Orphans and Tourists are a Bad Trip

Who benefits when tourists spend a day volunteering at an orphanage? A classmate is going on a Caribbean cruise which includes a one-day stop in Haiti. Rather than do the usual tourist shopping and sightseeing she wants to spend the day helping out the local people.

My classmate is Black. On the surface her orphanage trip is a good thing, as it is still rare to see Black people helping other Black people in media images of disaster zones.

When the earthquake smashed up Haiti in 2010, television and newspapers were filled with images of brave white people going through the carnage to rescue poor Black people. The stories were framed around the selflessness of the white angels and the helplessness of the Black victims.

The media reports all pointed out that Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere. The earthquake was just the latest tragedy in a long list of misfortunes that had struck the nation since its independence. Missing from the reports were any discussions on the fundamental reasons why Haiti is so poor.

There are many orphanages in Haiti and in other poor countries. Visiting them or orphan tourism has become a big business fed by donations from tourists, churches and foundations formed by companies, especially those in the travel industry. The money collected is supposed to help feed, clothe and educate the abandoned orphans. Local partners encourage orphan tourism as it brings in the money.

But is it good for the children?

A report in The Guardian reveals that in many poor countries the children are paper orphans. That is they have parents but are living in the orphanage as they have no choice. Many of the children land in the orphanage through child trafficking. That is they are sold or stolen by brokers to feed the demand from orphan tourism.

Last year, my daughter’s school trip to Belize included volunteering as the social justice component of the visit. The class would spend a day helping out either at an orphanage or an animal sanctuary. My daughter vetoed the orphanage.

“I don’t want to be part of the white savior industry,” she had said.

I accused her of being cynical. Initially. I saw the orphan visit as an opportunity for her to show that Black Canadians exists and that we too want to help poor people. The kid rolled her eyes and told me to think about how a group of highly privileged, mostly white teenagers, with no childcare skills would be of any use to the Belize children.

Would a Canadian daycare allow a bunch of foreign strangers to spend a day hugging their kids?

I think visiting an orphanage is emotional entertainment for tourists. They spend a day ‘doing good’, by taking and posting on social media, all those lovely photographs of themselves feeding and cuddling cute children. At the end of the day tourists return to their cruise ship, hotel or lodge and continue with their pampered lives. Smug and satisfied that their donations and time have helped a child.

When race is added to the picture, orphan tourism becomes dirtier. Most tourists are white, visiting orphanages filled with Black and brown children. The visuals are reminiscent of the days of empire and colonialism.

Surely everyone has a memory of donating to churches collecting money to feed the hungry children in the orphanages in Africa and Asia. I know I did. I questioned why the children were in the orphanages. The usual response was that it was due to war, famine or natural disaster. What I never questioned was who benefitted from keeping the children in the orphanages.

The Haitian Revolution was the only successful slave rebellion in history. The new country declared its independence from France on January 1, 1804. The price of freedom was steep. The Haitians had to pay about 90 million gold francs, today’s equivalent of $21 billion, to France to cover the loss of its slaves and the sugar they produced. It was pay or be re-enslaved. The Haitian payments started in 1825 and ended in 1947. That is over a century of the poorest country paying all its wealth to one of the richest, to cover the costs of its own exploitation.

Like the rest of the Caribbean the Haitians are demanding reparations. The islands’ wealth built the colonial empires of Europe and later the neo-colonial empire of the USA. The poverty of the islands is a direct result of their wealth sailing across the Atlantic.

If my classmate spends the day in the Haitian orphanage it will make her feel and look good. It will do nothing for the children beyond continuing their exploitation.

Image: Black Child 1815-1825, by Phillip Thomas Coke Tilyard– Oil on Canvas. Fenimore Art Museum.


Yoga So White

I am dithering about whether I should go to the annual yoga conference and show. It was brilliant fun the last time, except for the tiny little problem about race. My heart told me to shut up and simply focus on the fact that it was a weekend of free all-day yoga from some of the best studios and teachers in Toronto.

Yoga, and its associated wellness products, is a multi-billion industry. The booths at the show overflowed with people selling candles, spiritual crystals, clothes and yoga accessories. The earnestness of the vendors was endearing and a tad overpowering at the same time. They really believed that their wares enhanced your spiritual life.

Then there were those selling natural or organic supplements and protein powders. I was skeptical about their sales pitch. I mean where in nature does textured vegetable protein come from? To my mind the products were all dreamed up in a chemical lab, with colours that do not exist in nature. I failed to see how they were supposed to be just as good for you as food.

Eat enough dates and spinach and it will cleanse your system without any help from chemicals. When did bowel movements become a topic for meditation?

I walked up and down the aisles doing my usual – trying to find a Black or at least a brown face. They were as rare as answered prayers. I was disappointed. For some strange reason I had expected more brown faces, given that yoga is an ancient practice from India. There are hundreds of thousands of South Asians in Toronto, and so I thought I would bump into lots at the show.

The practice hall was nearly full. I found my preferred spot in the back rows. Most of the yogis were slim white women. There were ten Black and brown faces among the two hundred or so people strutting our warrior poses. There were no people of colour instructors.

Tired from four hours of yoga practice, I went in search of food. Visions of chai tea and samosas danced in my head. There they remained as I faced stall after stall of soups, sandwiches and salads. I left the venue to search for nourishment outside.

The practice space was full after lunch. Not wanting to squish in, I drifted over to the meditation hall, the quietest space in the crowded exhibition.

I was a bit nervous entering as stillness and I are not the best of buddies. But the deep drone of the Tibetan salt bowls drew me in. Once again I told my head to shut up. As instructed I did the breathing and visioning exercises to the music of the drone. It was oddly blissful.

After a pause, another group of musicians took over. This time we were encouraged to repeat the Sanskrit prayers called out by the lead singer. The language has been dead for a few thousand years and yet here were a group of people chanting prayers in it. A group of white people. I, another Black woman and an Indian family were the minorities. The racial disconnect was jarring. I mean I was expecting Indians to be singing in Sanskrit and playing the tablas and sitar, not some white guys from off Yonge Street.

A highlight of the kirtan meditation concert was Kundalini yoga sect. The dressed from toe to head in white, including white turbans on both the men and women. I stared hard at the group as it was the first time I had seen a group of white people in turbans. They chanted and encouraged the audience to join in their Bollywood moves. I am getting my recollections muddled up?  Whichever group did the dances, they were all white.

The grand finale was the concert by the Hari Krishnas. They bubbled with positivity as we followed their songs and dance. It felt more like a rave, not that I have ever been to one, rather than a meditative practice. Still it was fun. The leader was a muscular and handsome Indian man. He knew the value of his sex appeal, as the woman did their best to accidently get as close to him as possible. About a dozen people were in the Hari Krishans and ninety per cent were white.

So where does this leave me for this year’s yoga show? I find it hard to switch off my head when faced with the jarring racial disconnect between the white people proselytising the value of yoga as an ancient Indian meditative practice, while doing their best to ensure that not a single Indian is in the room to teach or follow the practice. When did yoga become a white activity?

I am thinking of joining the Twitter hashtag conversation called #YogaSoWhite. It is time to decolonize yoga and to reclaim it as a practice open to all. Black History Walks Toronto

Image credit: Jessamyn Stanley from Seattle Globalist

Next Year in the PhD and in the Woods

The thing is, in the end, 2017 turned out to be a good year for me. Even though it did not feel like that during some of the months when the PhD, activities or the people around me felt as inviting as a soggy blanket.

The big surprise of 2017 was my Black History Walks. I had assumed that only a few people would be interested, and only in the summer months. I was wrong on both counts. It’s January in Toronto, it’s as cold and white as the last Ice Age and yet people have signed up for the walks. I am now scheduling them for every month, confident that people will sign up.

My motivation for doing the PhD was tested many times in 2017. Some days I felt like the smart kid in the class. Most days it was more like the dunce. For instance, I got my head around epistemology, but ontology and axiology are still drifting in the mushy grey matter that passes for my brain. Maybe in 2018 the terms will finally make sense.

How do you relax? That was an unexpected challenge in 2017. Too many days thinking, writing and worrying about my studies was not good. Sometimes I got so caught up in the issues and theories that my head felt like an over-ripe watermelon, sitting in the sun and about to explode. This year I will going back to the gym. Exercise calms my head, gets me out of the house, and turning fat into muscles is a pleasant side effect.

I will continue with my birding too in the New Year. The kid begged me not to talk about it over the Christmas holidays. She said it was embarrassing being seen with mom, binoculars and a field guide to birds. A Black nerd among the nerds was too much for my urbane teenager. My ten-year old niece disagreed. We spent two happy afternoons bird-watching in the park. It was she who spotted the cuckoos and parakeets. My five-year old nephew found the great blue heron perched on a branch overhanging the pond. Then he shot off on his scooter, scattering the gulls and pigeons.

As a Black woman who loves the outdoors, it is hard to find others in my community who share the same passion.

I was reminded of this all of last summer when I worked in Rouge National Urban Park. Many weekends were spent leading walks and informing people about the huge wilderness area in the city’s backyard. The park is free and accessible by public transit. I was astonished that about a third of the regular users in the park were newcomers from China (maybe a topic for future research). Black, Latino and South Asians were rare even though their large communities live nearby. The summer job took me straight back to my PhD research question – why are Black people afraid of the woods?

I won’t be the only Black hiker in the woods in 2018. In the last month of the old year I led a hike through the Don Valley ravine. There we were, three Black women in full outdoor gear, trekking among the oak and maple trees in the forest. We followed the river as it meandered and tumbled on its way to Lake Ontario. The two women liked being outdoors, but were tired of being the only Black person in a group. We found each other in a graduate class on Black feminism! We are now the Black girls in the woods.

To my surprise I managed to self-publish a new book in 2017. It was one goal that I had expected to miss. It takes time to write, and with my daydreaming, leading hikes and Black History walks, there was no space for the book. And I can’t write when I am tired. The solution was to make the book part of my school work. That is, as Fridays were my writing days, I spend half of it working on the book. I wrote in bed, standing at the kitchen counter or relaxed in my armchair. I could not quit unit I had written a thousand words.  The strategy worked and so I will be using it again for this year.

My four passions are outdoors, writing, travelling and Black history. Last year I managed to do a little bit of all of them. Thank you 2017, you may rest in peace.

I started the New Year drinking champagne and eating chocolates with my family as we sat around the dining table. We had jerk chicken and rice and peas for dinner. A few hours later my plane landed in Toronto. I gasped as the freezing air tortured by lungs. And still I smiled at the snow-covered streets. My snowshoes and cross-country skis were in the hallway closet, and it seems like they were going to get a lot of use soon. A proper Canadian winter is a perfect start to the New Year. Welcome 2018.

Black Canadian Feminist: It’s Time to Step into the Cold

As a Black Canadian woman, what does feminism mean to me? The initial answer is not very much. In my mind feminism and white women go together like milk and salt. In my lived experience, white feminist spout a universal creed of empowering all women, while ensuring that it is only white women who benefit from diversity policies. The sisterhood falls apart when it comes to my Black neighbourhood. I wanted sugar, nutmeg and chocolate in my milk. All I got was salt.

Womanist is uncomfortable in my gut. It speaks to the history of African American women. While they and I are both member of the African Diaspora, the particularities of our locations has created a very different lived experience. This becomes blindly clear when I am in the USA or among African Americans. I relate to them as Americans, first and foremost. Most of the time the cultural gap between us is as wide as the Grand Canyon. I am a Black Canadian, not a stereotyped softer, gentler more polite version of an African American.

Calling myself an African feminist upsets my belly too. I have lived or visited ten African countries. In each of them I was an outsider. Our shared Black skin was not enough to wallpaper over a cultural divide as long as the Rift Valley. Pain, stereotypes and misunderstandings do not make a good glue to hold a wallpaper in place. It is the pain of those sold, the pain of those left behind, and our mutual recriminations and reluctance to discuss whom did what to whom. The intensity of the pain makes it hard to see that we were both victims, but, in different ways.

On the surface my identity is simple – a Black Canadian woman. Look a little closer and that identity is more complex, even to me. My gravestone will read ‘Canadian: Jamaican born, England grew, Nigerian wed.’

That little epitaph summarises my roots. They straddle all three corners of the Atlantic Ocean, replicating that long ago triangular trade in rum, sugar and slaves. The ‘afterlife of slavery’ shapes my identity and defines my life as a Black Canadian woman.

It filters my views on feminism too. I am interested in woman-centred theorizing that captures the subtleties and ambiguities of being a middle-class, heterosexual, Jamaican, diluted Christian, Black woman, in Canada.  The theorizing has to be flexible enough to include the lived experiences of other Black women who have different weaves in the cloth of their own identity.

It seems to me that Black Canadian feminism fits the bill in terms of theorizing. So I am issuing a challenge to myself and all Black Canadian feminist – it is time that we embrace the cold. We too are Canadians, now we too must build our own warm feminist homes in the cold.

A Life of Books

In my mother’s house there was a large wooden sideboard against the south wall of the dining area. It was about eight feet high and just as long. This kind of furniture was popular in the 1870s.  A hundred years later it was a poor woman’s antique. Few praised its scratched beauty or its massive bulk.

The top half of the cabinet had large glass windows. It held all the best china and vases that we rarely used. Nestled along these were the knick-knacks that caught my mother’s eye – glass dolphins from the funfair, souvenir teaspoons from long ago trips, and eggshells painted with scenes from a Chinese countryside.

The bottom half of the cabinet was the most interesting to my eyes. Behind the slightly crooked wooden doors were the books. Most of them were once mine.

The full set of the Encyclopedia Britannica were still there. Neatly stacked upright along the shelf, the thick black covers with the gold lettering glimmered in the light. My mother had bought them from a door-to-door salesman. They were expensive back in the 1970s. They were paid for on weekly installments over many months. The Encyclopedia was the equivalent of the Internet back in the day. We were one of the few families on the housing estate to have a set. They were admired by many, but read only by me.

I recollect curling up on my bed and reading the Encyclopedia just for fun. They rewarded and did not mock my curiosity. They were a haven for a child when others grew tired of her hungry questions.

Each year, for our summer holidays, we spent weeks with our parents’ friends. I usually took along two volumes of the Encyclopedia. They carried me through the times of exile.

The Encyclopedia was my refuge. Open a page and I could be reading about the names of the constellations. Flip another and it was explaining the chemistry of water. No question or fact seemed too trivial or arcane for the book. The Encyclopedia cemented my love of history, science and geography. It was far easier to deal with abstract facts than the messiness of family life.

Another section of the shelf held my novels. They were the classics of British children’s literature – many tomes by Enid Blyton, Charles Dickens and the Jennings series by Anthony Buckeridge. There were hardback copies of Gulliver’s Travel, Ivanhoe, Kidnapped and many more.

As I grew, so my taste in books changed. I did not realize I was such a fan of the Mills and Boons romance series. There were about 30 of these paperbacks on the shelf. Shortly after that I got into Agatha Christie and her crime novels. I seemed to have read all her books as there were so many in the bottom of the sideboard.

I was an avid reader as a youth. The books in the cabinet were only the ones that I bought or were given to me. I read many more from the library.

In the cabinet there was not a single Black book among my collection. There was nothing that spoke of my history or experience as a Jamaican child growing up in small-town England. I was not surprised. That was how I grew up – a Black girl in the margins of a white world.

Black History Walks Toronto

This Is My Climate Change

There are still a few people out there who don’t believe that the climate is changing. And it is not because they are stupid. In fact they are among the most rich, powerful and educated of people. They work very hard to disparage scientist working on climate change, and to spread fake news denying that it is happening. More on this later.

This is what climate change looks like in my neighbourhood. Back in the spring the annual Paddle the Don canoe festival was cancelled. The spring floods were at record levels making the river too fast and dangerous.

A few weeks later I led a 15km hike in the Beaches area of the city. The final leg of the hike was along the boardwalk. At least that was the plan. On the day of the hike ten foot waves smashed against the boardwalk. Sections of the beach were closed and sandbagged to stop the land from disappearing. Toronto had not seen such furious storms in almost a century. We watched in awe as Mother Nature unleashed her power, tumbling deck chairs and planks as if they were mere pebbles.

My hiking club cancelled its annual Thursday evening walks over at Toronto Islands in the summer. We could not get there as the ferries were not running. The Island’s docks were flooded. The Islands remained closed until late summer, waiting for the water and the excess mosquitos to retreat.

The rest of the summer was marvelous. Lots of sunshine and blue-sky days. However, the summer was still here in the autumn. In fact September was hotter than August, some days the temperature was double the normal range.

Winter is supposed to be around the corner. The ski industry is praying that it will actually snow this year. In the last few years, the white stuff has been unpredictable. If there are no flakes in the city, people assume that there are none on the ski trails and slopes as well. So they don’t go.

And if they did go, there was a good chance that they would be skiing on man-made snow. Yes, there are machines that make snow. With the weather so unpredictable the snow making machines are doing a great business.

This climate change is caused by us humans.

In Canada our love of the good life – big cars, big houses and enough food to throw away – comes at a huge environmental cost. The more oil we burn and forests we cut down, the warmer the planet gets and the more variable the weather. Things are so unpredictable that a few more Hurricane Hazels might be in the wings.

There are ecological limits to life Earth. We cannot go on pretending that humans are so exceptional that the laws of nature don’t apply to us as well.

We know what the issues are, we know we have to act, but we do nothing. It seems we would rather wait for the apocalypse than take action to avoid it. The dinosaurs had no choice. Their exit from the planet really came from the heavens above. Ours will be from our own hands.

Some pretty powerful interests want to keep it that way. Millionaires want to continue making their millions. When climate change gets really bad they think they can buy their way out of it. They have already bought the politicians who should be taking action. Mother Nature can’t be bought. We can act now or wait for more floods, wildfires and hurricanes to pay us a visit.

Sailing on a Half Moon

Strolling in a Rich Neighbourhood

My mood was as sweet as a lemon. A cold was hovering in the wings, waiting to take centre stage. I was tired from being out every day in the past week. And my weekend was going to be busy too with a Black History Walk and then the hike for my outdoor club. And I still had tons of school work to do.

I had to do the pre-hike as I already had a dozen e-mails confirming attendance. If the weather was fine, more people would show up. As the leader, I had better know where we were going. I had walked a kilometre and had nine more to go.

From Lawrence subway, I meandered south to Duplex Park. As I walked through the green-land, a parliament of pimply schoolboys, in uniforms, lounged and smoked on a bench. We ignored each other. The park was shaped like a bowl with a flat bottom and steep sides. This was a good indicator that it was probably once a brickworks, and if such, a stream was nearby, either still flowing, or channeled underground and landfilled with trash a century or so ago.

Houses backed onto the steep edges on the east side of the park. Their fences were covered with billboard-sized photographs, graffiti art and murals. I loved the picture of a black cap chickadee, painted by a thirteen year old Chinese girl.

Leaving the park I climbed up the wooden steps which were nestled into the ground. The decaying wood was already enriching the earth, as we all will, one hopefully distant day. Crossing the road, I descended into Chatsworth Ravine. The tarmacked path was steep. I mumbled under my breath that I was really turning into an old fart; I was wary of falling even though there was no ice on the ground. What happened to sprinting down such a slope for the sheer joy of it?  My legs refused to take more than mincing baby steps. My shame was as bright as the pink oak leaves.

The gully was secluded. The absence of litter meant that it was regularly cleaned up or it was not frequently used. Little hairs pricked up on the back of my neck. Where was the fearless explorer eager for adventure? Who was this little old Black woman in the woods?

strolling in a rich neighbourhood fence

I soon forgot about the shivers, seduced by the beauty of the autumn leaves and the sleepy brook flowing into an underground channel. The ravine was steep and narrow. About twenty feet from its lips, houses were perched on both sides. Through the autumn leaves I glimpsed patios and large picture windows overlooking the forested crevice. I would love to wake up to that view each morn. Unfortunately the five million dollar price tags were just a tad beyond my means.

I walked through the valley in fifteen minutes. I never saw another soul. Not even a blasted dog walker.

The ravine ended abruptly in a school playing field. Either the brook meandered north, or it was encased in concrete under the field. I crossed the road. The gully continued on the other side, but the access gate was locked, with a sign saying private property. I strolled around, seeing a street of houses backing onto the ravine, but I could find no entrance into it. I will look for it on my next walk in the area.

I strolled south following any street that looked interesting. All the houses were detached or semi-detached, with large windows and lovely front yards. Most were built in the 1930s when Forest Hill was developed as yet another bloody ‘little England in Canada.’

The streets were quiet. Too quiet.

Many times I stopped and checked the map to make sure I was where I thought I should be. My heart raced at these stops. I was in the mid-town area of the city. Yet it was unnerving walking through a neighbourhood where no one was on the streets. The cars in the driveways and the lights in the houses indicated people were at home, yet I saw no one peeking through the windows. It felt like I was walking through a ghost town. Climate change or the apocalypse had killed all the people, leaving me the sole survivor to try and figure out what the fuck had happened.

I walked for an hour before seeing anyone in the rich enclave. Two roads before Eglington Park, Filipino nannies and their white charges were outside. Two decades or so ago the nannies were Black women from the Caribbean. They were replaced by white Eastern European women reeling from the fall of communism. Where will the nannies of tomorrow come from? Under capitalism it is anywhere labour becomes cheap due to war, recession or social conflict. Add the effects of climate change to the list.

I passed a Black woman chatting on her phone in her driveway. The car door was opened. Three white teens walked by, each with a puppy. One puppy ran towards the woman, wagging its tail like its life depended on it. The woman went gaga over the whippersnapper, bending down to hug, and oh my god, kiss it. She then stood up and greeted each dog and its leashed child by name.

The playground in the park was filled with white children, either with their parents or mostly their Filipino nannies. I headed straight for the washroom in the skating arena, as it was a rest stop for the group hike. Classical music drifted from upstairs in the arena. I had to have a look. The rink was filled kids and their coaches figure skating. The learners were mostly white or Chinese girls, practicing their jumps, twirls and flowing arabesques. One was Black. I hoped she knew of Surya Bonaly. I remembered watching her on television, astonished that a Black woman was on ice. The French star won the European Figure Skating Championship five times.

Leaving the arena, a little Black boy, aged about four, darted in front of me. A voice commanded that he stop. I looked up, the dad was the spitting image of the boy, barring his blonde hair and green eyes. We exchanged nods.

strolling in a rich neighbourhood hike

Crossing an avenue I meandered through the side streets and parks until I found the Beltline Trail. The former railway track was converted to a linear tree-lined park. The trail was packed with runners, dog walkers and rude cyclists who refused to slow down. I put away the map. I knew this path well, and it was important that I took my time to simply stroll along it, enjoying the autumn tinted forest that was right in the city.

Soon, too soon, I was back on Yonge Street, walking around checking out the best café. I like to end my hikes with tea and chatter around a table. I treated myself to chai and two ginger cookies. Finally, my mood was as sweet as the honey in the tea.