Thursday, March 29, 2012

Healthcare and ideology really don't belong together

The USA never ceases to amaze me. At this moment, a political battle is playing out in the Supreme Court that essentially pits the political right against Obama's health care plan. The biggest irony is that the 'socialized medicine' against which the right is fighting so hard is based on a conservative plan, proposed in the 1990s by a conservative think tank, and subsequently adopted by at least one conservative governor (Mitt Romney) in his state.

Perhaps history will prove me wrong, but I think this will turn out to be one of the biggest miscalculations of the political right. Inasmuch as "Obamacare" is not perfect, it is a vast improvement over what existed before. It gives more Americans access to affordable health care. Those who have not had the experience of being locked out of every possible insurance plan because they suffer from chronic disease or terminal disease may not realize just how revolutionary this is. The pre-"Obamacare" trend is not sustainable, especially since America has some of the worst health indicators in the industrial world, and these are getting progressively worse. As Americans become sicker, affordable health care is going to become increasingly necessary.

If 'true American values' continue to move towards the right, as they have been doing for the past 50 or so years, then Americans will wake up in a dystopian society some decades from today. Basic health care (including vaccination, prenatal and antenatal care) will be out of reach for the average person. Perhaps only 10% of the population will have access to fresh fruit, vegetables, meat and dairy products. The rest will have to make do on heavily-sugared and salted food products. It sounds very much like the USA is trending towards "third world" status. Those of us from the "third world" who have seen what zero access to affordable health care for the majority of the population means in practical terms know that there's nothing ideal about it. The strangest thing of all is that the American public will have voluntarily taken itself in that direction because of its ideological investments.

I think the political right would have done better to embrace "Obamacare" as their original idea. After all, it did grow out of a conservative vision for expanded health care coverage. By contrast, a vision originated by the political left would have pushed private insurance companies out of the market and replaced them with a single insurer: the government. Seen from this perspective, many on the left could (and do) argue that "Obamacare" is too huge a compromise by the Obama administration to the right.

If the right had taken credit for "Obamacare" they would have had a more coherent platform to run on. They would have been able to paint "Romneycare," not as a blemish on Romney's record, but as a superior plan to "Obamacare." I have to wonder what lies ahead for American politics and American health care.

The best-thought out piece I have read on the American health care system lately comes from Fareed Zakaria: "Health insurance is for everyone". It is valuable for its comparative assessment of health care and insurance in different national contexts. David Paul's piece on the Supreme Court and the insurance mandate is also a good read.

This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Changing our attitudes towards homosexuality

When they think about what it means to be gay, many East Africans focus on its physical implications: they think about gay people as those who have physical relationships with members of the same sex. Because sex is a physical act that one chooses to engage in, they figure that one can choose whether or not to be gay. This perspective fails to take into consideration the fact that, for many gay people, being gay precedes the act of sex. To them, being gay means feeling attracted to people of the same sex. Even if they never act on these feelings and choose to live a life of celibacy or one of heterosexuality instead, they know deep down inside that they feel attracted to members of the same sex and that they have felt that way for as long  as they have been sexually aware.

I have read narratives by gay people who speak about becoming teenagers and realizing that, unlike their age mates, they felt absolutely no attraction to members of the opposite sex. They grew older and the status quo held: the heterosexual attraction that other people took for granted was never a part of their experience. Instead, they remember their first experience of feeling romantic love for another as involving somebody of the same sex.

I notice that most discussions of homosexuality in the East African media have not evolved beyond the expression of horror or disgust at the possibility that two men or two women can be physically intimate. Very few East African writers set aside the focus on the sexual angle to ask what it is that makes it possible for a man to feel attracted to a man or for a woman to feel attracted to a woman. Very few even ponder over what it is that makes them heterosexual. They just assume that they are heterosexual because that is the natural state of things. They don’t think about the biological and environmental factors that influence their sexuality. Nor do they realize that if a few factors in their lives had been different, they could possibly have been gay.

The truth of the matter is that there is no single definitive factor that makes a person gay or straight. Rather, a variety of factors interact to influence a person’s sexuality.  They include genetic heritage, the hormones to which a fetus is exposed while in the womb, the structure of the brain, family influences, birth order and other factors.

Over the years, I have read of studies where it was shown that there were demonstrably distinct differences between people who self-identify as homosexual, and those who self-identify as heterosexual. These include physiological differences, e.g. differences in the sizes of specific parts of the brain, different brain responses to certain chemicals, and different ways of processing certain forms of information. One study I read about in a science magazine a few years ago (unfortunately, I can’t remember which one now) looked into the family structures of gay and straight men. It found that the gay men’s maternal female relatives tended to have more offspring than their paternal female relatives. The conclusion was that the X-chromosome, which was passed to these men by their mothers, was involved in some way. The scientists speculated that this chromosome was carrying genes that increased female fertility and the likelihood that male offspring would be homosexual.

I remember reading another article which indicated that more gay men tended to experience rejection from their fathers than straight men. Gay men also tended to have closer relationships with their mothers than straight men. The conclusions were not clear cut in this one. It could be argued that the fathers rejected their offspring because they sensed that they were somehow different from the norm and that the mothers tried to compensate. It could also be argued that the rejection by the fathers played a role in influencing their sons’ psychosexual development.

I can think of many more studies that focus on different biological and environmental factors, and show them to have some kind of influence on an individual’s sexuality.  The conclusion I am bound to draw from all of this is that sexuality is complex, and that there are no easy explanations for the way it manifests in individuals. Thus, being gay or straight is not about simply deciding to feel a certain way.

Given that homosexuality is complex, and is determined by a variety of factors, our attitudes towards it need to change. We are living in the age of information. With access to the internet, many people really have no excuse for holding on to superstitious beliefs about sexuality.

This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Hair Madness

I'm trying to imagine a scenario where a European or Asian student attending school in an African nation is sent home from school because she is wearing her hair in an "ethnic" European or Asian style. Somehow, I just don't see it happening. So why is the converse possible? Why is it possible for a Brazilian university administrator to send a black student home because she is wearing her hair in a "'Black Power' natural hairstyle"?

But wait, I'm getting ahead of myself. First things first, what on earth is a "'Black Power' natural hairstyle"? When I first saw the term, I thought it was referring to a tall afro: one that stood so high that it scraped the ceiling. I figured that it would be reasonable to send home a student with a hairstyle that outrageous, after all, it would otherwise be a distraction to her fellow students. And then I saw the picture of the student with the offending hairstyle.

Sure enough, the student, Ana Carolina Bastos was black: she had chocolate-complexioned skin. As for her hair, it did not look anything remotely like an Afro, let alone a ceiling-scraping one. Her curls were large. In other words, her hair did not scream "Black Power." Clearly, something was getting lost in translation.

I do not pretend to understand what exactly is going on in the Brazilian story, but I think it is safe to say that it is just one instance of the global affliction that I call hair madness: the irrational fear of curly hair especially (but not only) when it occurs in tandem with dark skin.

This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Friday, March 9, 2012

How cultural norms contribute to malnutrition
This week, I have been reading Richard K'Okul's book, Maternal and Child Health in Kenya. The book explores the different factors that contribute to malnutrition in the community. These range from bad policies to poverty, ignorance and cultural factors that influence maternal nutrition.

One of the factors that I found unnecessary and sad was the cultural norm in Western Kenya, whereby a young married woman is not allowed to cook for her family. Instead, she has to comply with her mother-in-law's wishes. If her mother-in-law doesn't feel like cooking, then even small babies are condemned to remain hungry until she is ready to cook.

To make matters worse, the food cooked may not necessarily be suitable for small children. In parts of Nyanza Province where polygyny is common, it is the senior wives who control the cooking. It is common to see very young women who are married to elderly men carrying small children with kwashiokor. When asked why they can't feed their child better, they give answers like, ' I have not been given food'.

The point of this little story is to point out that the time has come for Africans to reexamine and restructure their cultures in order to survive. It doesn't matter how many highly educated specialists Africa produces, if we don't take care of the basic anomalies in our family dynamics. Malnutrition, disease and death will remain common among African children. Young African men must therefore play their part in condemning these practices, and African mothers must advocate more for the welfare of their children. Then Africa will take one step closer to joining the global community.

Friday, March 2, 2012

What a Snob!

"President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college - what a snob!" ~ Rick Santorum

I had to chuckle to myself when Rick Santorum called President Obama a snob for allegedly saying he wanted every American to go to college. He was obviously misrepresenting Obama's statement. Obama had indicated that he wanted everybody to have access to higher education (i.e. education beyond high school) if they so chose. That education could entail attending technical school, community college, or university at the undergraduate or graduate level. Obama's emphasis was not on getting a 4-year liberal arts degree, but rather on having access to the kind of post-high school training that would boost one's earning potential.

The misrepresentation was predictable, and chuckle-worthy. But it was the irony of the situation that struck me the most. Here stood Rick Santorum, a highly-educated and undeniably successful man, who had received multiple degrees from American universities. He had a law degree and an MBA and goodness knows what else, and thanks to his educational and career achievements, he had a reasonable income and a well-looked after family. With a straight face, the same man stood before Americans and laughed at the idea that working class Americans should aspire for more, as he and his antecedents had.

Santorum's statement brought to mind the private education fiasco in Algeria a number of years ago, when, under President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, private Francophone schools were ordered shut down. Their crime: teaching in French rather than in the national language, Arabic. As extreme as the decision was, it was not completely unexpected. In fact, it was simply an extension of the previously-adopted Algerian policy to eliminate the use of  French as the language of instruction in Algerian government schools, and to replace it with Arabic.

An optimist who was aware of this policy might have said that the Algerians were correcting the historical wrongs done by French colonialism and reclaiming their indigenous identity by making this bold statement about the primacy of Arabic over French. However, there would be a couple of problems with this perspective. One of them would be the fact that French was an important language of business for Algeria, which maintained strong economic ties to France. As the elite Algerian classes spoke French with fluency, anybody who dreamt of upward mobility would be severely limited by an inability to speak in French. In theory, emphasizing Arabic as the sole national language should have been the basis for national pride. In reality, the policy failed to acknowledge the fact that the existing infrastructure (economic, educational etc.) was constructed to support a French-speaking population.

The results of this experiment in populism are outlined well by Issandr Al Amrani on the blog, The Arabist:
There is widespread concern that the forced Arabic-language instruction is creating children who are "illiterate in two languages." This is because, partly, of the quality of Arabic-language instruction (Algeria does not have enough qualified Arabic teachers and must import teachers from Egypt and elsewhere), and because French remains the language of the business elite.
Clearly, the experiment was not a great success. An admittedly problematic but functional educational system was replaced with a somewhat mediocre one. The country was not equipped with the necessary infrastructure and resources to make the transition a smooth one.

Earlier in the blog article, Al Amrani highlights the biggest irony in the whole debacle. Apparently, the very politicians who cheered on the Arabization of the educational system and the elimination of French as a language of instruction did not subsequently send their children to the government schools that had adopted the Arabic-focused curriculum. Instead, they prefered to send them to French schools. Even as they prescribed the patriotic path for the nation's children, they still wanted to be sure their children would get the advantages that came with fluency in French. So much for populism and Arabist ideals.

Perhaps now you can see why Santorum's statement amused me. It is true that his statement on snobbery and education was limited to words (and that he possibly did not believe what he was saying), while the Algerian politicians actually turned their Arabist ideals into policy. However, in both cases, it was implied that the 'masses' were supposed to remain where they were. Aspiration and upward mobility were for "snobs."

The cynic in me has summarized this ethos in a 3-sentence message:
Oh, wise people who have chosen me as your leader- your current status is perfect, and anyone who suggests that you can aspire to more if you so choose is disrespecting you. I will fight for your right to be denied opportunities for social mobility. But I will also make sure that the salary you so generously pay me gives me and my kids those very opportunities.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm no "snob." I don't believe that one must have a college degree to live a meaningful life, or even to succeed. Nor do I believe that every Algerian must speak French in order to thrive. There are different career paths and life journeys to be taken, and depending on people's abilities and their capacity to take advantage of the opportunities before them, they could do pretty well for themselves without ever setting foot in a college classroom or learning to conjugate French verbs. However, I do believe that a fair society should allow its people to access opportunities for social mobility. If the people decide as individuals to reject these opportunities, that is fine. Their choices should be respected. But it is important that they, rather than their political elites, should be the the ones to make those choices.

This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.