in literature and linguistics. I have lived in different places and experienced diverse cultures, all which, in many ways, form the edifice of my consciousness. I consider myself a cosmopolitan person, at least intellectually, if not existentially.

In the summer of 2006, I moved to the United States to study. Like many South Sudanese who received comparable opportunities, coming to America marked a new beginning for me. Before that breakthrough, the prospects of getting secondary education, going to college, or just improving the conditions of the refugee life were rather bleak. And so, that summer, when the FedEx package arrived containing a letter of acceptance and a scholarship award to attend a boarding school in California—well, everything changed. Those documents established my qualification for a passport, which means country, nationality, recognition, rights, privileges I was denied, being a refugee and all.

Anyway, I found myself in America overnight. I anticipated encountering many challenges here, of course. For instance, my English was poor. This meant that I would have to work harder to perform well academically and socially. Beyond such obvious limitations, however, I really didn’t expect America to be nothing short of haven, of home. And in many respects, it has been just that, and perhaps more.

It didn’t take me long, however, to notice the differences between American and South Sudanese ethical norms and frameworks. For example, while Americans generally think of issues in terms of individual freedom or beneficence, South Sudanese, in my experience, give the common or communal interest greater consideration. Anyway, there are many South Sudanese who believe that such different ethical approaches create serious ethical ambivalences and ambiguities for them. So this summer, I’ll explore this question deeper, through interviews and conversations with South Sudanese immigrants in San Jose, California, informed by the following questions:

  • How do South Sudanese negotiate with American ethical norms?
  • What does it mean for a South Sudanese American to lead an ethical life?
  • How do they decide which ethical norms to relinquish and which to preserve and promote?
  • What virtues or qualities in America have South Sudanese found worthy of emulation—or not?
  • What can the American society learn from the South Sudanese ethical framework?

I’m excited about this project!  And although I focus on South Sudanese Americans here, the research is ultimately about the meaning of multiculturalism, cosmopolitanism, and belonging in this already global and increasingly globalizing world of ours.

 

HOME: HERE, THERE, OR BOTH?

Posted on June 1, 2012

This is my first interview: a phone conversation which occurred in a course of two days. The person I interviewed asked that his name and those of his family members be kept private, and so we shall call him Beny. He was born in South Sudan, between 1970 and 1980, and immigrated to the United States about a decade ago.

In 1983, one of Africa’s deadliest civil wars erupted between the Sudanese government and the South Sudanese rebels, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement. This conflict claimed millions of lives and forced many people to flee their homes. Beny was separated from his family in Bahr el Ghazal region when he was only ten years old. For about two years, with a band of more than 200,000 orphaned and displaced children, the Lost Boys of Sudan, Beny marched hundred of miles across the country to the Kakuma Refugee Camp in northern Kenya. There he spent his childhood and adolescence years, fighting for everything, shelter, food, clothes, education, and anything to survive.

Beny currently lives with his wife, a native of South Sudan herself, and his two U.S. born daughters in a two-bedroom apartment about fifteen miles outside Downtown San Jose. Beny works for a vehicle rental company and enjoys and appreciates his job. “I’m really lucky to have a job, considering how bad the economy is right now,” He said. “I’m happy I’m able to provide for my family here and for people back home.”

I asked Beny why he referred to South Sudan as “home” and to US as “here.” The former, home, suggests a place for which we feel close affinity and strong attachment, while the latter, here, signifies a spot, where we happen to find ourselves. “I’m American too,” Beny said. He added that he appreciates America, for all the things that he can do today, for all the places that he can visit now, and for all the different and many cultures that he can experience by living in America. Nevertheless, he maintained, that doesn’t make America the home that South Sudan is and always will be in his heart.

“Home is something else,” He clarified. Both his parents, probably in their late fifties or early sixties, now live in northern Bahr el Ghazal with his siblings and relatives in the village where his ancestors are buried. Through remittances, Beny has helped improve their lives quite a lot. “Citizenship gets you a passport for sure,” Beny remarked. “But I’m not sure about home.” Home is history, culture, and relation or relating to others. Home is family and community. This country, Beny pointed out, doesn’t really provide that sense of belonging and rootedness: “Here, everybody is American, but nobody is from America.”

I thought that was a remarkable observation. I right away concluded that, for Beny, home is where we are from, not where we are. But that wasn’t the case after the second phone conversation. There is a sense of “two homes,” as Beny noted, that permeates the lives of South Sudanese Americans, and so home for them is both: where they are from, South Sudan, and where they live, work, and study today, America. Though this can serve as a recipe for colorful and beautiful experiences, it essentially creates ambiguities, confusions, and dilemmas that make leading ethical lives rather difficult, as South Sudan and America have quite dissimilar cultural, political, and social frameworks.

“My daughters are Americans, hundred percent, though!” Beny said, rather fondly. They speak Dinka fluently and now and then talk with their grandparents and cousins through phone, yes, but South Sudan remains a distant, and even a foreign, country to them. I asked Beny how he was able to teach them to speak Dinka. His wife, he said. She made sure that they spoke Dinka at home. But, of course, learning the language and learning the Dinka ways are two very different things. He tries to instill in them some important Dinka values, like sharing with others, serving the community, and personal integrity–which are not necessarily opposed to American values–but he knows that the job would’ve been easier were they living in the village, where supportive cultural norms and social institutions exist.

During the last few minutes of our last call, I asked Beny whether there are American virtues or traits that he appreciates that he wants his daughters to cultivate: “Passion for life and after one’s dreams,” He said. America teaches you to believe in yourself and to believe that, “With hard work, you can achieve whatever goal you set out for yourself. I want my children to have that American spirit!”

Let’s stop here–the post is getting quite long!–but rest assured that this is just the beginning of our conversation with Beny and other South Sudanese Americans in the San Francisco Bay Area, about the meaning of community, citizenship, belonging, and leading ethical lives as immigrants.

Much gratitude for supporting and following Kenan Summer Fellows, and stay tuned!

 

TRADITIONAL MARRIAGE

Posted on June 27, 2012

During our first small group discussion last weekend the topic of our conversation changed, rather imperceptibly , from examining the benefits of raising children in America to evaluating the importance of traditional marriage. I shouldn’t be that surprised, though, for the participants were mostly married people. I am not at liberty to disclose their names, of course, their occupations, their backgrounds, but there was a total of five: three men, all married, and two women, one married, and one at the threshold of being so (she just finished college and gentleman-callers, with serious intentions, are making themselves known!).

It wasn’t that unfortunate a turn, really, the topic change. Traditional marriage, we learn, entails more than patriarchy and polygamy. It presupposes expectations and imposes obligations to creating and maintaining the good family, the prerequisite for the good community. This is the argument that the male participants advanced. Although they were educated in the United States, their families in South Sudan arranged their marriages. They married the traditional way. They didn’t meet their wives, call on them, fall in love with them, and then propose—the way it is done in America usually and sometimes in South Sudan—no, not at all, they didn’t have to go through that ordeal. Nor did the wives. Everything was arranged.

All they knew about each other was learned from relatives and families and through long, very long, long-distance phone calls. The fact that they were all South Sudanese and knew each other’s families was sufficient to imagine a family together. This confidence, one of the male participants argued, springs from the understanding of the roles and expectations that the traditional marriage delineates and designates for each member of the family, the parents and the children. As long as everyone follows those guidelines, the family should do fine. This is the benefit of traditional marriage, the sense of direction, the clear expectations that it provides.

Which begs the question: does it all come down to the way the marriage comes about? No was the unanimous answer. It comes down to the couples themselves, their characters, their tempers, their natures, and the community they are part of. In fact, the married women emphasized, it largely comes down to the community. In South Sudan, the cultural and social norms support this vision of family and thus, directly and indirectly, hold everyone accountable. When women and men fail to do what they are supposed to do, as parents and as espouses, the community steps in, through confrontation, consultation, admonition, and, when necessary, punishment, fine, separation.

Which begs another question: is it then difficult to raise a family the South Sudanese way in the United States? Yes was everyone’s response. The United States doesn’t only have a different way of raising family; it also has a very exclusionary way of doing it. There is almost no community for support, apart, maybe, from your relatives and friends—the government intervenes sometimes when things reach the point of incorrigibility, which is something entirely different from community involvement. So, in conclusion, it seems that South Sudanese favor traditional marriage, even though they are deeply aware that its attendant vision of the good family might be difficult to realize away from home.

 

ONE YEAR LATER, SOUTH SUDAN: A PERSONAL NOTE

Posted on July 9, 2012

I am reunited with my father, Lueth Tong Matiok, after twelve years of separation.

Today, July 9, 2012, marks the first anniversary of South Sudan’s independence. And, as expected, political analysts and experts are pointing out the challenges that are still plaguing the new nation. According to the International Monetary Fund, 47 percent of South Sudanese are undernourished, which means that they are living below the poverty line. Inter-communal conflicts over cattle and other resources continue to terrorize, displace and kill people in states like Jonglei, Unity and Warrap. After the shutdown of oil production last January, which constitutes 98% of revenues, the new nation is nearly bankrupt. Civil societies have reported also that the government has been tamping down basic freedoms such as the right to speak freely. In short, the South Sudanese government has come short in providing development, stability, democratic transformation, or the basic aspirations of South Sudanese. While am aware of these challenges, I hope that analysts won’t equally hesitate to qualify these assessments with the phrase: One year later, South Sudan. This is important, because nations aren’t built, secured, or developed overnight.

It is also important because the 9th of July does not simply mark the political divorce from Sudan; rather its significance, for many South Sudanese, is informed by realities of a personal nature. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) of 2005 was signed while I was still a refugee in Egypt. I celebrated the historic moment because it meant that my father—whom I hadn’t seen since I was six years old, was technically safe. We were separated when Northern Sudanese militia came to arrest him and demanded that I tell them where he was. When I refused, they dug a hole, threw me in and began to fire. Luckily I was not hurt, but my father feared a recurrence, and sent my mother and siblings and I to Khartoum. From there, we sought asylum in Egypt.

I survived, but over two millions people were killed in the war. The death toll continued even after 2005—and even today. The CPA was informally known as “peace on paper.” Even as late as 2008, I did not know if I would ever see my father and extended family again. What did the peace treaty mean, if it did not bring guaranteed peace? Not until I visited my village in 2010 did the ceasefire and the peace accord become tangible evidence of peace. It meant that after twelve years of separation, I could hug my father and meet my siblings and relatives.

Ayeit, the village of my birth, is less than fifty miles away from Abyei, very close to Northern Sudan. I was born in 1991, when the Sudanese government was heavily employing Antonovs and helicopters to bomb areas in South Sudan. So Ayeit at the time was a ghost town. We fled frequently into the forest to hide from the bombardments and lived on tree leaves and seeds exhumed from ants’ colonies. The Ayeit I visit today is unfamiliarly normal and disturbingly stable. I fall asleep to the euphony of humming insects instead of the cacophony of roaring guns that was the soundtrack to my childhood. I have caught up with my old friends. Last summer, we played soccer together, barefoot, and we swam naked, in this local mired river where we used to fish as small boys whenever we could. And we watched Bollywood DVD’s and downloaded the music of Beyoncé and Kanye West and Celine Dion from iTunes and danced to house music at parties and trekked across villages to meet girls.

When I return to Duke, we stay in touch, texting each other across the world and sharing photos on Facebook. So what, you may think? Everyone does these things! But for me they are the happy denouement of the nightmare I lived in South Sudan. The music, dancing, and swimming remind me that my country is a place like anywhere else, no longer stigmatized by the North, or occupied by gunfire. Ayeit, marked by tukul huts and cattle borders, characterized by life, not death. The harsh contours of a militarized landscape have dissolved, softened by the simple joy of the inhabitants as they go about their daily routine—milking cows, cultivating maize, fishing in the afternoon, drinking homemade beer, cracking jokes, living their lives.

When I visited my village the first time since I was six, I looked for my six-year-old self. I looked for the spot where the Northern Sudanese militia dug my grave. I couldn’t find either one. For twelve years, I’d regarded my homeland as the scene of a horror movie. That movie ended. Life is not perfect. The German philosopher Georg Hegel said that man is always in the process of becoming. I urge the analysts to consider what that process entails in the context of South Sudanese post-secession. Wait and see what becomes of South Sudan.

 

A FOLLOW-UP

Posted on July 15, 2012

The blog post on traditional marriage generated questions that I thought very insightful and important to explore further. Of course, last week was rather busy for many South Sudanese. The 9th of July marked the first anniversary of our country’s independence from Sudan. Several people who live and work in the Bay Area went to Washington, D.C. to celebrate. And participation in the discussions was quite small as a result, but we still had wonderful conversations and touched on many issues and questions. I rather liked that the questions were derived from comments posted by those who are following the Kenan Summer Fellows’ blog and that I was merely mediating and facilitating. This is the fist installment. We shall do two questions per a follow-up.

What role does the Internet play in South Sudanese communities?

Almost the same role it plays in other communities. All the people I have been interviewing have Facebook accounts. They are connected with their family members, relatives, and friends, and share photos and links to news about South Sudan. Actually, many South Sudanese are very political on the Internet. Websites like www.sudantribune.comwww.gurtong.net, and www.newsudanvision.com publish opinion pieces by South Sudanese and provide room for debates and polls on issues. The Internet has also allowed many South Sudanese to share their stories and spread awareness about problems plaguing the country.

I’m also curious about whether there are any possible negative effects of community involvement in family life, and of traditional marriage more generally. Are there South Sudanese who really want the traditions to change? If so, what are their reasons?

Yes, of course—especially young people. They generally argue that bride wealth, which is required of the groom, makes getting married rather difficult. In my community for instance, one needs at least 31 cows to propose—one cow costs about $300 – $500. It is very expensive! Another problem that many young people voice is polygamy or having multiple wives. It might have made sense 60 years ago, they argue, when almost everyone lived in the village and farmed. Success then wasn’t as much contingent on good education and other needs that require money. For example, it is hard today for many parents to provide sufficient food, quality education, basic healthcare, or adequate housing for their many children.  Another argument against polygamy is of religious nature. Christianity is growing rapidly in the country and many people are distancing themselves from traditional marriages. Of course, these are not the only arguments against traditional marriage…

More soon!

 

“WELL, THEN, WHY CAN’T WE ALL BE AMERICANS?”

Posted on July 22, 2012

I spent this gone Friday and Saturday with a South Sudanese man who has just returned from South Sudan. I was amazed that he spent so much money just to go back and celebrate the independence with family and friends. I admired his patriotism. We talked about the current state of the new nation and what was the general public feeling and assessment of the government thus far. He said people are hopeful and confident that government will deliver, given time and “the benefit of the doubt.” Then he said something that was, well, off topic, but quit relevant to the research this summer.

He said that while in South Sudan he felt more American than he ever felt while in America. I probed deeper what he meant by that. He said that people there received him both as an American and as a South Sudanese, but most times what people seemed to notice about, and recognize in, him, is how American he’s become. This opened a window for me to explore what exactly it means for a South Sudanese to be considered America. I asked him what exactly being American meant for him, both here and in South Sudan. He said that he’s always considered America and the American passport and citizenship an opportunity to get good education and valuable experience that would secure him good employment and useful ways to help his country—South Sudan.

He said that he never really felt wedded to American culture and “narrative” and that the whole notion of America being a “melting pot” of cultures and traditions and nationalities is more of an ideology, an aspiration, than a lived reality. Yes, America hosts people from all over the world—and that’s wonderful—but there are dominant cultures and norms, and so when we call for the integration of immigrants into the American society we are often talking about assimilating or melting other cultures into the dominant cultures and norms. This is the reason he feels closer to South Sudan than to America when it comes to belonging and sense of community.

The last few weeks in South Sudan, however, showed him that America’s influence on him is greater than he’s given credit. For example, in South Sudan, people thought that he was very American in the way he talked and saw things. He was given the chance to speak at the local celebration of independence and he brought up the topic of women’s rights and how the South Sudanese society was poorer because many women aren’t given the same opportunities men enjoy in terms of education and participation in the public sphere.

People accepted and applauded his message, he said, but there was general suspicion about the viability of his message in South Sudan’s current evolution as a country. After all, women’s confinement in the private and domestic sphere is not just a function of cultural attitudes and social systems; it is also a function of some real needs that must be met.

People told him that Americans believe that everything is possible if people “make up their minds” and consolidate their efforts and resources to make it happen. This American sensibility of the possibility of everything was something he could never have noticed so ingrained in him while in America. In America, he said, he is busy making sure the bills are paid and his family is leading a life of relative comfort. He was proud to be called American in that context. He said that he told the people, jokingly, “Well, then, why can’t we all be Americans?”

DEATHBED INTROSPECTION

Posted on August 27, 2012

At the start of the project, I had focused largely on getting to know the people I was interviewing and spending time with. We talked about their families, backgrounds and experiences both in South Sudan and the United States. Then, after we became familiar with each other and the subject of the research, we began to examine some  ethical and social differences, such as the ethics of belonging, the meaning of home, and the importance of traditional marriage.

During the last three weeks, our discussions eased into very philosophical exchanges on the central question of this research: what does it mean to lead ethical lives? The major challenge was the main question itself. People thought that it was rather broad and abstract and akin to many perennial questions, like: what does it mean to exist? These are questions that one can only try to answer during what the Dinka call deathbed introspection: a retrospective conversation that we are supposed to have with ourselves when we come to the awareness that we have but few hours or days left among the living.

It is then that we can truly realize how well we have lived, how much difference we have made, how many mistakes we have committed, how much we have, or were, loved or hated. We are then supposed to weigh our bad deeds against our good deeds and, accordingly, determine the meaning or our lives’ worth, dying either content or remorseful. I thought this response to the question was rather revealing.

It showed, though indirectly, how the Dinka determine the meaning of having lived well or led an ethical life. The thought with which one is supposed to depart the world—contentment or remorsefulness—presupposes a conception of what a good life, which is to say an ethical life, is ought to look like. In other words, it is a result of whether the good deeds outweigh the bad deeds or vice versa. So the question—what does it mean to lead an ethical life?—was perhaps too early to ask, in the Dinka sense, and our answers might have simply been incomplete, because, obviously, we weren’t engaged in deathbed introspection.

We concluded that the meaning of leading a good life or an ethical one cannot just be simply arrived at through reasoning. Our ethical decisions are influenced by factors that are very complicated and even imperceptible to us sometimes.  We draw lines or establish laws and duties to regulate our behaviors and even thoughts, but they never guarantee our living well or leading ethical lives.