A journey to discover the people who change our world.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Blindfolded Photography in Phnom Penh

I needed a bit of help with this one. I stayed with a great couple while in Phnom Penh, Bec Cook and Ben Heath. I asked Bec to accompany me to the market one afternoon, to help guide me through it, blindfolded and camera at the ready- for the Blindfolded Photography Challenge, Part II.

We choose a good time of day, pre dusk, when the sun was a little less harsh and the heat had loosened its rein on the day. But it was still hot, and with a scarf around my eyes, I was sweating.

I’ve been into plenty of markets while on my travels, but this was the first one in Phnom Penh. Every market is different, each with unique haphazard layouts and always dense thing which you don’t expect. Walking around with eyes wide open can be tricky enough, so with eyes wide shut it is both tricky and a little unsettling.

Approaching the market I started to get nervous. I already stand out- the whitey that I am, but with a blindfold I was looking ever so slightly mad. As I put the blindfold on the local people started to react. Some laughed. One approached, ‘What are you doing? Bec replied for me, ‘She is crazy’. Thanks for the confirmation there Bec!

I could hear lots of banter around me. I could almost feel the chaos. Bec was beside me, probing, joking, looking after me. She really was my eyes, and I know that I wouldn’t have been brave enough to venture in alone. Good job she was there, because within a minute I walked into a scooter. Excellent start Clare. Down a step I go, into the market.

The air is heavy. I know, even though I can not see, that there are a myriad eye watching. ‘No eyes, No see’, I hear someone say. I’m treading a fine line between amusement and tainting the entire white race with a broad stroke of insanity. Opps, I walk into a table.

We are passing though narrow isles now. I’ve lost my orientation. Bec is telling me to walk straight, but even with that, I am bumping into things, and I haven’t even been drinking. It feels like we are walking quickly. By now though, I don’t mind that people are staring. It’s part of the amusement.

Bec’s hands are on my shoulders. There is a particular puddle that I seem to like. She tells me it is small, but for some reason I keep stepping into it. I’m wearing a pair of sandals and my feet are now wet and feel a bit grimy. Yuk!

‘Straight’ she tells me. ‘Don’t bump into the boy’. ‘Mind the eggs’. Don’t pick up the machete’. ‘You are quite the spectacle Clare’. ‘Mind your step’. ‘Watch the rubbish’. ‘Walk quickly through the meat section, I’ll blame you for this later, I hate the meat section’. True enough, the meat section did stink.

At some areas of the market, I could feel the heat more intense. I could hear things cooking around me. The sounds were a swirl of activity I couldn’t quite differentiate.

We came to a junction. I needed Bec’s help here. ‘If you go right, it’s dark’, she tells me. ‘If you go straight it is boring’.‘Left it is then’, I quickly decide.

Left takes us through some narrow spaces. We reach one place. I was about to saunter through but Bec tells me that is way too dangerous. I saw later what she meant- a row a people with woks boiling and charcoals burners looking very hot and very dangerous. We take another route and negotiate more narrow aisles.

‘The exit is coming up’ she tells me. ‘Good, I’m getting tired of this blind business’, I tell her. I meant it. It was draining. I was dependent, at risk, vulnerable, disorientated.
When I took the blindfold off I was glad. For one it was cooler, and two it was a lot easier to find my way around.

Afterwards we walked back through the market, retracing my steps. The layout was not what I imagined. The aisles a little wider. The puddles a little smaller. Then the diversity of fruit, and veg, and shoes, and bags, and people and options, which when blindfolded I just did not engage with. Some people seemed relieved when they saw me again, fully sighted, but a few others seemed a little angry, as if I had tricked them. Opps.

When finished, I felt relieved but enriched. A New experience. New exposure. And a whole new way of looking at trust.

Thanks Bec, my guiding star.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Cambodian Arrival

The line for visas is like a factory conveyor belt. I fill in a form. Hand over a passport photo. Hand over my passport. It gets passed along a line of 10 very official looking officials. At the end of the counter I hand over $20 and am handed back my passport, visa inserted. Stamp stamp. Easy enough, I’m in.

The lovely Bec Cook, who I’ll stay with while here (a friend of a friend), has arranged for a tuk tuk driver to meet me. I see a bright eyed, smiling man holding up a sign, Ms. Clare Mulvany'. When I meet him it turns out that he was expecting two people, Clare and Mulvany. ‘Two just became one’, I inform him showing him the name on my passport to prove that I am actually Clare and Mulvany all rolled into one. He smiles. Laughs. Runs to get his tuk tuk.

His tuk tuk is spanking new. Black and red glossy leatherette, with silver polls swirling to a black and red canopy. I am reminded of a carousel, and step up into it, imaging plastic horses bobbing up and down with me going around in circles. I ask the driver his name. ‘Mr. Gogo’. Appropriate enough for a tuk tuk driver don’t you think. We go.

The 5km drive immediately reminds me that I am not in a so called ‘developed country’, and as we pass by the life on the streets, past the thriving little restaurants, the sounds of children’s play, the barber shop on the footpath, I’m thinking, ‘so if Ireland is meant to be ‘developed’, does that make this ‘undeveloped’”. I think not.

There is so much energy on the streets, and forms of transport. Scooters and mopeds, myriads, each going in different directions. I’m sitting, thinking, ‘I love the chaos, somehow it feels so much more natural than the highways and concrete of Bangkok’.

Over the next couple of days I start to notice, more and more, what is carried on the scooters. Two people is probably average. But then you see families, kids hanging on. Father, mother, granny, baby, chicken. You see people carrying all sorts of things. A fridge. A computer. A ladder. Cabbages. Packs of noodles. 50 or so chickens strapped around the handlebars and saddle. Eggs, all stacked in trays on the back. Then you see the things which are fixed to the side of the mopeds, like a mobile restaurant. Park and set up a business.

This is a city on the move. Two wheel moves. Phnom Penh. Phenomenal.

While in Ubon, I stayed out with Linda Nowakowski, a woman I came in contact with throught the Omidyar Network , and her dog, Nu Song, (meaning, Second Rat!) I however took to calling him Nuisence. I’m a dog lover but this one, cute as it was, stretched my affection. Nu Song took a shine to my toes. He nibbled, them, hard and frequently until I couldn’t even walk across the floor without them attacked!!

Anyway, moaning aside.

Linda teaches English to undergraduate business management students at the university. It’s a high tech classroom. 25 students sit around 20 computers (still a shortage of availability), internet live. They are creating a Wiki for their course, an online collaborative website, to store resources, notes, contact details, a glossary of terms which can be looked up in class, and acccess an online dictionary and thesaurus.
Assignments are emailed (when they are actually done… apparently completion rates have not been high this term, but Linda is on to it!). The world is at their fingertips. No digital divide for these students. I do not really know what I was expecting, but it was not this. Expectations uprooted, in a postitive way. Great.

I got to give a talk to the students about my travels; sharing some photos and tales. The African continent seemed like another world to them, but maybe now, it is just a little bit closer. I hope so…it’s at their fingertips after all.

Rice Co-operation

The Issan region of Eastern Thailand, boarding Laos and Cambodia, is the poorest region in the country. The land is flat and dry. The crops very much seasonal. The rainy season has just passed and the rice is high, reading for harvesting. In a good year there will be two harvests, but it is not guaranteed.

It is a politically complex region too. In one area around Ubon Rathathani, the regional capital, a single MP owns 90% of the land. For the farmers working the land, they are dominated by his politics. He infulences rice market prices and grants and subsidies available to the farmers are dependent on their voting preferences.

But a group of farmers were seeing that they were getting a raw deal organised themselves into the Mekong River Rice Farmers Co-operative, a group based on the Buddhist principles of self sufficiency, which promotes crop diversity and collaborative marketing for increased sales. I went out to visit the region with Titipol Phakdeewanich, Deputy Dean of the Faculty of Management Science from Ubon Ratchtani university. He is doing some research into the political awareness of the farmers, and the potential for developing a farmers union.

One of the co-operative farmers showed us around his land, which is designed on the self sufficiency principles. The farmer in turn trains other farmers how to make diverse use of their land, thus decreasing dependency on the rice harvest.
The is a lot of diversity on his plot;
Rows of cabbages, enough to feed his family and surplus for the market.
A small pond, with catfish, kept in stock for domestic usage.
Banana trees planted between the rice fields.
A mixture of fresh herbs; dill, basil, parsley.
Mango trees. Papaya trees.
And of course, rice. Plenty of it.

Driving past other farms, his looked very different. Greener. Richer. Lots of rice, but back-up also, such an important factor, especially when the rains don’t come. They came this year, next year, who knows?

Peerage? The New Peer Age.

Since the beginning of this trip new ways of communicating and working together are becoming known to me; and the technology to enable it practically free.
I blog. I put images on Flickr. I use collaborative online networking site, like the Omidyar Network to help me track people down and find out about interesting projects. I use VoP software like google talk, skype to connect for free around the globe.

I think about it. Even five years ago a trip of this nature would have been a lot more labour intensive. It would have been harder to find the people and more expensive to contact them. What’s interesting me also is the possibility for collaboration with individuals which I otherwise would never have met had it not been for this technological development.

It’s a fascination shared my many it seems, none more so that Michel Bauwens who had set up the Peer to Peer (or P2P) foundation, a network driven organisation which aims to research, document and promote the emergence of such new networks.

I ‘met’ Michel first through Omidyar (surprise, surprise), but tracked him down in person in Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand, where he put me up for a few days and shared his insights and discoveries.

To Michel peer to peer is ‘a form of human network-based organisation with rest upon the few participation of equipotent partners, engaged in the production of common resources, without recourse to monetary compensation as a key motivation factor and not organised according to hierarchical methods of command and control’.

Phew. Complicated? Well if you are reading this online chances are that you have used or are right now using a product which is a result of such peer networks. If your computer is running on a Linux operating system you certainly are. If you have ever used the Mozilla Firefox internet browser, then you have. If you have look something up in Wikipedia, the online encyclopaedia, then yes again.

To Michel, these products indicate the potential of P2P to not only change the face of technology, but also radically alter work practices and global collaboration. They are indicators that people, by connecting in new ways, have the power to reshape the way society operates, for the better.

Michel is Belgian philosopher and internet pioneer. He is credited as setting up the first cyberlibrary while working as knowledge manager at BP. His life has taken him on many a shift and turn; as a documentary film maker looking at the relationship between spirituality and technology, as founder of a marketing company, as founder of a Belgian internet print magazine, and now working full time on P2P documentation and promotion. All the time learning to recreate himself along the way. He dispensed a some gems of wisdom which he has learned on this own journey, including;

-Don’t ask for permission! If you are trying something innovative, do it. When people see that you are doing it, and that you are successful, then they will support you.

I like it!!

Condoms and Cabbages

A condom in Thailand is known colloquially as a ‘Mechai’. Mechai Viravaidya, the founder of Population and Community Development Association (PDA) is known in Thailand as ‘Mr. Condom’. It’s no coincidence.

Back in the 80s, Mechai realised that a potential AIDS epidemic could erupt, and knew the time to intervene was critical. So he donned a ‘Captain Condom’, Superman-esque outfit and started distributing condoms around Bangkok. He’d go into the red lights district and host condom blowing competitions. There was also a Miss Condom beauty competition. He’d travel on buses dressed as Captain Condom and distribute safe sex and health information. He said at the time, ‘If Thais remain unaware of the dangers of AIDS, it will soon be too late to prevent the deadly disease from spreading. We have to try to keep the disease under control’.

Mechai’s antics were laughed at, but importantly he got noticed. More importantly, so did his message, not only by the public, but also the government.

The government saw the need to intervene on a wider scale. The army was mobilised and 326 army controlled radio stations and the army run TV station launched a 3 year educational campaign to help prevent the further spread of HIV. The business community were also targeted, with Mechai proclaiming, ‘dead staff don’t produce and dead customers don’t buy’. Businesses listened. About 100 corporations enrolled in PDA’s ‘Corporate Education Programme’, training staff about AIDS.

Over the coming years PDA were at the forefront of Health education in Thailand, working across society, with sex workers, in factories, in prisons, in villages, in schools, at border crossings. They continued to mobilise government interest and also set the tone among the NGO world, desensitizing condom use.

The statistics around STD prevalence rates in this time are a testament to the intervention work. In 1989 the Ministry of Public Health reported 410,406 STD cases, representing 7.69 cases per 1000 of the population. By 1997 this had fallen to 22,765 cases, or 0.38 per 1000, and since that time has continued to fall. Condom use is also up, dramatically. The use of condoms by commercial sex workers in 1989 was reported to be 25%, by 1993 it was up to 92%. In all, sexual behaviour was radically altered, saving lives.

PDA has grown and diversified over the years. Family planning. Refugee education. Rural development. Microfinance. Post tsunami rehabilitation. Each strand taking innovative measure to create change. There is a book in this alone!

Interestingly too, PDA run commercial businesses including a restaurant and two resorts called Condoms and Cabbages.

I sampled a meal and spent a weekend camping at one of the resorts in the hills north of Bangkok. Quirky, fun, beautiful settings, and importantly profits get driven back into PDA. I’ll drink to that.. and eat to that, and swim to that, and camp to that...

(Mechai was last week named by Times Magazine Asia as one the Heroes of the last 60 years. He is one of two Thai people named, the other is the King)

(Home for a few days while staying at Condoms and Cabbages, SapTai)

Friday, November 10, 2006

Following the Festivals

My timing to Thailand is been perfect.

I got here just in time to enjoy Loy Krathong, a festival of lights, candles, floating lanterns and colourful parades. It is kind of a Valentine’s day and St Patrick’s Day rolled together, with some Buddhist spirituality mixed into the medley.

Here are some images.

Eyes Wide Blind

Another challenge excited. A blindfolded one. Sound strange? Well, the experience was, but a wonderful one.

Tony Deifell, who I came across though the Omidyar Network, has been involved with Seeing Beyond Sight, a project teaching photography to blind teenagers.
Tony set the challege guidelines; to get more people to experience new ways of seeing. Here's the basics.

Challenge yourself to see the world differently – with more than your eyes.


1. Blindfold yourself.
2. Go out in public and make your way in the world (go one block, one hour or one roll of film; go with a friend or alone)
3. Photograph things you notice. And, just notice.
4. Embrace the whole experience as much as the picture taking.
5. Share your story – for each photograph write a caption about your experience. (write several paragraphs if you want)

If you depend on your eyes to get around, then it is hard not to use them. Although you can tell us about that, focus more on what you noticed about the world as you embarked on this journey. This experience isn’t about blindness – it is about seeing, noticing and paying attention with more than your eyes.

I’m in Thailand at the moment. I found myself at the edge of forest, one waiting to be explored. So I decide to walk it blind.

There I headed, slowly, up the hills. Things start circling in my head. 'Nobody in the world knows where I am at the moment' (I has headed off randomly, in search of some greenery). 'There are three wild tigers remaining in this region'. 'What if I get lost?'.

But I paused. I took some clean Thai air into my lungs and started to sense the greenery around me. Beautiful. The camera started to click as I stated to sense. The world started to come alive in new ways. Touch. Smell. Heat. Sound.

I admit though, I started to get really nervous about ten minutes into the experience, and took off the blindfold. But it was enough time to make me realise more of myself, and challenge myself just enough to know that I want to do it again. Next country, Cambodia. I’ll attempt it there.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Lantern Images in Singapore

Look up, you never know what you will spot.

Toilet Tantrums

WTO. World Trade Organisation. Right?
Well, it depends on the context. Put Singapore, Jack Sim and WTO together and you get the World Toilet Organisation. No kidding.

Jack is one of the only people I have met to have a passion for toilets. Clean ones. To him, the mark of how prosperous a nation is can be marked by how clean their public facilities are. Which does not make for many prosperous nations. He reeled off a stultifying fact. 1.6 million children dying each year from diarrhoea related illnesses, mostly due to inadequate sanitation facilities.

So the WTO are on a mission to clean up the world’s act. But it is not just about clean toilets. In some places there aren’t even proper toilets. So it is about the design and implementation of proper facilities. It is about teaching people how to maintain them. It is about adequate water supply, and ensuring that drinking and latrine waters do not mix. It is about teaching basic hygiene practices. It is about understanding the system which results in the 1.6 million deaths and making appropriate changes in the system to reduce that number.

Sounds like a very costly affair? Well in some respects it could be. But for Jack, he does not let not having the finance to do it stop him. He sees the world as ‘resource rich’, and himself as the catalyst or facilitator, linking those resources together. The lack of something is simply a motivator.

The lack of clean toilets was his initial motivator, and he used the media to rally support. He would be seen about Singapore wrapped in toilet paper, carrying a toilet brush, with a large toilet seat around his next. It made people laugh, but it got attention.

Did it get yours?

Smog and Leadership- forging the connections in Singapore

There is a running reference in Ireland where Dublin is referred to ‘The Big Smoke’; the grand city, enlarged, congested, dominant. But when it comes to smoky large cities it is beginning to pale in comparison. I’ve had my fair share of large cities since beginning this trip- Nairobi, Jo’berg, Mumbai, Chennai, Delhi, Singapore, Bangkok, and each time I get to another my reference point for ‘Big Smoke’ is being redrawn. Dublin looks more and more provincial.

Singapore I was told was not normally smoky, but on my visit it indeed was. Forest fires were raging in Indonesia, due to slash and burn agriculture and the wind brought the fumes southwards, leaving a dull haze to linger between the skyscrapers. ‘Those Indonesians’, I overheard some Singaporeans exclaim, passively. But others were attempting to make the connections and ask the why behind it. Like Melissa Kwee for instance, Chairperson of the Halogen Foundation, a youth leadership organisation, who on the day that I met her had just come from a meeting with the Ministry for the Environment, trying to spark the debate, and action on the issue.

Understanding global connectivity and networks is a core component to Melissa’s work with Halogen, and specifically getting more young people to make the connections and see that they can play a role in actualising solutions.

To ‘get’ more young people to think and act in such ways, Halogen have developed a series of innovative programmes to engage young people in critical thinking about their roles. Again very similar to Suas in Ireland- a connection I enjoyed making too.

They just recently held of pan Asian youth conference, 1 Degree Asia, bringing young people together to inspire action and thinking about their role in their local and global communities. Halogen also organised national young leaders days; an initiative across schools in Singapore, in which speakers come to the young people talk about how they are effecting change. Jack Sim, from the World Toilet Organisation was one such speaker (see next blog). Then the connection gets deeper. An idea I really liked; '10 minutes of time', in which CEOs from a spectrum of businesses are teamed with you a young person who each commit ten minutes of their day to on-line coaching/ mentoring.

In all Halogen is about teaching young people about responsible leadership; both at personal and social levels.

Some may even go on to tackle global smog issues. My lungs will celebrate that!

Politics in Play

Chris de Sousa was a college friend of mine from Singapore. So passing through the city, I stayed with him and his wife for a couple of nights. I did not know this before I arrived, but Chris had recently been elected as an MP for Singapore. At 30 he is the youngest in parliament. So I got to go along to one of his ‘meet the people’ sessions, a weekly community forum in which residents can address their concerns to their local MP. In this instance, Chris.

I went along to the session not to get into heavy discussion, but to see the political process in play. Which was interesting. When we arrived a queue had already formed with local residents and their issues, and about 15 volunteers, many young, were there to help out on the night. The process was efficient. The residents first met a volunteer, where the case was heard, recorded and if a response was required by the MP, briefing notes were prepared and draft letters written. I sat in on a few briefings. A man who needed a visa extended for his Indonesian wife. Another who need a letter for emergency dental treatment. Another who needed references for this children so as to apply for scholarships. All fairly basic things, but nevertheless genuine concerns.

What interested me also was the volume of volunteers, many under 30 who turn up every Monday evening to help out. ‘Why?’, I asked them, ‘What motivates you?’. ‘To be part of a community’, one replied. ‘To gain experience’, said another. ‘I enjoy it’, said another.

This is the reciprocity of volunteering at play. People give, people gain. Motivations may be political, or people may just need to belong. Whatever the reasons, in those rooms I did get a sense of community, and saw the ‘meet the people’ session as a necssary cog to help the system tick.

(Thanks Chris and Sharon for the warm welcome).

Kolkata developments through the eyes of DAS

Back in Kolkata, I met up with the staff of Development Action Society (DAS), an organisation I got to know through my previous work with Suas. It had been three years since my last visit, and driving out to the area of Ballygunge (close to where they are based), I was amazed to see the change. What once were open fields, now shopping malls. What once was just a petrol station, now new apartments, a café and a boutique.

In all, there were many more signs of enterprise and business than I expected. Good hey? Yes, in some respects. This is becoming the new suburbia, the rising middle class. But for the people who DAS works with, the ones who do not have the money for coffees and petrol and new fancy clothes, they are being further marginalised. As Sheela Sengupta, the co-founder of DAS, explained to me, for these women, life has not improved much.

After catching up with the wonderful DAS team, I went along to a meeting they had arranged in one of their community centres in another outlaying region of the city. They had organised a gathering of local women to address the town councillor; a rare occasion in which they women could air some of their concerns and issues. Before the meeting DAS also held one of their outreach dental clinics- to save the women from having to travel in twice to the community centre.

The meeting commenced and the women, one by one, started to speak out. The issues? Alcohol abuse. Domestic violence. Education. Child health.

These women were brave. There was little doubt that what was spoken got back to their husbands, and little doubt too that some of them will have received a beating when they got home. But the women are persistent and want their conditions to change. They have called for another meeting with the councillor, to which their husbands will be invited they can raise issues face to face, which DAS will organise.
Whether the councillor actually does anything is ancillary. There is power in these women coming together, the power in numbers paradigm. Colourful power.