Posts Tagged ‘Jefferson Mok

16
Jan
13

i not only waste time playing Scrabble, now i write about it, too

January 16, 2013

In between the non-profit jobs, the travels, the radio stuff, owning a dog, getting suits made, there’s a lot of waiting around. So naturally, I play Scrabble to pass the time. And over years, I’ve gotten better at it, because I play it competitively, even won some money along the way. At one point, I was the best player – in Burundi. And the only reason I’m not anymore is because I moved to New York.

So a couple friends forwarded me this article yesterday asking what I thought.

A researcher named Joshua Lewis suggested we modify the tile values in Scrabble. The argument goes that we use certain letters differently today than when Alfred Butts created Scrabble about 75 years ago. One cited example is that the Z is used more frequently and so should be worth fewer points, especially now that there is a two-letter word containing the Z (‘za’). Lewis is an American researcher but it’s interesting that British media picked up on this story in greater numbers and with more gusto – almost as if they had more at stake. Well, certainly the British use English differently these days – they sound more like Americans.

Blasphemy? I apologise – no wait, I apologiZe.

But this is a classic case of something being what it is and someone coming along, saying, “Well, ‘what is’ is different than ‘what was’ so we should make changes.” There’s a logical disconnect there. The former doesn’t really imply the latter. Let’s say we don’t change the tiles. The only consequence I can see is that scores will be slightly higher (maybe) compared to older scores. Serious players know you really score in Scrabble by playing all seven letters off a rack at once, which results in a 50-point bonus. I mean, come on, every real Scrabble player knows that. So it’s less important how much each individual tile is worth and more about how they function together to achieve a collective score, and it’s still darn hard to make a seven-letter word with a Q or a Z, no matter how much they’re worth.

The other big point why there is no need to change is because you are playing against an opponent, who is subject to the same scoring and same conditions. Scores in Scrabble are a bit like scores in basketball: you might know how to score points and can amass a lot but matched up against a solid defense and your score will obviously go down. It’s entirely possible that two masters of the game cancel each other out and both score below 400. Even when I score 400, that doesn’t mean I’m a better player than they are.

I know I’m shooting myself in the foot with these arguments. Potentially, I’m shooting many other people at the same time – these are the sorts of arguments that the gun lobby uses to justify owning M-whatever-heat-seeking-deathray-bubble-blasters instead of plain old muskets (hey, they were good enough for the Founding Fathers!). But this is Scrabble – the stakes are higher, the pressure more intense. It’s in every living room, every school. We can’t let the Brits’ funny language influence our quirky antiquated ways. Next would be the metric system, and before you know it, we’re a colony again.

(The simple solution: issue new editions with titles like ‘Original’, ‘2010 Edition’, etc., sort of like Trivia Pursuit.)

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14
Jan
13

it’s not about you. it’s not even about me.

January 14, 2013

So. I am in New York now, after four years in East Africa. I have a dog that I brought back with me from Burundi. I am attending Columbia’s School of Journalism. I started a new photoblog. And the first thing I really want to write about after the long lay-off relates to a few threads that have criss-crossed in my last few years: identity, privacy, cultural appropriation and, of course, the media. And all of these themes sort of crashed together last night at the Golden Globes when, shockingly, a celebrity named Jodie Foster revealed herself to be a wildly independent and hyper-intelligent human being with a lot on her mind. We are all still reeling with this fact. Here goes. (And yes, I’ll get back to blogging about my life-events sooner than later but there’ll be more articles like this, too.)

The way the media has seized on Jodie Foster’s speech last night at the Golden Globes reveals a desperation to appropriate the world around us, as if a pageant of Olympian celebrities congratulating themselves was not enough of an artificial media ploy. Foster is probably gracious enough to answer follow-up questions to her speech but sharp enough to realize we have all missed the point.

This sample (http://jezebel.com/5975643/jodie-foster-comes-out-in-most-amazing-awards-speech-of-our-time) in particular jarred me into a frothy indignation. I haven’t seen an article so quickly and resoundingly get it all wrong. It begins, “OK, we need to walk through what just happened.”

Actually, no, we don’t. It’s her private life.  That’s the point. She will reveal as much or as little of it as she wants, in whatever way she wants.

The article’s suggestion of a “refusal” to come out is particularly baffling. It reminds me of the speculation with Anderson Cooper before he came out. One simply has to make a personal declaration in the way others have done – with the same words, looking straight into the camera. It is the tyranny of the collective with its Own Way. It might be important for a community to hear those exact words (“I am [fill with proper designation].), in that format, but that’s not how personal choices are made or communicated. As Foster suggested, we arrive at these choices in our own way and share them with the people around us: friends, family, colleagues. Funny enough, activists and fans aren’t on that list.

What is more important here is the tone, which hints at a larger cultural trait. The public, whether it’s one person or an audience, demands more and more to be addressed directly, with a clear pronouncement, squeezing out the words that we/they want to hear. The media happily feeds that obsession. The whole routine has the feel of a confession, in the way we push for an apology – from a child who refuses to say ‘sorry’ to a sibling to evasive politicians to governments demanding accountability over wartime atrocities. Except, of course, Foster has absolutely nothing to be sorry about.

So why is this speech so provocative? Is it because she has peeked out from behind the mask that we have placed on her? More than most she has had to live in a crystal-clear media-obsessed fishbowl since the 1970s (!), and – I’m confident in saying this – she is more intelligent than most in Hollywood (or anywhere). Maybe this speech grabs our attention because, for once, here is a real conflict without a script between vastly different adversaries: the personality-less celebrity we all want to possess and the unhappy and fiercely intelligent consciousness that refuses our labels. We are always shocked when someone disagrees so fundamentally with our desires.

Every time I have seen her on a screen – during an interview, in a film, at an awards show in France (presenting in flawless French, but with an American casualness), she has immensely impressed me. And I think that can easily translate into a desire to learn or know more about a person. If I step back and ask what is this chase really about, the answer would be simple: me. Us. But if we really want to appreciate a spirit like Foster’s, we might do better with the second person. You are out there. You have a (deeply) personal identity. You are in a world vastly different than mine. You speak faster than I can think. For the brief moments where you share your thoughts and presence, I’m glad for that. Let’s leave “us” out of this.

31
Dec
12

word storm

This blog’s front page as a word cloud:

word_cloud

Wordle cloud

11
Sep
11

imagine burundi – how it all started

September 11, 2011

I haven’t posted in a long time. I feel awful and rusty, so this post may wander a bit because many things have happened since my last post. I hopped on the Trans-Siberian train and rode from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. I flew up in a hot air balloon in Cappadocia in Turkey. I left my post as Regional Director for Heartland Alliance in Burundi. And throughout that whole time, I have been producing a radio program called Imagine Burundi (Learn more about the show at www.imagineburundi.com)

It’s kind of an unbelievable statement to say I have a radio show in Burundi. Let’s take this by stages to see how Imagine Burundi happened.

Something like this usually starts out with a tepid declaration over a few drinks:

“I love radio?” (Questioning glance around the table.)

Then, in response, another’s expression of outrageous disbelief:

“No way! Me, too!”

Followed by emboldened stupidity:

“Really?! Let’s get a radio show!”

And that’s pretty much it. If that transcript of a conversation between my friend Seth Chase and me is not verbatim, it’s essentially accurate. This was back in September 2010.

But there were a few problems. Neither of us knew what to do to produce a show. I had done some broadcasting and journalism work and we both had dabbled in college radio, but if anything, that last one should have counted against me and served as a template of things to avoid. I was feeling quite bold because I had just bought a new MacBook and had the tools for the project. I figured I could just learn as I go. Probably not since discovering girls in junior high have we mixed so much ignorance with such unwarranted enthusiasm.

I was able to cling to one segment idea. For one show. But it was the kind of idea that fit so neatly for so many reasons that it just had to happen. The ideas for that one show laid out the ideal foundation for many of the episodes that followed. The idea was I would interview a taxi driver whom I had met randomly one day on the streets of Bujubura when I got in his cab. During the ride, the driver, Ilunga, seemed completely baffled when I tried to communicate with him in French. This gap was reasonable and somewhat common – some drivers lacked formal education and spoke mostly Kirundi or Swahili. But it was also frustrating given that I needed to point out my destination. So I sort of threw up my hands and sat in the passenger seat quietly. All of a sudden, Ilunga breaks out in English – really really solid English – and asks me where I’m going. So it’s my turn to be baffled. We end up talking the whole ride about how long he has studied English (20 years), if he studied it at school (no) and what he’s been doing since. That meeting happened in 2009 but I never forgot Ilunga so when I finally got approval for my show, there was no doubt I needed to speak to him first.

There were a host of reasons why Ilunga personified the show’s objectives. He was a self-taught English speaker. He was fearless. He had great stories and ideas. He was a taxi driver, meaning he was amongst the most informed, most connected people in the city – in other words, someone anyone might run into. And all of these qualities matched up with Imagine Burundi’s aims. We wanted to highlight motivated people, strong speakers of English, people who were interesting just by going about their lives (which is a lot of people) and someone you might call “working class” in a different context.

I am tired of the notion that most Burundians are poor suffering folks, victims. Yes, around 80 percent of the population is hovering at the poverty line and really struggling to make it under an ineffective government, but portraying the majority of Burundians as small/powerless victims hardly empowers them; in fact, it’s very debilitating. Because Burundians, even the farmers and laborers, are working people, people who are trying to make it, people running households, hosting parties, living lives – they’re trying to build something and framing them as victims seems like a defeat already. The ubiquitous imagery of suffering that we often see hardly expresses the everyday richness of Burundian life. (In my more cynical moments, it even feels like those portrayals are marketing tools for the aid industry.)

Take a young doctor, for example. He or she might have talent, might hold up in any city hospital in the world, but he or she would not be a priority for donors from a development framework that prioritizes victims and certain health issues. Yet, we are talking about a young doctor in Burundi, and that makes a huge difference. That means he or she may end up working at a under-supplied under-funded government clinic, making 300-400 USD a month. He or she might wonder why funding for HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment keeps getting precedence over basic medicines and supplies and trainings when the national HIV infection rate hovered around 4%. While he or she could end up relatively well off, these salaries would not be sufficient to send kids abroad for an education. So this show is for people like that as well – people with the talent and creativity and motivation but maybe not the outlet for that energy. Potential elites, maybe, but elite because of merit. This show is for the men and women and boys and girls making an effort, trying to change things, workers and intellectuals and civil servants and athletes and artists. This show is about recognizing achievement and highlighting inspired individuals. I think after three years of focusing on Burundi’s past, it has been an important evolution for me to view development as Burundians want to view it, as a movement toward a different more dynamic Burundi.

So Imagine Burundi tries to introduce listeners to Burundians, to their thoughts and dreams and ideas rather than their misery and tales of woe. I realized I’m not here to save anyone; I would rather inspire or motivate people. We may want to hear that story of suffering because it makes us feel compassion, even confirms our antiquated notions of “Africa” but it can be a self-serving and incomplete story. Imagine Burundi’s decision to broadcast entirely in English is also a statement about the country’s future direction: Burundi is now working hard to integrate into the regional community its Anglophone neighbors have constructed to increase its economic and political influence. Burundians have responded to this shift by learning English in droves. I am hoping the show will help in some small way to raising that standard as well.

Learning radio from scratch has been so rewarding and maintaining the discipline of a weekly broadcast may be one of the most refreshing parts. The show remains forever in a precarious balance of catering to different levels of English, raising intellectual standards, increasing participation and accommodating diverse audiences. Sometimes, to ensure a segment is communicated effectively, we simplify the diction or we script material or we re-use those scripts so that listeners have a chance to really absorb the message. It started as a side-project while all of us were either working full-time jobs or larger projects. So in the beginning, we gave it what time we could, streamlined production, recorded at ridiculous hours and worked right up to our broadcast time.

In some of the segments from the first few months, you can actually hear our tiredness. Our voices sound deflated, our sentences barely adhere to the subject-verb-object structure, our logic sometimes not fulfilling the requirement of being comprehensible. But we never missed a broadcast. Each and every week, we put out an hour-long show– 60 minutes of ideas and advice and stories and restaurant commentary, each of which took 20-30 hours to assemble and refine. We’ve loved every second of it.

Sometimes people ask me why Imagine Burundi sounds like This American Life (TAL). About the only time I am not asked that question is when my interlocutor has never heard of TAL. One main reason is TAL impresses us with the genius of its clarity and directness. It’s light on music and effects; it frames speakers’ voices in just the right mood with minimal fuss. But maybe the most salient (read: honest) reason is we just don’t know how to do anything else. TAL works because it’s simple. We sound like TAL because we’re simpletons. We’re still learning the basics of production elements like managing audio quality, using the right microphones, editing tape. If we’ve achieved even a tiny measure of comparison to TAL, then we’re already immensely proud. And relieved. Because even after overcoming all the challenges of getting a timeslot in the station’s schedule, there was the small matter of putting out a product people would actually listen to. It’s starting to feel like we’re on our way.

25
Jan
11

jefferson mok in the congo

One of our beneficiaries in the Congo was pregnant and decided the best way to show her gratitude for our help was to name her child after one of us: if it was a boy, he would be Jefferson Mok, if a girl, Molly Firkaly, my colleague. First name, last name – the whole deal, there was no family name to pass on. Well, guess what? It’s a boy!

Jefferson Mok with Jefferson Mok - the Original meets the New.

I even have the birth certificate to prove it – just no scanner to scan it. Some expats have a child in the Congo; probably a lot fewer are a child in the Congo.




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