Comedy doesn’t have to be offensive, you know

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Last night, I had the pleasure of watching South African comedian Trevor Noah¬†perform in Gaborone. My friend Elena and I were giddy with excitement in the week leading up to the event, as we are both huge fans. When the day of the show finally came, we met up in the afternoon, chatting and watching one of his old DVDs before heading out for dinner and then over to the show. Noah himself was hilarious and I’m very grateful I was able to watch him perform live before he starts working with Jon Stewart and becomes¬†even more famous in the international comedy scene.

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While Noah’s act was great, the acts that preceded him – including the host and the opening comedian Eugene Khoza – left much to be desired. Neither were very funny at all but what was more of an issue was the problematic¬†bullshit spewing from their mouths. Their comedy was infused with the kind of sexism we have come to expect from uncreative comedians. Last night, we were subjected to so many jokes focusing on women and, more specifically, focusing on women’s bodies. For example, there were extensive comments policing what overweight women ‘should be’ wearing. (Newsflash: Anyone can wear whatever they want anytime, friends.)

The most offensive joke of the night by far though was a piece on the young women kidnapped by the Boko Haram in Nigeria, an act of violence that spurred the social media campaign #BringBackOurGirls. The joke was focused on the girls’ looks, Khoza¬†saying that they should “#KeepOurGirls” because they are ugly. Khoza¬†even suggested that men of the world were better off because these ugly girls had been kidnapped and were now out of the dating pool. He said he wasn’t surprised that there were no boyfriends or husbands campaigning to get the girls back.

Not only is this joke inappropriate because it trivializes a horrible tragedy that has caused a lot of pain but this joke is also unacceptable because it furthers disgusting sexist stereotypes about women. These stereotypes oppress women, keeping them at a lower status in society in comparison to men. These jokes suggest that women are only worthwhile in their roles in relation to men as wives, mothers, and sisters. And these jokes tell women their worth is measured only on their looks. They tell women that they are only around to be objectified for the pleasure of men. Moreover, this joke condones gender-based violence, acts that are rampant around the world and not to be made a laughing matter.

I was so angry after this joke that I basically stopped listening to Khoza… Unfortunately, I tuned in long enough to hear some of his other jokes, including one that perpetuated the stigma against HIV/ AIDS and another that belittled street youth. If Trevor Noah hadn’t been coming out on stage after this comedian, I would have left the venue in protest against this man’s unacceptable brand of humour.

This experience has me thinking about the role humour has in perpetuating stereotypes. Too often are comedians hiding behind the ”it’s a joke; lighten up” defense. I’d like to think it’s possible to create an entire comedy act free from sexism, racism, and other problematic stereotyping. In fact, I think it’s possible to create acts that positively impact the world by disrupting these stereotypes.

Humour has the potential to bring people into conversations about privilege, power, and problematic narratives. I think we should be using comedy to overturn stereotypes in funny and unexpected ways instead of lazily relying on -isms for a cheap laugh. So let’s support the comedians who use their platform to talk about important issues instead of lending an ear to the boring comedians whose jokes contribute to world suck.

Plans A, B, C… Z?

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I’m one of those people who’s always pursuing the next opportunity. I’ve got emails and newsletters coming into my inbox filled with possibilities: internships, workshops, jobs… I’m often seen perusing job boards. And I love sifting through these options and figuring out which ones might work for me. I put time and energy into imagining myself doing different the things I’m applying for because, for me, it’s exciting to explore all my options. The world is my oyster, as they say.

I won’t lie;¬†it can be tiring when things don’t work out. As an optimist, I’m pretty resilient because I’m an expert silver-lining finder. But I’m also¬†a perfectionist, so rejection can be hard. And plans often fall through, which can be frustrating, especially if¬†I’ve spent precious energy pursuing something that ultimately comes up short. Despite my positivity, disappointment can be as bitter for me as everyone else.

Recently, I was faced with one such situation. I had found out that there was a possibility of me taking a term abroad in Australia after my co-op placement in Botswana from March to June 2015. It was the perfect option in so many ways but some bureaucratic issues out of my control put a stop to all that. So I’ll be flying back to Canada in early March as originally planned instead of jetting off to Sydney for a few months to finish my anthropology major there.

At first, I was angry and disappointed about it and, while those feelings are still there, they’ve dwindled as I’ve started to look into other options. Like I do, I’ve begun imagining myself doing other things, being other places. Always moving forward is my motto about these things and¬†I’m looking forward to discovering exactly where I’m going to end up come March.

Many of my¬†friends in the same program (international development co-op at U of T) as me are beginning to think more and more about what’s next – not just after we finish our co-op placements but also about where we’ll go once we graduate… After all, we’ll all be graduating from university in just about a year and a half. I think the fact I love exploring future goals and making all sorts of plans so much will help me navigate my next year and a half and beyond that, too.

Right now, I’m pleased that I’m not stressing about what’s happening after graduation too much. I’m pleased because this is a little uncharacteristic of me, since I can be an intense over-achiever. Somehow, though, over the past six months in Ghana and Botswana, I’ve experienced so much instability in my life that now I know that I can handle little hiccups along the way (like having a plan to study in Australia struck down) as well as bigger hurdles (like moving across the world for months or like writing a thesis).¬†Perhaps, like a puppy, I’m ‘mellowing’ or maybe this is simply what growing up feels like?

Whatever it is, I’ll not stop being the planner that I am. I’ll always going to be looking for fun and exciting experiences that I can grow and learn from. I guess, now, I’m just not taking things as personally if they don’t work out. Or maybe it’s that I’m more confident in myself now; even if a plan falls through, I know I’ll be alright. Better than alright even! I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter if I’m in Botswana, Australia, or back home in Toronto, I’ll make it work. And, if these past few months are any indication, I’ll have a mighty amount of fun as I go.

Work Trip To Maun

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Last Wednesday, I woke up just before the sun rose, grabbed my suitcase, and drove out of Gaborone with some other WUSC Botswana staff, our car heading north to Maun. After taking the bus ride to Maun about a month ago, I was very grateful to be a passenger in a car this time instead of slogging through the long, hot bus journey. The difference was dramatic: in a car, it only took us about eight hours to get to Maun, in comparison to the eleven hours I spent on the bus! (And as we drove closer to the desert, I was very pleased to be in an air conditioned vehicle this time.)

Cows crossing the road... As usual

Cows crossing the road… As usual!

We arrived in Maun just after lunchtime so, before buckling down to work, we grabbed a quick lunch at the delicious restaurant Hilary’s. Then we headed over to a secondary school and set up for our first presentation.¬†The focus of the trip was to disseminate information about the WUSC Botswana International Scholarship Management (ISM) program to secondary students in the area. (Before this trip, I’d only presented in the region in and around Gaborone.)

Our information table set up at a school for a presentation

Our information table set up at a school for a presentation

Since I’m the ISM program assistant until the end of February, I spent the past few weeks setting up presentations at three different schools in Maun. Thankfully, several of the schools agreed to host us even though their students were going through exams at the time so¬†we were able to complete one presentation last¬†Wednesday and another two on Thursday.¬†After all the preparations, it was nice to finally deliver the information to the students who, even though they were busy with exams, were very eager to hear what I had to say.

Yes, I took a selfie with one of my audiences of high school students

Selfie with one of my audiences of high school students

I was really impressed at the interest the students paid to our presentations. Even though the audiences at the schools I presented to in Maun were much larger than what I was used to presenting to in comparison to Gaborone, the students paid attention quite well and had lots of useful questions for me.

I¬†really enjoy spending time helping the students figure out where they want to go and what they want to do with their lives. I heard from students who have a huge range of interests including those who have more¬†typical interests such as engineering, finance, and medicine but I also spoke to students interested in becoming tattoo artists, musicians, pilots, and dancers. It’s so cool to be a part of their path towards their future, getting them excited (and calming their nerves) about what lays ahead even if they don’t choose to study in Canada.

My HUGE room at Maun Lodge

My HUGE room at Maun Lodge

While I was in Maun, I stayed at the Maun Lodge, which meant I had a huge amount of space to myself for a few nights and even access to a pool, which was a fun change from my everyday life Gaborone. I also spent a lot of time with my friends who live in Maun, the ones I visited on my trip a month ago as well. This time around, I again spent a night at their place on Saturday since WUSC was kind enough to delay my flight back to Gaborone from Friday to Sunday so I could spend more time in the area catching up with them.

My friend Carragh and I on my last day in Maun

My friend Carragh and I on my last day in Maun

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Weekend in Jozi

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This past weekend a bunch of friends and I piled into a rental car and took the four hour journey south to Johannesburg, South Africa. We drove through wicked weather – hail, rain, thunder, and lightning – but managed to arrive safely (and without getting lost even though our GPS had no interest in working for us). We arrived in Sandton, a glitzy neighbourhood of Joburg, in the late afternoon. As soon as we got out of the car, I realized we were not in Kansas anymore… Not at all! This was the city. Tall building and thrumming traffic was all around us. There were hotels and restaurants and shops everywhere and we were right in the middle of it. Gaborone suddenly seemed very small, very quiet in comparison.

On the road to Joburg... before the storm hit!

On the road to Joburg… before the storm hit!

We were lucky enough to stay with a friend who lives in a gorgeous apartment in the Michealangelo towers, right in the centre of it all. Several floors up, we marvelled at the view of the city, loitering on the balcony despite the chilly (in comparison to Botswana) weather. We spent the afternoon meeting new people and catching up with others. That night, we put on our party dresses to explore the city after hours. The night was full of laughter, dancing, and some pretty incredible music. At the end of it, we paid homage to our North American roots with a midnight visit to McDonald’s.

The gorgeous balcony of the Michelangelo Towers

The gorgeous balcony of the Michelangelo Towers

The next morning we went out for breakfast but we didn’t even have to go outside to get to a restaurant ¬†because the towers where we slept are connected to a massive shopping complex. All we had to do was bumble our way downstairs and we were in the mall, ordering food as if it was our backyard. After a leisurely breakfast, we walked around the mall, like urban explorers. It was all decked out for Christmas, since the festive season has just begun. I found this a little disorienting since, as a Canadian, I’m used to a cold, white Christmas and, of course, here it’ll be summer throughout Christmas season.

The girls and I shopped around for deals, all of us changing into our purchases to show them off for the rest of the day. Like the day before, we spent our afternoon lounging around and hanging out. We listened to some amazing music and chilled on the balcony. Later that night, we went out to listen to a local DJ perform before heading back to Sandton to get some shut-eye before our drive the next day.

We woke up at an ungodly hour the next day so we could arrive back in Gabs at a reasonable time. But of course this plan didn’t work out at all since we ended up driving aimlessly around Joburg for an hour or so trying to find an interesting place to grab some food before leaving the city to drive north to Botswana. But we did find an interesting place to eat… In fact, we ended up at one of the strangest places I’ve ever been in my life – the Montecasino. First, we were searched for guns with metal detector wands before we went in, something I’m not used to except for in airports.

Inside Montecasino

Inside Montecasino

Second, the place is like a village in a building. There are fake trees and cobblestones and even little police cars and bikes around to make you feel like you’re outside when you’re really inside. The ceiling is even painted to look like the sky! There were so many shops and restaurants but very few people there because it was so early, giving the whole experience even more of a surreal feeling. We ate our breakfast laughing about the weirdness of the situation and were quickly back in the car to finally go back to Gabs.

Thankfully, the weather on our way back to Gabs was much more peaceful than on the way there. Instead of storms and hail, we had open blue skies and lots of sunshine. This made it much easier to appreciate the gorgeous view.* The road between Gabs and Joburg is stunning, and even that is an understatement. There are rolling mountains covered with trees and scrub and there are pretty little towns along the way. At one point, we pitstopped in a town with a lake at its heart – honestly one of the most beautiful spots I’ve seen in South Africa.

Hanging out at the Michelangelo Towers

Hanging out at the Michelangelo Towers

We got back to Gabs in the early evening after a drive filled with good music and napping, of course, after such a fun weekend. Being back in Gabs was almost a shock because it stands in such contrast to Joburg. One of my friends lamented that Gabs seems so sleepy in comparison to such an incredible weekend. When I got back, I told my mum that we did nothing tourist-y at all but instead just spent time feeling the vibes of the city. I’ll explore the tourist destinations in December when I travel back to Joburg to fly out from the¬†airport there for Cape Town… And, honestly, I can’t wait to go back!


* Sadly, my smartphone died for good on the Friday before we left so I have no photos from this trip… But I’ll be back on this road in December for the Christmas holidays and I promise to take many photos and share them with you then!

UPDATE: I stole some photos from friends and added them to the post!

Band Aid 30 will likely suck just as much as the original

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At a press conference yesterday, Bob Geldof and Midge Ure announced that they are producing yet another version of the song “Do They Know It’s Christmas” for their Band Aid project. The original song was released in 1984, raising a record amount of money for famine relief in Ethiopia. It’s been rerecorded a few¬†times for various causes, including in 1989 for ‘Band Aid II’ and then again in 2004 for ‘Band Aid 20‘. This year’s version is being called ‘Band Aid 30’ and will be sold to raise money to fight against the current ebola outbreak in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia.

While I have no doubt that¬†slacktivists everywhere will swarm to iTunes and buy the song to¬†feel good about ‘making a difference in the world’, I have some very serious issues with the problematic narratives spread through the Band Aid project. These issues can be boiled down to two main points that I’ll elaborate on below: 1)¬†the lyrics of the song are truly awful, and¬†2)¬†there is no self-representation by the people who are being ‘helped’ by this money; instead people in the Global North are representing them in a terrible way.

Let’s tackle the lyrics first. We’ll use the lyrics from the most recent release, Band Aid 20, which you can find here for reference. Band Aid 30 will have slightly different lyrics in reference to ebola and West Africa but it will likely not change much at its core.

Even the cover art (by Damien Hirst) is Othering

Even the cover art (by Damien Hirst) is Othering

I’ll¬†start with the title, which is offensive¬†itself because it suggests that people in developing countries have no understanding or awareness of the developed¬†world. This is, of course, not at all the case. Media like news, music, television, and movies coming from the Global North is¬†widely accessible and consumed¬†in developing countries. More importantly, the title is most problematic in the sense that it seems to completely forget the colonial history of Christian missionaries working to stamp out the traditional beliefs and religions of people in the developing world.

The second¬†lines of the song¬†reads, “At Christmastime, we let in light and we banish shade”. This recalls¬†the narrative that developing countries – especially those in the continent of Africa – are ‘dark’ and therefore dirty, terrifying, and uncivilized. Of course, mentions of darkness is also a thinly veiled¬†reference to skin colour. In contrast, developed countries are set up as the bringers of light into the ‘dark places’. This false binary suggests that whiteness is superior¬†and darkness needs to be eradicated.

This is not only racist since it sets up darkness as negative and whiteness as desired, but it also feeds into the paternalistic notion of White Man’s Burden – the idea that it is the developed world’s duty to spread its ‘enlightenment’ to the ‘darkest’ corners of the world.¬†This is echoed in the next lines of the song, which encourage the listeners to “throw your arms around the world”. Again this presents the Global North (bearers of ‘whiteness’) as¬†superior on the linear scale of ‘development’¬†so it is¬†required to ‘take care’ of the Global South by spreading its whiteness there.¬† Continue reading

Get off my (vegan) back

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When I first went¬†vegan, almost six years ago, I promised myself that I wouldn’t be one of ‘those’¬†vegans. The pushy vegan. The in-your-face-about-it vegan. The how-dare-you-eat-that-steak-in-front-of-me vegan. I didn’t (and still don’t)¬†want to become a judgemental person because of my personal choice to not eat animal products. Unfortunately,¬†this doesn’t stop others from openly – and often confrontationally – judging me for my lifestyle. To be frank, I’m getting tired¬†of it.

The number one reaction I receive to my veganism is, “OH I COULD NEVER DO THAT”.¬†… No one asked you to.¬†My choice to eat vegan has nothing to do with you. It is not a judgement against you or your eating habits. I have never pushed anyone to be vegan. Ever. So your pre-emptive defence against whatever judgment you think I’m going to make against you, after it comes up that I’m vegan, is both misplaced and annoying.¬†Your need to reassure yourself that you couldn’t possibly follow a vegan diet stems from a self-doubt and self-consciousness about your own habits and health. That is your problem; please stop¬†projecting¬†it¬†onto me and my veggie burger.

The second most common reaction I get is, “SO, LIKE, WHAT DO YOU EAT?”. The answer to this question is, of course, “food”, just like everyone else. If you are truly interested in learning about a vegan diet, I’m more than willing to discuss that with you. In fact, I really enjoy sharing my personal experiences with others when they ask. But nine times out of ten, learning¬†is not the intention of this question. I find, instead, that this question is designed to put me on the defensive, forcing me to lay out my daily diet¬†for you to investigate and mock. Many when asking this question suddenly become doctors and nutritionists, faking worry for me and assuring me that my diet couldn’t possibly sustain me over the longterm. If you ever feel compelled to do the same, please remember that my diet and my body are none of your business.

Speaking of my body, let’s all just agree to stop saying things like, “You’re vegan? Really? You don’t LOOK¬†like a vegan”. Thanks for letting me know that I don’t look like the waif-y vegan stereotype you have in your head. Saying things like this is¬†thinly veiled way of commenting on my body, something you have absolutely no¬†jurisdiction to do. We live in a world where so many of us struggle everyday to appreciate and love the bodies we have that we¬†should all avoid passing harmful judgements like this. Just like all people, vegans can be all shapes and sizes and races and genders. Stop trying to fit me or anyone else into the¬†boxes that live in your head.

Finally, I need to call out the gender issues embedded in¬†much of criticism I hear when I’m being questioned¬†about my veganism. Because meat is very closely associated with masculinity, plant-based diets¬†are¬†culturally¬†characterized as feminine. Veganism and those who practice it¬†are therefore immediately considered inferior¬†because we live in a culture that is patriarchal. This means that every time someone assures me that I won’t be ‘strong’ because I am vegan or bullies¬†a man for eating ‘girly rabbit food’, they are conforming to and¬†reinforcing¬†our patriarchal system, which means they are contributing to the oppression of women, non-binary, and queer folks.¬†Not good.

[Relevant sidenote: Please don’t mansplain veganism. Last night, I was surrounded by a group of men – all of whom I’d just met¬†–¬†that¬†decided that my veganism would certainly kill my future baby. Seriously.¬†I was too shocked by the sexism of the situation to do a proper take-down so indulge me¬†now: How dare¬†you automatically place me in the role of mother and caregiver because I’m female and how dare you think you know best about my health and my body.]

This post is not aimed at a particular person or situation. Instead it represents a culmination of experiences over the past six years that have each made me feel¬†hurt, judged, angry, and self-conscious. My veganism is deeply personal. It comes from a complicated history with food and health and it has grown into a lifestyle that fits who I am. Through veganism, I have gained a¬†greater understanding of global food systems, environmentalism, animal welfare, feminism, and health and fitness, too. If you want to talk about any of that¬†with me, that’s fantastic. But if you just want to point¬†out my veganism for rude, bullying, or self-serving purposes, please think before you speak and just back off.

Weekend in Maun

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Sometimes, you’ve just gotta get outta dodge. Even though I’ve been having an amazing time in Gabs, I was feeling a little ‘stuck’ so I decided to take the eleven hour bus ride north to visit friends in Maun. The bus trip was long and exhausting, not to mention hot!¬†Driving north in Botswana means you’re getting closer to the desert… So the bus was practically a greenhouse for humans. My drinking water was so hot, I could have easily steeped tea! (But, frankly, I was just¬†grateful to actually be on¬†the bus… I almost missed it because my taxi driver was late picking me up so we had to flag down the bus, yelling to get the driver’s attention, in order to get me on!)

Maun is very flat, sunny, and sandy

Maun is very flat, sunny, and sandy

I arrived in Maun around three thirty Friday afternoon. Tired, hot, thirsty, and hungry, I stumbled down the road¬†to Nando’s where I promptly drank an entire huge bottle of cold water (a litre and a half!) and I practically inhaled my veggie burger. I’m sure everyone else in the restaurant thought I was raised by wolves; my hunger was prioritized over¬†my table manners.

At Nando’s, I met up with Carragh, a friend who’s studying development at the University of Waterloo and working at the organization Women Against Rape in Maun. We spent Friday evening catching up, chatting about the progression of our placements and swapping tips for keeping cool in the heat because summer is coming

On Saturday morning, we attended the kick-off event of the Maun International Arts Festival – a youth poetry slam organized by the awesome arts NGO Poetavango. It featured some really talented high school wordsmiths¬†as well as a really impressive student marimba band. In the afternoon, we headed over a¬†local watering hole (figuratively and¬†literally because it’s right by the river) called Old Bridge Backpackers. We spent the entire afternoon there, drinking¬†too many coca-colas and using¬†the free Wi-Fi and my Lonely Planet Southern Africa travel book to map¬†out the preliminary plans for our Christmas trip… to Cape Town!*

Around the corner from Old Bridge Backpackers, with some donkey friends

Around the corner from Old Bridge Backpackers, with some donkey friends

The view from the bridge... Maun is beautiful!

The view from the bridge… Maun is beautiful!

On Sunday, we played tourist by taking a mokoro¬†day trip into the Okavango delta, which is one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Africa and was recently declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We spent almost ten hours on the water that day! The day begin when we¬†caught¬†a motorboat from Old Bridge to the Okavango Mokoro Trust¬†in the village of Boro. There, we met our tour guide (called a ‘poler’ since they propel the boat forward with a long pole) and settled into the wooden dugout canoe we would be calling home for the day. Continue reading