Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Let's Talk Climate

On Monday the countries of the world will gather in Durban to discuss climate change.  The 17th Conference of the Parties (COP17) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the 7th Session of the Conference of the Parties serving as the Meeting of the Parties (CMP7) to the Kyoto Protocol will take place from November 28 to December 9.  The climate talks will bring together world governments, international organizations and members of civil society.  It is expected that about 15,000 delegates, observers and journalists will attend the conference, with the city welcoming as many as 40,000 visitors.

Already, Durban is beginning to resemble Toronto during the G20 Summit.  High fences have been erected around the International Convention Centre and a large portion of the city centre has been cornered off for the event.  Our daily bus ride to work has doubled in time and the police force appears to have multiplied overnight.

With Kyoto set to expire at the end of next year, all eyes are on Durban to contemplate a new binding agreement to replace it.  However, all signs point to failure.  With the refusal of key countries such as the United States, Russia, Japan and Canada  to sign on to a legally binding deal, the UN talks face the danger of collapse. 

The International Energy Agency warned in its annual World Energy Outlook that if the world continues building greenhouse-gas-emitting factories and vehicles at the current pace for just the next five years, it ‘‘will lead to irreversible and potentially catastrophic climate change.’’

The Globe and Mail reported,

At Durban, once again, Canada will be excluded from any serious deliberations. Canada is widely considered a climate-change miscreant. Nobody who knows the climate-change file in Canada or abroad believes the federal government’s intention to reduce emissions by 17 per cent by 2020 from 2005 levels.

So Canada’s delegates will try to keep the lowest possible profile in Durban, while the government’s spin machine will be in high gear talking up a target no one believes will be achieved, and fighting off complaints about this country’s poor record by pointing fingers at others.

In an interview with The Globe and Mail, the South African high commissioner to Canada Mohau Pheko criticized the Canadian position in an unusually harsh way, stating, "Are you going to follow the United States, are you also going to become a serial non-ratifier of any agreements?"

Environment Minister Peter Kent has made it clear, however, that "however acute the international pressure, we will not agree to taking on a second commitment-period target under the Kyoto Protocol."

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Saturday, 19 November 2011


"I remember the first man to the
moon, when he set his foot on
the moon, he said this is a little
step forward for mankind. I ask
myself, is my child and
grandchildren mankind?"

- Lilian Ngoyi

This past weekend we visited the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg.   The museum was a sombre reminder of the darkest days of the Apartheid era.  It is a chilling illustration of the rise and fall of the policy of segregation and oppression from 1948 to 1994 in South Arica.  As the brochure explains, “The basic principle behind apartheid was simple – segregate everything.  Cut a clean line through a nation to divide black from white and keep them divided.”  The museum is also a stark reminder of the struggle for liberation and the triumph of the human spirit in the face of adversity.  From the very beginning, our admission tickets divided us into “white” and “non-white” and instructed us to use our allotted gate to enter to the museum.  I cannot express the overwhelming sense of discomfort and distress I felt going through the exhibits. 

Feeling very uncomfortable at the entrance of the museum

Classification and segregation

131 nooses representing 131 government
opponents executed under antiterrorism laws

So you can imagine my reaction when I came across the following headline on Thursday morning:  TDSB Votes in Favour of Africentric Secondary School

The Globe and Mail article that day summarized the issue as follows:

There are approximately 30,000 students of African heritage in the board’s schools, and as many as 40 per cent of them drop out.
“To not support an Africentric secondary school would be discrimination against the Africentric community,” said trustee Maria Rodrigues, shortly before the vote.
Trustee Gerri Gershon voted against the high school. “I can’t in good conscience support a school where kids are separated from one another,” she said.

The CBC reported:

Toronto District School Board trustees on Wednesday approved the city's second Africentric school, this time for high school students.
Cheers erupted in the packed public gallery after the controversial motion for the high school for black students passed 14-6.

Maybe it is because of where I am.  And maybe it is because of everything I have been learning here so far.  And maybe I am not even the right person to say this.  But it seems to me that dividing people into separate institutions based on the colour of their skin is never a good idea, even if it is done by choice and not by force.  It seems to me that in the long run the implications of an action like that are futile.

I understand that the Toronto District School Board is trying to address the appallingly high dropout rate within the African community in Toronto.  However, it seems to me there are better ways to work through the public school system than to racially segregate children within it.
For over five years, I have worked and volunteered for an organization called Law in Action Within Schools (LAWS), which is a partnership between the University of Toronto Faculty of Law and the Toronto District School Board.  The aim of the program is to use legal education as a tool to empower high school youth and to motivate them to become engaged and active members of our society.  Its mandate is to provide “at-risk” youth in inner-city schools with the opportunity to learn about the legal system and explore possible legal careers.  At its core, the program’s objective is to enhance the high school experience, promote legal education and reduce high school dropout rates.  Through LAWS I have worked with high school students as an educator, tutor, mentor and a friend and I have seen the tremendous impact a positive role-model makes in someone’s life.  I have seen the power of inspiring youth by showing them that anything is possible as long as you are willing to work hard for it.  

Maybe instead of perpetuating a system that history has already shunned - South Africa being the obvious example - we should be coming up with new and innovative ways to address issues of inequality and disparity.  We should empower our youth within the marvelously diverse and multicultural city that Toronto is, and not apart from it. We should look to the future and not to the past.  Just a thought...
Durban beachfront 1989

Thursday, 17 November 2011

A World of Difference

Last week I received an e-mail from my friend Melissa that I was extremely touched by and I really want to share with everyone:

Hellloooo Ellie,

Here is a nice story that might warm your heart. So over the weekend I was thinking how lucky I am to have all the nice things I have. Then I was thinking how you were talking to me about the living circumstances for some of the people you work with. Then I was thinking how sometimes I don't even think twice to spend like 50 bucks on nothing and how Canada allows me to have such a great education and opportunities. So now after this reflection I have a sponsor child named Nasiba in Ghana......she is 9 years old and aspires to be a nurse. I have already written her a letter and am awaiting the package on her. I feel quite good about this. I bought a frame to put her picture in on my desk just to know that although I can't save the world I am not turning a blind eye to the world and am truly making at least a small difference in one persons life. One day after years of sponsoring her I might take the opportunity to meet her. Maybe she really can become a nurse one day.


Nasiba Iddrisu is in grade 1, her favorite subjects are English and mathematics. She loves playing ampe (a local game).  Her chores at home involve washing dishes.

She lives with her mom, dad and brother. Her parents are both farmers.

Nasiba's family is of Muslim faith and speaks Dagbani language. They live in traditional round huts that are built from mud and thatched roofs. Water is carried from a dam 100 meters from their home. The child's parents work hard as farmers and grow crops mainly for their own consumption, but some must also be traded or sold to meet their basic needs. Due to persistent drought and poor soil conditions, their yearly crop yield seldom sustains them. Malaria is a serious concern in this area. The closest health center is 200 meters away. The community needs safe drinking water. Nasiba would like to become a nurse when she grows up.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Top of the World

This past weekend Ali and I finally went to the Drakensberg Mountains.  Our exhilarating and daring hike took us to the top of the world’s second tallest waterfall, while at times challenging us both physically and mentally…  

But before I continue, I think you should get a short lesson on the Drakensbergs!

Here is some background information:

The Drakensberg (Afrikaans for ‘the Dragon Mountain’) mountains of South Africa or uKhahlamba  (Zulu for ‘the Barrier of Spears’) is a 200-kilometre-long mountainous wonderland and world heritage site. It is the highest mountain range in Southern Africa, rising to 3,482 metres (11,424 ft) in height.  The largest proportion of the Drakensberg area falls in the province of KwaZulu-Natal.

The Drakensberg Mountains, with their awe-inspiring basalt cliffs, snowcapped in winter, tower over riverine bush, lush yellowwood forests and cascading waterfalls, form a massive barrier separating KwaZulu-Natal from the Kingdom of Lesotho

Combining sheer natural beauty with a wealth of biological diversity, this mountainous region has been preserved and venerated for eons since the San people or bushmen roamed these slopes. Tens of thousands of paintings depicting their daily life can be found on the rock faces.  In December 2000, the park received international recognition and was declared KwaZulu-Natal's second World Heritage Site.

The Amphitheatre, part of the Royal Natal National Park, is one of the spectacular geographical features of the Northern  Drakensberg and is widely regarded as one of the most impressive cliff faces on earth.   It is over 5 km in length and has precipitous cliffs rising approximately 1220 metres (4000 ft) along its entire length (the summit being over 3050 metres (10000 ft) above sea level).  Tugela Falls, the world's second tallest waterfall, plunges over 948 metres (3110 ft) from the Amphitheatre's cliff tops.

Our adventure:

We woke up early on Saturday morning.  And when I say early, I mean early by Durban standards – so 4:30am.  It was already getting light outside with the sunrise just minutes away.  We packed our small Hyundai Atos and were on our way.

The drive to the Sentinel Peak car-park took us almost 5 hours.  Along the way the beautiful scenery was ever changing and demonstrated the remarkable diversity of South Africa’s natural landscape.  As we left the ocean and drove into the country-side, we passed through periods of rain and thick fog, which put some doubt into our hopes to climb to the top of Sentinel Peak.  However, as we approached the Northern Drakensbergs, the sky began to clear and the sun came out.

On our way, we also passed through some very poor areas, which were a stark reminder of the way many Africans live outside the big urban centres.

As our tiny Atos began its ascent to the Sentinel Peak car-park, it very quickly became evident to both Ali and I that we completely had the wrong car for this type of drive.  The road trekking up the mountain was a dirt road with many massive rocks along it (likely caused by erosion).  Our Atos’ tiny wheels really struggled, though Ali did an amazing job staying calm and pushing our car to its limit.  I must admit I was quite nervous, though Ali seemed to be enjoying it.

As we ascended further towards Sentinel Peak the breathtaking beauty of the area was quickly revealed to us.  When we finally reached the car-park and registered with security at the entrance of the path, we put on our day-packs and prepared to embark on our 12 kilometre hike to the top of the world.

The weather was absolutely perfect.  There was not a cloud in the sky.  With every step up the mountain we felt a certain sense of wonder, humility and appreciation for being so lucky as to witness this spectacular vista.

There were times when the path became so narrow that I could not help but look at the deep fall below.

I had heard rumors about the impending chain ladders that marked the last and the most strenuous part of the path, but I put it out of my mind for the time being. 

When we finally arrived at the bottom of the first ladder I was speechless.  The chain ladder, approximately 40 metres in height, was hanging vertically along the cliff-face of the peak.  There was a group of people at the bottom waiting for their turn to climb as well as a group of people too freaked out to climb – including one lady who had to have a cigarette to calm her nerves.

At this point I was determined to make it to the top!  I had gotten this far and I wasn’t going back.  Though there was an alternative route to the top, which was longer and more physically challenging, I had made up my mind!!!

So Ali and I had some peanuts, almonds and raisins at the bottom for a quick burst of energy and I quickly got on the ladder!

I must admit there were times along the way when I had to talk to myself to calm myself down: “Keep calm!” “Keep climbing!” “One foot at a time!” “Do not look down!” “Keep going!” “You are almost there!”  I could hear Ali encouraging me and telling me I’m doing great, which gave me a bit of confidence.

Once I got to the top of the first ladder I realized that it wasn’t nearly as bad as I had anticipated.  It was not time to celebrate yet though, as the second ladder, approximately 20 metres in height, was now before us.  Before I could think twice I began going up the second ladder.

Once I made it to the top I felt an amazing sense of self-accomplishment!  As the adrenaline was rushing I could not help but feel extremely proud of having pushed myself to the limit – physically, mentally and emotionally!  It was exhilarating!

From the top of the peak, we had about a kilometre and a half walk along flat surface to the top of Tugela Falls.  The weather here was cooler and the wind was a bit stronger. 

I must admit Tugela Falls itself was a bit disappointing.  Though at the top it formed a few whirlpools of water, the amount of water falling over the cliff was miniscule.

In either case, Ali and I had lunch at the edge of the falls and enjoyed the sunshine among few other hikers who had successfully made it to the top.

It was now time to head back and I must say I was a bit nervous about the ladders.  I had been warned the descent can be much scarier as you often have to look down in order to find your step.  There are spots where the ladder twists and trying to feel your way down with your feet is difficult and time-consuming.

Ali coming down the ladder

Not to brag or anything, but I did not find the way down to be nearly as nerve-wrecking.  I was able to look down and even enjoy the view!  The only challenging part was the fact that wind had picked up in speed.  At times I had to stay still holding on to the ladder waiting for it to calm down a bit.

Ali and I even did a mini-photoshoot!

I feel like I have not used enough praise to describe how I felt about our hike so here I go:  spectacular, breathtaking, extraordinary, stunning, amazing, beautiful, incredible, magnificent.  What a sense of self-accomplishment and personal gratification!!!

On Saturday night we stayed at the Amphitheatre Backpackers and Hostel.  It was a really cool place, and I think “cool” is definitely the right place to describe it.  The people there were very interesting and from all over the world.  We met a man who was originally from France, but was residing on an island off of Mauritius, who had traveled to over 60 countries.  I hope that is me one day!

Amphitheatre Backpackers

The following day we headed back to the Royal Natal for some more hiking.  The drive into the park was fascinating as we passed through some of the rural areas.  We got a small glimpse into how people live and what their everyday life is like.

We decided to hike to Tiger Falls, which was about a two and a half hour hike, consisting of a steady climb and a steep descent.  Thankfully we didn’t do it the other way around or we would have struggled.

We saw Tiger Falls as well as the Cascades and the scenery was absolutely spectacular! 

Ali cooling off underneath Tiger Falls

The Cascades

We also did a short hike to the Bushmen paintings, which was really interesting as well.  As the paintings are protected you are only allowed to go with a guide.

Our guide Elijah showing us the paintings

On the way home Ali and I agreed that I should practice my standard driving skills.  What standard driving skills you ask?  Well I had received a short lesson from Ali the night before, which I must brag was not a complete disaster.  So I managed to drive half of the way back to Durban.  Of course there were a couple (ok quite a few) embarrassing incidents where I stalled the car, could not get going, completely screeched the brakes, or just gave up and let Ali change the gears, but over all Ali says I did very well, and I am choosing to believe her!  Keep in mind that I was not only driving standard for the first time but also driving on the wrong (or as they like to call it here “left”) side of the road!  Yup, I’m talented like that!