Category Archives: Book Reviews

Book Review: To Fool the Rain: Haiti’s Poor and Their Pathway to a Better Life

To Fool the Rain: Haiti's Poor and Their Pathway to a Better LifeTo Fool the Rain: Haiti’s Poor and Their Pathway to a Better Life by Steven Werlin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Helping families lift themselves out of poverty means helping them build income and wealth, but it is a social phenomenon as well,” wrote Steve Werlin, the author of To Fool the Rain: Haiti’s Poor and Their Pathway to a Better Life. “And one of the social change we try to effect involves working on the way members look at themselves.”

It is quite impressive how someone’s mind and attitude can alter and reset the course of one’s life. However, in order to eventually arrive at that mind reset some people require a substantive hand out, constant observation and follow-up; not simply a prescriptive hand up. When looking at the lowest income countries in the world like Haiti a vast array of NGOs work to alleviate some of its inherent problems with programs that address the root of poverty. Some provide work programs, educational programs, health care, or even microloan programs. But some of Haiti’s families are so extremely poor they cannot dream of qualifying for many of these programs because they have virtually nothing. In fact, they live in such cyclical poverty they cannot feed themselves on a daily basis, or even every other day. In Haiti’s deepest far reaches and unfathomable rural areas are families who live in abject poverty far away from roads and towns. They require the most cumulative social programs designed by worldwide NGOs that specialize in the nuances of poverty reduction and eradication.

In Haiti, for example, one of those social programs is called “Chemen lavi miyo (CLM)” in Creole or a Pathway to a Better Life that is run by Fonkoze, Haiti’s largest microfinance organization. Even as a microfinance enterprise Fonkoze realized that to reach the poorest Haitian families means to provide overarching programs that teach rural women who qualify for their CLM program financial and entrepreneurial skills as well as life and relationship skills.

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Book Review: Somalian Memoirist Writes About FGM in Raw Detail

The Girl with Three Legs: A MemoirThe Girl with Three Legs: A Memoir by Soraya Mire

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Female genital mutilation or FGM for short is one of the most horrific crimes against girls and women in the world. According to the World Health Organization over 100 million women and girls live with the adverse effects of FGM, a traditional practice where a girl’s external genitalia are removed. The pain is excruciating oftentimes performed without anesthesia by older women in a village and according to traditional customs. Girls are then sewn up and a tiny hole is all that remains – tiny enough that only a Q-tip can get inside. FGM causes massive health problems for women and girls who sometimes cannot urinate and have unbearable menses because the blood cannot sufficiently flow out of a girl’s body. Once a girl is married, many times very early, sex is painful and when she has a baby its head cannot breach the massive, thick scar tissue that forms from FGM causing its death. And many women find themselves then having a fistula. This happens more times than not. FGM remains a destructive circle of violence against women and girls particularly when after birth women are re-sewn in order to remain “chaste”.

Soraya-MireThe best telling of FGM is in The Girl with Three Legs: A Memoir written by FGM activist and Somalian woman, Soraya Mire. Mire was 13 years old living in Mogadishu, Somalia when she underwent FGM. Her day started beautifully with her mother going out to shop and buy beautiful clothes, but the day ended in a strange house where her genitalia was forcefully removed and literally thrown to stray dogs to eat. It was a horrific experience for Mire, she writes. It took her many, many years before she decided to come forward to help prevent girls from undergoing FGM in her homeland and beyond.

After undergoing FGM Mire became extremely sick with swollen legs because urine and blood could never pass through her vagina as it should. Her parents who were wealthy tried everything to help her except reverse the procedure. They called in a Chinese doctor to perform acupuncture. They went to a local doctor who prescribed her medicine because they thought she had gone crazy, but it didn’t work. They also took Mire to local healers and, of course, that didn’t help either. She lived in pain for years until she went to college in Europe and discovered she has been secretly married to one of her cousins.

FGM and an arranged marriage were the ultimate signs of betrayal for her independence and for autonomy over her body. It took Mire several moves in Europe, escaping from her husband, and an eventual and final move to the United States before she found her voice to create her film about FGM, Fire Eyes.

Amid death threats and being shunned by her people and even countries that didn’t want her showing her film she found resolve in spreading the word about the dangers of FGM. Through sheer determination and a willingness to move forward with her story despite many Somalian’s desire for her to keep her mouth shut about FGM Mire found herself at Sundance and even on the Oprah show. She was also instrumental in helping to make FGM a felony in the United States as more Somalian refugees came to America and tried to continue the practice with their daughters.

Knowing and understanding the full scope of FGM is difficult if you haven’t gone through it or know anyone who has, but Mire brings the ugliness of this violence against women and girls to her readers in raw detail. Anyone who reads this will stand against the practice in any way they can.

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How can you help?

Join the DFID Thunderclap against FGM.

Support UNFPA and UNICEF‘s joint campaign to end FGM.

Book Review: Consuming the Congo: War and Conflict Minerals in the World’s Deadliest Place

Consuming the Congo: War and Conflict Minerals in the World's Deadliest PlaceConsuming the Congo: War and Conflict Minerals in the World’s Deadliest Place by Peter Eichstaedt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There has increasingly been more attention paid to conflict minerals – the minerals that are extracted from mainly developing countries – that are used to power the technology we all cannot live without. These minerals cause problems for a great many of us. We cannot go a day or even a few hours without our cell phones, tablets, and laptops even though we realize that the minerals inside of them most likely caused suffering for some African miner working to earn very little wages. With every social media update and email we send it seems we don’t care, but conflict minerals put us into an unimaginable bind. Whereas the great many of us can go without buying conflict diamonds none of us can seriously go without our technology. Therein lies the rub.

Celebrities, activists, and humanitarians shout from the rooftops about conflict minerals and how multinationals are grabbing mines at breakneck speeds to claim the riches beneath the earth. But no one is taking the next step and doing away with their technology to take a stand against the minerals that today cause undue hardship for so many. We remain largely nonplussed. It’s not that most of us don’t care, it’s that we don’t understand the history of it all and the devastation surrounding conflict minerals. It’s a “them” problem, not ours.

That is why Consuming the Congo: War and Conflict Minerals in the World’s Deadliest Place is so important to this global dialogue. Instead of the problem being simplified into soundbites, the history and repercussions of conflict minerals in the DRC is laid out in great detail by veteran journalist and Africa editor of the Institute of War and Peace Reporting at the Hague, Peter Eichstaedt. In reading Consuming the Congo you get an overwhelming sense that it’s not Eichstaedt’s first time at the rodeo. He already has great knowledge of the history of the region, but also has excellent resources who are not afraid to talk to him and provide inside information about the goings-on of the area and provide insight about who is fighting whom. It is a difficult task to undergo, to be sure: putting the pieces together for an audience that largely couldn’t point the Congo out on a map.

Eichstaedt makes the narrative easy to follow and the history relatively easy to comprehend although the actors are so rife it’s hard to keep up with who is who. Perhaps some of the bit players could have been left out of the narrative, but I have a feeling the story would be left rather incomplete and the book would grow holes that would grow larger as history goes on. Every bit person counts. Every militia and rebel group counts. Every multinational country counts and every country that is vying for supremacy over the region counts, even though for the reader it can become tedious.

Eichstaedt does, however, a masterful job explaining why conflict minerals exist and why they are so extremely valuable. We know it is because they are essential to every electronic device on the planet, but he does a great job of explaining the why. He also does a masterful job at describing how the rush for conflict minerals is negatively affecting the people and the terrain of the Democratic Republic of Congo while nothing seems to be getting better.

Consuming the Congo is essential reading for those who want to get to the bottom of the conflict minerals debate and see why it really is important as consumers to fight for nonconflict minerals. However, the book is also quite disturbing because it seems no one is doing anything about the suffering. It just goes on while we fire up our devices and seemingly don’t care.

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** Update: As noted today in Fast Company’s Fast Coexist starting now all Intel microprocessors will be conflict-free.

Book Review: Our Kind of People

Our Kind of People: A Continent's Challenge, A Country's HopeOur Kind of People: A Continent’s Challenge, A Country’s Hope by Uzodinma Iweala

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When it comes to HIV/AIDS on the African continent we, as Westerners, are often blinded by the ubiquitous stereotypes that permeate our perspectives and opinions about Africa. We then can only rely on the authentic and experienced voices of authors, reporters, and first-person stories from those who have lived and grown up on the continent. We have to rely on those who have committed themselves to setting the record straight about what it is like to be an African who has to face HIV/AIDS every day in his/her community, country, continent and the depth of what it means to them. We can’t guess. We have to lean on their understanding so as to better understand ourselves.

Uzodinma Iweala set out to chronicle the stories about HIV/AIDS in his birth country, Nigeria, in Our Kind of People. He traversed the country to discover how his countrymen and women view the disease; how they cope with it, and how they have learned to live with it. This is especially important in a country like Nigeria that is religiously conservative, but has one of the highest HIV infection rates in sub-Saharan Africa.

In Our Kind of People, Iweala traveled the country from Lagos to small rural villages to hear first-hand how people – men and women, old and young, rich and poor, are coping with HIV/AIDS and how those who have succumbed to the disease dealt with the realization that they too were living with the disease that would eventually take their lives.

Iweala talked with doctors, activists, advocates, researchers, and ordinary people about how HIV/AIDS has changed their lives, their families and their communities. What most of them revealed is that having HIV/AIDS is disgraceful for many Africans. They don’t want to discuss it with others and in some cases, paralyzed by fear of people finding out, they don’t even seek treatment at the hospital to get tested or to get the cocktail of drugs that will allow them to live with the disease instead of being tortured by  it.

Nigeria has come a long way. Its citizens, urged on by those brave enough to face HIV/AIDS from a realistic perspective and can-do approach, have also come to live with it instead of hiding in fear from it. HIV/AIDS is a part of life in Nigeria – few people are not touched by the disease in some way.

One of the painful truths about Our Kind of People is that while Iweala discounts the Western stereotypes about Africans and HIV/AIDS those same stereotypes seem to be played out throughout the book. I suppose that is the power of stereotypes – everyone is plagued by them no matter how hard we try not to be. Nevertheless Our Kind of People is a much-needed look at the African perspective of HIV/AIDS, one that is sorely needed in the conversation about the disease and its affect on the African continent.

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Photo: UN Photo/Louise Gubb