On Friday I watched The Redemption of General Butt Naked on UK Channel 4, a moving and disturbing film about one of Liberia’s most notorious war criminals.

During the civil war of the early 1990’s the Butt Naked brigade were among the most feared. Children and young men, running and dancing through the streets, unafraid of bullets or knives, and all whilst utterly stark naked – a disturbing concept just to imagine, but this was reality.

But then the General, Mr Joshua Milton Blahyi, disappeared, only to reappear years later in the guise of a preacher. The film shows him as a general, as a preacher, and as a father.

I do not want to judge whether his actions show genuine remorse, or simply a knowledge that preaching is another way of holding power over your people. However, I hope that his remorse and willingness to admit his crimes is genuine, and that it may help to bring a shattered country slowly back to hope.

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Moving on out – Castro’s changing Cuba

President Raul Castro is an interesting man. Some may say enlightened.

During the last decades Communist states the world over have been experiencing a collective identity crisis. China has the “Great Capitalist Experiment”, meaning that they have become one of the greatest export economies in the world whilst still assuming the guise of a communist state. North Korea has gone in the opposite direction, and has cut itself off from the world at large, retreating behind its verdant green jungle walls.

Cuba in more interesting. It has played capitalist with the tourism industry, but few of the island’s residents had access to the income this brought. It was isolationist in its rules on technology – mobile phones were outlawed, yet everyone could find one on a none-too-well-hidden black market. And it was genuinely communist in its health and education services, and in the market-garden economies throughout the island. Now it looks as if things are changing, and not just because locals can now have legal mobile phones and their own businesses, as introduced in radical reforms last year.

Now there is the possibility that rules on emigration, much maligned by the West, may be withdrawn. Currently in order to exit the country, even to visit relatives, Cuban nationals have to obtain permission from the government, a hangover from the days when emigration for political reasons was rife. Now this may change. This is one example from among a plethora of reviews of government bureaucracy which threaten the jobs of thousands as the President tries to rid the state of “all sorts of nonsense”.

The changes under Raul Castro have so far been rapid, progressive and realistic. They are also a drastic change from the country’s history. It will be interesting to watch and learn where this still old-school but decidedly ‘revolutionary’ leader takes his beautiful country next.

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The heat is on!

Sitting in a brand new residential building, with the weather a nice 28 degrees C outside, sweating. The windows open to let in a breeze, all the curtains closed to minimise heat gain from the sun, the door to the hallway ajar for a through-draft, and the forced ventilation on maximum. New buildings are well-insulated, but how will they cope in the future?

The building in which I live is almost definitely a level 5 according to the UK government’s Code for Sustainable Homes (2008). It has “adequate” ventilation, the windows’ lack of functionality compensated for by switched vents to reduce draughts and therefore heat loss. It has solar panels to take advantage of the position relative to the sun, and to reduce energy consumption. It is well-insulated and has small windows to reduce heat lost through “cold bridging”. All of these aspects help to reduce the impact that the building will have on CO2 emmissions, and therefore on climate change.

However, as I sit here, sweating in the heat of a warm summer day, I wonder how will this building fare in the century to come?

The life-span of a building varies, but generally the building I live in could be expected to last, in it’s current use, or re-furbished, for at least 50 years, preferably 100. By then the UK Climate Projections 2009 (UKCP09) predict that, at a reasonable mean estimate, where I live, London, the average daily temperature in summer could have risen by between 2.5 and 5 degrees C. The average daily maximum temperature here between 1971 and 2000 was, in July, 23 degrees C (Source: Met Office), with the last ten years consistently above this mean. If this were to raise by 5 degrees our average daily temperature would be as it is today. 28 degrees C.

On a hot day, the temperature may well reach 35 degrees C.

The building in which I live is brand new and meets all of the government’s requirements for combating climate change, but it fails utterly to take into account the changes that may take place over its life-span. It may be reduced to obsolescence before its time, becoming uninhabitable due to its inability to cool the interior rooms sufficiently – in part due to exactly the CO2 output reducing technologies employed in its construction.

Developers and businesses need to learn these lessons now, before it is too late. Offices in the City of London are already unusable during heatwaves; with an increase in temperatures this could have a major effect on the economy.

Thought needs to be given, in designing and specifying new buildings, to ways in which they not only reduce emissions and waste, but also to ways in which they can continue to do this in a changing climate. Air-con is not a simple, or sustainable, answer.

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More on death . . .

Queenie was 59 years old. Born in 1952, she lived an active and fulfilling life as an entertainer, waterskiier, and sometime musician. This week the group of people caring for her in her retirement decided, after assessing her deteriorating quality of life and worsening state of health, that she should die.

Queenie the elephant was given a lethal injection and died at the Wild Adventures park in Georgia, USA.

Elephants are hugely intelligent animals both emotionally and mentally. They mourn their dead, fiercely protect the vulnerable, and “flirt” to find their favourite mate. Whether Queenie had friends at her park or not, it is worth wondering whether she was shown as much respect in her dying days as she would have been shown by other elephants, who would have waited with her in her illness and her final days, caring for her in her pain, and possibly covering her body with branches to prevent it being mauled by predators.

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Mongolia – Inner and Outer

Inner Mongolia (a large province of China) is currently under near martial law, as the Chinese government tries to quash protests by ethnic Mongol inhabitants.

Last week thousands of students were arrested, and the internet has been cut off in an attempt to stop news of the protests spreading.

In a province in which, despite its name, only 20% of the current inhabitants are now ethnic Mongols*, the violence may well have flared due to the feeling that the newly arrived Han Chinese majority are exploiting resources that the Mongols feel are rightfully theirs, and becoming rich because of it. This is a feeling sadly experienced everywhere on the planet where there are large influxes of other populations.

In Mongolia itself there are now right-wing, “Nazi” gangs in the capital Ulaanbaatar (UB), who have made it their business to threaten and demoralise the number of Chinese immigrants who have set up businesses there. These businesses may not advertise in Chinese characters, any menus in Chinese restaurants must be in Mongolian (though English or Russian translation is allowed), and it is common for known Chinese individuals to be assaulted, even a Mongolian woman who goes with a Chinese man will be beaten and have her head shaved as a mark of her “betrayal”.

From the West this mentality is extreme, reminding us of the worst episodes in our continent’s history. Having lived in UB for three months, and personally met and talked to some of the nationalists there, it is slightly easier to understand, though no less worrying.

The Mongolian people* are still racially 89% Mongol; they have an enduring cultural history, un-marred until very recently by influences from outside; they have a thousand-year-long historical rivalry with the Han Chinese (several wars, invasions and counter-invasions).

Mongol culture is interesting: American-style rap is now becoming popular, but they do not listen to American music – there is a booming Mongolian rap and hip-hip scene, with artists singing in Mongolian, about their country and its people. The rest of their culture is just the same, and has been for centuries – Adaptation NOT adoption of other ideas to suit their own.

Anything that threatens to over-ride rather than amalgamate with their own culture is hated, as indeed we in the West hate what we see to be a threat to our culture. (NB My personal view is not a hate of other cultures – I embrace them but there are vocal others with this view.)

The Mongols are a nomadic, fiercely independent people and the influx of mining companies into their territories, in both Mongolia and the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia, is seen as an invasion of their land, a breach of their rights to roam the land and use it, and a theft of their inherited resources.

Sadly, in a region with such rich geological resources, the fight may well continue and worsen in the years to come.


A Mongol is a member of an ethinc group, including inhabitants of Mongolia, China, Russia and more.

A Mongolian is an inhabitant of the country of Mongolia, no matter what their ethnic origin.

For example, there are Mongolians that are Kazakh, and Chinese that are Mongols.

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How would you treat your dead?

On Friday, Mary Harper reported for the BBC that the Rwandan authorities are forcibly exhuming the remains of those who died in the 1994 genocide.

The families of those dead are angry – insulted at the seeming disrespect of this act, and the assumption that the placing of these bodies in memorial graveyards is necessary for national ‘closure’.

However, in some parts of the world it is normal to exhume the bones of the dead and place them within a special cemetery only after they have been dead long enough for the bones to be bare.

In Madagascar, for instance, there is a tribe which buries its dead within the vicinity of the village, with very little ceremony, until the corpse has decayed. They then exhume the bones and carry them, with great pomp, circumstance and reverence, to the ancestral burial grounds away from the village. At this point the spirit of the dead are truly freed. Similar practices exist (or existed) all over the world, from the Igbo of Nigeria, to the Dayak of Kalimantan, Borneo, to the inhabitants of Europe’s Greek Islands.

I wonder what the historic, traditional rites in Rwanda are, and whether they have changed significantly with the arrival of missionaries from Europe as they have in many other societies.

And I wonder whether, in Europe, we would not be just as angry and upset if the government forced us to disinter our families’ remains. Or has this already happened among the war cemeteries in Northern France?

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Initial Post: Whos, Whys and Wherefores

I have a great interest in international politics, travel, and cultures. Coupled with insatiable curiosity and wanderlust this is a dangerous mixture, and via this blog I hope to somewhat assuage the need to flee the UK and discover more, about everything, by vicariously discovering things, and passing those new discoveries on to others.

I intend to write not only articles about odd events around the globe, but to comment on local events too, and comments from others and different points of view are very welcome.

Enjoy, and wish me luck!

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