New Internationalist


Issue 320

new internationalist
issue 320 - January-February 2000



No ivory tower
Conflict comes on-campus in civil war

Keep out - students in Medellin can't keep violence at bay.

Universities have become the latest hotspots in Colombia’s 35-year-long civil conflict. The recent killing of Hernan Hanau, a respected social-sciences researcher at the University of Antioquia in Colombia, caused the university to close for three days.

Last year at least two university students were gunned down, and in late 1998 the university was closed for two months after a bomb exploded. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country’s largest and most potent guerrilla organization, claimed responsibility. It said that some people at the university supported right-wing paramilitary groups and were supplying them with information on student activists.

It is widely believed that the responsibility for many deaths in universities rests with the paramilitaries but the killers are unlikely ever to be identified and charged. A university official recently met Carlos Castaño, the self-styled commander of the paramilitary network that is fighting the guerrillas, in his mountain hideout. ‘I requested that the sanctity of the university be respected,’ he says. ‘Castaño replied that he would only respect the university if the guerrillas cease their activities on campus.’ The official also wrote to Manuel Marulanda, FARC’s leader and had meetings with the leaders of two smaller guerrilla movements in the high-security prison near Medellin where they are held captive.

‘It’s a lie that we have links to the guerrillas,’ insists a student activist. ‘Whoever organizes, speaks out or attempts to protest against the situation is classed as a guerrilla. This is a public university and 70 per cent of the students come from deprived backgrounds. Our principal aim is to defend public education for the poor.

‘Criticism of the status quo is not tolerated,’ he explains. ‘We frequently receive death threats and many of our colleagues have been murdered, although we are totally unarmed. While the Government insists that the dirty war against us only exists in our imaginations, we continue to drop like flies.’

The violence is now spreading to other public universities. In the latest attack two men killed Jesus Antonio Bejarano, a senior Government peace negotiator, in his office in Bogotá’s National University.

‘We are living in the midst of a war and it is impossible to insulate the universities from this reality,’ university vice-chancellor Alejo Vargas says. ‘Some students have witnessed family members massacred by the paramilitaries and have had to flee their towns. Others have had fathers or brothers kidnapped or murdered by the guerrillas. A public scandal only arises when a prominent individual is murdered. But the reality is that people are dying anonymously every day.’

Martin Dayani/Gemini News Service

Wedding celebration in Nigeria - but is it 'Toronto'?

Don’t mention Toronto
It is a dangerous word in Nigeria, according to Agence France-Presse. Kolade, a man wearing a University of Toronto T-shirt, says he was ‘almost lynched by an angry mob’ in a bizarre reaction to recent political scandal. He was released by his assailants ‘after being warned never to wear the offending article again’.

The encounter arose due to a scandal involving Ibrahim Buhari, the Speaker of the Nigerian Parliament’s lower house. He lied about his age in court papers and falsely claimed that he had a business degree from the University of Toronto. Although Buhari was forced to resign, the name Toronto has been adopted by Nigerians as a new term for anything fraudulent or fake. A fake marriage is a Toronto marriage, a fraudster is a Toronto entrepreneur – and so on.

World Press Review Vol 46 No 11

Gold fever risks: small-scale mining kills thousands.

Death traps
Workers in small-scale mines in developing countries have a death rate that is up to 90-per-cent higher than their counterparts in rich-world countries, according to the International Labour Organization. Small-scale mining in 35 countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America grew by 20 per cent in the past five years and this trend is expected to continue. The work provides for up to 13 million people; as many as 4 million of these are women.

Go Between No 75

Furby off the hook
Furby – an electromagnetic, squawking, snoring and talking toy ‘pet’ – has been the subject of close attention by Canadian health authorities. They exposed 13 medical devices to an active Furby to see whether the cute creature could interfere with them, say researchers at the government agency Health Canada. But they report Furby is innocent – even when the toy was within two centimetres of medical equipment it functioned without any problems.

New Scientist Vol 164 No 2210



You can take it with you
Craft of the coffin flourishes in Ghana

Going out in style - a few of the favourite things turned into coffins in Teshie and Nungua.

Going out in style - a few of the favourite things turned into coffins in Teshie and Nungua.

Going out in style - a few of the favourite things turned into coffins in Teshie and Nungua.

As long as death continues to lay its icy hands on people, coffins will be a prominent feature of funeral ceremonies. But last rites in Ghana are becoming fashionable these days. Extreme extravagance is slowly creeping into our traditional funeral celebration – such as the use of exotic shapes for colourful coffins.

The design of the coffins normally reflects the lifestyles and professions of the departed. A coffin shaped like a bag of flour or bread is destined for a baker, a truck is made for a long-distance driver, beer-shaped coffins house a customer fond of beer, a student or a teacher lie resting in a book, an athlete is buried inside giant Nike trainers. The rich often have coffins in the shape of Mercedes Benz cars.

The number of craftspeople in this trade has increased tremendously. Its competitive nature means that the industry has come out with all sorts of inventions to meet the demands of clients. The people of Teshie and Nungua townships outside Accra are no exception. In these towns two illustrious men started the art of making innovative coffins. Their names have been written in the scroll of the golden book reserved for prominent people of Ghana: Kane Kwai from Teshie and Paa Willie from Nungua. Unfortunately these talented men are both deceased and it is a pity that they are not around to enjoy the fruits of their labour. Instead, their apprentices are presently making huge sums of money – the retail price of an exotically shaped coffin is between $500 and $700. Not surprisingly, most inhabitants of these two towns, who used to be naturally tied to the fishing industry, are gradually but feverishly working their way into the coffin-fabrication industry.

As one of our proverbs says: ‘The rainbow of death has encircled every man’s neck; no-one climbs the ladder of death and returns.’ Hence how happy one can be made by the thought of travelling into eternity lying in your favourite thing – be it a Mercedes Benz or a bottle of beer.

Samuel Wiafe

Cartoon by P J POLYP


Shelling out

Official currency is challenged in Papua New Guinea

Not much like the IMF - cash or shells have equal value in Rabaul's market.

When a volcano erupted in the East New Britain province of Papua New Guinea in 1994 it killed no-one but destroyed Rabaul – a once-thriving town with a colourful market. One of the volcano’s casualties was a unique bank trading in tabu – traditional shell money made from tiny white shells pierced and threaded on to long strips of rattan. But the disaster has not stalled the drive of the bank’s founder, local politician Henry Tokubak, to give tabu the same status as kina, Papua New Guinea’s official currency.

The Tabu Exchange Centre changed traditional money for hard currency and provided a service for those who no longer have the time or the traditional skills to create tabu. For many of those who have left the village and gone to live in Port Moresby or other urban centres, it is extremely important that they are able to access traditional wealth when returning home to participate in ceremonies.

A fathom (approximately two metres) of tabu contains around 300-400 shells depending on the shell size and would have an approximate value of 3.50 kina ($0.95). Part of Tokubak’s motivation to formalize this currency by creating a shell-money bank is that tabu will gain greater exchange value in people’s daily lives. For example, on the wall of his Tabu Exchange Centre he established the first shell-money public telephone.

Today the building stands in ruins. Abandoned belongings – a typewriter, a sandal, a discarded handbag – lie coated in dust and surrounded by weeds. In the midst of the aftermath of the volcanic eruption, looters ran off with the tabu left in the bank. But Tokubak has continued to push for formal recognition of tabu within the local economic system. In June last year the local council voted to establish a formal Shell- Money Bank. During the discussion before the local vote, several councillors contrasted the rapid decline in the value of the kina to tabu, which has retained its value. In the eyes of the community, tabu is a far more secure form of wealth than the kina. Sir Ronald ToVue, a former East New Britain premier, also advocates the use of shell money. The Nation newspaper reports: ‘He told a gathering at Navuneram village near here that the country is facing a serious financial crisis and the only way for the locals to survive is by using traditional money.’

Encouraged by the local support for tabu, Tokubak talked to Ezekiel Bangin. Although Bangin is from East New Britain and grew up using tabu, he now works for the World Bank in Washington. But Bangin was not so sure the idea would gain international recognition. He has told Tokubak he finds it difficult to see how a Shell Money Bank might work and ‘can’t imagine what the World Bank or the IMF would make of it’.

Liz Thompson/Pacific Islands Monthly’

Consumers in Japan, increasingly concerned about genetically modified food, are hesitant about buying US food products. Japan imports 60 per cent of its food, a third of which comes from the US.

But more than half of last year’s soybean and corn crop in the US was grown from bio-engineered seeds. Setsuko Yasuda, head of the Japanese Consumer Union’s ‘No! GMO’ campaign, organized an open letter to American farmers urging them to stop sales of genetically modified food. An official from the Agriculture Ministry, Kazuhiko Kawamura, says that the growing pressure from consumers to know what they are eating resulted in the Government’s ruling that GMO foods should be labelled as such by early 2001. But they will incur the wrath of US farmers and traders. ‘To be frank, we’re a bit stymied,’ says one US Government official. ‘We’re losing business fast as a result of this policy.’

Far Eastern Economic Review Vol 162 No 43

Security forces in Sri Lanka are told torture must stop.

Call for justice
Torture occurs almost daily in Sri Lanka despite legal safeguards, according to Amnesty International. So far no-one in the country’s security forces has been convicted for torture – which has not only been directed at the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, engaged in a violent war for independence, but also against criminal suspects and detainees. ‘The recent landmark judgment which sentenced members of Sri Lanka’s security forces to long prison terms for “disappearances” and political killings sent an important signal that nobody can expect to get away with these crimes any more,’ says Amnesty. ‘The time has come now for Sri Lanka to bring the torturers to justice.’

Amnesty International


‘I have eliminated the words “foreign aid” from our vocabulary.
These two words don’t seem to excite a lot of people.’

US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

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This article was originally published in issue 320

New Internationalist Magazine issue 320
Issue 320

More articles from this issue

  • Book Reviews

    January 1, 2000

    Book Reviews

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  • Dollars and dinars

    January 1, 2000

    Ellen Frank wants to remove the control of money from the hands of the rich.

New Internationalist Magazine Issue 436

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