Category: Refugees

Black Migrations Day 4: Gambia

Gambia (aka The Gambia) is a country, but it is also a river (The Gambia River) which goes through several countries: Gambia, Senegal, and Guinea. This can get confusing because when historians say “the Gambia” they sometimes mean the country and sometimes mean the river. Imagine if some of the time when people said “Mississippi,” they meant the state of Mississippi, but other times they meant Minnesota, Louisiana, Wisconsin, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Iowa, Missouri, and Arkansas.

At least The Gambia is not “The Congo,” which is simultaneously a river; a river system; and two countries (Congo and Democratic Republic of the Congo, not the same place). Detouring into U.S. history a bit, it’s estimated that more than 50% of the African slaves brought to the U.S. were kidnapped from along the Gambia and Congo rivers and their tributaries. (Both of these rivers are in West Africa.) Much the same way a modern kidnapper might throw someone into a car, slavers threw people into boats so they could speed away from rescuers on foot and isolate captives.

This strikes me as particularly heartbreaking because a river is a river. It’s where you get water. It’s where you build settlements. Even knowing there are slavers on the river, you can’t really stay away from the river. So when you get caught, you probably feel angry at yourself, completely irrationally, as though it is pain you did to yourself, and this double bind is an idea which makes me furious.

Also, less relevantly, it reminds me of how in The Matrix they have to stay away from highways.

Back to the country of Gambia. It’s the smallest country on mainland Africa, with an area of 4361 square miles. (That’s four times the size of Rhode Island. Let’s all look down on Rhode Island for a minute. And it’s a little more than half the size of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, so let’s think about what this implies concerning Rhode Island.) Gambia the country is essentially the riverbanks of Gambia the river for the half of its length (the westernmost half, the half that ends with the Atlantic Ocean). At its widest point, Gambia is 31 miles wide. It’s entirely surrounded by Senegal on the sides which are not the Atlantic Ocean.

About half the population lives in urban settings. There’s a lot of ethnic diversity, with the most commonly spoken languages being Mandingo, Fula, Wolof, Serer, and Jola. English is used in government and school contexts. A lot of people speak French as well. And Gambia has its own sign language, which is based off of Dutch sign language but integrates a lot of local gestures; it’s not at all related to American Sign Language (although it’s picked up some British and French sign words). The main religion is Sunni Islam, and 95% of the population is Islamic, but freedom of religion is protected in the constitution.

The most popular sport is wrestling. The main exports are fabric, wood, and nuts. The average number of children for a woman to have is four. There is a history of welcoming refugees and immigrants, even though Gambia is not a wealthy country. (The opposite.)

Human rights in Gambia have liberalized substantially since 2016, when an authoritarian ruler named Jammeh, who had been the dictator for 22 years, was forced out with help from ECOWAS (The Economic Community of West African States), who continue to maintain a small peacekeeping force in the country. Gambia is now a presidential republic with a largely reformed judiciary. They are still going through the work of truth and reconciliation commissions, and working on what form reparations should take. I hold a lot of hope for them. I think their next elections are in 2021, so I’ll be watching how those go.

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African Geography Notes: Comoros

For Day 2 of Black History Month 2019: Black Migrations, I would like to share some facts about about Comoros, a volcanic island chain off the east coast of Africa, between Mosambique and Madagascar. It was settled in probably the 6th century and is mostly Afro-Arab. The dominant religion is Sunni Islam and the legal system is based on both Islamic law and the Napoleonic Code. Their inheritance law is interesting because some types of property and authority pass along the matrilineal line (similar to Bantu practices) and other types pass along the patrilineal line. The island of Ngazidja is particularly matrilineal. Official languages are Comorian, Arabic, and French. Near as I can tell, mostly Comorian is for regular talking, Arabic is for religion, and French is for official government business. It’s a federal presidential republic and part of both the African Union and the Arab League.
As an American, your main interaction with Comoros is probably as a consumer of perfumes. Comoros is the top producer of ylang ylang. Better than 50% of their GDP is made up of sales of spices and essential oils.
The population (I’m going to hedge here for reasons that will become clear in the next paragraph) is about a million people, and the population density is high because there are only so many places you can build a building on a volcanic archipelago. There are significant disparities in standard of living, and significant infrastructure problems in ways that remind me of Hawaii.
Comoros declared independence from France in 1975, but also didn’t. There are four main islands, and one of them, Mayotte, decided it wanted to stay a part of France. So it’s still part of France and has representation in the French senate. But it’s also part of Comoros. The UN recognizes it as part of Comoros. But that one island has French/EU citizens and uses the Euro, and people from the other three islands can’t necessarily work there legally. A lot of them work there anyway, illegally, without legal protections. I can’t think of a perfect paralell for this situation; the closest I get is Hong Kong in the 1980s.
Meanwhile, the non-Mayotte parts of Comoros have experienced at least 20 coups or attempted coups in the last 40 years, often with assassinations involved. Consequently, the people don’t have a lot of confidence in the politicians or political system – there’s been a lot of turmoil, some of it violent. Comoros is one of the world’s poorest countries and is very worried about climate change. It’s had trouble attracting investment and tourism because of the instability, although they’ve developed recent partnerships with China. The current president is working on green energy projects.
I got interested in Comoros last year when I needed a volcanic island chain for a futurist short story about guaranteed minimum income, refugee policy, and the invention of a new battery/fertilizer. (The story is not published yet; I need to revise the third act, which I rushed through in the first draft.) I zeroed in on this particular set of islands partly because in interviews I watched with Comorian laborers, I liked them a lot. I wanted to write protagonists that acted like the people I was watching. My story is not set on Comoros, but it seems to me that one could easily write a lot of SF inspired by Comoros. It seems to contain a lot of the structural elements people try to write into Star Wars, Final Fantasy, etc.
Here is a short BBC video on YouTube with good images of the island of Anjouan.

Jean Carlin, M.D.

A few days ago, my husband’s great aunt died; she was the only of my in-laws who I called by a familial name (Aunt Jean instead of Jean) – as did the rest of *my* family. Ciro says she was difficult to get along with, but I guess I met her late enough in her life that it was less true (and I didn’t need to depend on her, so I could enjoy her company for what it was). She was incredibly kind to me, and I was in awe of her. The day we met, a large rare flower in her garden bloomed. I’ll miss her very much.

Ciro writes:

Two days ago, one of the pioneers of refugee and cross-cultural psychiatry, Dr. Jean Carlin, MD, PhD, died in her sleep at her home in Seal Beach, CA. She was 86 years old. She took with her a lifetime of experience and wisdom that inform our understanding of the human cost of war to this day, and during Vietnam in particular informed U.S. refugee policy. More than anything she felt called to her work because she saw clearly into the abyss and cared very deeply about people. She spent her life trying to help them.

I said she was 86 years old. She was born in 1930. That means she moved into her teen years during World War II, and that when she was entering medical school, it was in 1950s America. She was one of three women in her class. It was routine for students who weren’t making the cut to be informed via a terse postcard in their mailbox, with no explanation. She was a woman from a poor single-parent household, surrounded by privileged men, aware that she could be dismissed at any time for any reason, in an era when female doctors in America were so rare that people frequently thought she was joking.

She spent two tours in Vietnam at a village children’s hospital, treating victims of war and its attendant horror with inadequate supplies and no electricity (candles at the foot of the bed). Children burned, children maimed, children with cholera. Viet Cong attacks in the area were frequent. She recalled one night-time alert that came while she was trying to save the life of a dying baby girl. The attack forced her to carry the girl through a field of knee-deep mud and weeds in total darkness, compressing the tiny body rhythmically against her own chest to respirate her, until she could reach an emergency ward. The baby did survive, as did many others in her care.

She returned later to work in the refugee camps, and her time there lead to a senior consultancy on the relocation efforts of the U.S. government. I haven’t been able to find a complete count of citations of her work in research literature, but it’s over 100. I think about it a lot when I read about Syria, about profound trauma combining with dislocation and total loss of culture and identity, about it following the survivors through generations. It haunts me to see it so completely, as it must have haunted her.

After the war she moved into forensic psychiatry, working for courts and mental hospitals and social services, with survivors and casualties of a different kind. Budget cuts and political resistance meant this work was frequently unpaid, underpaid, or paid very late, but she continued to do it, for the same reason she went willingly into war zones.

She was also my great aunt, and she loved me like her own child, of which she had none, nor did she ever marry. The truth is she wasn’t easy to be around, and that made her perpetually lonely.

Which isn’t fair. It’s not fair that with a human compassion so fierce, with courage so great, with such a complete willingness to sacrifice, that she should ever have wanted for love of her own. I can’t get past how sad it makes me. I hope I was a comfort to her. I will miss her very much.

Refugees Are My Neighbors

Refugees aren’t strangers walking off a plane — not permanently. One of my mentors was a North African refugee 30 or 40 years before we met, and now cooks spaghetti and hassles me about whether I’m living up to my potential. A college dormmate of mine was part of a family granted asylum after persecution in the USSR; she teased me for watching Twin Peaks seven years after eveyone else. A lost boy of Sudan is a member of my church. I’ve known him for maybe a decade. He’s getting a law degree now. These are my neighbors. This is my America.

Horseshoe Theory

So far, horseshoe theory has about the same track record as looking for your keys under the streetlight when you dropped them somewhere else. When the far-left fringe kills us, it’s going to be due to weakened antivax herd immunity and/or the rejection of essential food sources as “toxins.”

There is a third scenario in which I decide I’d rather stop breathing than listen to one more word about chemtrails, but I like to think none of you would do that to me.


Mark says: The actual antivax people I know in my life are all libertarian, so I sometimes think progressives get fingered unfairly for that. But the food issue: absolutely. Enjoy that GMO-free mass starvation.

Romie: By all means, Not All Progressives (or even most). Mainly, I don’t think there’s evidence that “the far left” is just as dangerous as “the far right” when it comes to domestic terrorism, even though earnest lefties keep warning that “it could be us next.” Kind of a waste of energy. There is a lunatic left, but it doesn’t much resemble a paramilitary.

Jacob: Well. The left believes in gun laws. ‘Cause we fear guns. So…that may be a small part of that. And our strength/weakness is our “I’m ok you’re ok” Cat Stevens mentality of our community.

Romie: It’s not just guns. The far left (and the right that’s not batshit) don’t do this:

Far right raises £50,000 to target boats on refugee rescue missions in Mediterranean” (Mark Townsend, The Guardian)

I keep running into variations of “both extremes are awful, the middle is good” where one extreme is whiny about pronouns and the other extreme fundraises in order to murder tens of thousands of fleeing civilians, predominantly women and children. I thought we’d figured out this “treat both sides equally” thing didn’t work when we allowed climate change denial to go mainstream, and then I thought we’d figured it out AGAIN after “Hillary and Trump are both bad, just in different ways,” but apparently no.


Nic says: When I was younger and first saw the (not particularly great) film Sphere, I was so infuriated at the end when they decide to forget everything because humans aren’t ready for the power. “No!” I shouted at the TV “Just think what you could do with it! Stupid Hollywood pat cop-out endings!” Then a few years ago I was on the internet and it suddenly struck me that I felt about the internet in the exact same way. It’s an amazing power that technology has bestowed on us and much as I’d love us to be, we’re just not ready for it. Wishing it away though is just a Hollywood fantasy, it turns out.

I just mention it here because I feel these kind of ‘theories’ would never reach any kind of critical mass without the internet linking vulnerable and impressionable people together in the absence of any kind of critical intermediary (add to this every ‘alt-right-read-fascist’ echo chamber message board and conspiracy hysteria). The internet has allowed amazing growths of expression and given voice to people who have been genuinely empowered in a way that benefits us all. But I wish we were able to handle the darker side of that power.

Got To Look Out For Our Own

Really good to see all those “keep the refugees out and save those resources so we can help the poor and sick people who are already here” folks mobilizing hard to make sure endangered American citizens receive healthcare and other humanitarian aid like food and safe housing.

Great “band together and protect our own” hustle, everyone!

P.S. The taxes that have been funding expanded medical coverage are mostly on capital gains – on money people make by owning stock, not by doing anything. Stock market is doing just fine despite this 3.8% surcharge – doing historically wonderfully, making stockholders loads of money. Investment has not been constrained. But, sure, we need to protect those investors from the pain of passively accumulating free money that could be slightly more free money if it weren’t for those darned asthmatic kids.