Why Do Our Boys Die?

A little quiz for you:

What do you think is the highest cause of death amongst young men in the UK?

Murder? No, too extreme. Drugs? Hmm, maybe not. Car crashes – everyone knows boys drive like lunatics? No.

Did you guess suicide? Then, sadly, you were wrong. The biggest cause of death amongst young men in the UK is themselves.

I would like to say that I have never met anyone that had tried to kill themselves, but that is not true. Several people in my life have tried. One did die, and his girlfriend found his body in their shared house. I wondered at the time whether he could see all of the sadness and love for him that was shared by those who were still alive and whether, if he could have seen it beforehand, he would have taken a different path.

Although there are many reasons why people attempt to kill themselves with men, especially those entering their ‘adult’ life, I think there are several reasons and having heard the founder of CALM (the Campaign Against Living Miserably, a charity aimed at men) speak on the subject I think I might be, for some cases at least, correct.

No matter what your feelings or beliefs on the subject, and whether it is correct or not, human societies have since our days as apes, given certain roles to certain parts of society. Generally although not always this has given men the roles of protector, provider of high-value goods, and the stable emotional influence, and there was a set point in a boy’s life where he transferred to this role from that of a child and was mentored in the process.

In our modern society things are much more tricky. There are fights which cannot be won by force or cunning. There are jobs where being strong has no part. There are women who earn more than they do and manage to hold the household together too. (I have a very good example of this one: my husband once received a pay rise from his (quite old-fashioned) boss because he told him that he couldn’t earn less than his wife.) Many people I know say that seeing a grown man cry is one of the saddest things they can think of simply because it is something that ‘shouldn’t happen’.

In amongst all of this, there are fewer jobs generally and men can feel, to put it simply, pointless. Yet I wondered whether my friend could see the sadness left behind. The worry, shock and horror amongst those that knew him.

Very few people actually want to kill themselves. They simply feel that they are worthless. Hopeless. Pointless. They can’t hear the birds singing, or feel the sunshine warming their skin, or see the beauty in the landscapes around them. They just want whatever pain they are in to go away. Meanwhile those left behind wonder why, how, what and when something went wrong, and to bear the survivor guilt of those who don’t understand.

I don’t know whether there is a solution to this problem, but for me there is something I do every day to try to make it better: I tell my friends and family that I love them and need them. What do you do?

Update: 13 March 2014

BBC has this article as a new awareness campaign is launched.

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Migration & Misery

A while ago I watched a documentary about migrants from Central America trying to cross into the United States, and about the gangs that traffic them, and the dangers which they face on their journey.

I was reminded of these dangers, and the deadly desert landscapes through which the immigrants travel, at work recently. Working in tourism I talk to agents for all sorts of hotels and services in Latin America, and I was being presented a rather smart hotel, by a very well-presented Englishwoman, with a beautiful jacket and sharp haircut when she started talking about her recent visit to Guatemala.

On her visit to a specific hotel she had got talking with the local, Guatemalan manager – a lady with a two-year-old daughter who lives at the hotel five days a week, and only goes home to see her child on weekends. During their conversation the agent had asked the manager,

“What about your husband? Do you see him on the weekends?”

“No. He is in the US. Working. He left recently.”

So the agent asked her, making idle conversation,

“When did he leave? Which airport is the best from Guatemala to the US?”

“Oh no,” replied the manager, “he didn’t fly in. We paid a coyote to take him across.”

When the agent told me this story, and how the manager’s husband had managed to contact her after weeks of travel to tell her that he had made it safely across into the USA because he had been drinking from a puddle away from the main group when they had been caught, I was shocked.

This is a senior employee, of an internationally-recognised luxury hotel company, in essence saying that she is paid so little that her husband is willing to risk separation, all of their savings, and possibly even death simply to make a better life for his family and the daughter he might not see again for years to come.

Sadly, I know that there are many migrants who make this trek, and recent news that around 11 million illegal immigrants into the USA may be granted an amnesty is, for me, positive news. However, there are many people who, like some of my colleagues, who seemed to be unmoved by the stories of these migrants, and either deliberately or unconsciously ignore the desperation so evidently present in the people who decide to undertake this dangerous journey and others like it.

Not only this, but it raises concerns for me personally about the ethics of paying to stay in a hotel where the management, let alone the general staff, feel such a dire need to improve their circumstances. Next time you stay in a hotel, or you buy something in a market, or you ask a taxi-driver to take you to your hotel, think a little about how much in real local terms they are paid, and maybe don’t bother trying to save those few cents you were going to haggle off the cost. It might make the difference to a family about to be driven apart.


Update: I found this article today – interesting views from those literally on the ground.

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The wrong kind of Islam

Timbuktu has a special place in the hearts of many travellers and historians alike. Evocative of deserts, massive adobe walls, and Tuareg camel trains the name is instilled into our psyche from childhood – “Head to Timbuktu, travel, see the world.” – ask on any travel-related forum what location people want to visit simply because of the name and Timbuktu is always on the list.

However, this beautiful and fascinating city is being torn to shreds. After a Tuareg uprising in May this year, hordes of Islamist militants have poured into the region from the North, Libya via Algeria, armed with plentiful weaponry. These groups quickly overthrew the semblance of any Tuareg independence and imposed their own Islamist rule.

Timbuktu has earned its place in history books by being, in essence, a muslim place of pilgrimage and education. In the 15th century scholars here were writing about their religion, studying, and producing such a wealth of manuscripts that the ex-President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, was persuaded to set up a library specifically to house and document them.

But Timbuktu has the wrong kind of Islam. Many of the shrines and details are Sufi, a branch within Islam that promotes oneness with Allah through reducing the ego (nufs) and returning to the humans’ original state of fitra (the word from the Qur’an describing the natural wish and tendency to worship one god, and encompassing so many deeper meanings that it would require a lifetime of study to comprehend).

Originally a reaction to the growing materiality of the muslim Caliphates of the 7th century, in some ways similar to the Cathar heresies that spooked the Christians, this branch of Islam is now seen as dangerous, innovative and potentially shirk (idolatry/polytheism – the most undesirable state possible for muslims and which provokes fear, hatred and disgust) by many muslims due to the influence of Indian mysticism and Hindu ideology within a small but significant branch of the sect.*

There is much more to it than this, and I do not want to enter the rampant religious debate over the pros and cons of Sufism, Sunni or Shia thought, however this basic presumption that Sufism is shirk and un-Islamic has created a tragedy.

The Islamists (not the Tuareg) in Timbuktu are methodically destroying much of the historic and beautiful architecture of the city. The celebrated shrines, mosques, parchments and artworks that are housed in the UNESCO-listed “Oxford of Africa” are being turned to dust because they are un-Islamic and thus must be destroyed.

This is a tragedy. Not only for the people whose lives, homes and places of worship are being torn to shreds, but for the whole of humanity and the wider world. The amazing historical record of a highly advanced, Islamic, African, desert society is being erased forever.

The tourism potential for this impoverished country, abandoned by lucrative traders due to faster and easier shipping and aviation, was huge. Despite being a difficult and sometimes dangerous country to travel through many people from outside have travelled there over time to witness these wonders, thus contributing to the economy and the livelihood of the people who live there. This attraction is now dead. Gone. Returned to desert sand.

I can understand the thoughts behind the destruction – nothing is as powerful as strong religious belief and the wish to please your god and attain heaven (jannah). However, in doing so, and in wreaking havoc within the community, driving away all with the means or ability to leave, these Islamists have forgotten one thing.

You cannot live on belief alone.

When they are finished what will draw people, money and trade to the city? With the trading camel-trains long vanished into the sands, the buds of a lucrative tourism trade are withering and may disappear entirely.


*It is interesting to note that I have spoken to muslim friends in Britain who state that there is a growing ‘pressure’ amongst young, British muslims to follow Sufism, and many I have spoken to would state that they agree with at least some aspects of Sufi thought.

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To inform, educate and entertain

This year’s Reith Lectures – Excellent, informative and interesting insight into possibilities for the economic performance and prospects of the world.

You can also view transcripts of last year’s Lectures by Aung San Suu Kyi and Eliza Manningham-Buller on Liberty and Terror, and all of the yearly lecture series back to 1948.

If you have never heard them, I highly advise you give to them a listen.

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Welfare reforms

Our Prime Minister David Cameron today complained in an interview about the cost of Housing Benefit for under twenty-fives. This is a subject I feel very strongly about, and I feel myself quite qualified to talk on this issue due to personal experience.

Having just left university age twenty-one in order to take up a 37-hour per week job at £6.98 per hour I was renting a flat with my boyfriend, who was himself working over 45 hours per week on minimum wage. This continued for three months, then my boyfriend was unexpectedly offered a university place. With one week’s notice until the start of term. To take this up, he reduced his hours to sixteen per week. This is more than the recommended maximum of ten hours per week for full-time university students. He applied for a student loan to replace his income somewhat, but this being at the start of the year, he did not recieve it immediately. In fact, he did not receive it until May the following year thanks to a major mistake in processing the application.

This left us with outgoings of £625 per month rent, £200 per month transport costs for my boyfriend to be able to attend university, plus food costs of around £175 per month and bills. And an income of £950 per month after tax. We had no money left at the end of the month at all, and bearing in mind that neither of us smokes, we didn’t buy any alcohol, and barely ate any meat during this time, I was left worrying about the extra 30p on the cost of a slightly-nicer loaf of bread.

I investigated Housing Benefit, as I was pretty sure that we were within the weekly limit and allowance for the local area, and was awarded nearly £100 per week in Housing Benefit for two people in a one bedroom flat. I was working full-time hours, and my husband was studying full-time and still working part-time. And the government was in effect forced to pay back our tax every month. I worked out the maths, and the amount we were receiving was almost exactly equal to our tax bill.

Without these payments I would have had to quit my job, move half-way across the country and back in with my parents. My boyfriend would have had to turn down the opportunity of studying for an LLB, and would in effect have been homeless as he could not, due to family circumstances, return to live with his. We would have both become more of a burden on society as we would have been forced to sign on for Jobseekers’ Allowance and potentially have not found any work.

Three years later, this situation has reared its ugly head again. I returned to full-time study, and we moved into London to be nearer to my boyfriend’s (now husband’s) university. I finished my final exams three weeks ago, and the cost of us renting a room 4m x 3.5m in a shared flat with four other people and no other private space is £525 per month not including electricity, gas or food bills. Whilst he still receives a student loan, I have to find work. And fast. We have reached the point where we have two months of rent in the bank, then we will be forced to leave if I can’t find a job . . . either that, or I will have to re-apply for Housing Benefit.

It takes a huge loss of pride to admit defeat and to go through the humiliating process of having your bank details and your spending habits examined and your landlord contacted in order to receive a little money per week in order to be able to continue living. Whilst there may be people who routinely apply, and who make a mockery of the benefits system, many people will wait until almost the last second before they finally give in, swallow their pride, and humiliate themselves in this way. They wait until they can no longer afford to eat. They run up huge debts in order to pay the rent rather than rely on the taxes that they pay in.

There may be a need to look at the benefits bill, and the Government must reduce spending. However, when the amount paid by a full-time earner in tax is immediately returned to them to subsidise their housing there is a larger problem than just the number of claimants or their ages. When £500 per month pays for only one room in a shared flat, is there any wonder that people need help? The cost of housing has skyrocketed over recent decades, and not simply due to lack of availability – rent for a single room in a flatshare in London went up over 16% in some cases this year due to the Olympics – and the cost of living has increased hugely whilst wages have remained static.

I am optimistic that I will find work, and I am very actively looking for a position. Even when I have a wage, as a married woman in my mid-twenties in full-time employment it would be nice to be able to afford some space of my own. However, I will not re-apply for benefits even if that means remaining in a shared flat with no personal space and putting up with other peoples’ disgusting habits. I have too much personal pride and, like many who have to resort to Housing Benefit to pay their way, I would like to think that with full-time work and a husband I can finally begin to act like an adult and pay my own way without relying on either my parents or the Government.

Aside: There are already limits for the under twenty-fives. You cannot receive Tax Credits under this age. And anyone under the age of thirty is expected to live in a flat-share unless they are married or have children. The limits for Housing Benefit in the UK reflect this, and a single person under thirty will be paid no more than the local cost of renting a single room with shared facilities, whilst a single person between twenty-five and thirty will be entitled to Housing Benefit and Tax Credits, the same person under the age of twenty-five will only receive Housing Benefit, even if their living and work situation is identical.

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Egypt: Women, Work and Waiting for Change

The turn-out in Egypt’s recent elections set a new standard. Compared to previous, single-figure turn-outs some 70% of the population, both male and female, turned out to choose their new President. Maybe it is not so surprising, then, that the results gave a choice between the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Mursi, under the banner of their political front the Freedom and Justice Party, and an old hand and ex-Prime Minister, Ahmed Shafiq.

While these two choices may seem worlds apart, the one thing that unites them, and evidently unites the Egyptian people who have to choose between them, is the stated need for change. The need to move on, create jobs and employment, and give more freedom to the populace.

In an interesting lecture published recently on TED, Dalia Mogahed, an Egyptian-born, American Muslim pollster and analyst, talks about the attitudes in Egypt, and the surrounding countries, which fueled the Arab Spring. She also highlighted something very important bearing in mind the current Western views on Muslim women as potentially marginalised, told not to work or go out, and forbidden from receiving an education due to the supposed backward views for their men-folk.

Whilst it may be true than in some countries there are major issues relating to equality of the sexes, what Dalia highlighted is that this does not correlate with religion. Or even with religious sects. It correlates with the level of education of men, how secure the men’s jobs are, and the unemployment rate. In countries with low unemployment, Muslim men are happy for their women to go out to work, secure in the knowledge that they are still the providers, and it is mostly seen as appropriate. When the men feel their jobs, and therefore their role as providers, to be under threat, they are more conservative, and I suspect that these views are not limited to Muslim populations. It would be interesting to carry out a similar survey in the Western world affected by the current recession.

If, as hoped, the new Egyptian president can supply jobs and reduce male unemployment, the women of Egypt may yet set the trend, and an example and inspiration for their neighbours and Muslim women around the world. What Egypt wants and needs is stability, education and employment, whether that is through religious or secular leadership. Hopefully it will receive all three.

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Sri Lanka’s ‘criminal’ general

On Friday, in a Sri Lankan court room, the ex-head of the Sri Lankan army, Sarath Fonseka, was sentenced to three years in prison. His crime: alleging that his own forces committed atrocities during the conflict with Tamil fighters.

Anyone that watched Channel 4’s airing of footage, supposedly shot during the last weeks of the fighting, that shows refugees shot, field hospitals including those run by the International Red Cross targeted by rocket fire, and thousands of refugees herded onto a sand-spit with no fresh water or shelter, will have been horrified by the actions supposedly committed by the Sri Lankan army.

However, the allegations of the former commander centred on an episode where Tamil rebels, wishing to surrender, were given instructions by the army to advance, slowly, with a white flag held over their heads. Several of the group were shot. Allegedly by the armed forces.

The simple fact the the head of those armed forces was the one person within government to air these views should, by itself, warrant an investigation. The head of a victorious army is not likely to shun his own troops without significant reason, and a UN panel of experts stated in a report earlier this year that these allegations were “credible”.

However, the Sri Lankan government, headed by President Mahinda has always denied the charges, and the judgement comes after Mr Fonseka argued with the President and his brother, the Defence Secretary, after a newspaper published an article in which Mr Fonseka said that the Defence Secretary had given an order that none of the rebels should be taken alive. Mr Fonseka has stated that he was misquoted.

Mr Fonseka is also serving a thirty-month sentence for running for a political position while still a soldier, and has been stripped of his rank and medals. However, his wife, a senior member of the Sri Lankan opposition, says that there is still hope: The three-judge bench reached a split verdict, and one judge dissented from the government view.

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“An August child knows nothing but stress” – A prespective from an August child.

Institute for Fiscal Studies data shows that August-born children in the UK do less well at school, may do less well at university (or are generally less likely to get there), and that this follows through their lives.

I was born in August, and started school at the age of 4 years 3 weeks. However, I don’t think my age was ever actually an issue within my year at school. I was in the higher streams in primary school, was confident, and pretty happy. Time for some self-analysis:

When I think back there were several things that my TEACHERS were sure I wasn’t good at. I distinctly remember an occasion (age 7) where my teacher was shocked at my skills at ‘reading out loud’. So much so that she asked me to read to the whole class!

I remember being told that I couldn’t read the higher stream books in the reading case (age 8), but never being given a reason. This was at a time when I was devouring much more difficult books at home (Sherlock Holmes, Greek myths and H.G. Wells), and had made my way through the entire children’s section at the local library.

Then, age 10, I was apparently one of the three people in my class not good enough at sport to compete in a local competition. What my teacher didn’t know was that I was part of a local athletics club, and was competing for them in regional and national competitions! The three of us were left all alone in our classroom for three days, while the rest went off to take part in the competitions.

This trend continued throughout my time at comprehensive too, where I was told by my English teacher that I “should not have read” the Hobbit (age 13) or To Kill a Mocking Bird (age 14) yet, because “we will do it next year”, and my personal best at 100m (timed at the athletics club) was greeted with disbelief by my P.E. teacher, who told me it must be wrong.

I was told by another P.E. teacher that, despite the fact that I enjoyed badminton and turned up for extra coaching, there was no way I could compete in the local tournament. Again with no explanation.

However, I also remember being taken to one side at a parent’s evening and being shown a graph of our CAT (Cognitive Abilities Test – taken age 11) scores where I scored the highest in my year, and being asked by my teacher, “Why, if you score so high, do you have such low self-belief?”

Did this leave me feeling inadequate? Will it affect my prospects in the future? Has it given me a ‘complex’ that I can’t succeed?

I’m not sure. I think I am a confident, smart individual.

I still think I am no good at sport, and refuse to run any more, though I am quite fit.

Maybe it has affected me. Once I finally finish university, having given up my first degree, I shall find out.

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Rock Art and Land Mines

The BBC World Service today published an article and interview with Sada Mire, Somali archaeologist now based in London.

Affiliated to the School of Oriental and African Studies and University College London, the 35 year old is also director of the Department of Tourism and Archaeology of Somaliland, a breakaway region of northern Somalia.

Her recent discoveries shed an amazing light on the history of the Horn of Africa: multi-coloured rock art in pink, green, and white; burial cairns; standing stones; even Chinese pottery have all been unearthed by her and her determined team.

In an area where current culture is handed down by word of mouth, in a nomadic and mobile community there is little material culture to back it up, and the process of seeking it can be dangerous – her team brave not only poisonous snakes and desert heat, but also land mines and well-armed bandits in pursuit of the documenting of her country’s cultural heritage.

The study of archaeology, wherever it takes place, relies upon the surviving remains of peoples’ lives: broken pots, fireplaces, art, buildings, even holes in the ground for tent-poles can help to build a picture of a people’s cultural heritage, and the known history of Somalia is complicated enough, with invasions from Arabia and various colonial powers, and conversions to first Christianity then Islam.

As a former student of archaeology I sincerely hope that Sada will be able to continue her work in safety, and that the information and artefacts she uncovers may be safeguarded and studied, and that other people will be encouraged by the BBC coverage to offer assistance via the Horn Heritage charity which Sada has founded.

More information on the work can be found at: Somali Heritage and Archaeology, Horn Heritage and BBC News.

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Coca and Cocaine in Peru

President Ollanta Humala of Peru has declared today that his government is to temporarily suspend its coca-eradication program after reportedly reaching only 2/5 of its eradication quota for 2011.

Coca is grown in Peru and is used traditionally as a mild stimulant – the dried leaves are chewed or made into tea, which is commercially available and is reputedly a good cure for altitude sickness and toothache (it numbs the mouth when chewed).

However, in recent years Peru’s crop has grown to enormous proportions as more and more drugs suppliers are using the area for cocaine production, having been driven out of areas of Mexico and Columbia.

Peru’s coca ‘capital’ region is inaccessible and far from the country’s capital Lima, and twelve years of eradication has had little effect, with the country being the second largest producer after Colombia.

Nearby Bolivia has legalized the growing of coca for traditional purposes, though still has an eradication program for crops deemed to be for the drugs trade.

The program, which receives US funding, has been temporarily suspended to allow the new president to re-shuffle his cabinet and drugs policy team, and the government is stated as saying that a new approach with a basis in alternative development and social inclusion would be taken.

Peru’s seizures of cocaine under President Ollanta’s predecessor Alan Garcia were less than 1/10 of those carried out in Colombia over the same period, despite the similarity on production rates. It can be hoped that the suspension will give the new President time to come up with a more successful and targeted regime.

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