Killing Christmas time in Calais

You’re driving overnight towards Calais and the leaves leap across the road ahead like frogs.

Then you keep driving and the wind picks up and the frogs grow in number and turn into swallows and swoop up and down before you, spiraling.

Then you keep driving and your phone bleeps and it’s a message from P&O saying the ferry service is suspended due to bad weather at Dover. You keep driving anyway, hoping to make it home to England for Christmas.

And then the swallows lose their wings and sprout tails and scuttle and squeak across the road in their hundreds, vicious and determined in their hunt.

And you wonder how your aged mother-in-law will take it when she arrives home from the hairdressers tomorrow and hears that you won’t be home for Christmas.

And you keep driving, thinking about the feast being prepared for you in a gorgeous home in Brighton, worrying about what John will do with the food he’s made when you’re not there to eat it.

And you can still see the glow of the bright lights in the night sky above Paris.

And Elbow nudges out LCD Sound System which slips into The XX.

And you keep driving, hopeful, watching for signs in the wildlife in the wind.

Getting on with getting old

Inside every old person is a young person wondering what happened.

Terry Pratchett

One of the great joys of my new post-chateau, return-to-civilisation life is the photography club that I’ve joined. I’ve only met with the group twice so far but already its activities and intentions and the thoughtful observations of its members are changing my perspectives.

The first meeting that I attended was all about lighting. One of the group members, a professional photographer, had brought in some of her expensive equipment to show to the rest of the group. After giving a detailed tutorial on how it all works, she encouraged the Nikon users (whose cameras would be compatible with her equipment) to experiment with it. Canon users (for most seem to have a strong preference for either one of these two brands) could play around with the Canon-compatible lighting gear brought in by the organiser.

So my fellow photographers had cameras and lighting equipment and the requisite knowledge to use them both. But they didn’t have a subject. So I, having neither a Canon nor a Nikon nor any other kind of photographic equipment other than a trusty little point-and-press, volunteered.

“Modelling” was fun. All I had to do was sit or stand as instructed and be a passive subject for the light to bounce off. Nobody told me to smile and I wasn’t deliberately doing so (although when one of the group commented on the fact that I’d been smiling non-stop for 90 minutes, I was glad to know that the joy that I feel in life is apparently reflected on my face.) And I learned a lot about lighting while I sat there and listened to everything that was said about the umbrellas and soft boxes that were being moved around me, or I around them.

(Thank you to Wilna Weeda for this photograph.)

But one of the greater lessons that I learned that day was, I’m afraid, more about the subject than the subject, if you see what I mean. Let me explain…

After the session ended it occurred to me that of the hundreds of photographs that were taken of me that day, there might be one that I could like enough to use as my profile picture on this blog. My current picture is, as I’ve explained, six years old now, and is starting to feel a little dishonest. Perhaps my new photography friends, I thought, might be willing to share some of their photos with me.

And then they did. And then I found myself struggling with the brutality of the truth.

You see, I’ve always wanted to embrace the process of ageing. Every birthday, rather than thinking, Oh my god, I’m yet another year older!, I try to think about what I’ve done/seen/experienced/achieved over the last twelve months and think, Well, yes, it takes time to do that stuff. Of course I’m another year older. It doesn’t always work but that’s how I try to think.

When we lived in Jerusalem, I realised one day that I was then older than my mother ever lived to be. In her mid to late thirties and early forties Mum was operated on, injected, zapped with radiation and filled with all sorts of odious medicinal concoctions, all so that she might be able to beat cancer and be granted more life. More years. More experience. More time with her loved ones. More lines on her face. And each one of those lines would have been a reflection of all that she’d lived and all the people that she’d loved. And in the eyes of the only beholders that mattered, those lines would have made her all the more stunning.

But cancer won. And Mum was buried young and beautiful. And because of that I recognise that every day that I live is a gift and a privilege. Why should I give a shit that I have lines on my face? I’m alive! Getting older, I learned at a young age, is far better than the alternative.

About 20 years ago I attended a Guardian literature event in London. That was, of course, pre-Google Images, and I had no idea of what some of my favourite writers looked like. I browsed curiously through the brochure about the authors who would be speaking that day. Among their pictures was a shot of the brilliant Hilary Mantel, young, blonde and slim. It came as a shock to me when she walked out onto the stage. Only the blondeness was still recognisable from her profile picture. I found myself feeling annoyed with her. The fact that she’d put on weight was beside the point – an author’s dress size is no more relevant than a tennis player’s attractiveness, as I wish the media would recognise – but I thought the fact that she wasn’t prepared to claim and proclaim who she was now was unworthy of her. (I’ve since learned that Mantel struggled with her body image after her rapid weight gain, which was caused by endometriosis, a hysterectomy and the prescription of high levels of hormones, all of which she’s written about in her memoirs, Giving Up The Ghost. No wonder she wouldn’t allow herself to be portrayed as she was; she didn’t know.)

I’ve never understood people’s nostalgic sighs of,  Ah, if only I could be 19 again… I wouldn’t go back to that age for anything! God, if we’re talking about the trials of body image, do you remember what it was like to be a teenager? Those years were tough! I’m so much happier now that I know myself a bit better, now that I’ve got some life experience under my belt. In some situations I can even be fairly sure of the best course of action to take because I’ve made so many mistakes before that I know well enough not to make them again. And finding new ways of fucking up is fun! We’re all human, aren’t we? That’s what it’s all about! What is it about our society that makes us value youth over experience?

So there we have it – evidence that at points in my life I’ve occasionally had some good and worthy thoughts about life and ageing and appearance and expectation.

Ah, but it’s so very easy to be sanguine about ageing when you’re young! It’s so simple to say that you’ll never have Botox or plastic surgery when you don’t even understand what the word “elasticity” means when it’s used in the same sentence as the word “skin”! It so easy to look condescendingly at women who’ve gone under the knife when you’ve never caught a glimpse of an ageing person in a shop window and not recognised that ageing person as yourself!

(A side note to my 90-year-old self, by the way: I know that compared to you, I’m a spring chicken at 43, and when I say “ageing” I don’t mean that I think I’m very old now. I know I’m not. I’m just acknowledging that I’m older than I used to be. I’m trying to grow comfortably into the skin that you now inhabit. Be gentle with me please, older and wiser me!)

I was very grateful to my new photography club friends for sending me some images from our lighting session but I have to admit that my first reaction to them was, Noooooo! I can’t possibly show these to anyone! I look so old!

But now I realise that I can’t just talk the talk. I can’t just spout on about how I think our personal and societal concerns about the outward signs of ageing are beyond ludicrous. I can’t just say that I value the laughter lines as evidence of the laughter, and the sagging skin as proof of the much appreciated and ever growing number of days, weeks, months and years I’ve spent on the planet. I have to truly accept them. I have to put on a brave face. A brave ageing face. I have to put a brave ageing face on my blog.

So here it is.

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(Thank you to Catherine Hieronymi for this photograph.)

Take that, ageists. I’m out and proud as a middle-aged woman. Come back in ten years. In 20. Hopefully even 30 or 40. Then I’ll really have some stories to tell you. And all you’ll have to do to hear them will be to look at my wizened old face.

Desert Days – Life on an Eco Kibbutz

It isn’t always easy living simply but at Kibbutz Lotan in the Negev Desert in the south of Israel, the kibbutzniks and the Eco Volunteers who live amongst them are giving it their best shot.

If there’s anywhere in the world where the ethics of Care for People, Care for the Earth and all life and Fair Share should be put to most urgent use, it’s in this harsh desert environment in arguably the most politically complex region on the planet.

Driving through the arid Arava Valley, where daily evaporation exceeds annual rainfall, one can only imagine the challenges that must arise from trying to survive, sustainably or otherwise, in such unforgiving conditions. However in 1983, the same year as the term Ecotourism was popularised, the founding members of Kibbutz Lotan decided to do just that.

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Like every decision one makes in Israel, that of where to establish an egalitarian collective community was a political one. In keeping with the ethics which they still uphold to this day, the founders chose an area which is not contested in the ongoing land grab that defines the Arab-Israeli conflict.

And what they’ve learned through developing this prototype model for sustainable living has much to teach us all.

Upon our arrival at Lotan my friend and I were shown to the Ecotourism suite that would accommodate us for the night, and were surprised to see that we had our very own en suite bathroom, complete with shower and (dual) flushing toilet, and that there was an air-conditioning unit attached to the wall. So far, so not-very-eco-friendly…

We’d arrived late in the afternoon and our formal tour was not due to take place until the next morning, so we welcomed the invitation to take an independent look around some of the 143 acres that comprise the kibbutz. And it didn’t take long for some of the eco-puzzle pieces to start falling into place.

Walking through the grassed areas and seeing the carefully tended flowering plants that decorate the many community spaces around Lotan, it was very easy to forget that we were in the desert. Within a few minutes, though, after wandering happily past a White Gum that, as ever, brought back thoughts of my native Australia, we caught a glimpse of the sustainable homes that have become the hallmark of this eco community.

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My friend and I soon got chatting with a friendly-looking passerby, who introduced himself as Shilo and explained that he did his Green Apprenticeship at Lotan in November and has stayed on as an Eco Volunteer ever since.

During our impromptu tour around the area known within the community as the Bustan, (Orchard in Hebrew), Shilo explained that the kibbutz, while built on ideals of cooperation and equality, was not always an eco village; its original houses were conventional concrete structures, and its inhabitants’ main focus was on democratic Jewish renewal.

However, in their efforts to live according to the Jewish principle of Tikun Olam, which involves an ongoing process of transforming the world into an ever more perfect state, the group found that they were accumulating a significant wealth of knowledge which they could impart to other people who were interested in living more sustainably. So it was in the mid-1990s that the eco experience at Lotan began in earnest, and the community, now affiliated with the Global Ecovillage Network, has since gone from strength to strength.

Evidence of Lotan’s determination to reduce, reuse, rethink and recycle can be seen all over the kibbutz, perhaps most outstandingly in the Bustan, whose natural, sustainable geodesic domes were constructed by students on the Green Apprenticeship programme over a two-year period which began in 2005.

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(Thanks to Kibbutz Lotan for this photo.)

The domes are constructed from a series of interlocking irrigation pipes in hexagons and pentagons, insulated with straw bales and covered with three coats of mud, a construction method which stands up to rigorous testing for fire and earthquake resistance.

The domes are constructed from a series of interlocking irrigation pipes in hexagons and pentagons, insulated with straw bales and covered with three coats of mud, a construction method which stands up to rigorous testing for fire and earthquake resistance.

In the winter, the domes are passively heated by the desert sun, and the heat absorbed by their walls and floors stays within the structure during the often cold nights, meaning that no additional heating is required. And because the windows are carefully placed for the most effective ventilation, the air-conditioning units are only switched on for very brief periods during the long hot summers, when temperatures often reach 45°C during the day and stay at around 30°C overnight. In an ongoing experiment in which the Eco Volunteers measure daily temperatures inside the domes and carefully monitor the use of mechanical heating/cooling systems, the domes have been proven to use one fifth of the energy being consumed by the conventionally built concrete kibbutz dwellings in the winter, and just one eighth in the summer.

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During the five-month periods in which Green Apprentices like Shilo live in the Bustan, every day sees them practically applying the knowledge they’re acquiring about alternative building, organic gardening, creative recycling, alternative energy use and community living. In the central area of the Bustan there lies, among various other communal living areas, an outdoor alternative kitchen, which features a solar oven, a parabolic oven, a taboon or earth oven, and Shilo’s favourite, the rocket oven. Sunshine is in abundant supply here in the Arava Valley, and these cooking methods maximise this ever-present resource to its best effect. And I’m happy to report that the proof was in the…cookies that Shilo offers us, which had been slow-baked at 120°C in the solar oven, using reflective insulation and sun absorption.

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The last stop on Shilo’s Whistlestop Bustan Tour allowed my friend and I to try out the latest in must-have eco white goods – the pedal-powered washing machine. Just throw in your clothes and eco-friendly washing powder, and your washing will be shiny-white by the time your workout is done.

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After we said goodbye to Shilo and continued on our way, we stumbled upon Lotan’s Collection Centre, which was built with the assistance of Israel’s Ministry for the Environment in recognition of the kibbutz’s early efforts to recycle. Lotan was established during a time when Israelis were making active attempts to forget the necessary thrift of their forebears; while war, persecution and poverty had made compulsive reusers and recyclers of those who created the state of Israel, subsequent generations have revelled in the possibility of an out-with-the-old, in-with-the-new mentality. So in a country whose inhabitants are now the second biggest creators of rubbish in the world, (relative to population size and second to the United States), the work being done by Lotan and other environmental groups is essential to future sustainability.

All of this was explained to us in greater detail the next morning, when we joined a small tour group being led by Lotan’s General Secretary, Mark Naveh, who studied ecology in Australia and sustainability education in England. As Mark walked us around the kibbutz, he explained some of the challenges involved in trying to live organically and sustainably in such an intense, extreme and challenging environment as the Negev.

Mark and his fellow kibbutzniks, he explained, are making use of all of their collective knowledge and experience in designing, building and running sustainable homes, businesses and communities. As well as the building methods and technologies mentioned earlier, the centre also has composting toilets, grey and black water purification systems, solar electricity generation and storage, and organic gardens. The kibbutz is not yet at zero waste, but has managed to reduce its general waste disposal by 70%. But the eco centre’s goal of achieving self-sufficiency using only organic methodologies is, Mark fears, some way off.

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While the community uses as little water as possible, it still relies on non-renewable groundwater to provide for its everyday needs, as the little rain that does fall tends to lead to flash-floods in unpredictable areas and therefore cannot be collected. There is no grazing land for the dairy cattle that are the economic backbone of the kibbutz, so 100% of their animal feed has to be bought in, and at this stage the centre’s organic gardens produce only a small percentage of the food required for the 200 people – kibbutzniks, renting residents and volunteers – to be found at Lotan on any given day.

The immense value of a community such as Lotan, however, is surely to be found in the efforts they are making to live as sustainably as possible, and also, perhaps most importantly, to educate the thousands of people who visit the centre each year to do the same. While my friend and I, together with an interested couple from England, were being shown around the centre, Mark’s colleague Leah Zigmond was busy teaching a group of young volunteers about organic gardening. There were also, we were told, people receiving holistic health treatments and others engaged in bird-watching, all of which enable people to enjoy themselves and their environment in a non-destructive way, as well as providing an income to allow the centre to continue its work.

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Soon before our reluctant departure from the kibbutz, while we sat sipping sweet Arabic tea in the vegetarian eco-café, Mark explained his perception of the centre’s role as being one of essential education – people must be prepared for what he expects is to come, in 15 or 20 years, when peak oil, water shortages and a possible global food crisis make localisation humanity’s only hope.

As a final question, I asked Mark if the centre was doing anything to mark Earth Day, which happened to fall on the day that I visited Lotan. “No, nothing special,” he said. “Every day here is Earth Day.”

UNISDR – Disaster Risk Reduction

In May 2013 I worked as a reporter at UNISDR’s 4th Global Platform on Disaster Risk Reduction. My mission was to attend daily sessions and write up brief reports for use by UNISDR. Below is a handful of my reports.

Parliamentarians’ Disaster Risk Reduction Consultation

In a meeting attended by MPs from 26 countries, it was agreed that as climate change and disaster risk reduction are profoundly human issues, parliamentarians, who are the only stakeholders constitutionally mandated to speak on behalf of the people, are uniquely placed to have an immediate impact on the lives of those who have elected them.

It is increasingly believed that community-based actions should be the starting point of disaster risk reduction. So by acting with and on behalf of their constituents, the world’s 45,000 parliamentarians can take the lessons learned at ground level and use them to create legislation, allocate resources and ensure that legislation is implemented.

There is an urgent need for such immediate action, with many countries seeing a changing pattern of disasters, with both frequency and impact on the rise. The rate of economic growth in some countries cannot keep pace with expenditure on disaster recovery, so money spent on prevention, resilience building and risk reduction must be seen as an investment rather than a cost.

To bring about the necessary coherence to achieve this, governance for risk reduction must be strengthened at local, national and regional levels so that committed individuals and groups can work together to apply science and knowledge to the creation of policy.

It is proven that education and planning are essential in preventing natural hazards from becoming natural disasters, especially in areas affected by overpopulation and urbanization. Parliamentarians are well placed to ensure that this ground-level action is taken, and that care is given to all aspects of planning, including education, health, agriculture and zoning.

Before the 1995 Kobe earthquake, the corporate sector in Japan did not wish to take responsibility for disaster risk prevention. Following that disaster, however, there was a paradigm shift in attitudes to corporate responsibility that the private sector in the rest of the world has followed with interest.

Private Sector Disaster Risk Reduction Consultation

Dr. Satoru Nishikawa has been successful in propagating the idea of Business Continuity Planning in Japan by using a positive rather than a regulatory approach, creating a win-win situation for businesses who participate in the development and implementation of disaster reduction and resilience strategies.  He has made it clear that businesses become attractive places in which to work and spend when they demonstrate corporate citizenship and take responsibility for the safety of their customers and employees.

Mr. Thomas Loster, chairman of the Munich-Re Foundation, agrees that the private sector must be involved in disaster risk reduction, and believes that if governments are able to encourage such participation then the activity will trickle down to customer level, creating much needed grassroots understanding and action.

Mr. Aras Papdopoulos, CEO of Titan America, also believes that the private sector should be encouraged to take a more active role in raising awareness of disaster risk. Companies should also be assured that when they invest in DRR, their investments will go towards the creation of resilient urban ecosystems in which business can continue to thrive.

EU Disaster Management – New Tools for Policy Making

During a conversation centring on the European Union’s new tools for policy making for disaster risk reduction (DRR), the room was reminded of the reasons for the importance of such policy making by Roger Bellers, Cooperation Officer for Disaster Risk Reduction and Resilience with the Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection branch of the European Commission.

Resilience, Mr. Bellers believes, is not just a buzz word, but is a way of saving lives, and in a world in which disaster losses are increasing, we must create greater capacity for DRR, as well as targeting policies at the most vulnerable in order to improve resilience from the grassroots upwards.

In order to take a collective risk management approach, different regional and international stakeholders should consolidate the tools they use, such as guidelines, funding mechanisms, early response systems, crisis modifiers and safety net systems.

Such consolidation was discussed by Thomas de Lannoy, Policy Officer for DRR at the European Commission. While guidelines on risk assessment are being written independently by European member states, he said, they are then being communicated to the Commission and disseminated throughout the region. Examples of risk management and disaster proofing in areas such as transport, energy and climate infrastructure are therefore being utilized at a regional level.

Philippe Quevauviller, Policy Officer for Enterprise at the European Commission, discussed the importance of implementing bridges of cooperation to make sure that research findings and their application to disaster risk management are transferred to end users. The Disaster Risk Reduction National Platforms are an important tool for such dissemination.

Public Awareness and Education in Building Community Resilience

While one of the key messages of the 4th Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) has been that our efforts must be focused on vulnerable communities, few members of those communities have been able to visit CICG this week. However, one of the conference’s most poignant moments was when an 11-year-old Vietnamese boy with severe disabilities asked the panel about education accessibility during the side event on the Role of Public Awareness in Building Community Resilience.

According to Ms. Kirsten Holst, UNESCO Liaison Officer in Geneva, it is just such children on whom we must focus our attentions at local, national, regional and global levels, with education for all being a key priority. UNESCO is working on building a comprehensive approach to education for disaster risk reduction and sustainable development, so that communities across the world can enjoy a culture of safety and resilience.

The right to education and safety are also top level outcomes for Save the Children, said the organization’s Senior Advisor for Education and DRR, Ms. Marla Petal. When children and youth are given access to comprehensive DRR education, they become pivotal in the dissemination of knowledge throughout their communities.

Also on the panel, Mr. Mohammad Munir Chowdury said that the need for DRR professionals in his country, Bangladesh, has led to the establishment of diplomas and masters courses in the subject, and many thousands of people have already trained in the management of disasters such as floods, cyclones and droughts. Their motto, he said, is one which could well be applied across the world: “Know risk, no risk.”

What Binds Us? – Civil Society’s View on Building Resilient Communities

If Sharmila Aminath of the Maldivian Red Crescent could impress just two messages on the attendees of the 4th Global Platform on Disaster Risk Reduction, it would be these: that we must focus on vulnerable people, and that resilience is a life-long and on-going process.

Through working directly with vulnerable people in Maldivian communities, the Red Crescent has established grassroots definitions of the priorities of resilient communities, which include access to services, education, information, infrastructure and health facilities in an environment where economic risks and natural hazards are understood.

Action Aid Afghanistan has learnt similar lessons in its work with vulnerable communities, and believes that community groups need to be empowered to improve their own situation. Those most affected by disaster risk – the poor, women, children, the disabled and members of linguistic minorities – must be empowered. By addressing the underlying causes of vulnerability, such as lack of governance, social exclusion and lack of secured access to services, assets and natural resources, civil organizations can assist people in bettering their own circumstances.

From the perspective of the Catholic Relief Organization, the answer to the question of what binds us is a thirst for useful resources, which is why it has worked with various stakeholders in disaster risk reduction to produce the Towards Resilience Guide. The Guide seeks to address the problem of the inaccessibility of information to vulnerable groups, using simple language that makes it both comprehensible and translatable.

With so many organizations working towards the common goal of community resilience, many are recognizing the need for a cohesive approach. The Dutch alliance Partners for Resilience has brought together five NGOs to work on the building blocks of resilience, which they see as anticipation, response, adaptation and transformation. Their aim, shared by everyone working towards resilience, is for communities affected by disaster to be able not just to bounce back, but to bounce back better.

UN University: Comprehensive Climate Risk Management

Recent case studies by the UN University Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS) have concluded that what matters most to those affected by loss and damage at a household level are certainty, livelihood and food security, and how these things are maintained has a direct bearing on disaster risk reduction.

While it is essential that international organizations be involved with disaster risk reduction and management, especially in fragile or failed states, every group that suffers loss and damage must also be involved in their prevention and mitigation, which means that national and regional efforts should be coordinated with community-based actions.

National Platforms for Disaster Risk Reduction are an excellent mechanism by which to achieve this coordination. While national governments are at the frontline of risk management and communities must endeavour to prevent and respond to loss and damage, National Platforms could play a greater role in bringing lessons learned at a national level to a local context, and act as a median point between traditional top-down and more inclusive bottom-up approaches, bringing policy coherence, coordination and strategy implementation to all levels.

The Knowledge Volunteers

When Carlo Lamprecht, former President of the Republic and Canton of Geneva, gave the keynote speech at The Knowledge Volunteers (TKV) conference on September 21, 2012, all present were reminded of the tremendous value of building intergenerational bridges to ensure digital inclusion and to share human values.

TKV was conceived a year ago by Fondazione Mondo Digitale (FMD) to encourage active ageing and intergenerational learning. At the conference, the seven partners, from the Czech Republic, Greece, Italy, Romania, Switzerland and the UK, each confirmed that those aims are being met every step along the way towards next year’s project completion.

In each country, young tutors are teaching those over 60 to use information communications technology. The older generation, referred to by participants in the TKV project as “Generation Plus”, are then encouraged to pass their knowledge on to their peers, so forming a large network of volunteers of all ages for the dissemination and sharing of knowledge.

As she welcomed all guests to the conference, Mirta Michilli, Director General of FMD, explained that the European Commission had funded TKV through its Lifelong Learning programme in an effort to build up a better society. “Especially in cities,” she said, “there are few opportunities for the generations to come together. As well as ensuring that older people are digitally included, this programme helps to prepare young people for the challenges of the 21st century by giving them the chance to use life skills and to face a professional environment.”

The knowledge exchange which is central to this programme perfectly matches the life skills and experiences of one generation with the practical abilities which seem to be easily acquired by another. As Carlo Lemprecht pointed out: “Use of computers and the internet seems to come naturally to our grandchildren, but we must remember that it was only 20 years ago that Tim Berners-Lee wrote the http code – the foundation of the World Wide Web – when working for CERN right here in Geneva. This cross-generational exchange builds bridges of both knowledge and human values.”

Members of Generation Plus whose working lives did not involve the use of information communication technologies, or ICTs, are often intimidated by computers and think that the technology is beyond their learning capacities. The TKV project overcomes this reluctance, however, by starting new learners with “the ABC of ICT”. This foundation course familiarises learners first with the essential hardware of the computer, such as the monitor, keyboard and mouse, and then with the fundamentals of its use. Step by step, the learners gain confidence in their interactions with the computer, until finally they are able to exploit their PCs for such activities as e-banking, e-shopping, booking travel and social networking.

At the conference, video testimonials were shown from project participants representing Generation Plus. One woman from Prague bought her first computer at age 70. “And now,” she said, “I can’t imagine life without it.”

A man, also from the Czech Republic, was forced by illness to take early retirement, and found himself feeling lost and alone when his wife was out at work. Having now received communications technology training through TKV, however, he says, “If I’m sick or can’t leave the apartment, the computer can help me to contact other people. I know there’s always someone out there to talk to.”

Also significant was the testimonial of the most senior member of Switzerland’s ICVolunteers team. 90-year-old Magda Boon-Dènes said she finds the internet a wonderful tool for looking up anything she might want to see, from a forgotten recipe to a video of Fred Astaire dancing.

The benefits to the young volunteers who are training the Generation Plus learners are no less significant than those that their older peers are enjoying. Mirta Michilli pointed out that the young volunteers are not only learning how to communicate their knowledge, but are also developing a sense of social responsibility.

François Ledoux of Intel Corporation, which sponsors the TKV project, praised the role of these and other volunteers in making our communities better places in which to live and work. “By donating their energy, time and professional skills,” he said,” “volunteers can establish a foundation of lifelong learning and social awareness that may not be achieved through standard educational practices.”

This was also stressed by Alfonso Molina, Scientific Director of FMD, who said that through volunteering we practice “the best dimensions of our humanity. Many of today’s young people, he said, “are not in employment, education or training, and social innovation is required to tackle the challenges with which they are confronted. At the same time, people are living longer, which means that the concept of ‘older’ is changing, and it is important to ensure that people are not digitally excluded once they reach retirement age.”

The TKV partners have enjoyed the on-going experience, over the past year, of transforming the theory of TKV into an actual working partnership between volunteers and learners, and have themselves learned a great deal as they tried to find solutions to the real social and practical problems which in some instances have threatened to derail their participation in the programme. In Greece, for example, the economic crisis has presented significant challenges to project partner 50Plus Hellas, but the enthusiasm of the young volunteers, teachers and learners has helped the course to carry on regardless.

“Nothing worked in Greece from July to September,” said Myrto-Maria Ranga, Project Manager at 50Plus Hellas, “but TKV has still been a tremendous success. We’ve had so many expressions of interest from members of Generation Plus that we’ve had to create a waiting list. Social inclusion is a human right and one of the goals of this project, and by working for and with older people, we are able to give a voice to a section of our society that could otherwise be marginalised.”

50Plus Hellas and other project partners found that it was important to involve public organisations in the programme from the start. “At the beginning,” Myrta said, it was difficult to persuade politicians of the potential of a project such as this one. Now, though, they understand the value of intergenerational communication, and are more willing to support our efforts.”

Project partners also learned the importance of flexibility in their approaches to the courses to accommodate the needs of the local participants. According to Raluca Icleanu of the Societatea Romana Pentru Educatie Permanenta (SREP) of Romania, “The structure of the courses must be based on the needs expressed by the target group. We make sure that we define course times and dates with our teachers and learners, taking into consideration where they come from and what time they finished school and work and so on. This ensures that our courses accommodate everyone’s needs, and we therefore have a very low dropout rate.”

The central role of communications technology in the 21st century was highlighted in the closing moments of the TKV conference, when ICV Executive Director Viola Krebs pointed out that all of the communication between the TKV partners had, until last week, taken place in a virtual environment. Viola invited all partners to sign a physical Memorandum of Understanding to commemorate the rare occasion of their meeting. The handshakes exchanged between the partners were a marked commitment to the continued success of this ambitious project.

IT lifelines for Africa

In areas of African nations where electricity supply is erratic and many people have never seen a computer, how does one meet the challenge of linking rural communities using information communications technologies (ICTs)? This was one of many subjects discussed during the ICTs for Africa conference at the International Conference Centre of Geneva on September 21, 2012.

Five years ago, Switzerland’s ICVolunteers (ICV), a Swiss-based non-profit organization, established E-TIC, a programme which aimed to empower local communities in West Africa through the meaningful use of ICTs. With solutions now coming from the field, the programme’s participants are becoming better equipped to improve the living and working conditions of people in different sectors of rural West African communities.

At the conference, Viola Krebs, Executive Director of ICVolunteers, pointed out that “the isolated nature of rural zones in countries such as Mali and Senegal means that a large majority of farmers, herders and fishermen, who are essential pillars of their countries’ agriculture-based economies, often do not have access to information that would help them to improve their living conditions.”

This is partly because much of the population is illiterate, and the people speak local languages, making the nationwide dissemination of information almost impossible.

These and other challenges have been confronted by everyone involved in the E-TIC programme, including Colonel Souleymane Ndiamé Guéye, Director of the National Civic Service and Agricultural Volunteers of Senegal, who phoned in to the conference from Dakar.

As part of the programme that Colonel Guéye is running, local men and women aged between 18 and 35 are being offered 21 days of training, one module of which is focused on ICTs, and has been run by the E-TIC program. Once they have completed the training, the volunteers are given the agricultural equipment they require to spend two years doing volunteer work on farms in their own local areas. Because these volunteers have, at very least, basic literacy skills and are trained in ICTs, they are able to act as local information relays, disseminating essential information to rural communities that do not otherwise have access to this information. Even just by providing information about weather forecasts, the volunteers can be instrumental in helping farmers to save crops and avoid natural disasters.

Moustapha Ndiaye, who ran ICT training courses for the Sahel InfoHubs project, reiterated the importance of such programmes. “Through our courses,” he said, “we’re giving young people the opportunity to be better integrated. Our students create websites for the 14 regions of Senegal, and the people that we train go on to train other students. In rural areas where few know how to use a computer, these young people are helping to support and develop their communities.”

In areas with inherent social problems, suggested Swithun Mutaasa, a cybervolunteer from Uganda, such courses can also give local people a positive focus that may previously have been lacking. “In our community,” he said, “people, especially men, have been engrained into negative behaviours like drinking, poaching and deforestation. Despite their low literacy levels, our people have a thirst for information, and these courses give them a platform for expression and allow them to generate small incomes in sustainable ways. This education in citizenship awareness is essential.” He further relayed how he had assisted the Bwindi National Park telecentre in rural Uganda.

An important outcome of information dissemination in rural communities is that it slows the rural exodus which is causing profound economic, social and cultural changes in developing countries. At the conference, Jose María Díaz Batanero of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) said that ICTs, which are now available around the world, represent a “true platform for progress. People with access to ICTs do not need to migrate to cities. They can stay in their own communities and still have a window onto the world. This can have an important impact on environmental protection and social development, which is something that will be further discussed in the 2013 follow-up Forum of the World Summit on Information Society.”

While projects like E-TIC are using localisation to minimise the exclusion of rural communities, other ICV projects are attempting to confront problems that have arisen as a result of creeping globalisation. One example of this is the Ethical Fashion Project, of which ICV is one of the project partners, together with the International Trade Centre (ITC), ECOs, University of Geneva and Helvetas. The part of the project being run by ICV and the University of Geneva was discussed at the conference by Filmon Abraha and Céline Castiglione.

After Ghana gained independence in 1957, they explained, the country was transformed through a programme of industrialisation, and its manufacturing industry was dominated by textiles. As an effect of neo-colonialism in the 1980s, however, there was an influx of Asian textile products, and textile companies in Ghana, unable to compete with China’s low-cost labour force, had no choice but to close down. This was in spite of the general perception that the cheap Chinese products are of considerably lower quality than the products that were being produced in small Ghanaian villages.

Research carried out by the Ethical Fashion Programme has shown that European consumers would be prepared to pay more for high quality clothes, and that there is a market for ethical fashion items in large department stores such as Manor. It is therefore trying to strengthen links between manufacturers in Ghana and sellers in Geneva to create a space for Ghanaian textiles. The challenges are considerable but Filmon and Celine are undaunted. “Europe is seen as the brain of the global textile industry,” they said at the conference, “China as the factory, and Africa only as a supplier for high-consumption societies with a throwaway lifestyle… Although we’re not yet able to provide comprehensive answers to this problem, we are trying to understand the expectations of Swiss consumers.”

Another important project that was discussed at the conference was that of the AgriGuide , a tool which provides information on food and cash crops management for small-holder farmers, herders, and fishermen in Senegal and Mali, to help them efficiently manage natural resources and increase income. The question of the use of pesticides, environmentally respectful practices and organic farming, as well as the proper use of relevant communication tools, was at the heart of the discussion.

Several touching testimonials to the importance of safe and sustainable farming practices came from Dr. Ousman Aly Pame, Mayor of Senegal’s Guédé-Chantier. “80 years ago when my grandmother was young,” Dr. Aly Pame explained, “the environment was green. My grandmother lived on an island with elephants and drank water from the rivers. People produced subsistence crops and did not use pesticides.

“Then in the 1970s, the Senegalese government signed an agricultural agreement with China, and technical advisers were sent to teach us how to use pesticides. All the trees were cut down so that rice fields could be planted. The toxic products being used on those fields began to reach the rivers, so the fish were poisoned and became inedible. Farmers were not made sufficiently aware of the danger of the products they were using, so accidents resulting in poisoning are common.

“Another problem is that while the farmers were once self-sufficient, they are now hugely indebted to banks, and in order to service their debts, they are forced to grow the crops prescribed by global demand rather than foods that they themselves can eat. As a result, they are locked between increasing yields and growing loans from the banks.”

This view was shared by Professor Lucas Luisoni of the Geneva School of Landscape, Engineering and Architecture for Higher Studies (Haute école du paysage, d’ingénierie et d’architecture de Genève), who said that “political choices and development policies do not work to the benefit of local populations.

“People think of food security in cities but rural areas are at risk. You need to give self-sufficiency to producers, and ICTs in rural areas must be able to render solutions to the producers’ needs.”

Professor Luisoni suggested that mobile phones may currently be the most significant ICT in rural African contexts. As half of the people in rural communities have access to a mobile phone, there is greater incentive for illiterate people to learn how to read and write, and the technology can be used to empower people to transmit and share knowledge.

Michael Riggs of the Food and Agriculture Organisation, who attended the conference by phone, agreed, but added that, “Opportunities for modern ICT tools cannot be taken advantage of without supportive policy. As governments do not always see the importance of telecommunications in the agricultural sector, we must ensure that policy is improved to create an enabling environment for the increased use of mobile technology for information dissemination in rural areas.”

Dr. Aly Pame’s suggestion, when asked about how communication could benefit rural communities, was that the AgriGuide should be more widely distributed – he thinks that every family should have a copy. He also said that because Senegal’s is an oral rather than a written culture and much of the population is illiterate, it is important that the information included in the AgriGuide be distributed in video format in addition to the current written format.

ICVolunteers’ representative in Dakar, Namor Diakhate, who Skyped in to the conference, agreed. He also added that, “It would be helpful if a communication liaison could take 30 minutes to explain the AgriGuide to people in rural communities, and to receive feedback from the farmers about their needs and how they can best be met.”

Fernando Terry, representing EcoTransferts, a consultancy agency which supports the creation of eco-projects, pointed out that any discussion regarding the future of agriculture must consider the increasingly urgent global necessity for effective transition into a green economy.
“At the moment,” he said, “there are policies in place to assist communities and countries to reduce the consumption of fossil fuels and decrease carbon outputs. This is positive, but the mere will to meet current targets is not sufficient – we need to train people to implement the policies. It should be recognised that a transition towards a green economy will bring both economic and environmental opportunities.”

It was acknowledged during the conference that as a result of the current global economic crisis, many agencies that previously funded development projects have been forced to reduce their contributions, and are limiting the areas in which they are prepared to participate. Professor Michael Oris of the University of Geneva, however, suggested that people should not underestimate the value of comparatively small local initiatives.

Mr Oris gave the example of a UN drinking-water initiative, in which water service companies in the Rhone-Alp region twinned with similar companies in African villages. “When engineers from each side visited one another,” he said, “a mutual understanding was created and people were more than happy to share their technical skills with one another. It came to be seen as a situation in which colleagues required assistance, and company boards were therefore willing to ensure that projects were able to progress. Programmes such as this one are inexpensive and help individuals and countries to develop a sense of mutual good will.”

It is also important, suggested Arame Diaw-Diop of the International Organization of La Francophonie (OIF), that organisations applying for the funding that is available are careful to follow the procedures laid out by the donor agency. “Francophone funds,” she said, “are available for future projects which support youth internship, the promotion of democratic processes, citizenship, digital intelligence and the broadcasting of the common good in Francophone countries. However we are only able to allocate funds to project partners who strictly adhere to our procedural requirements. We look forward to hearing from project partners who are prepared to work hand-in-hand with us and make a positive contribution to supported communities.”

In concluding the conference on ICTs for Africa, Nazir Sunderji, Senior Advisor to ICVolunteers, reminded the audience of the saying that “the Earth does not belong to us but has been lent to us by our children.” We have pretended, he said, that a limited resource is unlimited, but we must find ways of creating opportunities and meeting the costs involved with giving back to our children what we found.

Vous devez faire de ce monde un paradis

I believe that one can never leave home. I believe that one carries the shadows, the dreams, the fears and the dragons of home under one’s skin, at the extreme corners of one’s eyes and possibly in the gristle of the earlobe.

Maya Angelou, Letter to My Daughter


From the moment my parents carried me home from the small country hospital where I was born until the day that I left that home 17 years later, my address was reliably static: 13 Buckland Street, Northam, Western Australia, 6401. (My Dad still lives in that house, as I’ve described, although the address, bizarrely, has changed.) My parents built 13 Buckland Street and mine is the only family ever to have lived there. So if the walls of the house could talk they would tell stories only of us.

My memories of the day that I moved out, in spite of all the many intervening years, are distinct. As I was packing up the last of my stuff, ready to get in the car and leave the only home I’d ever known, Terry Jacks’ song Seasons in the Sun came on the radio. Yes, yes, I know that the song is a travesty of Jacques Brel’s original Le Moribund and that it’s been described as one of the worst pop songs ever recorded. But on that day my interest in it was piqued only by the fact that some of the lyrics seemed heartbreakingly appropriate. “Goodbye, Papa, please pray for me, I was the black sheep of the family…” “You tried to teach me right from wrong, too much wine and too much song…” “Goodbye Michelle, my little one, you gave me love and helped me find the sun…” The song is about death and although the only death that day was that of my childhood, it still managed to imprint itself on my brain as a farewell to loves and places lost.

I think that goodbye was even more poignant than it might have been because of the fact that I wasn’t allowed to leave any trace of myself in the house. M is 50 next year and still has a few possessions stashed at his mother’s place. But as I was the tenth of the twelve children that Dad and his second wife had spawned between them (six belonging to his first family and six to hers), the two of them had had just about enough of children and their paraphernalia by the time I moved out, so I was promised that anything I left behind would immediately be thrown on a skip. My departure, therefore, was fairly definitive.

13 Buckland Street

(The house as seen now on Google Earth)

I’ve moved into and out of many places since then, the last one always, of course, feeling like the most significant. Over the last couple of weeks we’ve been moving our stuff out of the Chateau de Collonges, that gorgeously enormous, beautifully decorated, sublimely situated mansion, and into a standard two-bedroom flat on the first floor of a modern apartment building. True to the pattern that was established when I was 17, I’ve left no trace of myself in the chateau. I’ve taken down our paintings and rehung those chosen by the owners. I’ve unstrung the fairy lights that I had trailing up the stairs. I’ve rolled up M’s Persian carpets and run a vacuum cleaner over the empty spaces they left beneath them.

But the older I get and the more houses I live in, the more I believe that it’s impossible to remove all traces of oneself from a place. I can’t imagine another family inhabiting 13 Buckland Street but it’s inevitable that one day they will. And I’m sure that when that family moves in, they’ll be subconsciously aware of the fact that the walls still somehow contain some of the love felt by the young couple who built the place. The fittings will still reverberate with the laughter and tears of the six children who were brought up there. The air will still be resonant with the stoic optimism of a man who shared his daily life with two remarkable women within those walls, and loved and lost them both.

For as long as M and I were living in the dependence of the Chateau de Collonges, every day felt like an event. It didn’t feel as though we had to do anything in particular while we were there; just being under that remarkable cathedral ceiling, or looking out of the window at the chateau next door, or sitting by the enormous fireplace, felt special. I’m not sure if that feeling was created by the remarkable architecture of the place or by the resonance of the lives that were lived there before ours, but every moment there seemed to be imbued with significance. The house itself was a paradise of sorts.


I don’t have that feeling here in our new little modern apartment. But there is good news in that. While the chateau was a story in itself, our new home is no more or less than a safe and warm place from which to create stories of our own. We’ve only been here for ten days or so, but as each day passes it becomes more evident to me that while I don’t like to change the places that I live in, I very much like those places to change me. In the first week that we lived here, I attended my first photography club meeting, went to my first French class, swapped books with my friends at the end-of-year wrap-up meeting of the Geneva International Book Club, joined lovely friends to see the cinema release of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as directed by Danny Boyle at the National Theatre in 2011, had lunch on the shores of Lake Geneva with another lovely friend and walked down the road to the gorgeous Divonne Sunday Markets.


I was nervous about going to my first French class. The level of the group is a little above mine but I thought I might enjoy trying to rise to the challenge. After we finished my first ever exercise in the class, one which involved completing each written sentence with the correct form of the imperative, we went around the room taking turns at reading the sentences out loud. I counted the number of students around the table and the number of sentences left to read so that I could practice before I had to read to the others. It said, “Vous devez faire de ce monde un paradis.”

You must make of this world a paradise.