Archives For Economics

The True Cost

May 4, 2013 — Leave a comment

How much would you pay for a t-shirt? Five dollars? Ten? Forty?

How much should you pay for a t-shirt? What would it cost to produce a shirt that does no harm to the environment or person? Can clothing even be produced in a sustainable way?

Clothing is the second most chemical intensive industry in the world, after agriculture. Rivers in China run blue with the dye from denim.

Patagonia is, arguably, the most responsible manufacturer of clothes in the world. For the last six years they have been named on Ethisphere’s most ethical companies list (though they were left off this year). Patagonia has served as an industry leader in transparency, and publish information on all of their suppliers and manufactures  Recently they elected to become the first Benefit Corporation in California; this form of corporate structure requires that they put their stakeholders infront of corporate profits (Bloomberg explains the benefits and drawbacks of BCorps here). Recently they’ve partnered with the Nature Conservancy to work with sheep farmers in Patagonia to ensure that the wool they buy does not contribute to overgrazing. Overgrazing has turned 20 million acres of land into desert in Patagonia. On the largest shopping day of the year, Black Friday, they ran an ad telling customers, “don’t buy this jacket.” Instead they asked their customers to try and buy used versions of their product.  All of their cotton is organic, a decision they made when they realized how many chemicals go into growing cotton – they had to find famers to buy organic cotton from directly before there was a market for it.

In light of this, I’d say Patagonia is a pretty good example of what a responsible clothing company should look like.

Patagonia sells many clothing items, among them are t-shirts. The minimum retail price for a Patagonia shirt is $39.00. That is a pretty steep cost for a t-shirt; it reflects the cost of making clothes that do little to no harm to the environment and treat the laborers well.

You can buy shirts for considerably less than forty bucks, but should you? Gap, through Old Navy and Bannan Republic, sells t-shirts ranging from $4.99 to $32.50. Its hard to think how a $4.99 shirt could be made in a sustainable way, even at the high end its questionable. Gap’s CSR policy is as good as most clothing manufacturers, but implementing the policy while maintaining a competitive pricing policy is a hard task to juggle.

Gap manufactures a lot clothing in Sri Lanka, and they promise to maintain a watchful eye on the post war situation. Despite blatant abuses by the government, Gap continues to manufacture clothes here. More prominently, Gap may have been able to prevent the death of over 507 people at Rana Plaza in Dhaka last week.

In 2011 Gap walked out of negotiations which would have implemented extensive fire and building safety standards. This plan would have implemented these regulations outside of the control of the government, with funding by multinational manufactures. The companies would have contributed up to $500,000 a year. PvH (Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger) and German retailer Tchibo signed on to the plan, but the commitment of at least two other firms was needed to implement the plan.

It’s being argued that cheap clothes have helped fuel social revolutions in Bangladesh, but at what point are clothes too cheap? If these reforms had been implemented Gap could have passed the increased cost on to consumers or seen their earnings reduced by 0.0034% (Gap Inc. earned $14.5B in 2012). Instead of moving operations to a higher cost country, with more regulatory burdens, Gap could have taken the charge and led meaningful reforms in Bangladesh.

Keep this in mind next time you’re out shopping.

Coffee is something I’ve struggled to live without while living abroad. After a month of living off of instant coffee, a friend turned me on to Hansa Coffee.

Great coffee can be found on Fife Road, in Colombo

Great coffee can be found on Fife Road, in Colombo

Hansa is a local coffee producer, and they’ve quickly turned into my favorite coffee brand. They have a small shop in Colombo, where you can purchase a variety of coffee drinks, snacks, and packaged coffee.

Hansa is unique because they roast their beans at the same altitude as they are grown, which is supposed to improve the taste and flavor of the bean. Sipping the Arabica blend – a favorite of mine – one picks up subtle notes of blueberry and chocolate. Needless to say, I’m glad to have made their coffee a part of my life.

Aside from producing coffee with a rich, fresh taste, Hansa makes coffee that you can feel good about drinking. Over the past few years I have grown more aware of the effects of my consumption on the rest of the world. My experiences in Kenya opened my eyes to the shocking working conditions and standards of living that tea and coffee workers often endure. Designations such as fair trade, organic, and rainforest alliance can help guide consumers to make more informed purchasing decisions, but there are flaws with these systems.

I recently had the opportunity to visit Hansa’s roasting operations in Nuwara Eliya. Lawrence, the founder and master roaster of Hansa, gave the Fulbrighters an open invitation to visit whenever we were in the area – I’m glad I obliged. Hansa might not be certified organic or fair trade (yet), but after visiting Lawrence I have no doubt that they are among the best coffee producers in the world.

The coffee used by Hansa is sourced from small growers in the central highlands of Sri Lanka, in contrast to the original coffee industry that existed on the island under British colonial rule. During that time, Ceylon was the world’s largest exporter of coffee in 1870, producing  51 million kilograms of coffee annually. The coffee plantations were built in deforested lands, and their monoculture ultimately led to the entire industry being wiped out by 1890. Hansa educates small scale farmers on techniques such as shade-growing, composting, and organic farming.

Hansa is trying to revive the coffee industry without causing further deforestation. Shade grown coffee has a longer yield cycle, but this slower growth leads to a coffee with more complexity and taste. By teaching farmers the benefits of a polyculture farm, Hansa is reducing their dependence on fertilizers and pesticides.

Once the beans are harvested, they are brought to the factory, where they are sorted by hand. Beans with any defect – insect damage, mold, or cracks – are removed. As it turns out, half of the coffee in America is contaminated with mold. This mold produces mycotoxins (not only do mycotoxins make your coffee taste bitter, they cause cancer and brain disease). After the defective beans are sorted out, it is time for the roasting to begin.

Hansa's Roaster

Hansa’s Roaster

When I entered the roasting room I was struck by the intense heat and the overwhelming smell of fresh coffee. The coffee is roasted in small batches, and their special Indian-made roaster is a relic of a bygone era. Periodically the beans are checked for their progress in the roasting process. Watching the pale coffee beans transform into the familiar black ones was fascinating. When I started to hear a cracking noise, the beans were released from their primary chamber and emptied into the bottom hopper. The steaming beans continued to crack. The roaster was brought back to temperature before more beans were poured in.

Hansa is my coffee of choice for a multitude of reasons. It is delicious, but it is also made in a socially and environmentally thoughtful manner. Lawrence is a humanist, who cares deeply about the tenets of organic farming. His company is both a reflection of his beliefs and an attempt to make a better cup of coffee.

While most of the world was watching the Super Bowl I was standing in the rain to watch the celebration of Sri Lanka’s 65th Independence Day.

Sri Lanka, or Ceylon as it was known at the time, gained its independence from the British Empire on February 4, 1948. For most citizens the day was unremarkable. Unlike India’s mass struggles to gain independence, Sri Lanka’s battles were waged primarily by the intelectual class.

At the time of independence Ceylon was one of the wealthiest nations in Asia – a model for Taiwan, SIngapore, and Korea. The education rate was extremely high and english was extremely common. Things were looking up for the island nation.

The Tamil minority had gained a great deal of power during colonization, they held a number of high posts in the Ceylon Civil Service. In 1956, the newly elected prime minister passed the controversial Sinhala only act – this act is usually a starting point for the historical narrative of the civil war.

In 1972 Ceylon changed its name to the “Free, Sovereign and Independent Republic of Sri Lanka”. In 1978 it was shortened to to the “Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka”. In 1977 a new constitution, modeled after France’s, was enacted; Sri Lanka became the first country in Asia to liberalize its economy. The 1983 Black July riots mark the start of brought on the start of the LTTE and the official start of the war. For many years the LTTE planned to make Trinco the capital of Tamil Eelam.

For weeks Trinco has been getting a facelift. Roads are being widened, buildings painted, and signs hung. For more about the preparations in town, see this Groundview’s Article

This was the third time that the holiday is celebrated in Trinco, the first was 1953 and the second was in 1965. I woke early in the morning, to the sounds of rain and thunder. Once into the heart of town, we had to walk a good way to make it to the parade ground. Two security checkpoints later, and I was in the midst of a crowd – jostling for a sight of the President as he gave his speech.

The speech made many references to the current UN attempts to allow an independent investigation into the end of the war. Below is selected text of his speech that I feel really sums up his message.

We respond to the publicity against Sri Lanka carried out abroad by inviting foreign countries to come to Sri Lanka. We have seen that the best answer to false publicity and propaganda carried out in foreign countries is development and reconciliation in Sri Lanka. Do not believe something just because it is said, because you have read reports, critics have said it or the media has published it. We tell the people of the world – Come! Come Over and See for yourselves!
Friends
If freedom is a heavenly state, it is not a state one can fully achieve. There was a time when you went past the road blocks in fear of death. When you trod in fear past the roadblocks you did not see the potholes. You did not have the time to think of cleanliness of the city or new road signs. But when the fear of death and the roadblocks are no more, you notice the potholes on those roads. What is next needed is a concrete road. Once concrete roads are given to the entire country and the roads are properly carpeted one notices the absence of modern signboards. When these are completed we seek roads with more lanes for traffic. 
The expectations in a free country are also like this. The more freedom is obtained; the people expect a more advanced life.
Friends
We are a nation that has suffered immensely for freedom. All political parties in this country should understand this. It is not only the Government, but the Opposition too has the responsibility to safeguard this freedom we have won. Protecting the country and building reconciliation is not support extended to the Government or the Opposition. It is support given to the country. It is doing one’s duty by the land of one’s birth. 
The speech, once I read the translated version, proved to be unsurprisingly disappointing. The New York Times published a review of it.  
All in all, this was certainly one of the most memorable days of my Fulbright. It was a great experience. 

Over the past several months I’ve been forced to become more efficient in all of my interactions.

When speaking with someone from a different cultural background, even in English, much can be lost. After studying in China for two semesters I had a good sense of how to deal with the language barrier, but there was quite a learning curve for the style of communication in Sri Lanka.

For the language barrier it is best to:
  • Speak simply. Throw out the convoluted diction and try to mimic the commonly used phrases.
  • Don’t dance around your problems. Clearly state what your goals and
  • Repeat everything and ask questions. If you’re asking someone to do something for you, ask them to explain the task back to you. Make sure you follow up with email (also, email cannot be relied upon, always follow up in person)
  • CC one or two other people in the office. Keep your interactions transparent

Earlier in this post I said I had become clearer and more upfront in all of my interactions. That isn’t always true. When dealing with cultural issues I often find myself dodging questions and answering if half truths.

Examples of these tough questions being asked of me: This is my fat daughter, what do you think? Why aren’t you married? How much did your [computer, shirt, phone, apartment] cost?. Are you Japanese? You don’t take sugar? Some of these questions make me laugh while others have made me uncomfortable. The first time some of these questions were posed to me I stumbled; sometimes I blurted out the truth (sorry fat girl), while others I paused and said the first lie I could think of.

Take sugar for example. I have a bit of a sweet tooth, but I don’t like consuming sugar every day. I find myself telling people I’m a diabetic, its one of the few ways I can politely deny the sugary tea and soda that are forced upon me at meetings. As for marriage, I’ve found that telling people that I don’t have my ‘qualifications’ brings that conversation to an end. Salary has been by far the toughest issue to deal with. My stipend pays me well by local standards, and I’m often embarrassed to tell people that I make more than most doctors do. I’ve taken to telling people that I’m here as an unpaid volunteer, it just makes things easier.

The Fulbright has definitely improved my communication skills, in both relative and absolute terms. Compared to the start of my grant I’m much better equipped to handle sensitive cultural issues, I’m also better at getting things done in my office.

What do Sri Lankan students, an American English Teaching Assistant (ETA), and a Korean rapper share in common? For one thing, we all possess a love of dance and music. Psy’s top charting song, Gangnam Style, has taken the world by storm. With its gripping lyrics and absurd dance, this song has profound implications on cultural communication.

Gangnam Style’s success is particularly notable because it is the first song outside major American and European music labels to become so popular worldwide. It is an interesting example of shifts in cultural dominance. The most popular YouTube video in the world, Gangnam Style has been viewed over 1.2 billion times. For years America has imported consumer goods from the Korean Peninsula, now the importation of pop music has begun. Ma Young-sam, Korea’s Ambassador for Public Diplomacy of the Foreign Ministry, has expressed how important the music industry is to Korea’s soft power. The Financial Times recently quoted Mr. Ma as saying, “as foreigners pay more attention to the singers, slowly they develop a liking for Korea … and if they like Korea, they will buy more Korean things. This is what we’re trying to promote…” The explosion of a Korean pop song may or may not mark a shift in global power; but at the very least, Gangnam Style is a catchy pop song – and it made for a great lesson in the English language.

As a Fulbright ETA, I teach three sections of language skills at Sarvodaya’s Trincomalee Vocational Training Center. Sarvodaya is Sri Lanka’s largest NGO, it maintains 34 district centers and reaches nearly 15,000 villages. My students’ ages range from 15 – 24, and they are studying either tailoring, nursery school teaching, or aluminum fabricating. The classes are provided to them at no cost through Sarvodaya and the World University Service of Canada. At the end of their training the students sit for their National Vocational Qualification exam, after which they are eligible to seek employment as skilled laborers. Prior to my arrival, the students had not received any formal English instruction. Their technical instructions are in Tamil medium, as that is the primary language spoken in this district.

The community in which I work was cut off from the world for three decades by ethnic conflict. With the advent of the internet my students are now plugged into the world. As the first Fulbrighter to be placed on Sri Lanka’s East Coast, it has been both challenging and rewarding to become a resident of Trincomalee and to expose my students to new ideas and cultures.

For two weeks I geared my English lessons toward teaching my students how to dance to Gangnam Style. The vocabulary surrounding this lesson is surprisingly complex. I began my lessons with the basic components of human anatomy, teaching words like arm, hip, legs, etc. After several classes explaining the nouns of the body, I began to demonstrate the verbs of movement: jump, squat, shake, etc. I spent an entire day with my classes utilizing a technique I learnt at the ETA Enrichment Seminar in Nepal: I distributed images of stick figures in various stages of bodily contortion, and acted as a rag doll as my students directed me to ‘lift your left hand’ and ‘put your elbow on your knee’.

The culmination of these lessons was when a fellow Fulbright Researcher and amateur dance instructor, Sarah Stodder, joined my classes for a day to teach my students and I the moves of Gangnam Style. She began by telling us the basic movements, broken down into two categories: arms and legs. As she verbalized the dance moves and physically demonstrated them, I codified her actions on the board for my students to copy. Once they had written the movements down, we cleared the desks and began dancing. At first, we referred to the directions on the board – mastering each step before moving on. Once all of the students had a command of the dance moves, it was time to play the music video and try dancing along with the great Psy himself.

As an American teaching Sri Lankans a Korean dance based upon the most popular song of 2012, I feel my students and I prove the truth of globalization. This is just one example of how the world grows seemingly smaller each year.

 

Instant Coffee

December 19, 2012 — 3 Comments

Steaming hot, bitter, and slightly sweet. The first sip is delightful, but by the end I can barely stomach another gulp. Instant coffee is many things, pleasant isn’t one of them. I’m a bit of a yuppie; there’s nothing I enjoy better than lounging in a coffee shop, enjoying a good meal, engaging novel, and a rich cup of coffee. But in Sri Lanka I’ve almost stopped drinking coffee all together.

Where tourists go, it is possible to find real coffee. In the more affluent cities, there are shops that cater to the locals. In Colombo there are a plethora of European-esque coffee houses, which serve delicious and authentic brews.

In Colombo I even found a coffee shop that really surprised me when I walked in; jazz was piping in over speakers, the lighting was dimmed, and the chairs looked comfortable. I approached the counter and could hear the familiar sound of milk being steamed, and I ordered a cappuccino. The coffee was some of the least expensive in Sri Lanka, only 100/ ($0.75), and I watched with anticipation as my drink was created. It was then that I realized this café did not have an espresso machine, and I saw the barista mixing a spoonful of Nescafé with water – topping it with foamy milk. This ‘cappuccino’ wasn’t bad, an improved version of instant.

As the wealth of a nation grows you start to see these western style cafés spring up. They are a luxury that many Westerners take for granted. It makes me happy to see locals mingling among visitors in these places. Trinco has not yet reached a state where the local citizens can afford the luxury of coffee, so for the time being my only reprieve is the occasional cup of instant.

Sri Lanka has some amazing teas; you may know them as Ceylon Teas. And prior to growing tea, Sri Lanka was one of the coffee capitals of the world. That is, until a virus wiped out coffee production across the island, and someone thought to try planting tea on the now idle coffee plantations. It worked out well for them, save for the lack of coffee production on the island.

Nescafe, the gold standard of instant coffee, is a bitterly repulsive drink. I find myself making a latte out of the stuff hot milk. Business meetings will regularly serve the stuff aside bags of tea. (For those interested, here is a great article on how to make instant coffee more palatable.)

I’ve tried most of the instant coffees on the shelves, and there is one that is a clear cut above the rest. Starbucks, a coffee chain which I tend to avoid, has introduced an instant coffee by the name of Via. My experiences in China gave me the foresight to pack a healthy supply of the stuff, which helped wean me off coffee. Now that that supply has dwindled, I am back to Nescafe, saving my Via for special occasions.

Most of the world’s instant coffee is consumed in Asia. When I lived in China most of the instant coffee I had was served in 3-in-1 packets, complete with sugar, creamer, and coffee. The instant coffee market is valued at $21bn a year, and only 5% of that is in the U.S., according to the WSJ. Nescafé controls most of that market.

Starbucks has a tremendous opportunity with Via, in the global market. Rather than selling Via in single serve packets, if they jar it and sell it in bulk I think there is quite a market in the developing world. Many people cannot afford to drink a real cup of coffee, but instant coffee is within their price range. Starbucks, which based upon their pricing in the US, would come in as a premium instant coffee. It would still be less expensive than regular coffee, especially as you don’t need to invest a large amount of money into a machine to brew coffee. And by launching their product in these emerging markets they could get consumers familiar with their brand, helping them as they enter new markets.

Starbucks has already begun to sell Via abroad, they recently launched it in China. I wish Starbucks was being more aggressive with their expansion plans – mostly out of personal desire to avoid drinking Nescafé.

Plain Tea

November 21, 2012 — Leave a comment

Tea is life in Sri Lanka.

It’s always tea time. When you wake up tea is served, when you meet someone tea is served.

Sri Lanka grows some amazing teas, mostly of the black variety. Green tea is grown here, but mostly for export. If you want to buy green tea here, your best bet is to go to the pharmacy section of a grocery store.

Tea in Sri Lanka is typically served with milk and lots of sugar. Occasionally, it is served with cinnamon and other spices. In Sri Lanka, ‘plain tea’ is black tea with sugar and without milk. I’ve found that if you want just a plain cup of tea, you must ask for ‘plain tea, no sugar.’

Trinco Town

November 19, 2012 — Leave a comment

Last Monday I arrived at Sarvodaya’s headquarters in Moratuwa. I had been staying with a few other Fulbrighters who rented a house in Colombo, and I had enjoyed a great weekend strolling about town. I was all packed, and my car arrived at eight in the morning. When I was going to put on my chacos (quite comfortable sandals), I noticed a huntsman spider blending in on the bed of my shoe. I recoiled as it ran off, in a state of shock. After chasing it towards the door, my driver whacked it with a broom and killed it.

What a start to the week.

It was about a 45-minute drive outside of Colombo, and when I arrived I was shown to a hostel before going for the obligatory cup of milk tea. The first day I spent most of the morning reading in my room, waiting for a few people to get out of meetings.

After lunch, I was shown around the campus, and introduced to many of the organization’s key people – from the acting director to the founder. Sarvodaya is a large scale NGO; their operations include all of those things you’d expect an NGO to do: education, orphanages, peace training, microfinance, disaster preparedness, and many others. They are also involved in some surprising enterprises: furniture manufacturing, printing presses, and a meditation center. As the largest NGO in Sri Lanka, they are involved in many projects.

On Wednesday I was able to hitch a ride to Trinco with Shanti Sena, the peace-training arm of Sarvodaya. They were conducting a three-day session, training youths in inter-religious cooperation.

A ride out to Trinco takes covers about 270km (170 miles) and takes about seven hours (the mathematically inclined will note that’s a speed of about 25 miles per hour). The condition of the roads is poor, and they wind across the mountains. During the drive out one of the workers asked me why I choose Trinco; he proceeded to tell me that he hates the town, as there isn’t much to do outside of work. My expectations were dampened, to say the least.

The Sarvodaya District Center in Trincomalee is among the newest of their facilities. It was reconstructed with donations from countries and NGO’s across the world, following the 2004 Tsunami. For three days I sat through workshops – conducted primarily in Sinhala and Tamil – with participants from all religious groups in Sri Lanka. While I missed a great deal of the specifics, in general the sessions were meant to showcase the similarities between the religious groups. It was fun, but a bit perplexing at times when I had no idea what was occurring.

On Saturday I spent several hours walking through Trinco, taking in the sites of the town. It was about a half an hour walk from Sarvodaya’s center to Trinco town, and along the walk was a military checkpoint. Trinco is home to both the Air Force and Naval Academies. The military presence in this city is extensive, as the final months of the war were fought in this region. The town itself is quiet, and almost pastoral. Cows leisurely stroll along the main avenues in town, and an axis deer has made its home in the bus depot. There is one supermarket at the heart of town, but many small-scale shops. Trinco has many beautiful Hindu temples, they’re scattered across town.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Sunday, after an early breakfast, the District Coordinator of Sarvodaya invited me to a USAID event. I asked him if it would be in English, and if other Americans would be present. He assured me that representatives from USAID would be there, and it would be in all of the languages of Sri Lanka (Sinhala, Tamil, and English). I eagerly ran upstairs to throw on a button down shirt, and head to the truck. We arrived, and I quickly realized that I would act as the USAID representative. In fact there would be no English, but instead Tamil speakers would display their Sinhalese skills and vice-versa. It was quite funny, to say the least.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After the event, a German friend and I strolled down the street. I was inquiring at guesthouses about long-term rentals – to no avail. We stumbled across Chaaya Blu, an upscale western hotel. Stepping into the lobby of the hotel was like entering another country. The beaches on this stretch of land were immaculate, and everyone suddenly spoke English. We were ushered to the pool and seaside restaurant, and sat down for a cocktail and some sautéed cashew nuts. It was lovely, but this is not the Sri Lanka I have come to know over the past month and a half. While I was sipping on my gin fizz, I was suddenly stuck by thoughts the remains of buildings from the tsunami just up the beach. Westerners coming to this part of Sri Lanka can visit and remain woefully ignorant to the complexities of a country that was torn by war for nearly three decades. One of my fellow Fulbrighters wrote a great article on the ethics of tourism.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Today I started teaching classes, and I was in for a number of surprises.

For five days a week I will be teaching three classes for an hour each, in addition to this I am working with the staff on their English skills (most of the staff speak on Tamil, and limited Sinhalese and English). I had woefully overestimated the English competency of my students, and had to immediately tone down the lessons. My first class was teaching a group of 28 seamstress students, and they were giggling the entire time. While they are all about my age, the maturity gap is huge, we come form different backgrounds – and I’m fortunate to benefit from the best university system in the world.

In my second class I was becoming frustrated during the first fifteen minutes as two in a class of six remained silent and would not join in with the class. When their teacher returned and started signing to them I quickly realized that they were hearing and speaking impaired… I started writing out instructions, and then they got with the program. The boys were much less shy around me than my earlier class.

My last class was with a group of girls studying to become preschool teachers. I had a lot of fun with them, but they got through my lessons much quicker than others. So I had to break out Cat In The Hat, which I don’t believe they really understood all that well.

All in all, my students loved to see pictures of my family and friends. They were amused by the pictures of my cousins and I at Christmas, and perplexed by pictures of snowboarding. Teaching this year will surely be a challenge, but I look forward to it.

 

Oh, and I’ve started to get a serious sandal tan here, along with a lot of bug bites.

 

Brownie

November 15, 2012 — Leave a comment

He hadn’t noticed me approaching in the predawn darkness. Sitting, it seemed that he had fallen asleep while watching the gate. It was only as I opened the gate did he regain consciousness, startled by the clamor of the latch and sliding of the heavy door. Rising, he limped towards me. As I begin to close the gate he comes out to the street; he stares at me as his tag softly wags.

Brownie is but one of the many stray dogs in Sri Lanka. Unlike many, he is plump and fairly clean. His front paw is deformed, and apparently he’s been here for as long as anyone can remember. Here at Sarvodaya’s headquarters, in Moratuwa, Brownie has found a home. The streams of international volunteers feed this pitiful creature, and he is grateful for the attention. The local staffers laugh at us, as we feed him scraps; over the course of two days I caught more than one of those who mocked rubbing his belly.

As I leave the headquarters, on my way to Trinco, he sits by the gate watching me and cries.

Sri Lanka does not know what to do with its dogs. In a country where not every human has access to the basic necessities of life, it makes sense that dogs are not looked after. Some people do keep dogs as pets, and those dogs range from muts to pure breeds. A few of my friends are renting an attached house in Colombo; their landlord’s dog is an ancient creature, who is quite mangy.

You become accustomed to the dogs in your neighborhood. When I stayed in Dehiwala, outside of Colombo, a few of my neighbors took to feeding the neighborhood strays. While you might recognize these strays, it’s generally advisable to avoid them.

Three weeks back I spent the weekend by the beach, in Unawatuna. On Sunday morning I woke with the sun and decided on taking a leisurely jog through town. As it turns out, stray dogs don’t appreciate someone running through town at seven in the morning. An emaciated one eyed dog started snarling at me as I came through town. I stopped and slowly started backing up, looking at a neighboring car I could jump on. Out of nowhere a coconut struck the dog and it ran off with a yelp. An elderly man, skin wrinkled and garbed in a sarong, started laughing and waved at me – urging me to continue on my run. I smiled and thanked him; as he likely saved me a trip to the hospital and round of rabies vaccinations.

In a country where the President is trying to impeach the Chief Justice, the Universities are set to close on yet another strike, and the scars of a civil war – which lasted for nearly three decades – still run deep, the fate of a few stray dogs is not a matter of concern for most.

20121115-161315.jpg

A stray dog escaping the rain at Sarvodaya in Trinco.

Cultrual Norms

October 17, 2012 — Leave a comment

During my sophomore year at Fordham I traveled to Kenya with a group of students as apart of the Fair Trade Micro Finance program, Amani.

There are many challenges to working in a foreign, and many opportunities to unwittingly violate cultural norms. While in Nyabigena, a small village in rural Kenya, we stayed with our business partners. Our accommodations were modest, but adequate. We spent our time working with our business partners on basic accounting and computer skills.

Theresa, a local of the village, was paid to cook our meals. She cooked over a wood fire, in a small shed. The nearest water tap was about a mile walk. One afternoon Theresa was making us lunch, and one of the men asked her to fetch some salt. They argued for a moment, and then Theresa went to get salt. Little did we know it was a fifteen minute walk for her, each way.

Upon her arrival back she sat down to eat, and I poured her a cup of tea. The men stopped eating and stared at us. I could tell that Theresa was quite uncomfortable with this situation, as you could imagine.

Unwittingly, I had broken a social norm. But once I realized what I had done, I made a conscious effort to pour tea for every woman at the table (one Kenyan and several Americans). To be a woman in Africa is to live a life of innumerable hardship. I could talk to the men all I wanted about gender equality, and the role of women in the developed world. Those words were lost in translation, or willfully ignored. The rules which governed interactions between the genders in America had little utility in a rural Kenyan village. The simple act of pouring a cup of tea was drastically different. It was a physical act which challenged the cultural norms.

The simple act of pouring a cup of tea forced a conversation.

I have no way of knowing if this made a lasting impact, but I really hope it did. Being abroad is an interesting thing, as you’re not quite bound by the social rules of either your home or host country. It is a liberating thing, but it comes with its own set of responsibilities. One of which is to challenge discrimination. I realized in Kenya that as a white male born in America my actions were closely watched, and influential.

It’s something that I will have to be very cognizant of while in Sri Lanka.