Monday, 30 March 2009

How many did you kill today?

Wars today, in Afghanistan, in Iraq, with all the media coverage surrounding them, are hotly debated and all the pros and cons picked apart. People aren't prepared to accept unchallenged what the politicians tell us. We discuss, argue and debate, and want to know every detail.

As a child I thought things were much more black or white. I was taught to believe that the Allies in WWII were in the right, so much so that I don't recall there being any discussion about alternative points of view. So when I went on an exchange to Austria as an immature 14 year old, probably the first time I'd ever been away from home alone, I was taken aback when the father of the family said to me "Of course you think everything you did during the war was a little bit right, but we think the things we did were a little bit right". I was so startled I couldn't reply. I assume, now, we were talking about bomb damage to Vienna but the lasting memory is the shock of what he said. I hadn't heard about Dresden in those days. I didn't for a long time.

Most of you know that I travel frequently between the UK and France, so I'm very familiar with the channel ports. Many towns and cities along the south coast of England suffered heavy bombing during the war, and as a result they have little left by way of historic buildings and have been rebuilt often without much thought for architectural merit.

The other side of the Channel, in France, is much the same. Le Havre is not a pretty place, either while approaching by road or by sea. It is a very industrial area, but if you go into the centre you find it has been completely rebuilt in a modernist style. It was declared one of UNESCO's World Heritage Sites in 2005 for being an exceptional example of post-war town planning.

So why was Le Havre rebuilt? Because it was heavily bombed, by the Allied Forces. What I hadn't realised was that 85% of the city was destroyed between the 5 and 11 September 1944. According to some research done by the University of Reading, there was "a willingness by the British to ignore previously agreed principles about not targeting civilians in circumstances when military necessity appeared to require it." Apparently Churchill thought that killing a maximum of 10,000 French civilians might be acceptable leading up to D-Day, and sent out memos asking how many so that he could keep a running total. "How many Frenchmen did you kill?" was the question he asked Air Chief Marshall Tedder on 10 July 1944.

St Joseph's tower, over 100 metres high, seen on the skyline from the docks. St Joseph's Church is dedicated to the people killed during air raids, .

The city hall pictured on a stamp issued six months ago.

If the blurring between right and wrong seems bad enough there, we also need to consider that the French population being bombed had to have help from the German occupying forces. One of the organisations that helped was funded by the confiscation of Jewish goods.

We may often think things are worse today than they have ever been, but remember: plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

University of Reading
London Review of Books

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Sunday, 29 March 2009

Make do and mend

In a small town (609 inhabitants) just south of Limoges in central France.

Go to Small Town Snapshot Sunday to join in and find more small towns shots.

Friday, 27 March 2009

Earth Hour 2009

On 28 March 2009, at 8:30 pm, local time wherever you are in the world, turn off all lights for one hour.

Earth Hour uses the simple action of turning off the lights for one hour to deliver a powerful message about the need for action on climate change.


See my friend RennyBA's Terella for much more detail and news of how the movement is growing in Norway. I suspect I may be the only person in our town to turn off the lights, but do it I will.

Updated to show other blogs taking part
EastCoastLife - Singapore
Bill - Arizona, USA
Heart of Rachel - Batangas, Philippines
Life Ramblings - KL, Malaysia
Marzie - KL, Malaysia
Jean Chia - KL, Malaysia
LifeCruiser - Stockholm, Sweden
Sassy Mom - Manila, Philippines
foongpc - KL, Malaysia

Monday, 23 March 2009

We need rain

When we arrived back in France two weeks ago, I thought the river level was rather low.  In the picture above, the area behind the large rocks at the bottom left is normally flooded, and the "island" is nearly, if not completely, submerged.

This picture was taken today, showing the water barely falling over the weir and a large expanse of "island" showing.

The canal running from the mill two weeks ago.

The same canal yesterday, with the sides exposed.

The stepping stones crossing the river, partially exposed in a way generally seen only in the summer.

The same view today.  No problem to cross right over today, or so it would seem, but they are very slippy in the middle.

Yesterday, intrepid explorer that I am, I took this photo from a close-to-central  stepping stone.

The same view today.  At this point I found a foot slip-sliding into the water, mercifully shallow.  Why is it the whole place is deserted until you do something stupid, then an audience appears as if by magic?

The level of the river is obviously a large part due to the weather, but not entirely.  Up river there is an enormous dam with associated hydroelectric power station.  The people who control it are in Paris and can't look out of the window and think, "oh dear, I've overdone that".  It works both ways: I've seen the river flood badly as the result of a mistake, and I've seen it totally empty.  The flood, in particular, was a disaster when houses all along the banks were ruined.  You can only be grateful that the same people aren't in charge of something more lethal, nuclear energy for instance, of which there is a super-abundance here in France.

Now, whether nuclear energy is the way to go, is another big debate, and that seems to be the path Max is taking to boil his water....

Saturday, 21 March 2009

Remember the mothers

Today is Mothering Sunday in the UK. In France it's the last Sunday in May unless this clashes with Pentecost, which it does this year, so it will be 7 June. For me it's always a toss up whether my sons will remember this date, or the French Fête des Mères, or both, or neither.

While I was contemplating that, I thought about all the different dates for Mothers' Days around the world. I've thought a lot about mothers over the years, especially those in developing nations where poverty is a fact of life.

Survival - mother and child tells the story of Marjana in Bangladesh, expecting her second child, where she is 50 times more likely to die in childbirth than a mother in a developed nation. Four million babies die within a month of birth.

She does it all and Tough women both are stories about "substitute" mothers, people who have taken over the care of children when parents have died from Aids, in the first case elder siblings, the second case grandmothers.

Child marriage. There is another sort of mother that we'd prefer didn't happen at all and these are the children who give birth at a very young age, because they have been married as children. Their bodies are not sufficiently mature to cope with childbirth and this can lead to complications and even death.

Finally, a few Numbers to highlight differences between countries:
  • In Sweden, 1 in 17,400 mothers die in childbirth.
  • In the UK, 1 in 8,200 mothers die in childbirth.
  • In Sierra Leone, 1 in 8 mothers die in childbirth.
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Thursday, 19 March 2009

Listen. Do you want to know a secret?

Do you promise not to tell?

In my day, a long time ago, we didn't have ultrasound scans during pregnancy unless there was a very good reason.  There was never any question of knowing in advance whether or not you were going to be having a boy or a girl.  When I first heard of people being told before the birth, I felt it was a shame, somehow lessen excitement, but over the years I've become used to the idea.  The surprise, the excitement, just comes a little earlier.

At the moment in our family, the next generation is busily trying to make sure the bloodline doesn't come to an abrupt halt.  To my surprise, the revelation of the baby's sex is something of an issue.  One couple knows they are expecting a boy, but the grandparents don't want to know.  A second couple don't want to know themselves.  Another set of new parents found out as soon a they possibly could, and the fourth were told that it wasn't the hospital policy to say.

If I were a young mother now, I think I'd want to know as soon as it was certain.  I can't imagine why grandparents would want it to be a surprise if everyone else knew. 

Sadly  though, I can imagine and well understand why a hospital might have a policy of not telling, when you hear reports such as the BBC's entitled "Britain's unwanted girls".  Nevertheless, I'm surprised.  Is it usual for different hospitals to have different policies?  I would have thought they would all have to toe the party line, but it seems not.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Splashes of colour

A beautiful sunny morning invited me out for a walk.

Some of the trees are starting to show some spring colour.

Splashes of colour on the river banks.


If you've never been thrilled to the very edges of your soul by a flower in spring bloom, maybe your soul has never been in bloom.  ~Audra Foveo

A drift of wild violets.

The splendour of the rose and the whiteness of the lily do not rob the little violet of its scent nor the daisy of its simple charm. If every tiny flower wanted to be a rose, spring would lose its loveliness. ~Therese of Lisieux

Buds bursting.

A recently pollarded tree puts its arms up in surrender.

People are anticipating warmer weather.

And the river is looking beautiful.

Every spring is the only spring - a perpetual astonishment.  ~Ellis Peters

Monday, 9 March 2009

A life makeover

A few days ago, Relax Max asked, in his own inimitable way, "if anybody out there was awarded a "do over", at what point in your life would you start it?" I say inimitable because the question came in the comments after a somewhat mysterious post. I still don't understand it.

I never did answer the question because I kept changing my mind.

At first I thought I might go back to the moment of conception and delay it for a good few years. That way would lie three advantages: I wouldn't have to be the sensible older sister, I could have a complete makeover, and best of all, I'd be a lot younger. But no, that would make me a completely different person.

After that things went well enough I suppose, until it came to the first big exam stage, O-Levels at 16. How I wish I could go back to that age and be less uptight about the whole thing. It seemed so much like a matter of life or death in those days, that my whole life depended on it. I had no idea how insignificant it would seem a few years later.

Then I got to university in Liverpool. Would I have changed that? No, Liverpool was a wonderful place to be a student in the 60s, even if I didn't take full advantage of all that was going on. It was an exciting time, when students all around the world were protesting about one thing or another. French students were causing mayhem in Paris, and in Liverpool we were sitting-in. I can't remember why. And of course, Beatle mania was still pretty well in full flow. I wouldn't want to change all that, but I could have loosened up and been less serious, taken more advantage of what was happening - we had plenty of "happenings" too. If I'd been different, I might have met different people, done different and more exciting things.

Later on, when we started the constant house moving, I might have preferred to have cut one or two places out, but then I wouldn't have had those experiences. Life's rich pattern would have lost some of its depth.

So when might I start my makeover? I can't think of any one time when I'd really want to change everything that has come since. Apart from little local difficulties such as not having a job, I really wouldn't want not to be where I am at the moment. You are the sum of your parts after all, and without the specific experiences I've had I wouldn't be the person I am. I have a wonderful family and some very special friends, many of whom I've met on line. I really am content where I am at the moment, though I grant you that at times people close to me may be surprised at that statement.

So, totally hijacking Max's post, I'd be interested in hearing where any of you would start a makeover, or if you don't want one, where would you at least think about it?

Sunday, 8 March 2009

International Women's Day: a story from Peru

Photo from Grameen

The only way Alejandrina Flores could manage to feed her six children was to do without herself.  She had lost her job because illness meant she had too many days off work, and then her husband left her.

She attempted to set up a business for herself, making dolls, characters from Peruvian culture, but couldn't earn enough to put food on the table.  Then she heard about a micro-finance organisation, Pro Mujer, which not only gave small loans but coaching for starting or expanding a business.  She joined up, received the training and drafted a business plan.  She was given a loan to buy the materials she needed.

Now her earnings have almost tripled she can support her family.  One day she hopes to have her own store.

Women are outstanding poverty-fighters in the world of micro-finance.  When a woman receives a small loan to start a business, she is more likely to invest the business profits to better her children’s nutrition, health, and education.

Saturday, 7 March 2009

Excuses, excuses

My return to France has coincided with a virulent attack of something horrible, enough even to worry my husband.  I am feeling very much the worse for wear.  Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible, but for the moment, I'll return to my sickbed as and when the cat will allow me.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Education and empowerment

Photo by Mohammed Amin Jibril/IRIN

It was heartening, I thought, to read during this week leading up to International Women's Day about Fathiya Hassan in Somaliland, who has distinguished herself in a man's world. She is the first female car-washer in the capital, Hargeisa, and has been for the last two years. Then I read a little further and realised that it isn't good news, not at all.

She is only 12 years old, so she started when she was 10. Where has her childhood gone? Most of her clients are women, which she likes, because the men are inclined to pay her less, or threaten to beat her rather than pay at all. The boy car-washers don't think she should be there at all.

But she has to work, she has to help support her family of 11 in Abaye settlement of the capital, because her parents can't manage to provide for them all. She would far rather be going to school rather than making this particular mark in her male dominated world.

Where do you start to try to improve things? She has the freedom to work alongside boys and that is something. But she doesn't have the freedom to go to school. Will she then fall into the same cycle, so often heard, of early marriage, early babies and many of them? Because young uneducated girls' don't have a good knowledge or understanding of contraception and they haven't the confidence to negotiate. Their children are less likely to do well at school or to continue their education beyond the minimum, and daughters in particular are likely to drop out.

The focus must be to empower girls, so that they can make their own decisions, and create their own futures. And how do you empower girls? Education, education, education.

Monday, 2 March 2009

Self help for poverty

Normally, banks won't look at providing funds or financial services to people who have little or no income, but in many cases these are the people who need them most.  One of the better ways to help people out of poverty is by microfinance.  By this I mean a small, sometimes tiny, loan to help someone, very often a woman, start up and maintain a business, helping them to help themselves.  It is a stepping stone out of poverty. But microfinancial organisations are much more than this: they envision "a world in which as many poor and near-poor households as possible have permanent access to an appropriate range of high quality financial services, including not just credit but also savings, insurance, and fund transfers". (from Finanacial Institutions with a Double Bottom Line - pdf file).

Photo from Grameen

One of the women who have been supported in this way is Zeinab, who borrowed $45 to set up a business to make wooden pots and kitchen utensils.  She now provides employment for three of her children and owns her own workshop.  Her business has grown and she has been able to take out larger loans to continue the growth.  Her last repayment was $700, more, she says, that a local civil servant would earn in two months.

But none of this would be possible if it weren't for microfinance organisations and the people who run them.  In this case the organisation is Al-Tadamun based in Egypt and a partner of the Grameen Jameel Pan-Arab Microfinance Ltd.  Under the leadership of Reham, it has been able to lift thousands of women and their families out of poverty.  Reham herself was set on a career in the finance sector.  She realises how blessed she is to be able to use her financial training and skills in a job where she can help people survive.

Grameen Foundation has a network of 55 microfinance partners and has touched the lives of 34 million people.

UPDATED to add that my great blogging friend, RennyBA, actually met Muhammad Yunus, the founder of Grameen, when he and the Bank won the Nobel Peace Prize. That must have been amazing Renny!  Read about it on Renny's blog, and while you're there, have a look around because it will be well worth your while.
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