Sunday, 31 May 2009

Mixed-gender dancing, drunkenness, and general merry-making on Sundays

Today I needed a relaxing Sunday but I never thought I would be the centre of religious discussions.

I took Naila and my two boys Mahdi and Ablai to the country fair at the British School in Jakarta, expecting a non confrontational day. I spent the first hour supervising the Tiger train where Mums, Dads and children had a mystery ride around the area.

Being keen on Scottish dancing and bagpipes, I walked across to the outdoor stage, where young children were dancing around the Maypole. I have written about pre-Islamic fertility poles in Afghanistan to celebrate Nouruz (the first day of Spring in the Persian calender), but I knew little about Maypoles. Standing close to me was an Englishman and I asked him about the significance of maypoles, and he told me they were once banned by the Protestant Church in England because they were seen as a symbol of the mixed-gender dancing, drunkenness, and general merry-making on Sundays. Did I believe him ? Later i looked it up on the web and it told me

Hostility towards maypoles, emanating from evangelical Protestants, grew, first manifesting itself significantly during the Reformation of Edward VI, when a preacher denounced the Cornhill maypole as an idol, causing it to be taken out of storage, sawn up, and burned. Under Mary and Elizabeth I this opposition to traditional festivities lacked government support, with Elizabeth recorded as being fond of them, but Protestant pressure to remove maypoles, as a symbol of the mixed-gender dancing, drunkenness, and general merry-making on Sundays that they opposed (see Sabbatarianism), grew nontheless.

After the maypole dancing the MC announced the Champagne, beer and Dilma tea tents were open for business. With the sun being almost vertical above the yard-arm, I decided a glass of champagne wouldn't go amiss. I sat next to an interesting man, that time had been kind to. He was tall handsome and certainly enjoying aging.

I quickly found out that his name was Vincent, an Irishman from a village 40 minutes from Dublin, and he was 82 years old. He hardly looked a day over 70.I brought glass of white wine for Vincent and a glass of Champagne for myself. " I prefer spirits, " said Vincent, and rattled over the names of a number of Irish Whiskeys he loved. I said "are you a real Irishman ?" His eyes leveled at me for a moment, " My Father was English, my Mother Irish, and I am an Irishman," he replied emphatically.

We then moved on to poetry. Now tell me an Irishman that doesn't love his writers and poets. Vincent's favourite was Omar Khayyam. He started off in a delightful Irish lilt....

Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse -- and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness --
And Wilderness is Paradise enow.

Then he recited
Come, fill the Cup, and in the Fire of Spring
The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ

Then it was my turn, and I recited

'Tis all a Chequer-board of Nights and Days
Where Destiny with Men for Pieces plays:
Hither and thither moves, and mates, and slays,
And one by one back in the Closet lays.

After the first two words, Vincent joined me and we recited it twice together.
Mario, the French Canadian running the champagne tent, could see we were drawing a crowd, so he gave us the next glasses free. We had a wonderful time quoting Khayyam, Kipling, Yeates, Brendan Behan, Robert Frost and James Elroy Flecker. Vincent and i both loved his epic, HASSAN.

As we recited Khayyam, the maypole dancing started again. As I got to know Vincent better, I asked him, "Are you a Catholic ? " No, I am an atheist, my Father was an atheist, and I think we are right." Look at what the Catholic Church did to my country, my people," he said with a sense of anger and shame. He spoke of the findings of the Ryan Commission that I had read some weeks back and was shocked to the core to find out about the systematic abuse of children in Irish religious institutions. I knew this wasn't going to be a quiet Sunday as a few more Irishmen joined our table. They asked me what I thought about the Ryan report. Fortunately I had read Paul Conneally's blog
and I was able to quote from what I had read. Here is what Paul wrote:

The findings are simply horrific. Ryan went so far as to say that not only was there systematic abuse but "abuse was the system".

As an Irish citizen I feel an unsettling mix of extraordinary shame and a rasping relief that the contents of this report are now open to public scrutiny. It causes deep shame but could deliver us into a truly modern era, free and healed from the hypocrisy of the Catholic clergy.

The report investigated the known chronic abuse carried out by religious orders throughout Ireland when they were charged with the care of vulnerable, poor and uneducated children. It paints a dark picture of a priest-ridden country where children were systematically abused and the population systematically turned a blind eye. It portrays a country at the genesis of its independence which chose to hand unaccountable power to the self-declared omnipotent church, perched on its unassailable moral highground, and a State that ignored its own responsibilities to its citizens. A State that covertly colluded with child abusers over some 60 odd years.

The report churns out horror after horror perpetrated by pervert priests. From forced labour, separation of siblings, young children being lied to about their parents being dead, brutal beatings and endemic sexual and physical abuse. The investigation categorically tracked down more than 800 abusers in some 200 institutions over 30 odd years. These are most likely a representational ratio from a statistical certainty of a mob of molesters which was so widespread that it touched every community and town in Ireland.

The Irish Times, in a poignant editorial, had this to say: "There is a nightmarish quality to this systemic malice, reminiscent of authoritarian regimes. We read of children “flogged, kicked . . . scalded, burned and held under water”. We read of deliberate psychological torment inflicted through humiliation, expressions of contempt and the practice of incorrectly telling children that their parents were dead. We read of returned absconders having their heads shaved and of “ritualised” floggings in one institution.

We have to call this kind of abuse by its proper name – torture. We must also call the organised exploitation of unpaid child labour – young girls placed in charge of babies “on a 24-hour basis” or working under conditions of “great suffering” in the rosary bead industry; young boys doing work that gave them no training but made money for the religious orders – by its proper name: slavery. It demands a very painful adjustment of our notions of the nature of the State to accept that it helped to inflict torture and slavery on tens of thousands of children. In the light of the commission’s report, however, we can no longer take comfort in evasions."

The Report's findings will not shock many people in Ireland, merely the fact that they have now seen the light of day. We have all grown up with the untouchable power of pompous priests. In my own school we had a serial abuser. All parents knew and opted to ignore it, to carry on in denial, such was the punitive power of theology over the huddled masses of a nation coming out from under its colonialist yoke. We all heard the stories of young girls, raped and impregnated by uncles or neighbors (or priests on occasion) and sent to industrial homes run by nuns to live out their institutionalized days in servitude to the very people who demonized them.

Ryan goes to some lengths to point out the rays of hope and light. The rare, humane company of a kind priest or nun that maintained the sanity of so many. We don't want to paint a picture of a completely tarnished religious order throughout the country; but in essence that is what it is. So widespread and deeprooted was the abuse that it required thousands of non-abusers to turn a blind eye, a degree of abuse in itself.

The report will have a great effect on Ireland in both a cultural and spiritual sense. Gone is the hubris and abuse of power of the Catholic church and gone forever the rem ants of reverence and deference that so many Irish communities had for their priests - a trait handed down from the schools and pulpits governed by the very same preachers.

This week I am thinking of Mannix Flynn, a man whose company I kept in Dublin in the nineties after I had read his novel 'Nothing to Say'. Mannix was a great writer and playwright whose work brilliantly depicted his days as a former resident of one of Ireland's more infamous industrial schools in Letterfrack, savagely run by the Christian Brothers. Drinking with Mannix one night in Dublin after his biographical one man play James X had received standing ovations, he said something to me like: I was abandoned and brutalized by my country so I have abandoned and brutalized myself (in reference to his hard drinking and drug taking).

I also remember one of our recently departed writers John McGahern who tried so hard to hold a mirror up to Irish society and to hold its clergy accountable. His own childhood was deeply marked by predatory priests and a family fully in thrall to the Church's twisted morality. He once remarked for instance: "When I was in my 20s it did occur to me that there was something perverted about an attitude that thought that killing somebody was a minor offence compared to kissing somebody." And writers like John Banville who wrote movingly on this topic in the New York Times today. Am not sure why writers are providing such solace or reference during these times, but so be it. Maybe the new spiritual void will be filled by people far more worthy.

Finally of course, such a post would be erroneous without mentioning all the victims of abuse who have had to suffer in silence for decades. Those who have had to relive the horrors of their abuse as they cooperated with the Ryan Commission and, maybe worst of all, have had to suffer further indignities and humiliations at the hands of the Catholic church who chose denial, collusion and cover-up as their preferred approach to deal with the victims of their systematic abuse. Shame on them, it's a legacy from hell.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Knee replacements six months on

A number of people have inquired as to how my new knees are working. It is just over six months ago that I had the operation done and my old knees were replaced with Stryker Orthopaedics, Triathlon Knee System, pictured below.

After decades of marathon running, tramping (bush walking), climbing, skiing, triathlons, lugging heavy packs full of hut repair equipment up to tramping and alpine club huts, and later resupplying huts in the Mt. Cook National Park, and frequent praying in the kneeling position, my knees were on the verge of finally giving up. I had no cartilage, just bone on bone.

Orthopaedic Surgeon Ed Newman on the day of the operation, marking my legs to guide him during the operation. Photo: Ruia McKerrow

Six months down the track, I am walking 5 to 7km a day and feeling healthy, happy and delighted that I took the plunge and got the operation done. Now that I am able to exercise without pain, I have lost 13 kg in weight.

In St George's hospital, the day I left. Photo" Ruia McKerrow

So what information can I pass onto others planing to get this operation done.

1. Get yourself fit for the operation. Make sure the muscles in your legs are strong. I did a lot of stationery cycling and exercises prescribed by the surgeon.

Cycling on my 19th floor balcony in Jakarta.Photo: Ablai McKerrow

2. Get yourself well set up at home or where ever you are going to recover, and ensure you have a raised toilet seat and a shower hose to wash yourself. I was fortunate as I stayed with my daughter Ruia, who is a nurse, and looked after me so well.

3. In the weeks folowing the operation, listen carefully to the physios as you need to get movement back in your knees as quickly as possible. They will push you and it will be painful, but you must concentrate on gradually getting a 90 degree bend in the knee, and slowly extend it in excess of 110 degrees.

4.See a top physiotherapist for as long as necessary. My last appointment with Leslie Kettle, was after 7 weeks. After one month, she put me on and Exercycle for 5 minutes and this was a wonderful exercise that helped me get maximum flexibility in my knees.

5. Don't overdo it. After being discharged from hospital after 9 days, I built up over the first two weeks, walking one km twice a day, After a month, I increased that a little plus extra short walks and all the prescribed flexibility/stretching exercises. After 6 weeks I was walking at least 2 km 2 to 3 times a day.

6.. Don't carry any heavy load in the first three months.

7. From month 2 onwards, I mixed cycling with walking. Say 3km of walking, and 2 km of cycling.
The view from my balcony as I cycle in the mornings. Photo: Ablai McKerrow

At one stage after about four and a half months, I increased my walking up to 10 km for a week, but then eased off as I realised that these new knees have limited life, so I eased back to a maximum of 7 km a day.

8. Massage your knees regularly to help circulation and perhaps it helps the nerves to grow and bring back feeling. Even after 6 months I do not have full feeling in my knees, but the feeling is slowly coming back.

9 It is a major operation. Develop a positive attitude. Set small targets and make sure you attain them. In the early and dark days when you are struggling to take ten steps, visualise yourself walking freely across grassy meadows without pain. Even now, I visualise me climbing a mountain in a years time.

10. And then there was the step counter I bought in late January in Singapore. I average a minimu of 10,000 steps a day. That has kept me competing against the counter and the weight continues to come off.

Special thanks to Ed Newman, Surgeon, Leslie Kettle physiotherapist. Ruia and Gavin for putting me up in their home for two months, and Aroha for regular massage on my legs in the first six weeks.

Monday, 18 May 2009

The ticking of clocks

The ticking of clocks is not an idle sound
life flows by, my friend, their beating repeats
A minutes is like an age for a man:
it goes, it dies, and the circle of life is closed

A clock is a ticking thief,
stealing life daily,
taking it unnoticed so that without love and constancy
life is nonetheless just fleeting deception.

In a clock's rustlings is past life
if it dulls a soul or comforts it,
still reason knows that time is treacherous,
it goes past as though its tick is harmless.

A day, a month, a year goes off in to ashes,
old age comes, time flows away...
Since transient time beckons us pitilessly,
Oh, imperishable Creator, have mercy upon us !

Over the years I have been reading many of the great Kazakh writers, poets and philosophers and one stands out above all others; Abai. He loved his people as no other and that's why his words ooze the blood as his soul bleeds. One of his early poems is about the ticking of clocks (1880) I posted above.

In New Zealand time has finally run out on the 53-year career of a Wellington watchmaker.

Eric Matthews, 79, first retired from his Caledonia St in Miramar shop in 1990 when he was a sprightly 60, but he quickly became bored with chainsawing firewood and drinking beer with retired friends at his Miramar North home.
"I quickly found chainsaws and beer are like petrol and matches. They do not make good bedmates."

After six weeks he returned to the tiny premises where he first set up his business in 1956. Since his 1990 "retirement" he has repeatedly told himself for the past 18 years that he would "just keep the business going for another year".

Now the man who believes himself to be the longest-serving sole trader in the same Wellington region shop knows there will be no going back.

"I've sold my tools. There is no way I am going back," Mr Matthews, who wears a Certina Swiss watch, said.

He has survived month to month in the business for the past 50 years. Soon after setting up shop he signed a two-year lease, but for the past 50 years he has never had a rental agreement.

"I've lived month to month. It's been good," he said.

Mr Matthews, who did his apprenticeship with Wakefield St watchmaker Jack Shields after leaving Wellington High School in 1945, is looking forward to spending more time playing golf with his friends.

Eric Matthews in 1956, the year he started business in Caledonia St, Miramar.

Asked whether he would miss fixing watches and clocks, he responded: "No way. I did it for money. I've done my time."

So Eric, would you agree with Abai's words ?

A clock is a ticking thief,
stealing life daily,
taking it unnoticed so that without love and constancy
life is nonetheless just fleeting deception.

In a clock's rustlings is past life
if it dulls a soul or comforts it,
still reason knows that time is treacherous,
it goes past as though its tick is harmless.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

Congress Party wins Indian election

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh declared victory in India's national elections, saying voters had given the Congress party-led coalition a "massive mandate."

The elephant-like democracy staggers from its complex elections with a conclusion.

It's still early in the count, but the Congress have had a massive vote of confidence.
The leaders of India's Congress party have thanked the people for returning them to power with a "massive mandate".
Congress President Sonia Gandhi said they had made the "right choice" and PM Manmohan Singh vowed the party would "rise to the occasion".
Earlier the main opposition BJP and the Third Front conceded they had lost.
State television says Congress's alliance has won or is ahead in 263 seats, compared with the BJP's (154), the Third Front (60) and others (66).

With Sonia Gandhi in 2005. Photo: Simon Missiri

I lived over nine years in India and had the privilege of meeting many great Indian politicians including Indira Gandhi in 1975, Sonia Gandhi, Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi in 2005-6, thanks to my good friend Murli Deora, the Minister for Petroleum, who introduced me to them.

With China being the largest country in the world, America the wealthiest, India the largest democracy ; India like the former Soviet Union, holds a crucial balance of power. CONGRATULATIONS INDIA

Congress Party chief Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister of India Manmohan Singh greet the media prior to their meeting at her residence in New Delhi.

If you want to read more, I have pasted this information from Wikipedia about the amazing Gandhi family.

The Nehru-Gandhi family is an Indian political family which has been dominant in the Indian National Congress for most of India's early independent history. The name Gandhi is derived from Feroze Gandhi, the husband of Indira Gandhi (and not Mahatma Gandhi). The Nehru-Gandhi family is not related to Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi.

Three members of the family (Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, his daughter Indira Gandhi and her son Rajiv Gandhi) have been Prime Minister of India, two of whom (Indira and Rajiv Gandhi) have been assassinated. A fourth member of the family, Sonia Gandhi, is currently Congress President, while her and Rajiv's son, Rahul Gandhi, is the youngest member of the family to enter active politics when he contested and won a seat in the lower house of the Parliament of India in 2004.

The rise of Sonia Gandhi

Arun Nehru, Rajiv Gandhi's cousin, was Minister for Power and then Minister for Internal Security in Rajiv Gandhi's government, but later defected to the rival Janata Dal.

After Rajiv Gandhi's death, the Congress was led by P. V. Narasimha Rao, who became Prime Minister. After his defeat in India's 1996 General Elections, the power in the Congress party shifted to Sitaram Kesri, an aging loyalist of Indira Gandhi. During this period, Sonia kept herself and her children out of the public limelight, not wanting them to face the fate of her husband and mother-in-law.

The party loyalists always wanted a member of the Nehru- Feroz Gandhi family to lead the party, as its fortunes slipped in elections around the nation. Despite her reluctance, Sonia Gandhi was eventually persuaded to become active in the Congress Party, and she quickly became its center of power, forcing Kesri's resignation and allowing her uncontested assent to the party's Presidency in 1998.

The following period saw her becoming increasingly visible in politics (She is attributed to engineering the downfall of the Vajpayee government in 1999, in an unsuccessful attempt to install a Congress government). During India's 2004 General Elections, Sonia was projected the Congress's Prime Ministerial candidate, and the party and its allies emerged as the largest group in the Lok Sabha, with the Communist parties supporting the coalition from outside. Initially, every coalition partner and the Communist parties had accepted her as the Prime Minister. The opposition BJP held nationwide protests against a 'foreigner' ascending the Prime Minister's post.

On May 18, 2004, Sonia Gandhi declined the Prime Ministerial position, passing it on to Dr. Manmohan Singh. At these elections Rahul Gandhi was elected to the Parliament for the first time, representing a fifth generation of the family in politics from a traditional Gandhi stronghold, Amethi (Uttar Pradesh). Her daughter, Priyanka Vadra, did not contest the elections, but campaigned for the party. Many Congress leaders and supporters have vocally promoted her future as the party's leader, but she has not accepted a life in active politics, so far.


Rahul Gandhi and his sister Priyanka managed their mother's campaign for reelection to Rae Bareilly in 2006, which was won easily with a margin greater than 400,000 votes.

He was a prominent figure in a high profile Congress campaign for the 2007 Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections; Congress, however, won only 22 seats with 8.53% of votes. The election saw the Bahujan Samaj Party, which represents low caste Indians, to become the first party to govern in its own right in Uttar Pradesh for 16 years.[18]

Rahul Gandhi was appointed a general secretary of the All India Congress Committee on 24 September 2007 in a reshuffle of the party secretariat. In the same reshuffle, he was also given charge of the Youth Congress and the National Students Union of India.[20]

In his attempt to prove himself as a youth leader in November 2008 he held interviews at his 12, Tughlak Lane residence in New Delhi to handpick at least 40 people who will make up the think-tank of the Indian Youth Congress (IYC), an organisation that he has been keen to transform since he was appointed general secretary in September 2007.

Senior Congress leaders such as Pranab Mukherjee, Digvijay Singh and Arjun Singh have raised calls for Rahul Gandhi to be the candidate for Prime Minister. It is felt because of his young age and clean image, he would be able to connect with the youth of India who form the majority of the population.

Having met all the current Gandhi politicians, I believe Priyanka is the most able of them and we will see her develop her talents in the years to come. She is very much like her Grandmother Indira in many respects, but it is more likely Rahul will be the next Prime Minister, should Manmohan Singh decline or retire from position.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

What's next ?

It's not been an epic year in the sense of the sort of epic year that saw the Berlin Wall come down, or the Tianenman Square massacre, or the death of Princess Diana, but something is happening dammit, and here we want to try to catch the Zeitgeist, whatever it may be. There's a smell in the air, a crackle, a whiff.

Take a look around you. Market capitalism in tatters. A black president shaking hands with Hugo the Chavez. A German Pope calling for a Palestinian state. British MPs caught in the strobelight guzzling from the honey jar. And peppering the mix, a global pandemic poised to strike in November and leave us all with a nasty dose of the sniffles, or much worse.

And yet the moneymen and women - the bread heads as the Young Ones called them when they grew up - are telling us that we've turned the corner, weathered the storm, bottomed out, and so on.
The Financial Times that I picked up in Minsk's gargantuan but eerily empty airport a couple of days ago told me cheerily that when stocks rally, as they appear to be doing now, then an economic recovery is but six months away.

Hurrah! Let joy be unconfined! In six months then we'll all be reverting to type, snapping up bargain villas in Bougainville and jetting off to Frijiliana, cigars chomped in our golden teeth, gargling with Krug. Well yes, some of the fatter cats certainly will, as they have been all through this crisis.

But what we see coming is a jobless recovery. Where money will continue to make money, and winter will breed discontent. The stimulus, the stress tests, the bailouts are very very good for management consultants, accountants and other bottom feeders, and it is they, their ilk and their white collars who will jump aboard this heaven-sent gravy train. They will continue to preach the gospel of caution and live high on the hog without reinvesting and creating the jobs which are being whittled away right now. And they will deny, negate and repudiate the simple truth - if Joey Sixpack ain't got a job then there's no one to buy, sell, invest, renovate, consume, create.

Look around you again. Corporate kidnapping in France. Chinese workers striking, soup kitchens in central Moscow, riots in the Baltics and windows smashed in the City of London.

The plain fact is we don't trust the bread heads any more. We don't believe the nice young men in suits and big shiny chins who shout "RECOVERY" on TV business programmes. What we do believe is the depressing stuff, that joblessness is way up, double digit stuff in many places, and we've all got less of the folding stuff in our pockets.

For many its a case of tightening the belt and going back to the way we lived in the 80s. Jus the two TVs then, and the one car, and the one holiday. Shopping in Lidl rather than Tescos. A bit of a pain in the arse to have to wallow in that gloom and doom again, but no biggie.

But for many millions more it means the loss of the roof over their head, the dissolution of the family, the end of education for the kids, the death of hope. And how long will those millions stay cowed? Can they be fobbed off with a fabled recovery in six months when the rain is pouring down on them right now? And don't forget, in six months - ACHOO!

I'm humming a Kirsty McCall lyric right now, and it goes sumthin like this:

From the sharks in the penthouse to the rats in the basement
It's not that far

To the bag lady frozen asleep on the church steps
It's not that far
Would you like to see some more?
I can show you if you'd like to

The new Red Cross Red Crescent campaign says "our world is in a mess". Amen.


Thanks JL, my mate Joe Lowry in Minsk for agreeing to let me run his article. Thanks also to Paul Conneally for his support.

Friday, 8 May 2009

90 years old - The largest humanitarian orgamisation in the World.

With "I am happy helping my friends' written on their T shirts, these young Indonesian Red Cross volunteers live out the slogan.
Displacement, disease, increasing disasters, a lack of clean water, food shortages, rising violence, the separation of families, grinding poverty and escalating vulnerability are some of the frequent challenges faced by tens of millions of people worldwide affected by armed conflict, natural catastrophes, internal violence and climate change.
Too often, their suffering goes unnoticed and unchecked. In an effort to give the victims of war and disaster a stronger voice, and in an attempt to get people around the globe to sit up and take action, the world's largest humanitarian network – the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement – is launched a global campaign called Our world. Your move. on 8 May.

"This campaign is about more than raising awareness, this is a call to action. It's about engaging people in the spirit of volunteerism and empowering everyone to make a difference in the world around us. Each and everyone of us must work in our communities so we are better prepared to cope with current and emerging crises. Together we can protect our future by taking action today," said Juan Manuel Suárez del Toro, the president of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) was founded on 5 May, 1919, in Paris, France. Today, it is the world’s largest humanitarian network, with 186 Member Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and nearly 100 million volunteers.

To celebrate its 90th anniversary, the IFRC held special events in Paris, on 4 May. At a special reception held at the Elysée Palace, the “Paris Declaration” on the humanitarian challenges the world faces today, was presented presented. The document calls for a major shift towards a culture of prevention and preparedness, instead of just emergency response to disasters.

The campaign is symbolized by a globe in disarray. Each time someone takes action or takes an interest via the web portal they are helping to restore order to a world in a mess. The site also allows users to share their experiences through blog contributions, videos and photos.

"Because of the global economic crisis, these are obviously hard times for a lot of people, but they're even harder for those who had very little to begin with. We have a collective responsibility to make our world a better place and we each have the individual power to 'make a move' to help others, whether it's spending time with an elderly neighbour or offering food and shelter to a family displaced by fighting," said Jakob Kellenberger, the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

With I am happy helping my friends" emblazoned on his T shirt, Angunn Perman Sidiq joined in the celebrations in Jakarta on 8 May 2009.

The Our world. Your move. initiative coincides with the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Solferino, in Italy, which led to the creation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, as well as the 90th anniversary of the IFRC and the 60th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions. Millions of campaign enthusiasts in more than 80 countries are expected to turn out to celebrate its launch on 8 May, which is also recognized as World Red Cross Red Crescent Day.

Co Chairman of Indonesian Red Cross Salahuddin Nyak Kaoy and Bob McKerrow sit with young children at World Red Cross Day celebrations at a children's home in Jakarta.
Young Indonesian Red Crioss volunteers practicing first aid.
Two Indonesian Red Cross volunteers with Our World Your Move written on their T Shirts in Bahasa Indonesian. Both boys are trained in first aid and are knowledgeable about Avian and Swine Flu.

On Friday 8 May the Indonesian Red Cross (PMI) celebrated World Red Cross Day in an orphanage and home for destitute children in Jakarta.
There are 300 kindergartens and children's homes from the Kasih Ibu institution throughout Indonesia supported by the Indonesian Red Cross

As they are aware of the humanitarian challenges the world faces today, the Indonesian Red Cross (PMI} believes that raising volunteerism from childhood is important.
The PMI has started to drive the global campaign, Our World. Your Move, by introducing humanitarian activities to the children as they are the best change agents thought their peers for making a better world.
Please go to this link for more detail.
From 24 to 28 June, thousands of young people from more than 120 nations are due to take part in a world youth meeting and humanitarian village in the Italian village of Solferino, where they will commemorate the history of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, and define their vision for tackling today's humanitarian challenges. The vision for improving the world, sorting out the mess, must come from the new generation of humanitarians.

Monday, 4 May 2009

Axing the Walrus at forty below

Minus 40 degrees Celsius. High above, the aurora borealis snakes a green trail across the sky. Fifty huskies curl tighter to keep out the cold… No its not a setting from Jack London but something I wrote for the New Zealand Times on March 2. 1986.
A most splendid form of travel. Photo: Bob McKerrow

An old Inuit man with a rifle slung across his back greets me warmly as he eyes the dogs and looks at the chunks of walrus surrounding me. It seems odd that he arrived on a snowmobile..
He motions towards the walrus with a broad sweep of his hand, and babbles away in Inuit. I don’t understand a word, except he makes a shape in the air of a seal or a walrus.
After a while it seems he wants to give us two seals for the dogs. I gladly accept.

The Steger international polar expedition arrived at Baffin Island, in mid-January 1986, with 50 dogs, five sledges and four months’ worth of food.
We are aiming to be the first to reach the North \Pole without outside help. All previously confirmed successful expeditions to reach the pole have relied on air support for resupply at regular intervals.
Baffin island is our base for the next six weeks, acclimatizing, training and testing sledges and other equipment.
Our daily routine seems to be uncompromising as the whether  Wake up is at 6am, breakfast at 7am, team meeting at 7.30 am.
Then its on with the daily workload.

Brent Boddy and I have been working with the dogs. They are chained into long lines in front of his house which overlooks the frozen rim of Frobisher Bay. Brent has lived on Baffin Island for ten years with his wife Nala, a local Inuit, and two children.

A young Inuit girl playing string games. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Though European, Brent has picked up many of the cultural traits of the Inuit: his sense of timelessness, his acute eye for movement on the snowy horizon and a stopped gait as he shuffles across the snow in his caribou jacket, polar beer trousers and seal mukluks. (boots)
This morning Brent repaired many of the dog chains and I axed small pieces of meat and fat off a frozen walrus carcass. These small pieces are then taken inside the house and thawed and later feed to the dogs.
Brent spent a lot of time hunting seal and walrus this summer for the expedition.
As I work away axing the walrus, my mustache freezes solid to my bearded chin. I am unable to open my mouth, but the ice shields the wind from my face. At 9.15 am a fiery red sun rises. We have four hours of daylight at this latitude. But once we start for the north pole from latitude 83 degrees north latitude, there will be no daylight at all.

I keep chopping the walrus as ice forms on my mittens. Everything is so difficult at 40 below. Sweat freezes immediately and forms a jacket of ice.
Seeing walruses playing in summer, was more pleasureable than chopping them up to feed to the dogs. Photo: Bob McKerrow

At noon we assemble at our hut for fitness training. Three are going on a 10 km ski run. Another prefers to run across the flat snowy waste by himself while Brett and I decide to do some hill running with ski poles to strengthen our arms.
At 1.30 pm we arrive back with an amour of frosty rime; a quick cup of tea and then back to expedition work. Dinner at 7.30 pm and then back to sledge lashing for the evening. Within two days our sledges will be finished so we plan to go on an extended trip over the sea ice to thoroughly check all systems.

Constructing igloos was an important part of our survival training.

Igloo building is going to be an important part of this training as an igloo can withstand the power of Arctic blizzards and is much more comfortable than a tent.

The local Inuit are intrigued by the expedition. Why do you want to go to the North pole ? is the most common question. They are quick to pint out there is no food there.

During our training trips on Baffin Island we would get the dogs to pull sldeges up hillsides while we pushed, in order to increase our fitness. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Local women have made us seal skin boots, polar beer trousers, Beaver Mitts. A nearby village have lent a team of dogs. The north West Territories government has provided us free accommodation plus a supply of seal, walrus and arctic char.

So why do we want to attempt to reach the North Pole by the most difficult and traditional means ? Perhaps the Inuit poem sums up how some of us feel.

Only the air spirits know
What I will find
Beyond the mountains
Yet I urge my sledge team on and on and on

I suppose it is basically just curiosity and a fascination of the unknown.

Friday, 1 May 2009

Swine Flu - H1N1

Members of the Mexican Red Cross receive calls at the 065 emergency call center. These calls are forwarded to the ambulance service located in different strategic points of Mexico City. Jose Manuel Jiménez/IFRC

Today has been absolutely frantic drawing up a Business Continuity Plan for Swine Flu or H1N1, consulting with the UN and other partners, so we can support the Indonesian Red Cross carry on its essential services across the archipelago of Indonesia if this pandemic hits. Services such as blood transfusion, hospitals, clinics, ambulances, public awareness campaigns and emergency response teams are vital to keep running when the balloon goes up.

I was quite emotional when my two boys left for school this morning thinking that a cough or a sneeze from someone who is carrying the H1N1 virus, could leave them sick or dead in matter of days. I gave them another lesson on how to cover their mouths correctly when they cough (respiratorial etiquette) and other simple preventive measures. I instructed Naila my wife to buy four weeks food, buy water and gas.

Avian Flu has killed over 120 people in Indonesia so the country has quite a high level of preparedness, but with a human to human pandemic of Swine Flu, extra precautionary measures are required. This is where a Business Continuity Plan is important. The aim of this Business Continuity Plan is to outline the preparatory and response measures to be undertaken by the IFRC Indonesia delegation should an outbreak of Swine Flu affect, or threaten to affect, the office’s capacity to function, thereby enabling us to remain operational throughout the crisis, in support of the Indonesian Red Cross essential services.

My colleague Paul Conneally, who runs our media department in Geneva, describes his frantic week.

Whatever your view on Swine flu (which we now officially call H1N1) my reality is that it has taken up all my waking hours (and extended them) over the last week. I haven't had lunch since last Friday and there are journalists following this story with a dedication I have rarely witnessed. What is it that grips the collective imagination to such an extent? The Spanish flu of 1918 / 1919, which laid waste to an impressive 40 million people, is certainly a harrowing lesson of our time but really, how many people truly knew about it last week? (In fact, some accounts claim that as many as 100 million perished).

Swine Flu, Mexico, 30 April 2009. Members of the Mexican Red Cross prepare the distribution of 2 million panphlets and 200 thousand posters that starts today all over Mexico, to inform the population about the sympthoms of the swine flue and the ways to prevent its expansion. Jose Manuel Jiménez/IFRC

But how much has our world changed since 1919? How much has our world changed since 1999 for God's sake? Last night, at 22h00 Geneva time the World Health Organization (WHO) raised the global alert to level five. Again, people and journalists (often one and the same) who last week knew little about WHO, never mind phase four or five, are now providing sensational and, sorry to say, hysterical commentary.

What we really need, in my view at least, is a sense of perspective. At the same time I fully acknowledge we also need people to consider and plan for the worst case scenarios. And this is very much part of our daily modus operandi if truth be told. Disaster preparedness has to consider the gloomiest possibilities, else it will not work.

There is a human need to know the "what if" and the "worst case". If you doubt me just tune in to your nearest tv station and chances are it will be betting on millions of us falling about out of our minds on nature's latest toxic creation a.k.a. swine flu a.ka. H1N1.

Today at 14h Geneva time, we went to the international media to present our plans for scaling up and our sober analysis. Four Red Cross people talking to more than 50 journalists from Geneva's international press corps, including 6 different TV stations. Some even carried live on major news channels like Sky and repeated on a number of other major media afterwards. So, what did we have to say that is so different?

On one side we concur with WHO's analysis about taking the situation seriously - how could you not? On the other hand we feel calm and even confident. Never has the world been so well prepared for a global pandemic. We know that more than 70% of our national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies are already active, contributing to reducing the risk of pandemic in their countries. Next week this figure will most likely be closer to 100%.

And this is our niche. WHO provides the global guidance if you like, the Science. We, and many other governmental and civil society partners at the national and community level, carry out the much-needed efforts on the ground to drive the message home, coordinate efforts on the ground, deliver protective gear and advice and promote "respiratorial etiquette" (a wonderful phrase which I learned today - basically it means, don't cough in my face and I won't cough in yours).

It has been a real professional pleasure for me this week to be part of our crisis team, gearing itself up to support the global response of the international Red Cross. I have had the pleasure to work closely with some hugely experienced colleagues like Dr. Pierre Duplessis, our human influenza expert. Pierre is the former head of the Canadian Red Cross and has spearheaded our program to combat Avian flu over the last few years. A good guy to have in your corner, pandemic or not.

The situation has also provided an opportunity to reconnect with a former colleague, Marco Jimenez, in Mexico city, who has volunteered to report back for us and provide photographs so we can keep our worldwide network informed and provide some authentic images and stories to the world's media.

When I worked in Sudan, Marco was my handler in Geneva and plenty of sparks flew. That was 5 years ago or so and now our roles are somewhat switched - and this time we were hooked up through facebook.

There is no doubt that we are in a serious situation but we need to address it calmly, reassured in the knowledge that we have never been so well prepared. We have never had such early warning and early action. As far as I know all cases (more or less) have originated in Mexico and no more than a few dozen confirmed elsewhere. If we fail to prepare we prepare to fail - this is a truism and this is our thinking right now. And its Roy Keane's motto - and your a braver person than me if you take issue with his philosophy.

WHO is right when it advises that we are beyond containment. But we are absolutely not beyond mitigation and organizations such as the Red Cross will certainly make a massive difference in reducing the impact. Let's go about our business cooly and calmy, confident in our capacities to make a difference. Confident in knowing that we have learned some positive lessons from recent pandemic scares. Confident in our own common sense. Perspective is a good ally in such sensationalistic times.