Dusty Roads

A Kiwi living in the new Zimbabwe

Keep an eye out for some changes…

March 5, 2018

For those of you who follow my blog, this will be old news. I have officially finished up with Stuff.co.nz as a columnist and that means something new is on the horizon.

There’ll be a few changes to this blog…a new name, adventure to follow, and perhaps one day, a little more about that Heavenly Father I wrote about in my last column for Stuff.co.nz.

But, initially, things will be a little hectic, so just getting updates and pictures through will be my main objective!

So stay tuned to find out what is around the corner!

 

A little farewell

March 5, 2018

Dear reader, it is time to say goodbye. Family adventures call, as does the feeling that this season of life is done. I’ll get to my final words soon, but first, let me thank you for the interest, the letters of support, the Facebook messages and personal emails (how did you find me?!).

I also want to thank the team at the Waikato Times for supporting me these last five years, especially Deborah Sloan, who defended me with fervor from the letter writers whether she agreed with me or not. Editor Jonathan MacKenzie needs a rather large nod for agreeing to take me on in the first place.

Now for those final words: the deeper I dig into different issues, the more I find they all run, like rivers to the ocean, into the very same subject.

You see, every issue that we as New Zealanders debate is done on the basis of certain assumptions. Whether we argue about euthanasia, same-sex marriage, sexism, the New Zealand flag or anything else, we are arguing about values.

We assume that those values, like individual freedom or the social good, actually exist.

But the more you stare at these issues, week in and week out, the more you find yourself asking one simple question; “says who?” (I’m not the only one asking. The faithless philosopher Jurgen Habermas is now earnestly asking the same question, and he is joined by a host of other secular thinkers).

It is a simple question, but it really, really matters.

After all, if we can’t point to some solid reason why all human beings have inherent rights, for example, then we are in rather a vulnerable position when someone comes along and disagrees.

It’s no good trying to say the most popular values of the day should win. Martin Luther King Jr, Nelson Mandela and a host of other big names from history are enough evidence to show that what is popular is not always the same thing as what is good or right for a society. Sometimes what is unpopular is the very thing worth fighting for.

Those who think what’s best for a society can be determined through survival of the fittest must first explain why the survival of our species even matters.

Surely, I hear you say, the best values for a society can be determined by research and evidence? Unfortunately we come unstuck there too. After all, finding a “solution” to a social problem depends on the solution that we think good, fair and right… so we end up back at values before we have even started.

The very simple fact of the matter is that our arguments all boil down to yelling “I’m right” very loudly at each other and hoping we will win, without ever being able to say exactly why we deserve to win.

Unless, as Habermas points out, we turn our minds to seeking whether those values are based in something or someone more permanent, more powerful, more persuasive than puny old us. Something or someone ultimately true, at the bottom of everything, or beginning of everything, depending on your viewpoint. Someone worthy of answering the question “says who?” with the words “I do”.

Someone like God.

So it is that week after week I have found myself with surprise at the feet of a familiar and beloved Heavenly Father, encountering not some ultimate truth or final argument, but rather a person. A person too big to fit into any one side of an argument, and quite determined not to most of the time.

Because, in the end, it’s not about which side of the argument we start on. It’s about whether we dig deep enough to find Him.

This article was first published on Stuff.co.nz

#Mentoo

October 24, 2017

I can still remember the shivers that went up my spine as the story was told. A senior manager asking a junior staff member to pack items at a department store on the top shelf. The hands closing about the waist to “support” that junior staff member as they stacked. The notes verging on love letters left behind to say thanks for the help.

It was creepy. It was disgusting. It was sexual harassment.

But the manager was a woman and that staff member was male, someone I happen to know very well.

It wasn’t the first time I had heard a bloke talk about being sexually harassed at work. Far from it. In fact, I’ve heard enough stories to convince me that the sexual harassment of men is one of the great, untold stories of our time.

But it was the #Metoo social media campaign, in which “all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted” were encouraged to share their experiences, that I began to realise why we hardly ever hear these stories.

We don’t ask. And I suspect we don’t ask, because we don’t believe they exist.

According to the Human Rights Commission, an average of 72 sexual harassment allegation have been lodged per year over the past five years. One in five of those have come from males, although giving your gender isn’t required. Still, by the numbers, far fewer males make allegations of sexual harassment that do women – a pattern repeated in other countries.

Why?

Well, I couldn’t find studies in New Zealand addressing that question, but I did find an awful lot of assumptions. Far too many boiled down to the idea that the word “man” is synonymous with “perpetrator” while the word “woman” is synonymous with “victim”.

We seem to believe, in essence, that men cannot be victims.

Perhaps. But then again, if men under report on mental health issues (according to the United Kingdom’s Mental Health Foundation), and under report on physical health issues (according to American studies), why wouldn’t they also under report on sexual harassment?

And if both men and women are capable of feeling sexual desire, and of acting wrongly, then why shouldn’t sexual harassment by both sexes be much more equal?

We know it is in the case of sexual assault.  A recent study of tens of thousands of cases of sexual vicitimsation in America revealed what the authors called “a surprising prevalence” of female sexual perpetrators. Males were the victims in one out of three cases.

“Gender stereotypes interfere with complex understandings of sexual perpetration,” claimed the authors. In other words, we miss these stories because we don’t believe they exist.

New Zealand is guilty of engaging in exactly this kind of harmful storytelling.

After all, it was only in 2005 that legislation was enacted making sexual abuse of minors gender neutral, so that women could be charged with abusing boys (and a raft of other sexual crimes).

Left unchanged was section 128 of the Crimes Act, which means to this day only men can be charged with rape. Women cannot.

It seems that as a nation we have bought into a story about “toxic masculinity” instead of a more accurate story about “toxic sexuality”. So, it is no surprise to find that we struggle with the idea of men ever being victims.

But that script needs to change. Sexual harassment is serious, it is damaging and it is wrong, whether the victim is a women or a man.

Outdated stereotypes won’t help us solve the problem.

This article was first published on Stuff.co.nz

The human cost

October 17, 2017

I first set foot in a brothel during my university years. It was an interesting experience for a number of reasons, but mostly for one unavoidable fact it shoved into the limelight.

That fact came to mind when I read of Auckland residents and prostitutes battling over street space a few years ago, heard the same in Hamilton later, and saw an update on the same war being waged in Christchurch this week.

The rooms I entered all those years ago were temples to the dissatisfaction of a nation, filled with priestesses and priests promising reprieve – for a fee.

That’s where the lesson came in. The fee. I realised the sexual liberation campaigner, who fought hard to legalise prostitution as a choice, had in fact achieved the opposite of sexual freedom. They had made sex less free.

That fee tells another story too. It tells us that no matter how we regulate and advocate and necessitate health checks for workers, we’ll never be able to bring this industry out of the shadowlands and into the light.

Why? Because it is an industry built on desires found in shadowy corners of the human heart.

I’m not being a moral prude. I’m merely being practical. If a man feels desperate enough to pay for that which should to be free, think what must be going on in his heart. His appetite is either desperately underfed or desperate to be overfed, whether it be for company, love or sex. Whatever the case, his life can only be very tragic to have to pay to find friendship, a feeling or physical intimacy.

I won’t pretend, along with the faux feminists or sexperts, that the women involved aren’t very often victims.  While it is nice of them to feed endless stories to our media about high-end, educated, “I have a way out” women-of-the-night, we ought first here to listen to the voice of the poor and the oppressed, the voice of the vulnerable.

Surely, they deserve a say too?

They do speak, by the way. In few and far-between reviews that show prostitutes are disproportionately women, less educated, and lack qualifications for other work. Reviews that tells us these women seem often to have been sexually abused as children, and are often under financial pressure.

The women speak silently, too, in stories like the ones in Christchurch, or Hamilton or Auckland. They speak in tiny details like the defecation done in public, the syringes left on lawns, and the hard words hurled into the black night.

Sometimes, silent stories speak the loudest.

That brings me back to sexual freedom, and its cost. As soon as we pay for any product in society we create a cost – but not just a financial cost. There are environmental costs, social costs, relational costs and all sorts of other costs we are only just discovering in every business on earth.

We are kidding ourselves to pretend there aren’t costs in this industry too. But in this case the product we consume is a person. The costs, then, must be personal.

And that is what the stories from Auckland, Hamilton and Christchurch remind us.

Are we proud to pass over such public pleas for help in favour of the well-heeled corporate madam saying in soothing tones that all is well? Are we pleased to pretend laws more than a decade old are producing the right effect?

I’m not. When you count in people, the cost of our current system is too high.

This article was first published on Stuff.co.nz 

Middle-class mobsters

October 17, 2017

Dairy, it turns out, is not nearly as dirty as the middle-class women.

I mean that in a purely environmental and ethical sense, by the way. I know it seems shocking, but when you crunch the numbers, test the rivers, and start interviewing people, it is difficult to avoid.

All 60 kilograms of me does more harm to the environment, and other humans, than a 450 kilogram cow.

I think the supermarkets know the secret dangers of middle-class women, and it is why they are phasing out plastic bags (hallelujah). It turns out people like me were going on turtle killing-sprees with those bags.

But I discovered the true depth of the middle-class horror story when I became an accidental member of a sort-of protest movement. One moment I was having a play date with another mum and child, the next I was elbow-deep in Tearfund’s Ethical Fashion Guide.

It was a horrendous document. It glossed over critical details and failed to explain core cultural contradictions. The problem was it still had a point.

No matter which way I looked at it, there were some things going on with my shoes, and jeans and tops that just weren’t right.

Now, do not be deceived as I was, into thinking ethical fashion is only relevant if you are fashionable. Do not think the word “ethical” is another meaningless modern phrase, it merely means moral.

In other words, ethical fashion could be called the “moral clothing movement”. You can no doubt see why the branding experts went the other way.

What it all boils down to is that the textile industry is the second biggest polluter on the planet, according to Forbes.

It’s right up there with petrochemicals, mining, recycling lead batteries and other toxic, dangerous things. You have to keep reading the list to eventually get to agriculture.

That means you and I are better off buying another latte than that lingerie if the environment is what we are worried about.

But it gets worse.  Never, ever has a cow trapped another cow in a factory the light of day forgot and forced her to work like a slave.

But we have done that with our own sort. We women, whom Harvard claims make most of the purchasing decisions in a home, have turned a blind eye when base and horrid human beings have stolen vital documents from vulnerable people and so kept them contained like animals in airless, artless rooms to stitch up a skirt. Or a blouse.

All the while, of course, they’re docking pay for any breaks until the debt incurred outweighs the money earned for working.

Cows don’t do that sort of thing.

How they keep coming out of all this looking relatively clean, while we seem soiled, is a mystery to me. It ought to be the other way around. Dairy gets called dirty, middle-class women don’t (for environmental and ethical reasons anyway).

But the slogans don’t tell the full story. The simple fact is that average women just like me are literally littering the world with waste every time we whip out our wallets in a clothing store.

Well, not quite every clothing store. That’s what the Ethical Fashion Guide is about. It turns out some stores won’t buy things unless the people involved in production are cared for, as well as the places things are made in.

That’s the sort-of protest movement I joined. It doesn’t have marches, or placards, or any semblance of organisation at all. It’s full of ordinary, every-day people trying to do things a little differently where they can.

It’s as simple as swapping a plastic bag for a better one, or checking our own behaviour before we chuck all the blame on the bovine.

This article was first published on Stuff.co.nz

 

Women we admire

September 24, 2017

One hundred and twenty-six years ago, a dedicated group of women turned up on the steps of Parliament. They were there to present a petition asking that women be given the vote, and 9000 signatures filled the roll of paper.

Although that petition failed, the moment was still momentous. It set the stage for another more successful petition, two years later, signed by almost 32,000 women. But it was the lady already sitting inside Parliament, watching on, who has always had my interest.

Laura Jane Suisted was not a typical 18th century woman. Born and bred in Britain, she had immigrated to New Zealand at the age of 22, bringing with her an unusual amount of independence, determination, and writing skill. She would put those to use shortly, but first, she married an entrepreneur, destined for financial success, in Otago.

Their marriage had to survive several failed businesses, flooded homes, and infertility. It did, and James Samuel Suisted finally made his money. Laura Jane, as she became known, was finally able to make her indelible mark on New Zealand history.

In 1884, a new writing interest captured her attention. Already a published writer, and regular contributor to several publications, Laura Jane found herself now sitting in on the sessions of our 30-year-old Parliament as a note-taker. According to the Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand, she was probably the first woman to do so.

There was a more important “first” to come. In 1891, the very same year that Kate Sheppard and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union handed over that first petition on the female vote, Laura Jane was admitted to the New Zealand Institute of Journalists.

She was the first female member in its history.

It took almost a decade as Parliamentary correspondent for several newspapers to earn a spot in the Institute.

So it was that one of my relatives gained a front-row seat to the greatest political debates of the time. She did it without the help of anti-discrimination laws. She did it without other women smashing the glass ceiling ahead of her. She did it without even having the right to vote for the very politicians about whom she wrote every day.

She achieved that incredible career using things I admire far more: sheer determination, raw talent and mountains of skill.

Now, 124 years after women gained the right to vote in this country, and 126 years after the New Zealand Institute of Journalists officially admitted its first female member, the question is not just “how far have we come?” but “are we still made of the same stuff?”.

After all, there is a terrible risk that comes with having tangible political power (in the form of a vote), for both men and women. That risk is that we begin to think it a substitute for righting wrongs we see in between elections days.

We begin to blame politicians instead of wondering what we can do ourselves.

Don’t get me wrong, election days are critical, and the privilege of holding political power in our own hands is not something to be taken lightly by any of us. The values and policies for which we vote will change our country in years to come.

But women like Kate Sheppard and Laura Jane remind us all of something else too; they remind us that who we are on the days in between elections matters just as much. They remind us that what we do on the ordinary days can also change the course of history.

After all, it was on an ordinary day in 1891 that a woman was first named “member” of our Institute of Journalists in this country. And it was on an ordinary day in 1893 that women finally earned us ladies the extraordinary privilege of being able to vote today.

 

Hope for mental health?

August 19, 2017

An important issue has lurked on the edges of the limelight for most of this election, sadly shunted out of reach of the main beams by leadership changes or falls from grace.

For weeks now politicians of most persuasions have made policy announcements or passing comments about it, but it still hasn’t had all the attention it deserves.

I’m talking about the topic of mental health in New Zealand. Specifically, our suicide statistics, which set us apart in the developed world for all the wrong reasons.

In fact, our youth suicide rate is so high that it made headlines on the BBC in June. “The rate of 15.6 suicides per 100,000 people is twice as high as the US rate and almost five times that of Britain,” ran the story. The article focused on what might be behind that rate, and the conclusions punted to the British public were far starker and more blunt that what we are brave enough to say.

“There is a “toxic mix” of very high rates of family violence, child abuse and child poverty that need to be addressed to tackle the problem”, says an expert in the article.

But beyond the foreign news headlines lies yet another staggering statistic; that New Zealand’s rural population suffers from far higher rates of suicide than does its urban one. In fact,”suicide rates are higher in rural areas at 16 per 100,000 people compared with 11.2 for every 100,000 people living in cities”, said yet another report earlier this year.

In total last year, the equivalent of 11 people each week took their own lives in what must be acknowledged as our nation’s mental health plague.

But again, rural or youth suicide isn’t the problem. It is a symptom – a symptom caused by a bad relationship with drink, with partners, or with guns. A symptom of broken families, abuse and poverty.

And that is where politicians and policy announcements come in. So far the subject of suicide has been treated as if it exists in isolation. So far we have heard about how to help mental health services cope through extra funding, or programmes that might be put in place to breed resilience. These are important parts of care, but they don’t address the problems.

Problems like family violence or child abuse or bad relationships that are linked so strongly to our negative mental health statistics. Problems like the breakdown of our communities that leads to isolation and an inability to connect to someone-anyone-who can help.

We are not, in other words, talking about causes, only the consequences.

That simply won’t do.

If we are to start seeing a shift in our statistics, surely we have to get beyond the band aids and start looking at why depression or mental health issues are so prevalent in New Zealand in the first place?

Surely we have to start scratching beyond the surface – no matter how scary it might feel- to find out what stark realities hide beneath.

And surely if strong, healthy, loving families, or connected communities, are linked to low suicide and mental health illness rates, as the Ministry of Health seems to suggest, then we need to start talking about how to nurture these. Yes, we may end up tripping over the toes of some of our deepest values, like the individualism that makes it so hard to hold families and communities together here, but saving lives is worth a little compromise, I think.

We can’t keep kicking the issues around like a political football. Surely when it comes to tackling an issue as serious as suicide, we are all on the same team.

This article was first published on Stuff.co.nz