Last June, I spent my final night in Cambodia taking in the sunset over the Mekong River. We had just returned from a grueling trip to interview traditional gold miners in Mondulkiri province; I was covered in dust, sore from the motorbike ride, and generally ready to sleep on a hotel mattress.
But, I’d had so much fun on the trip, whipping through the forests, slipping up through dry creek beds, I was feeling a surprising bit of apprehension about going home. So, in an effort to eke out one last memorable evening, I agreed to stop in Phnom Penh at what the locals called Snowy’s bar. This is where all my expat friends said they went to chill out and escape the constant hustle and bustle of city life. After the trip I’d just been on, and three weeks in general running around the region, I understood the allure. Perched on a stool on the open-air deck, I watched the boats float by and the sky turn a soft shade of orange.
The US Census Bureau released its 2007 data last week, and tucked in among the facts and figures was one statistic that made headlines: More than 7.5 million Americans–almost 15 percent of American homeowners with a mortgage—are spending half of their income or more on housing.
This issue of housing has been very much on my mind lately. I live in a small apartment in the Boston area, and though my rent isn’t sky-high, it’s not exactly cheap, either. Meanwhile, I’ve recently attended several barbecues at the homes of other 30-something friends and colleagues, where I heard over and over about the perks of homeownership.
For the price of a down payment and a mortgage, I could have a tree-lined backyard, ideal for growing tomatoes, playing croquet, and hosting barbecues. I could paint my walls another color besides white. I wouldn’t wake up to my neighbors inexplicably hammering at 3 a.m. And though my friends didn’t say so, I know there are intangible benefits, too: If you own a house, you’re perceived as a solid citizen, a working adult with a stable future.
Badakhshan, a remote and mountainous province in Afghanistan, has the highest rate of maternal mortality in the world: For every 100,000 live births, 6,500 mothers die. About the time that statistic came across my desk, the New York Times ran a picture on its front page—and several more inside—showing the bone-dry hills and rudimentary living conditions in one of Afghanistan’s poorest provinces: Bamian. The Times story was about the hunger looming over one-quarter of the country’s population, and Oxfam’s warning about a potential humanitarian crisis. Drought, an unusually harsh winter, and a lack of security have all contributed to the food shortage.
Following the political news in Africa is hard from a distance, but if you are like me and you need to keep up on what is happening on this vast, diverse, and fascinating continent there are a few good resources for news. One is allafrica.com, a site that aggregates news and commentary from African newspapers and other sources, so you can get news on Africa by Africans.
Natalie Bergeron, a lifelong bayou resident, has been delivering mail down in Cocodrie, Louisiana, for 30 years. She knows just about everybody in the water-logged town, which was battered by wind from Hurricane Gustav and then swamped by the storm surge from Hurricane Ike. And what she knows about them—and plenty of others along the road from Bourg through Chauvin and into Cocodrie—is worrying her.
“Not only do we have poor people trying to live, we’ve lost four factories in Chauvin. One was a huge shrimp processing factory. Gustav tore it apart,” she said over the phone as she ate her lunch. It was 2 p.m., and the first occasion she’d found that day for a meal break. Things have been busy at Bayou Grace, the community services organization in Chauvin where Bergeron works, since the storms swept through, knocking out water and power supplies. Bayou Grace is one of the local organizations Oxfam America partners with.
It was near some mountain-side fields in Cusco, Peru, that I met Zenon Pumallica Coyori. When I look at his photo–above, another one taken by Evan Abramson–I see a modern descendent of the ancient Inca Empire.
It is a face of great experience. Coyori says he does not really know how old he is, but is willing to estimate 64 years. He was orphaned when he was young, so he says, “I copied the birth day of a friend who was the same size as me.”
Coyori says surviving as a farmer in the highlands is not easy, but the indigenous people have developed ways of working and living that make it possible. The only problem is that many are no longer using their traditional practices, because they have been made to feel inferior and therefore neglect their culture. So Coyori is working with Oxfam’s partner in Cusco, Peru, the Centro “Bartolome de las Casas” (CBC) to change that. Here are some of the lessons he shares:
Three years ago in Biloxi, Miississippi, Oxfam America made an unusual grant following Hurricane Katrina. We gave Hands On, a group that mobilizes volunteers to undertake cleanup and rebuilding, money to purchase a mini excavator.
FEMA had claimed that it could not deliver desperately needed trailers to those who’d lost their houses until their yards were cleared of debris. Fifty Hands On volunteers were working from dawn until dusk cutting trees and moving rubble to facilitate this. The addition of the excavator eased their work considerably, speeding the cleanup and denying FEMA an excuse for delays in delivery of the trailers.
In the days following Katrina, Oxfam America worked with Bill Stallworth, the city councilor for East Biloxi, to set up a coordination center that would serve as the focal point of those arriving to help with relief and reconstruction.
Farmers in the Andes Must Overcome More than the Cold, Thin Air to Survive
For me, working in the Andes has its challenges. Aside from the bad roads in remote areas and the cold, threatening weather, I have a real problem with my head.
I am good up until about 4,000 meters (about 12,000 feet), after that I get some pretty bad headaches. I recently got medication to prevent this altitude sickness. It held off the headaches, but gives me a tingling sensation in my feet and fingers.
But nothing can take away the sheer beauty of the mountains. The tingling sensation adds to it. The picture here by Evan Abramson captures one scene: it is a group of communal fields on the side of a mountain in Cusco, Peru. One year a family will plant potatoes in one plot, the next another might plant barley. The community then leaves it fallow for five years to restore its fertility, then puts it back in the rotation.
The atmosphere in the Gumbo Shop, a long-established restaurant in New Orleans’ French Quarter, was celebratory. And so it should be. The city, so traumatized by Hurricane Katrina three years ago had, despite dire predictions, been spared the wrath of Hurricane Gustav, which had veered westward before making landfall. The whole city had evacuated, but now people were coming back, and getting on with their lives again.