Dusty Roads

A Kiwi living in the new Zimbabwe

Remembering well

November 11, 2017

I remember the sound of gunfire going off as we stood huddled under the doorway for protection from stray bullets. The roofs were tin, which couldn’t save us. I officially had my first introduction to war – a memory which would shape forever what I remember on Armistice Day.

It was Ivory Coast, and the exact moment at which this memory was forged is carved indelibly into my mind. It was midnight, the start of the new millennium. I know because the television was on, showing the celebrations occurring around the world at the exact moment we stood huddled against those bullets. I can still see the fireworks going off over the Sydney Harbour Bridge in my mind’s eye.

The sound of celebration, I remember thinking, was remarkably like the sound of gunfire. Even if it is the gunfire of drunken soldiers letting off steam in yet another dusty African civil war.

We came home to the peaceful green of New Zealand soon after that, and for a brief while I became a pacifist, reading up on the 800 conscientious objectors sent to prison during World War 2 in New Zealand. They were my heroes, until I started reading up on World War 2 and Adolf Hitler. Suddenly, saying the enemy was “fear and ignorance” or other such platitudes seemed too insubstantial to stand up to reality.

Reluctantly, I decided war is sometimes necessary, because man is sometimes evil. Like most of us, my ideas and ideals about war were then formed by movies, history lessons, and visits to old war sites around New Zealand or Europe. Like some of us, my thoughts about war were shaped by stories from a grandfather who survived it. Like a few of us, my opinions about war were molded by living in a country collapsing under the weight of a civil war.

We are 99 years from the first ever Armistice Day celebrations, and 72 years from the end of World War Two, and how I remember today is still changing.

Now, I have a son and a husband. The shape of war is no longer impersonal, the idea of good or evil no longer a generation removed. Those shapeless words, “sacrifice” and “service”, have been filled in, given flesh and blood, faces. What it took, the kind of people it took, to gain us the peace we enjoy, becomes more real every year.

In his best-selling book “Man’s search for meaning”, psychiatrist and neurologist Dr Viktor Frankl writes “there are two races of men in this world, but only these two – the race of the decent man and the race of the indecent”. He wrote as a Jew who had been imprisoned in Auschwitz. But he was not comparing Nazis to their prison-camp victims. Those words came after he wrote about the Nazi soldiers who tried, in whatever way possible, to show mercy in Auschwitz, and about the fellow-prisoners who out-competed the guards for cruelty in their own desperation to survive.

Decent people, and indecent people, can be found standing on every side of every battle in life, said Frankl. The only difference between them, he observed, was choice.

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

This Armistice Day, I am remembering the race of decent men who made the choice to earn us the priceless gift of peace, and the parents who raised them.

What, and who, will you remember?

This article was first published on Stuff.co.nz

 

Ghosts of the past

November 7, 2017

If the demographers are to be believed, 500 years on from the reformation New Zealand still has not felt all of its effects onshore or off.

Those of us with even the slightest hint of European heritage can probably speak of an ancestor caught up in the wars between Catholics and a group that would come to be called Protestants, after Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to a church door.

Protestants made up the bulk of Europeans to roll into New Zealand throughout the 1800s, with 90 per cent of the European population identifying as Christian.

Today, according to the last census, just under half of all Kiwis call themselves “Christian”. Split those numbers out into denominations, and Catholics now top the list, followed by the Protestant denominations like Anglican, Presbyterian or Methodist.

Virtually all are on a decline so dramatic it was the inspiration behind a story earlier this year called “Losing our religion“.

But here’s the interesting thing. A group called simply “Protestants” by Statistics New Zealand grew by 26.4 per cent from the previous census in 2006.

A group called “Evangelical, Born Again and Fundamental” grew by 11.2 per cent.

This abnormal growth was the feature of another article in September, and has caught the eye of experts around the world because it bucks the secularisation theory made popular in the 1950s, which predicted that in modern, educated societies devout belief would not survive.

As appears to be happening in America, according to the Pew Research Centre, traditional religion is in sharp decline. Chosen religion (based on conversion) seems to be growing, in countries both modern and modernising.

At the same time secularism’s growth is flattening out.

Why? Well, academics point out that it is largely thanks to birth rates. Those who attend church  more than once a week have on average 2.5 children. Those who attend once a month have on average 2.01 children. Those who do not attend at all have on average 1.67 children.

This holds true across all education levels and economic groups, and the more devout a person is, the less likely their children are to leave the faith. Aside from retention, Pew points out that pentecostal Protestants in America gain 1.2 members through conversion for every convert they lose – while traditional denominations have a net loss.

By the end of the century, according to award winning academic, and University of London Professor Eric Kaufmann, we in the West will face a “crisis of secularism”.

But the change beyond the borders of Western nations like New Zealand will be even more dramatic. In 2015 Pew made headlines around the globe with a study that showed the world is becoming more religious, not less, as we move towards 2050. Muslims and Christians will make up the lion’s share of global community in 30 years’ time.

China and Sub-Saharan Africa are the centres for substantial growth in Christianity. If “one of the world’s leading specialists on religion in China, Purdue University sociologist Fenggang Yang” is to be believed, current conversion rates in China would see two thirds of the population identifying as Christian by 2050.

Between the devoutly religious in modernised countries, and the newly Christianised in modernising countries, Pew predicts atheists, agnostics and religiously unaffiliated people will shrink from 16 percent to 13 percent of the world’s population by 2050.

International trends, as Kaufmann points out, will likely only accelerate the rate of religious growth and social transformation in the West. After all, many secular societies are already maintaining their populations thanks to immigrants, who tend to be religious. “The ‘browning’ of the West,” he writes “is injecting a fresh infusion of religious blood into secular society”.

So it is that the hammer blows which nailed a piece of paper into a door in Germany 500 years ago have not yet finished echoing in New Zealand or the wider world.

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 

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.

 

Dealing with death

September 16, 2017

One week out from a general election, our politicians just can’t seem to stay away from life and death issues.

Last week, it was abortion. This week, National MP Simon O’Connor got himself into hot water over the issue of euthanasia. He criticised the Labour leader for supporting both a zero suicide rate and euthanasia laws.

His boss, Bill English, texted him to tell him he was wrong to link the two, which makes you wonder whether English actually read the report on euthanasia that O’Connor, along with politicians of other stripes, produced recently.

On page 43 the report deals explicitly with the arguments differentiating suicide from euthanasia. The section points out that one of the world’s most important health organisations recognises that it is actually very difficult to do so.

“The World Health Organization acknowledges significant definitional difficulties in its most recent publication on the issue”, we read. “In its 2014 report, “Preventing Suicide: A global imperative”, it defines suicide as the act of deliberately killing oneself.”

That definition describes precisely what New Zealand euthanasia laws will aid people to do.

Our Kiwi report then points out that some try to differentiate between rational and irrational suicide, but again, the experts are not on board. Here’s what youth counsellors and suicide prevention organisations say:

“Suicide is always undertaken in response to some form of suffering, whether that is physical, emotional, or mental. All forms are deliberate and intentional.”

What that means is that suicide, euthanasia and assisted suicide all involve deliberately choosing death as a response to suffering.

And it isn’t just experts pointing out that the difference is difficult to pinpoint. Check out the response from our politicians to O’Connor’s comparison: According to Prime Minister Bill English, “we don’t do that”. According to Labour leader Jacinda Ardern “it’s just wrong”. Even the author of the End of Life Choice bill himself simple said “the two issues could not be further apart”.

In fact ACT’s David Seymour dismissed O’Connor’s claim using the example of suicidal young people, a group we are rightly fighting desperately to save in New Zealand. But in Belgium where euthanasia is legal, a suicidal young woman won the right to euthanasia. Why? Because the courts agree that death is a reasonable and good response to suffering – physical or mental.

The issues are not quite so far apart as Seymour claims.

That is exactly why definitions matter. If international and local experts can’t clearly differentiate euthanasia and suicide, if our politicians are unwilling to enlighten us, then what hope have the rest of us got when we are trying to explain the difference to those suffering mental anguish around us?

The horror of suicide is an all-to-frequent reality in this country, so the question is critical. Besides that, family and friends left in mourning by a suicide, or those supporting the suicidal, have a right to know euthanasia laws will not mix our messages on the value of living through suffering.

If our fight against suicide is to be effective we simply must be able to explain why some physical suffering justifies death while the mental torture that is severe depression, or bipolar, or schizophrenia, does not. Don’t all involve horrendous, prolonged mental or physical pain? Don’t all involve loss of dignity at certain points? Don’t all involve loss of quality of life? Don’t all involve a shortened life expectancy?

When compassion means allowing some to choose death to relieve suffering, how can it also mean convincing others to live through it?

If we cannot answer these questions, then surely, we have to face the fact that what we are fighting with one hand, we are feeding with the other.

This article was first published on Stuff.co.nz

 

Making a choice

September 9, 2017

I would like to make a deal with the leader of the Labour Party.

I will vote for you, Jacinda Ardern, if you can convince me that decriminalising abortion will not take the lives of a more living human beings.

I don’t want to believe it does, after all. The implications for many women I know and love are, if abortion takes an innocent human life, almost unutterable. But the implications are worse for the child, and that’s why it is important I know, absolutely, before I can vote for you.

From my years of reading about this issue one thing sticks out: those who support abortion argue about women’s rights and protection. Those who oppose abortion do so because they say it ends the life of a living human being.

That second claim seems to me to be rather astonishing. Women have rights and need protecting, of course. But if the thing inside our womb is also a living human being, then it too has rights and needs protecting, and I don’t think anyone would argue with that.

The question then, that I absolutely MUST answer, is whether the thing produced by the combining of an egg and a sperm, and which spends nine months growing inside a woman’s womb, is in fact, a living human being.

Some tell me it is just an embryo, or a foetus. However, this doesn’t describe what species something belongs to. It simply describes a stage of growth. So if two human beings reproduce, it logically follows that they produce a human embryo or foetus. As the pro-life atheist Christopher Hitchens says, as a member of the human species, it then ought to have all the rights, including the right to life, that the rest of us enjoy.

Others have told me the thing is just part of a woman’s body. But the thing has its own unique DNA, quite different to the DNA replicated identically inside every other cell belonging to the individual we call its mother. In other words, it has its own individual biological identity. And that makes sense to me, because we know that a woman does not go on to give birth to a bit of her own body, but rather to another individual, nine months later. We also know that a woman cannot have an abortion unless she is pregnant; the same state by which she produces another individual.

But is this individual human alive? Well, if it isn’t alive, why do we need to have an abortion? We have abortions because that thing inside us is growing from the moment of conception, and growth is one of the signs of life, according to my 6th form biology class. Age, viability, or any other philosophical or biological measure by which we attempt to claim something is alive only leads to horrible ethical conundrums. For example, if the ability to survive outside the womb alone determines whether you are alive or not, then young children, the very old, and the disabled, are not alive and we may do as we please with them.

Some say the fact another living human being is involved doesn’t matter: That women simply need protecting from the way things used to be. But we don’t live in a society that looks anything like it did when abortion was illegal. Besides, who says that the rights and protections of a mother and her child are mutually exclusive?

You talked about choice on Monday night, Ardern. But if abortion involves ending the lives of human being, I can’t vote for you.

Like the child, I would have no choice.

This article was first published on Stuff.co.nz

 

 

 

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