Wednesday, March 7, 2018

The best of Phuket Island

For reasons that I can no longer recall, this piece was never submitted for publication. It was written after I took my solo trip to Phuket circa April 2015. 

Providing great customer service in Thailand seems second nature. Understandably so since it receives more than twenty-six million visitors per annum, compared to neighbouring Cambodia at only four million.

My experiences of guided tours in Phuket had been wonderful, probably the best I have ever had. Mostly men, the guides were extremely respectful, polite, attentive and charming. Mr. Yew was one of them.

Not unlike many Thais, Mr. Yew is small in size but big in heart. With his sun-bleached hair, weather-beaten skin and boyish face, it was hard to tell how old he was until he revealed having a twenty-three year old son and a baby on the way.

The Hong by Starlight Kayaking Tour run by the John Gray Kayak Company is at the top of my must-do list when you’re in Phuket. Forget about Phi Phi Island with dozens of boisterous tourists attached permanently to their monstrous selfie polls, Phang Nga offers a breathtakingly scenic view in a quiet, serene and spiritual ambience, all thanks to the hardworking team of guides such as Mr. Yew.

Departing from Ao Po jetty on a twin-engine escort boat to the protected Ao Phang Nga National Park at around 2pm, the team led by Mr. Yew, Farook and Nik aka Morgan Freeman for his uncanny resemblance to the Hollywood actor, not only in appearance but also voice, quickly got into work and everything flowed like clockwork for the next eight to nine hours.

Guests were ushered to the upper deck where a light lunch of crispy spring rolls, tasty stir-fry egg noodles and fresh fruits were served with unlimited serving of water, iced tea and strawberry cordial. While we enjoyed the meal a la buffet style, about five or more staff worked behind the scene on the lower deck to ensure that tea and dinner would be ready as scheduled. All meals were freshly prepared on the boat.

Mr. Yew wasted no time briefing us on what to do and not to do during the trip. Since this is a protected national park, there shall be no smoking, littering and touching of anything that belongs to the wild while on the kayak.

“Please do not touch the oyster shells covering the bottom of the limestone sea caves. They are razor sharp and they will cut you, right?” Mr. Yew cautioned. “When we start to get on the kayak, please remain quiet at all time. At the caves, your voice will echo and this will frighten the animals, right? Remember, we are the tourists coming to see the wild animals, not the other way round. When they are frightened, they will run away and you will not see them, right?”

You would have noticed by now how Mr. Yew has a habit of ending most sentences with a “right” followed by a question mark. Oddly enough, Farook had the same habit too.

As we got closer to the limestone caves or hongs as the Thais call them, there was utter silence as we soaked in the splendour of the view before us. Erected between a sea of emerald green water, the hongs reminded us of how we were all just visitors in a world where they have been standing tall for over millions of years.

A guide, served also as a personal kayak driver for the entire tour, was assigned to each group of guests. Each kayak can take about two to three people depending on the size of the passenger.
Since I was alone, I got Mr. Yew and a kayak entirely to myself. This would mark the beginning of a privileged relationship where I learned much from Mr. Yew, who turned out to be a nature expert.

We started off in single file, slowly and gently outlining the caves for about one to two kilometres before entering the narrow opening of a tunnel leading to a lagoon. I looked up and saw several brown hawks circling from a respectful distance above us. We managed to take refuge from the blistering heat beneath the shadows of massive stalactites formed from calcium and other mineral deposits trickling down from the top of the caves. According to Mr. Yes, it takes about five years to form one centimeter of stalactite.

“Lie flat on your back. We’re entering a cave now. Make sure you don’t lift your hands or feet because the oysters will cut you, right?” Mr. Yew warned before he skilfully manoeuvred the kayak into a dark tunnel. I was nervous when I saw how narrow the opening was and felt almost certain that we were going to hit a shell-covered rock which would puncture the kayak and left us to die.  It didn’t of course, and my fear vanished as we floated gently beneath the tunnel with the ceiling barely an inch above my face. This is definitely not an exercise for those with claustrophobia.

Mr. Yew said he was trained for two weeks on how to manoeuvre a kayak and during that time suffered many cuts on his arms and head. He has been doing this for twelve years. Before that he was a bird watcher guide but said he much prefers his current job because the paddling keeps him strong and healthy. His bird-watching days definitely provided him with a wealth of ornithological knowledge as he identified a blue rock thrush, heron and some interesting sounds he claimed made by woodpeckers and hornbills on the island during our trip.

Phang Nga Bay hosts a variety of interesting wildlife such as the long tail macaque which feeds on shell fish and is apparently a good swimmer and the mudskipper, an amphibious fish that can walk on land with their pectoral fins. With their earth-tone scales, they camouflage well in between mangrove roots making them difficult to spot for the untrained eyes.

We saw small fiddler crabs, just about two inches in size, easily identified by their distinctive asymmetrical yellow claw, one much bigger than the other only for the male, scampering nervously on the sandy bank of a lagoon.

As Mr. Yew was about to paddle away from the bank, the guide on the kayak next to ours leaned forward to get a closer look at something that had obviously caught his attention. He scanned the bank frantically and started whispering excitedly to Mr. Yew.

The two men soon embarked in a brief and almost silent exchange in Thai; the other pointing out something while Mr. Yew strained to follow his lead. I was left confused but desperately curious. Finally, both men ended their conversation, looking triumphant.

“He saw a crab that has its bigger claw on the left side, very unusual for a fiddler male crab which often has the bigger claw on the right,” Mr. Yew translated. “He has very sharp eyes,” he added. I couldn’t help but sensed a slight tinge of regret and envy in his voice. After knowing Mr. Yew a little bit more, I would not be surprise if he wished he had been the first guide who had spotted the special fiddler crap so that he could show me because by doing that, he would have succeeded in making me the most special guest in the entire tour group.

“So what do you do in Malaysia, Ka Ea?” Mr. Yew asked me all of a sudden. I explained that I work for a human rights non-governmental organisation. He nodded in approval and I took the opportunity to ask him what he thought of Thailand’s notorious lèse majesté law which threatens to imprison anyone who is critical of the King.

“You know, I have nothing to compare our King with because I have not lived in other country with a King, right? The law says we must be loyal and obey the King and so we must do as the law says, right?” He said. “But I think our King is good. He successfully brokered a deal with the nomadic hill tribes from Laos and Burma who had entered and destroyed much of Thailand’s forests to grow opium by granting them nationality and making healthcare, education and public services accessible to them.”

“So they stopped growing opium and the problem was solved?” I asked in amazement.

“Yes, but now we have a problem with amphetamine,” Mr. Yew answered ruefully.

According to Mr. Yew, many men he knows succumbed to amphetamine addiction. Such addiction has been responsible for the ruin of many family units where hard-earned income generated by family members are spent on feeding the addiction, exacerbated by corrupted enforcement officers.

“These men lose their jobs because they are unable to work under the influence of amphetamine,” he said and then added, “As long as the enforcement officers are corrupted, this problem will remain.”

Perhaps one of the highlights of the trip was the recreation of the Loy Krathong festival, celebrated only in November. Together with their guides, guests built the krathong made out of banana stem, leaves, orchids, marigolds, incense and candles.

We shared a light moment when Mr. Yew and his colleagues teased each other as they raced to make the most beautiful and intricate krathong and because each guide is encouraged to express their inner creativity, each krathong was unique from one to the other.

“Yours is going to be the most beautiful because you go to a lady boy school, right?” Mr. Yew taunted his colleague who was assembling a rather intricate design as everyone burst out laughing.

I watched in amazement as Mr. Yew skilfully fashioned two birds out of orchid buds with just a pair of scissors and the back of an incense stick. He then impaled the birds gently with incense sticks and placed them delicately on the banana stem, each facing the other with their mouths touching.

“One for you and one for your husband. For good luck,” he said. I blushed and at that point felt a sudden desire to give him a bear hug. The Thais are romantics indeed and the Loy Krathong is known to be the most romantic of all festivals in Thailand.

Once the krathongs were assembled and lined up on the buffet table, I smiled with pride seeing mine, the only one where the orchid birds were kissing, while the rest had theirs in less intimate positions.

All the guests were asked to take their seats as Nik began a briefing on the significance of the exercise.

“We do this for two reasons. One, to give thanks to the Water God for his blessings to the sea and two, to apologise for the bad things we have done. What bad things you asked?” He paused for dramatic effect before continuing, “Did anyone of you do a number one or two when you were in the water just now?”

His question obviously mortified everyone on the boat as they gasped in silence. If anyone was going to make a confession then, it wasn’t going to happen.

“Come on! I did it. When I go down from my kayak and pretend I am cooling myself in the water, pointing up at the blue sky to distract your attention, yellow stuff is flowing down,” he said unashamedly.

I burst out laughing especially at the horrified looks on most of the foreigners at Nik’s graphic illustration of his clandestine bladder movement.

“And that is why we apologise for doing dirty things to the water,” he finished calmly as if what he said earlier had no impact whatsoever on anyone.

Nik said that we would bring back the krathongs after the ritual because it is their policy not to leave anything behind. John Gray’s motto has been, Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints, kill nothing but time.”

When the sun had fully descended, we set off with our krathongs on the kayak to make our final journey to the cave. It was total darkness except for the candles that were lighted. I made three wishes before releasing the krathong made lovingly by Mr. Yew and I. It was a moment of utter silence and respect as I reflected on the entire journey.

Before leaving, Mr. Yew and I exchanged our final farewell. I pressed my palms together, bowed and said, “Khob koon ka” to my master that day.

I left Thailand with a profound respect for the men who have worked hard so that I can see the other side of Thailand.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The Media’s Role In Portraying Women And Building Negative Stereotypes

The shorter version of this article is published on Leaderonomics on 10 November 2017.

At a training-of-trainers workshop I attended, the participants were broken into groups of five and asked to present a 25-minute human rights training session targeting law students and young lawyers. We were encouraged to think outside the box by staying away from conventional lecture-style training model to promote effective learning of what is usually considered as a heavy subject.

Selecting a human rights topic was easy but deciding on the training style was much more challenging than I had anticipated. Being competitive, my group wanted to impress the trainers who would be assessing our performance. 

After brainstorming for hours, we decided on emulating a popular American talk show as the medium of training. The talk show host would be asking a panel consisting of four distinguished state representatives from Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Australia and France respectively, on a specific issue that relates to freedom of expression. The purpose of selecting four culturally diverse countries was to illustrate the spectrum of the universality of human rights; i.e. how different countries in the world take into account local cultural influences when it comes to adopting universal human rights principles. 

The spectrum was represented by Saudi Arabia on the far left, being the most radical when it comes to defending cultural practices, to Malaysia and Australia in the middle, and finally France on the far right where cultural practices are often compromised to give way to universal human rights policies.

In the spirit of showmanship, we thought it was important for each role to be played out as convincingly as possible. As individuals, we ramped up our own performance by adopting the appropriate accents and mannerisms which we had identified of the respective nationalities.

When our turn came to present, we gave our best. I felt energised as I watched the participants laughed and applauded, clearly entertained by our performance. I was in high spirit when the participants gave glowing feedback, many of whom reported that the four state representatives’ viewpoints illustrated the spectrum effectively. 

Just as I thought we had nailed it, my ego was immediately deflated when the trainer delivered her assessment. She said it was extremely painful to watch us and was appalled by how we “poked fun” of the state representatives from Saudi Arabia and Malaysia by portraying them as “uneducated” and “unrefined” while the Australian and French, were depicted as “intelligent” and “progressive”. The trainer’s criticism of us was not on how we presented each country’s political views but on the way we played out the stereotypes we held for each character. She said as human rights defenders, we have the responsibility of not perpetuating negative stereotypes and must be critical of ourselves when developing content for public consumption.

I could sense a sudden shift in the training room’s atmosphere, from joyous euphoria to sombreness as we sat listening to the trainer’s critique. The immediate thoughts that came to my mind were, “how could I not have seen this?” and “what does that say about me as a human rights defender?” 

I understood instantly that our zealousness to deliver an entertaining performance (what the trainer termed as “gimmick”) had clouded my judgment.

Later, I talked to a colleague about this. We rationalised that a key factor of why we failed to recognise this faux pas is attributed to how we, as a society, have been exposed to these stereotypes through the media so much so we that we have become immune to them. If the trainer had not called out on us, we would have replicated the group assignment in a real training session, oblivious to the fact that we would have perpetuated these stereotypes to a group of young impressionable lawyers, who would then move on to ensure the cycle continues.

I went into detail about this story simply to illustrate how powerful visuals are when it comes to reinforcing stereotypes. So powerful that even people who are supposed to be the bulwarks of human rights values fall short in their quest for entertainment.  

The more constructive question to ask is this: if the media is so powerful, can it be used to reverse these stereotypes? Let’s examine how the media has been portraying images of women in the past decades. 

Most of us would have seen hundreds of advertisements on the newspaper, magazines, television and Internet. How often have we come across images of women posing with kitchen utensils, foodstuff, cleaning products, baby diapers, jewelleries, slimming supplements and beauty care? It seems that the media is convinced that women spend their lives cooking, cleaning, taking care of the baby, primping (and not forgetting longing for that diamond engagement ring), essentially reinforcing the gender stereotype of women being domesticated, materialistic and superficial.

Thankfully, women’s rights movements all over the world is slowly changing this by forcing the media to change the way they portray women. One of the best examples of this is Getty Image’s collaboration with Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In initiative in 2014. 

Getty Image is one of the biggest providers of stock photography with 2.4 million customers from across the world. This collaboration entails a Lean In Collection, containing more than 14,000 images of “female leadership and equal partnership in contemporary work and life”.

Scrolling through the collection, you will see photos of women of different ages, colours, shapes and sexual orientation performing various activities; working in different jobs, playing sports, leading group discussions, repairing machines, etc. Of course, there are still images of women as mothers, but they are often accompanied by their male partners, depicting a shared parenting lifestyle.

According to Getty Image, the top selling image of women in their library in 2007 was a naked woman under a towel. Ten years onward, it was an image of a solo woman hiking on a mountain, triggering key words like independence, power, confidence and freedom to viewers. 

One of the collaboration’s success indicators is a leap of 47% in search result for images of “female CEO” from last year. Combined with the democratisation of the media space made possible by the internet, Getty Image said that social media users are pushing marketers to portray people in more realistic and diverse ways, thus demanding brands to make women with diverse range of ages, appearances and abilities more visible.

How are we doing in Malaysia? While I do not have any data on photos of women being portrayed in the local media, a 2015 report conducted by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) provided insights to how women are represented in the news.

In the report, several female journalists exposed the entrenched sexist culture practised by the local media when it comes to featuring stories on women. One recalled that whenever she proposed stories related to women, the immediate questions asked by her editor were, “Is the lady pretty? Is she sexy?” If her answer was no, her story pitch would be shot down no matter how interesting the subject was.

A female sub-editor said that discussions with her male editor and colleagues on health issues relating to breastfeeding would always turn sexual. What was most insulting to her was her editor’s decision to assign the story to her male colleague simply because he felt that a man would be able to create “excitement” to the story. 

The IFJ report states that the top four depictions of women in the Malaysian media was family figures at the top, followed by victims, sexual objects and lastly, leaders.

One way of reversing these negative gender stereotypes of women in the media is to have more women in the decision-making positions as the current media industry is overwhelmingly male-dominated. One journalist said, “If a woman’s issue is covered by the media, it is almost always from a patriarchal perspective, with little to no presence of a female voice or viewpoint. Instead, only superficial or scandalous stories related to women receive significant attention.” Another journalist said that this can be curbed “with women who have the authority to influence or over-rule questionable decisions based on gender bias.”

Drawing back to the earlier story I told, normalising stereotypes of any kind as result of media conditioning is dangerous because it stops us from seeing a person for who they are and instead, boxing them into specific identities often shaped by dominant power-holders such as men and the West. 

Thankfully, with the internet, printed media no longer monopolises social narratives and the younger generations are becoming more aware of rights-based values such as gender equality through more diversified information found online. Gone are the days when the onus remained on women’s group to call out on sexism in the media. For example, AirAsia had to remove a recent Facebook advertisement after being criticised by netizens for sexism. With this, hopefully our society will continue to push advertising companies to become more responsible and accountable.

Finally, while I was writing this article, I can’t help but wonder whether in our zealousness in reversing gender stereotypes, are we running into the danger of stripping away certain gender qualities such as the femininity of the female form or perhaps, asexualising women altogether? Should we create a society that would now perceive women who are homemakers or sexy as wrong? 

Betty Yeoh, a seasoned women’s rights activist said that the media does not need to go overboard portraying empowered women by making them dressed or behaved like men. She said the real danger is when the media shows women performing incredible multi-tasking as that will create unrealistic expectations on women.

In conclusion, the media must evolve with time. It needs to harness its power towards changing society’s perception of women and in doing so, must be sensitive enough to strike that balance of portraying women in more diversified roles and capacities. We are not saying that women should not be homemakers or be sexy, we are saying women can be anything they want to be.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

You Don’t Have To Quit Your Job To Become A Human Rights Leader

The late American civil rights activist Rosa Parks may have met the standard of both statements just by living her life.
The term “human rights” has become somewhat of a buzzword among urban youths today. In the work that I do, it is not uncommon to encounter young promising Malaysians who express their desire to become human rights activists. With their well-meaning intentions and idealism, I often wonder how many will eventually become citizens who truly champion human rights?
I bet Parks did not wake up one morning and decide she would become a human rights leader. She worked as a seamstress and was an active member of a minority rights group. In 1955, she certainly didn’t expect or plan that historic moment where she stood up – pun unintended – for her right to remain seated on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Parks said she did it because she was “tired of giving in.”
A reality check
Parks’ story was told to illustrate that being a human rights leader is not a profession you check off on a box in a visa application form. Neither is it a dream or fantasy – you know, like how many of us once idolised some movie star from a distance and thought to ourselves: That is exactly who I want to be when I grow up.
Holding a human rights job and dreaming of becoming a human rights leader don’t make you one. I can tell you this because human rights is my job, and I once looked at Aung San Suu Kyi and dreamed of winning the Nobel Peace Prize, and yet, those are not the things that make me a human rights leader.
Now, when I say being a human rights leader is not something that is created out of a fantasy, I mean it in two different ways. One: it isn’t something you dream of as a child but know deep down that is probably out of your league; and two: it isn’t a fantasy because it is actually achievable in real life – much more so than becoming a movie star.
To be a movie star, you need talent, personality, charisma, good looks, and probably a bit of luck. This combination of qualities is not easily honed. Whereas, to be a human rights leader, you only need one thing – conviction. Conviction that comes from understanding what human rights is and believing in it.
Many of you are probably asking, if it is as simple as that, why are there not many human rights leaders in this country?
My take on this is that there are probably more human rights leaders out there than we think but because many of us may synonymise Malaysian human rights leaders with public personalities such as Ambiga Sreenevasan, Irene Fernandez, Maria Chin, Edmund Bon and Adam Adli, we downplay the conviction and work of ordinary people – people you have never seen or heard of but are championing human rights in their own individual ways.
A misconceived notion
The stereotyping of human rights leaders, visualising them as individuals who are public, fearless, influential, vocal, rebellious, political, hardcore and tortured is flawed. Such stereotypes should be discouraged as it prevents ordinary people from potentially becoming champions of human rights because they think it is political and dangerous, and should only be left to those who are brave and incalcitrant.
The notion propagated by many of our state leaders that human rights is political and a Western concept is fundamentally wrong. It shows their tremendous lack of understanding of the concept, and I want to dispel that misconception today because it is important in answering our questions.

Human rights date back to ancient civilisation when human beings began to form communities and understand that in order for them to survive and flourish, they needed to live by a code of behaviour. This code is what we call laws today. Laws are created to regulate our actions towards one another so that not only do we not harm one another, but we also empower ourselves to have better lives.
For example, murder is a crime because everyone has a right to life. Burglary is prohibited because we each have the right to own property. An employee cannot be sacked without reasonable cause because he or she has the right to livelihood. Many of us see these examples only as laws and do not connect them to human rights.
When we start to make the connection, we will see that human rights are common sense and only becomes political and perceived as a Western concept when local governments refuse to recognise rights and understand them as evolving concepts. When we start to understand that human rights are not something political but a fundamental essence of our natural being – that is to say, how we should treat one another so that we can sustain and flourish together – we will see it as necessary and a part of our everyday lifestyle.
What does it take to be a human rights leader?
My answer to that is conviction. That is what drives you to champion human rights as part of your everyday life. Also, recognising that it doesn’t have to be a profession or for you to be a public figure to manifest that conviction.
So for instance, if you are starting out as the owner of a café, think about how you can champion human rights in your role as an entrepreneur and employer. Who are the people you will be working with and serving? What rights do they have and why is it important for you to recognise and protect these rights? You may be fearful of granting your employees decent working hours because that would mean spending resources to hire more people. After all, you’re just starting up and every ringgit counts. What if by doing so, your business collapses within a year?
A human rights leader will ask him or herself: Should my business concern be a top priority at the expense of my employee’s well-being? Can I not reconcile my interest and their rights? If yes, how can I make it work?
The moment you have conviction that people around you have rights, that these rights cannot be compromised, and that you have a responsibility to work out a solution to protect these rights, you become a human rights leader.
A good teacher teaches his or her students the modules laid out by the school curriculum and makes sure they excel in their examinations. A human rights leader educates his or her students human rights values by incorporating them in everyday lessons.
A world-class cardiac surgeon saves lives by performing highly intricate surgical procedures on his or her patient. A human rights leader makes sure her dying patients are treated with dignity and respect by her team of staff.
An insightful editor-in-chief of a widely distributed news daily has the knack of identifying consumable stories but a human rights leader is not afraid to publish the truth even if it may land him in trouble.
A junior accountant who calls out on his senior male counterpart’s sexist and derogatory remarks about a female colleague during lunch break is not just an ordinary staff but a human rights leader.
A CEO of a multi-national corporation implementing a zero-tolerance policy against all forms of discrimination at the workplace is not only a business leader but also a human rights leader.
What it means to be a human rights leader?
So we have established that anyone can be a human rights leader as long as they have conviction, but what does it mean to be one?
Rosa Parks said, “Each person must live their life as a model for others.”
To me, that sums up what it means to be a human rights leader – someone who lives his or her life as a role model for others.
I have had the privilege of working with human rights activists for many years. While I acknowledge the efforts and sacrifices they make, it is extremely rare to come across a leader who has been an inspiring role model to me.
As a young human rights officer many years ago, I had the opportunity to work with an esteemed senior constitutional rights advocate. I recall an experience where this particular person took offence and reprimanded me when I offered polite suggestions because he perceived them as a challenge to his seniority. His egotistical nature was antithetical to what a human rights leader should be. Not only did I feel I was being shut down, shamed and left disempowered, but I was also not treated as equal.
I also had an experience where a senior human rights lawyer did not come to my defence when I was bullied by his peers. There were also those who had broken their promises and commitments to project deliverables, displaying a total lack of professionalism and respect for work ethics.
As a woman, I’ve encountered sexist human rights activists who disregard women rights and gender equality. They pride themselves for defending the rights of political detainees and death row prisoners, but cannot conceive of the idea that feminism is a valid and important human rights concept.
Hypocrisy and egotism are two terrible things but made worse when it is being practised by the very people who pride themselves as human rights defenders. We can all learn the principles and theories of human rights but to really understand, believe and practise them are what sets a human rights activist and a human rights leader apart.
I acknowledge that human beings are fallible and it may seem that I was conjuring up the image of a saint when I described the qualities of a human rights leader. On the contrary, my point is that all human beings make mistakes but a leader knows when and how to apologise for it.
In summary, your activism in the public’s eyes does not make you a human rights leader. How you treat every person in your daily life and being accountable for your actions, do.
*This article was published on The Star paper on 10 December 2016 in conjunction with World Human Rights Day. The original post can also be found here

The beauty and the beast of Harar - Part II

Due to negative stereotypes of hyenas conjured by cartoons and movies, I always thought that they were nasty and ugly-looking beasts. Surprisingly, they looked cute and adorable, especially their ears. They were round, fluffy and I assumed soft to the touch, not unlike the pandas’. Their spotted hairy coats looked clean and resembled those of tortoise-shell cats.
Balai and Solomon returned but they were not alone. They were followed by a pack of bigger hyenas. The hyenas were surprisingly a somber lot as none of them cackled as I thought they would. I guess feeding is serious business when it comes to the hyenas that have come to depend on the locals to fill their stomachs every day.
Solomon then took a weaved basket filled with long strips of raw red meat and sat cross-legged in the middle of the feeding site. The hyenas definitely knew the feeding protocol as none of them came rushing after the basket.
I couldn’t help but smile when I saw the image of a man spanking a hyena like a misbehaving child. I must say that such taming technique is by far more endearing than a whip used by circus folks.
It is also times like this when the cynicism in me vanished as I see the interaction and harmony between men and beasts.
Solomon then tried to spice up the feeding spectacle by feeding the hyenas directly from his mouth. This pleased the tourists a lot as they gaped and awed over it. The tourists were encouraged to do the same, guided carefully by Solomon. While only a few managed to brave it, others changed their minds at the very last second.
I personally didn’t try it, not because of fear. I was simply savouring the moment and for some reason, I was completely engrossed with my own thoughts to even notice how close I was to the hyenas and two had in fact brushed against my legs.
It was a chilling experience, sometimes I would wonder whether the hyenas might go on a wild rampage, but most of the time, just touched by the thought that human beings and wild animals can co-exist in harmony together, just the way nature has intended. I had tears brimming in my eyes.
The tears didn’t last long because unfortunately, this practice is now very much tourist-orientated.
Once every last strip of meat had been devoured by the hyenas, an overweight bald man stepped in to replace Solomon. For added value, the man gave several performances to demonstrate his chivalry and dominance over the hyenas, much to my disgust although to the delight of many other. He was forcing one of the hyenas to lie on the floor so that he could sit on it. In my mind, I thought there was no chivalry at all since the hyenas were all fed by then.
Adding salt to injury, in the middle of his performance, his mobile phone in his pocket went off and he answered it with a great sense of importance. For me, it just ruined the whole thing because then, it just proves how men will always want to dominate things. It also made a mockery out of the whole ritual by disturbing the elements of what had supposed to be a traditional practice in tune with nature. The co-existence and co-dependency between human beings and animals are being tossed out in the name of power and greed.
We left the site before the “show” ended in protest, believing that as tourists, we all have some level of responsibility. There are times when we should encourage the co-dependency and interaction between human beings and animals in order to preserve the latter’s existence. There are others when we shouldn’t and it was clear to me that the act of dominance and manipulation of animals by man just for the sheer pleasure of it is not one of them.
In the end, although disappointed by how the feeding had ended, I went home with a comforting thought. It is not often when we are touched by the act of human beings but sometimes that rare moments do come and it did come for me. When it comes, savour it and take the moment to see, listen and feel it with your heart. I didn’t even take any photos but what I saw that night will remain with me for as long as I live.
The author spent one year in Ethiopia and hated it in the beginning. She eventually learned to appreciate the country despite initial culture shocks and daily struggle to fan off stares by both men and women.

* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.
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The beauty and the beast of Harar - Part I

As the sky bids farewell to the descending sun and welcomes the moonlight, Butar, Rajoo, Mimi, Kamer, Tika, Shimay, Deeish and the rest slowly appear out of nowhere. Like vampires, they only emerge when darkness falls upon the ancient city of Harar. It isn’t eerie but in fact, simply magical. They are hyenas, part of the local inhabitants that have roamed the city of Harar for centuries.
Like any other night, these hyenas make their way from the wild to the Fallana Gate, one of the designated feeding sites situated in the old city. At the site, they crouch and wait patiently to be fed by Hyena Men; Balai and Solomon, two brothers entrusted with the revered role of feeding the hyenas every night without fail.
Local legend has it that during the 19th century, a great famine hit the city of Harar. In order to make sure that the hyenas would not attack the local population and their valuable livestocks, continuous feeding of the hyenas during good times was thought to appease them. After more than 200 years, this tradition still exists today even though it may not be for the same purpose.
While doing some research about hyena feeding, I’ve noticed that most articles written about it failed to mention what made my own experience so magical and unforgettable; the calling of the hyenas. Unfortunately (or rather fortunately), most people who visit Harar to see the hyena being fed are never told about the enticing foreplay which leads up to the feast.
Before our visit to the feeding site that day, my photographer friend, Irada and I, walked around the old city; flapping our elbows around like mad women in an attempt to drive away the ubiquitous flies which would have otherwise congregated happily on the sight of any bare skin. What could be worse than the omnipresent stench of bodily wastes which seemed to permeate the air from all corners of the ancient wall? It took a lot of mind power to conquer the scent of the old city of Harar and it was definitely not for the faint-hearted.
One thing which I still appreciate about this Unesco World Heritage Site is how unashamedly primitive the city is; the Hararis still hang on to their traditional ways of life; including the method of waste disposal. It is dirty, smelly, crowded, noisy and completely devoid of any pretentious “tourist glitters”.
We were the first ones to arrive at Fallana Gate and our car was parked right at the front of the feeding site. I was delighted to see that the site was nothing more than any other regular residential area in Harar; simple and natural with the added value of a garbage dumpster by the side. I was a little apprehensive that the whole area would be “dolled up” to accommodate tourists.
While waiting, we also had the opportunity to interact with the local scruffy-looking children and their friendly mongrel pet, Sina, who was obviously excited from the looks of its wagging tail nineteen a dozen despite being used to the flocks of tourists arriving every year.
While sitting in our car waiting patiently for sundown, Balai came to greet us on his way to the cliff to start his faithful “courtship” with the hyenas. He was a surprisingly   young man in his twenties and all the time we thought that in order to earn the title of Hyena Man, one has to be elderly and distinguished. However, he did exude a certain calmness and maturity for someone that age.
After a very brief conversation with our driver, Balai walked away. Out of sheer curiosity and also boredom, Irada and I got off the car and followed him. After walking for about less than 100 meters, what appeared, but most importantly, what was heard before us truly tugged at the strings of our hearts.
First of all, the image was astounding. Balai and his younger brother, Solomon, both stood on two rock formations, which towered above what seemed to be a foliage of trees and corn plantations beneath. There were some small houses along the path leading deep into the forest. The sun was slowly setting and there was complete silence apart from the occasional indecipherable rhythmic calling of the hyenas. Balai and Solomon took turns to call for up to twenty names; apparently that was the size of the pack. We stood there, in a trance, listening to their voices.
Balai and Solomon ignored us but continued to perform this sacred ritual with full dedication and commitment. We became brazen by their oblivion towards us and took the liberty to get closer to them and subsequently climbed on top of the rocks. The view was simply breathtaking and the lighting from dusk had created a sense of romanticism which made the whole experience none other than a simple a love story between men and beasts.
After getting used to the sound of the hyena names, we couldn’t wait to see them. Being a cynic, I was waiting to witness whether any of these hyenas would actually answer to their names. We were told that the hyenas would travel a distance from as far as 10km! Occassionally, I saw a few locals walking unassumingly along the narrow path leading to the houses, completely oblivious to the sound of the men and unperturbed by the arrival of the hyenas at any time soon.
We waited with abated breath and after about 15 minutes, Solomon whispered to Balai and from his gentle gestures but urgent tone of voice, we knew they were coming. My heart started to throb with more frequency and I found myself holding my breath, waiting for something extraordinary to happen.
By then, Irada had left us by galloping down the hill towards the corn plantation, trying her luck to catch a close up photo of approaching hyenas. Only then, did Balai and Solomon become slightly agitated. In my heart, I thought, “Gosh, will it take only two stupid foreigners to mess up this ancient practice?”
As soon as I spotted a hyena slowly approaching from the corn plantation, I abandoned my thought immediately. I was so engrossed with seeing one in its natural surrounding, I had forgotten completely about the potential danger my friend faced! Then, another one appeared from a different direction as it slowly made its way to the top of the hill.
By then, Solomon quickly signalled Irada to come back. Soon enough, the sky was close to being dark and we were both asked to leave the site immediately. They had come and it was time for us to go.
We obediently left and waited by the side of our car. Other tourists were already gathered with their cameras ready for feeding time. As soon as it became dark, the headlights of our car were turned on to illuminate the site. Only then did I notice four sets of luminous eyes close by. They belonged to two hyena cubs crouching patiently not too far away, waiting quietly for the rest to arrive.
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.
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Humanising Photography

This was written on 2 July 2008 but was never published. Since then, I've tweaked it. 

When you look at a beautiful portrait of a woman taken by a reputable photographer, what do you see? Do you see the woman and ask yourself who she is? Or do you see it as a work of art by someone whom you have great admiration for? Now that I've seen a photographer in action, I tend to see the subject rather than the creator and ask myself the question, at what price?

I am not a photographer but I think I know how to appreciate a good photograph when I see one. I could be wrong of course, but anyway, that's not the point of this article. I have tremendous respect for photographers because they seem to have that ability to make the things we wouldn't normally even pay attention to become visible and pronounced. And what about photojournalists? Taking pictures in conflict zones is by no way a small feat especially when one’s life is at risk but they do it anyway and that’s what I call true passion and love for the craft they do. 

Recently, I had a chance to travel with a photographer. We were doing a small project together on traditional tribes in Ethiopia. I must confess that it finally dawned on me the sort of challenges faced by a photographer. At the same time, I am completely in awe by how powerful a camera can be. Just imagine its ability to immortalise images, and therefore, I suppose part of the reasons why many human beings tend to change their natural state of being, by either pulling a funny face or just a mere sterile smile, whenever they are confronted by a camera. I believe it is a way to shield our vulnerability and nakedness. Hence, part of the challenges a photographer has to face is to try to capture portraits of people when they are completely oblivious of his or her presence. I could tell it wasn’t easy especially when a photographer is using a 24-70mm zooming lens.

While the photographer and I were passing by a village, we saw a young woman walking unassumingly along the street while balancing a basket on top of her head. This time, the photographer seized the moment. She yelled out to our driver frantically and ordered him to stop the car and she rushed out to her. As soon as the young woman saw her with a camera, she became nervous and agitated. She didn’t want to be photographed and protested profusely.

After some time of coaxing and an offer of payment, she finally relented albeit being utterly uncomfortable. The photographer then took to her task by instructing her to make several poses. By then, they were attracting attention from other villagers who had gathered to watch the whole fiasco, much to the woman’s mortification. I could see she was very shy and timid and I guess she didn't expect to be made a spectacle that day.

I remained in the car with the driver who was still recovering from the shock of being yelled at suddenly. While I appreciated the photographer’s passion and artistic vision, I couldn’t help but feel the objectification of a human being, all in the name of photography. It felt ugly and I didn’t like it.

Then there were occasions when the photographer had singled out a girl who is blessed with better looks than the rest of her group in order to make some aesthetic portraits. The looks of rejection and disappointment on the other girls were apparent but much to the oblivion of the photographer. For this part, I understood that the photographer had to pick the most appropriate subject according to her artistic vision, but perhaps it could have been done in a more sensitive manner; i.e. take photos of the other girls as well to make them feel appreciated and included.

One day, I decided to share my feelings with the photographer, much to her disappointment. She defended her actions by explaining to me that it is part of the profession. "If you want a take a good picture, you cannot afford to compromise your instinct", she said. Her justification was, she didn't become a good photographer by being polite or nice, but by submitting herself to her photographic instinct.

I argued that there is a difference between being a good photographer and one with social intelligence, quoting the example of Clint Eastwood and Stanley Kubricks’ directing methods which I have read from Karl Albrecht’s book called Social Intelligence: The New Science of Success. According to Albrecht, while both directors are extremely talented, Eastwood adopts a more humane approach by being respectful to his casts while Kubrick preferred to instill fear by screaming and maintaining a constant state of anxiety in them. The difference? Well, Eastwood’s staffs and casts are happier which makes production time shorter while Kubrick to the contrary.

In the end, the photographer and I agreed to disagree on the basis that we both have our justifications from two different perspectives; hers from an artistic point of view while mine, from a human angle. The good thing was, she was humble enough to admit that her behaviour towards the driver was uncalled for and subsequently apologised to him. For this, I have huge respect for her but how many other photographers though are willing to admit their own shortcomings?

As I read David Turton’s article entitled “Lip-Plates and the People Who Take Photographs” in Anthropology Today Vol. 20, I was hit with another disconcerting revelation about photography.

In his article, he wrote,

On the one hand, then, the lip-plate is prized by Mursi men and women as a mark of their cultural identity and political autonomy. On the other hand, they recognize that outsiders see it as a mark of their backwardness, which must be abandoned if they are to gain the benefits of ‘development’. This ambivalence is heightened by another and, at first sight, contradictory message about the lip-plate which has been reaching the Mursi in recent years, through the activities of tourists. For, while tourists are presumed to share the general disdain for, not to say disgust at, the practice shown by outsiders, they nevertheless come great distances mainly, it seems, in order to photograph this symbol of Mursi backwardness.”

In his article, he also quoted an interview with three Mursi men shown in a television documentary made in 1991. When asked why they thought tourists were taking their photographs, they answered that they didn't know since most tourists just came, took their photographs and left without saying anything. While they were often perceived as uncivilised thieves, one of the men commented that the failure of tourists to pay what the Mursi regarded as a fair price for photographs, were in fact thieves themselves.

To what extent a photographer needs to go in order to defend his or her artistic integrity? What about the dignity of human beings? Can there ever be a compromise?

Perhaps I have been quick to generalise photographers based on one experience and if so, I do apologise. However, I do stand by my conviction that what defines an intelligent and talented photographer from simply a talented one is the one who manages to defend his artistic integrity without compromising the dignity of others. One who puts his subjects and those around him as the core essence of his artistic achievements.

Without the people, there won’t be a subject.

I think it is time for photographers and viewers to see portraits of people as the main subject and not just an object.