Archive | January 2011

Happy John Chilembwe Day

January 15th (I’m late by 2 days) is the Malawian holiday celebrating the life of the Reverend John Chilembwe (1871 – February 3, 1915). Chilembwe was an ordained Baptist minister and an one of the first serious advocates of African independence and self-determination. Educated in Lynchburg, Virginia, he set up a number of schools to educate Malawian children and adults, amassing more than 1000 students, and teaching a message of education, hard-work, self-reliance and abstinence from alcohol.

Chilembwe stage a number of violent uprisings against European plantation owners, who were known to underpay and abuse workers. He advocated killing all male European farmers within Malawi, and later killed a powerful farmer who had burned several of his schools, while forcing his family to watch. Chliembwe was eventually killed attempting to flee Malawi to Mozambique.

While the history of African independence and abuse is complicated and deep, it is this event which, in my opinion stained Chilembwe’s legacy and makes him a complicated historical figure. Had he advocated a non-violent uprising against Colonialists and been successful, the man would have been a giant on the level of Gandhi, or MLK. Agreeably, such a strategy may not have been possible. Regardless, the importance of Chilembwe in inspiring independence movements all over Africa and in spreading a message against racism and exploitation cannot be denied.

Chilembwe is featured on all Malawian currency, and is widely respected throughout the country.

China, Rights, Silence and a Challenge

I am here to make a challenge.

I was recently reading a report from Human Rights Watch on the Chinese government’s failure to deliver on its National Human Rights Action Plan (NHRAP). The NHRAP is a broad document drawn up in 2009 to address the most basic of human and social rights questions within China today. It creates targets for the expansion of rights to basic standards of living, assembly, information, speech and the rights of ethnic groups. On it’s own, it is a laudable document.

The cynic in me believes that the document is nothing but a smoke screen designed to deflect criticism of what is, from my perspective, a brutal and authoritarian one-party government representing the interests of only the most wealthy members of a single ethnic group.

According to HRW, little progress has been made in terms of information, speech and political rights, and according to monitors, the situation has only gotten worse. The report contains a litany of abuses which have increased from 2009-2010, not the least of which include torture, illegal detention, broad use of the death penalty, heavier restrictions on the dissemination of information and internet freedom, arrests and disappearances of political dissidents and tighter controls on Uighurs and Tibetan groups.

All of this should be of no surprise to anyone. However, I am often curious as to what the average Chinese citizen feels about the broad abuses and totalitarian nature of it’s government. Here at the University of Michigan, science departments are filled with students from China. In some departments, the number of Chinese graduate students dwarfs that of domestic students. Yet, only once have I ever heard a Chinese student express anything remotely political, and that was to slam Japan’s incredible abuses during World War II. Outside of that, the only things I have seen were demonstrations against free-Tibet protesters during the Beijing Olympics.

In short, the silence is deafening.

I am very familiar with (and disgusted by) the incredible abuses of the United States government and US based businesses. We tend to wage the most egregious abuses against people who don’t have the right to vote or who live outside the US. Historically, we have committed genocide, silenced dissidents by putting bullets through their heads and are noted for vast abuses against ethnic minorities, not the least of which includes the slave trade.

There, I got that out of the way. A criticism of China is not to assume superiority of the United States or Europe. In fact, it is because some people in the West are so familiar with the fruits of genocide, racism and business/governments out of control that we criticize China. Plus, they make stuff cheaply for us, using the poorly paid, desperately poor people from the countryside, racking the conscience of some.

So, I challenge anyone from China to explain to me how the vast abuses of the Chinese government are in the least bit defensible. Please explain to me how these abuses are in anyway different from former occupiers such as Japan and Britain. Please explain to me how the occupation of Tibet and the cultural genocide of the Tibetans is vastly different from the Japanese occupation of East Asia or the colonization of Africa, or the Native American genocide.

Please perhaps explain to me what exactly the Chinese government is so afraid of that it needs to jail and torture all persons critical of its policies. Is the Republic truly that weak?

I do not seek to humiliate, I seek to understand. I would very much like to know if there are people out there who may be as outraged as I am.

You can contact me anonymously if you wish.

My email address is

Malawian “Witches” Freed: Thank You to all Who Helped

Last Friday, I received a post on the Malawi Association of Secular Humanists (ASH) mailing list pleading for funds to help free three elderly women,Liness Nkhukuyalira (83) Kanthunkhako Supaunyolo (80) and Nurse Nthala (75) (pictured, left), who had been languishing in prison for witchcraft related offenses. There are well over 50 people in Malawian prisons for witchcraft crimes. George Thindwa, a member of ASH and a tireless defender of secular rights, managed to secure the release of three of them in exchange for a fine of approximately $30, an incredible sum for the typical Malawian.

Immediately, I posted pleas for donations from friends and members of the University of Michigan community. The response was overwhelming. Many came from friends and acquaintances, but others came from all quarters of the UM community. We managed to raise over $600, well above our target of $250 (fines, transport and household money). The remaining money will be set aside to aid others who may be have the opportunity to be released in the future. THANK YOU TO EVERYONE. This is a great step not only for the Malawian Humanists, but also for human rights.

Witchcraft accusations in Malawi predominantly occur in extremely poor areas, are largely directed at elderly women who live alone, and orphaned children who must live with relatives. Often the accused are mentally ill or epileptic. The accusers are overwhelmingly children. Cases are heard with little evidence, and a lack of financial resources and education among the accused prevent them from defending themselves against prosecution.

I wired George money on Saturday, and he immediately left for the court on Monday morning, paid their fine and received their release orders. He then drove to the prison secured the ladies’ release and let them stay in his home for the evening. He then transported the women back to their villages in Salima, and arranged a meeting with the local chiefs.

The back story is that the child pictured at the right with the red shirt developed a nose bleed one night and claimed Ms. Supaunyolo beat him on the nose because he had lost the key to her magic plane. The family then went to the village headman, who contacted police and had Ms. Supaunyolo tried and imprisoned.

The release of these three women garnered the attention of all of the major Malawian news outlets, in addition to being featured on the BBC (update forthcoming). It is hoped that the awareness of cases such as this will lead to the release of the other 50 or so people held on witchcraft related crimes, and for the courts to cease prosecuting them.

What happens to the women in their villages is, of course, of grave concern. However, the alternative, dying in the squalid conditions of a Malawian prison, are far worse. We can very much only hope that the incident is forgotten and that the members of the village reconcile. George spoke with the village leaders, and it is hoped that the village chiefs can work to ensure that cases like this never happen again.

Until then, THANK YOU. The small contributions that everyone made had MASSIVE impacts in the lives of these three women and will send waves of positive effects for human rights in Malawi. Below are pictures of the release letter from the court, and of Mr. Thindwa with a village leader. Listed below that are people who are still in prison for withcraft related offenses who await release.

Release letter from the court.

George Thindwa with the village headman.

No Name of Person Age Sex Offence Sentence(months or years) Remarks by ASH
1. Stella Maganizo 40 F Pretending witchcraft 48 months Recommended for release
2. Dumisani Tamverankhani 60 M Practicing Witchcraft 5 years  
3. Jambo Mwachangu 19 M Conduct related to witchcraft 3 months &d 8 months  
          wef- 7/12/09 &11/11/09 —–do——
4. Pirirani Mangochi 18 F Pretending witchcraft 12 months-wef-12/05/10 —–do——
5. Roseline Bema 40 F Practicing witchcraft 24 months —–do——
6. Lafikesi 78 M Pretending witchcraft 60 months Old and very sick. Need to be released immediately for medical attention.
  Tamverankhani       wef-10/01/08  
7. Ferson 70 M Practicing witchcraft 30 months  
  Mkolokosa       wef 23-06-10 Recommended for release
8. James Kunje 68 M Pretending witchcraft 60 months  
          wef-13/10/09 —–do——
9. Lester Sawerenga 44 M Pretending witchcraft 12 months  
          Wef20/09/10 —–do——
10. Henderson Chiosela 70 M Pretending witchcraft 12 months —–do——
          wef- 12/05/10  
11. Wyson Kanjiwa 46 M Practicing witchcraft 60 months  
          wef-19/01/09 —–do——
12. Agness Clement 36 M Practicing witchcraft 3 years —–do——
14. Aubi Jali 33 M Practicing witchcraft 5 years  
16. Betina Sitolo 48 F Practicing witchcraft 5 years  
          wef-11/01/08 —–do——
17. Ambilira Amadu 53 F Practicing witchcraft 2 years  
          wef-19/02/10 —–do——
18. Malita James 48 F Practicing witchcraft 5 years  
          wef-11/04/08 —–do——
19. Uka Ajabu 70 F Pretending witchcraft 24 Months  
          wef-5/10/09 —–do——
20. Ngasonje Maida 74 F Pretending witchcraft 24 Months  
          wef-5/10/09 —–do——
21. Margaret Jackson 70 F Practicing witchcraft 48 months  
          wef-19/07/10 —–do——
22. Eviness Elifar 58 F Practicing witchcraft 48 months Has epilepsy and suffers from frequent fits. Needs medical attention.
23. Justice Mpinganjira 45 M Practicing witchcraft Not convicted. Denied the charge. Died on remand. He should be released posthumously
24. Namakhalepo Kamphata 80 F Practicing witchcraft 36 months Old. Sick, Walks with clutches. Must be released to die at her home.
25. Chigayo Tchale 75 M Practicing witchcraft 36 months Old and sickly. Needs medical attention.
26. Alubano Alibelito 59 M Pretending witchcraft 18 months Recommended for release
27. Chikumbutso Mponda 25 M Practicing witchcraft 60 months —–do——
28. Elenora Lilipati 70 F Practicing 2 years —–do——
        witchcraft wef-  
29. Amina Asamu 70   Witchcraft 3 years  
          wef- —–do——
30. Zuwana Kampalira 65 F Practicing 30 Months  
        witchcraft wef-11/12/09 —–do——
31. Namalinda Josephy 70 F Practicing 30 Months  
        witchcraft t wef-11/12/09 —–do——
32. William Lamwira 18 M Conduct related to witchcraft 3 months  
          wef-26/10/10 —–do——
33. Fiades Felix 55 F Practicing 72 months  
        Witchcraft Date of discharge —–do——
34. Lexa Nyirongo 45 F Teaching children witchcraft 3 months —–do——
35. Elvas Zimba 78 F Teaching children witchcraft 3 months Old. Must not be in Prison.
36. Irene Mundoli 57 F Teaching children witchcraft 3 months Recommended for release
37. Lea Nyimba 62 F Teaching children witchcraft 4 years There were 3 Nyimbas- all convicted at the same time.
38. Mbonani 16 M Alleged to have committed murder through witchcraft, i.e is said to have pierced a stick through the anus of the deceased through magic.    
  Sanditchaye       On remand. Recommended for release
          Wef- 6/ 4/ 10  
39. Kelentine 63 F Practicing On Remand  
  Chikondoni     Witchcraft Wef-27-03-10  
40. Williams Dickens Mzembe 52 M Pretending Witchcraft. Not convicted yet. A case for withdrawal. The State has brought against them trapped up charges of pretending witchcraft. They are staying in Chinsapo, Likuni and the Accusers stay in Area 18. It is alleged they fly at night to cause havoc in Area 18.
        Yet the Accused are answering to accusations relating to practicing witchcraft, i.e. teaching children witchcraft    
          Their accusers have not been charged  
41. Doris Mzembe ( wife to Williams Mzembe above) 60 F Same as above Same as above Same as above
42. Ms. Kate Kanjere 55 F Teaching children witchcraft 72 months On bail pending appeal. We recommend case withdrawal.
          DOF- (15/7/08  
43. Luth Msukwa 35 F Teaching children witchcraft 72 months On bail pending appeal. We recommend case withdrawal.
          DOR- (15/7/08  
44. Margaret Jali 39 F Practicing witchcraft. 3 6 months. She was at Chichiri prison Appealed. We recommend case withdrawal (as in Severe Kalonga below).
45. Severe Kalonga 64 F Practicing witchcraft 3 years. Appealed. Recommend withdrawal of case.
          She was at Chichiri prison

Math, Mishima and Gender Outrage

Shortly before his death, Yukio Mishima adapted his 1966 short story, “Yuukoku” into a short film, the English title of which is “The Rite of Love and Death.” Edward Frenkel, a math professor at UC Berkeley, produced his own short film “The Rite of Love and Math,” which mostly frame for frame replicates Mishima’s film, albeit in a math context.

Originally, the “The Rite of Love and Math” was to be shown along with Mishima’s film under the sponsorship of the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute. However, after cries from students and colleagues that Frenkel’s film contained misogynistic messages that girls can’t do math, or at least have to suffer while men tattoo math on their bodies, the sponsorship of the MSRI was pulled but the showing went as planned. It is likely that the controversy generated more than enough publicity for the film.

You can judge for yourself whether Frenkel is a misogynist or not. It’s rare that math generates much controversy of this kind, let alone intersections of math and Japanese film.

“Rites of Love and Math” screening in Berkeley from Edward Frenkel on Vimeo.

and the original, which is, of course, vastly superior:

Movie of the Week: The Last Stage (Pl. Ostatni etap) 1947

Polish resistance fighter and filmmaker Wanda Jakubowska was interned in Auschwitz in 1945 until the arrival of allied forces. In 1948, she produced and directed this incredible document of life in the famous concentration camp, filming it on the camp’s grounds and using former prisoners as actors.

Trainloads of new prisoners are coldly split into groups, half of which are killed immediately and the other half which are to endure life in Auschwitz. Children are birthed and quickly killed in the camps. One woman is chosen as an interpreter due to her ability to speak German, but her entire family is killed on arrival. Polish prisoners acting as guards are depicted as more brutal than the Nazi wardens. Starvation, abuse and a complete and total denial of human dignity are shown as an everyday reality. The film softens the true horrors of the camps, simply for practical reasons. In the words of Jakubowska hereself, “the camp’s reality was human skeletons, piles of dead bodies, lice, rats, and various disgusting diseases. On the screen this reality would certainly cause dread and repulsion. It was necessary to eliminate those elements which, although authentic and typical, were unbearable for the post-war viewer.”

It must have taken incredible courage to participate in making of the film. While certainly not noted, I am positive that the emotional and physical toll on the actors must have been immense. While rarely screened and mostly unavailable in 2011, Ostatni etap is perhaps the best film on the Holocaust yet.

Great article on Ostatni etap here

Dr. Louise Reiss, RIP

It what was a landmark triumph of science over warfare, Dr. Louise Reiss single-handedly put an end to nuclear testing in the United States in 1959. Collecting more than 300,000 baby teeth from the St. Louis, Reiss was able to demonstrate that the levels of radioactive agents in teeth post nuclear testing were significantly higher than before. The implication was that fallout from nuclear testing was entering the food supply and placing the American population at elevated risk for a host of negative health outcomes. President Kennedy, recognized the results of the study and successfully worked in a worldwide ban on atmospheric nuclear testing with the cooperation of the Soviet Union.

One can only assume that Reiss’ study, had it been performed in 2011, would have been widely discredited and decried as fabricated science and a threat to national security. Thankfully, the powers on both sides of the Cold War saw fit to put human health above the ability to wipe out all life on earth. The data and samples collected from her study, continue to this day.

Urgent Appeal for Donations to Free 3 Elderly Women Accused of Witchcraft in Malawi

Hello all,

I am a member and supporter of the Malawi Association of Secular Humanists (ASH). One of their functions is to provide advocacy to persons accused of and imprisoned for, crimes of witchcraft. The accused are often elderly women, living alone. Accusations are often made by children, and crimes are prosecuted with little evidence. Once imprisoned, they must endure the most deplorable of living conditions, and many will not survive their prison sentences.

Three elderly women in Malawi have recently been convicted of witchcraft related crimes and are to serve 12 months in prison. The courts have offered the option of paying a fine to obtain release. The total cost of the fines and transport back to their home villages will be $250 US for all three.

This is not a scam, this is absolutely for real. You are free to contact me if you have any doubts.

I am writing to implore everyone who reads this blog to consider donating to help these women. The sooner they are released, the better.

If you would like to help, please contact me or send donations by PayPal at

More info is below.

Thank you,



I would like to urgently appeal for urgent funds amounting to MK 35, 000 equivalent to US$ 250.00 from all those of good will so that we have three old women released from Maula Prison. These three women are Liness Nkhukuyalira( 83 years) Kanthunkhako Supaunyolo (80 years) and Nurse Nthala(75 years). Their Case No. is 76/10. The Case was held at Msongandeu court in Mvera, Salima.

These ladies have been sentenced to 12 months in Prison BUT there an option for a fine of MK 6000.00 each. They can pay the fine and be released immediately. If not, they will have to serve the custodian sentence of 12 months at Maula prison.

They were sentenced on 13th December 2010 and up to now they cannot find any money and because of this they are serving the sentence. They are old and poor! I was at Maula prison today on 7th January 2011 to see the other persons who are serving sentences and I came across these unfortunate old ladies.

Please colleagues can we help them as soon as possible so that they are released. The money will have to be paid at Msongandeu Court in Salima and then a receipt will be given and a release order. This will then be submitted to Maula prison for their release.

There would be need for an additional MK17 , 000 to cover transport (by car) to and from Salima , i.e to pay the fine and delivery them back to their homes. Therefore in total, MK35,000 would be required.

You can contact Mr Chimwendo, a guard at Maula prison on this number regarding the above matter for confirm; + 265 0 999349601.

Race in America: If you just ignore it, it will go away

In one day, we watch the scissors chop racial epithets from Mark Twain’s classic “Huckleberry Finn” 219 times, then we get to watch our new, dedicated collection of elected officials gloss over the more controversial sections of the US Constitution which denied rights to African-Americans.

Alan Gribben, a professor of literature in Montgomery, Alabama (big surprise), has developed his own version of Huckleberry Finn that is free of that particular racial epithet, ostensibly to keep Twain’s classic on school reading lists. Now, let’s just put aside from the absurdity of trying to shield young ears from the N word when it regularly appears in rap music and in daily exchanges of white and black alike. Most children will most likely hear sanitized uses of the N word, as passed from the god-children of Tupac rather than the true and disgusting uses of it from a cultural critic like Mark Twain.

The consequences of cutting out this important piece of Huck Finn are devastating. Spineless school administrators may seek to cut Huck Finn from reading lists due to sensitivities of parents, but the result is that children are denied an important opportunity to learn of the awful history of the term, and it’s connotations that humans can be bought and sold freely. Gribben, who resides in the heart of what was America’s apartheid, should be well aware of the importance of maintaining awareness of the United States’ very ugly history.

The new House of Representatives convened yesterday, and, caving to the batshit demands of the self appointed protectors of the founding fathers, the Tea Party, read the US Constitution aloud. However, our fine lawmakers saw it fit, to remove sections counting black persons as 3/5ths of a human for taxation purposes, and one Congressmen abstained from reading the 14th Amendment that grants citizenship to all persons born within the borders of the United States and grants all residents of the United States equal protection under the law. Reportedly, Representative Phil Gingrey of Georgia, abstained due to his opposition to “anchor babies,” or, in common parlance, the children of brown people.

The reading of Article 1 of the Constitution and recognizing the 14th Amendment should stand as a testament to whatever progress we have made since those miserable and embarrassing times. It is distressing that a publicly employed University professor, caving to demands of publicly employed school administrators, would choose to revise the very history they are supposed to be teaching. Gingrey clearly does not understand the incredible significance of the 14th Amendment, which validated many of the founding father’s dream of a state that provided equal rights to all. Gingrey, of course, would have been on the side of land-owning white people, who profited off of the ownership of human beings.

Sweeping our countries ugly race politics and history under the mat will not make it go away. Yes, we have made incredible strides toward a truly equal society in terms of African Americans, but have made conversations about race so taboo, that they are being replaced by equally ugly but more insidious forms of institutional bigotry such as what we’ve repeatedly seen in Arizona, and in conversations about denying rights and protection to Hispanics and non-citizens.

The average American feels perfectly comfortable using bigoted speech in terms of welfare recipients, undocumented workers and non-English speakers. What they need to hear, is that they are merely carrying on an age old tradition of bigotry and hate. Hatred is a cancer. Like cancer, ignoring it will not make it go away.

No Smoking in Zion: “Cut it out, you fool”

I don’t know where this graphic came from, but it’s reportedly an anti-smoking sign from the town of Zion, Illinois, erected in 1915. The second sentence is classic.

Clearly, it was well known that cigarettes caused cancer and strokes, even back in 1915, despite the tobacco industry’s fight against scientific claims that carried well into the 60’s and 70’s.

Zion, apparently, was founded as a Christian oasis in a country fraught with sin by a Mr. John Alexander Dowie. In addition to regular (and popular) faith healings, he was also known for waging a “Prayer Duel” with self-appointed Muslim prophet, Hadhrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad. Ahmad was a complicated figure himself.

It was said that whoever died first during the duel would be exposed as a fraud. Dowie died a year before Ahmad of alcoholism.

100 Books in 2011

New Years is always full of resolutions and promises, most of which fall to the wayside once the reality of work sets back in. My resolution this year is to read 100 books, at least in part. This is not an extreme move. 365 books would be ridiculously extreme and would call my very sanity into question, unless I were reading Harlequins or counted comic books as “books”. The difference will be that I will at least make some attempt to document the project, creating a personal diary of what should be, an in depth bibliography of works relating to topics of interest on this blog. I won’t review them all. That would take an extra year. I will, however, make an attempt to review the most impressive.

At 100 books over the course of the calendar year of 2011, that would be approximately one book every 3.65 days, not an unreasonable feat.

Starting now, I’m up to three books. Here’s one:

Aung San Suu Kyi – “Letters from Burma”Aung San Suu Kyi should require no real introduction. For the past several decades, Aung San Suu Kyi has fought tirelessly for democratic reforms in Burma, which has suffered under a brutal authoritarian regime since 1962. Part political revolutionary and human rights advocate, part intellectual, along with being the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi has spent the better part of the past two decades under house arrest. During this time she has continued her fight for democracy in Burma, using a non-violent, people centered approach while generating foreign support through her writings and infective charisma. “Letters from Burma” is a collection of short essays written for the Mainichi Newspaper in Japan throughout the better part of the 1990’s. What results is a series of snapshots of the struggles of the NLD Democratic party in Burma, a woman hesitantly thrust into the political spotlight and observations of a deep culture in turmoil.

What is unique about Aung San Suu Kyi’s letters is her ability to weave her unapologetic political views with support not from her political contemporaries, but with her intense Buddhist faith and her deep respect for the Burmese people and it’s long and fascinating culture. This short book, provides not only information on the political history of Burma, but also works as a primer of Burmese culture for outsiders. More importantly, her writings serve as an intense introduction to Theravadic Buddhism and how Buddhist teachings can influence politics and governance. Specifically, Aung San Suu Kyi frequently cites the The Noble Eight Fold Path as a standard for not only personal and human interactions, but all upon which the people should construct and manage the state, to ensure benefit for all.

Aung San Suu Kyi, like many other non-violent political revolutionaries, is able to endure through equal parts of dedication to the cause of a subjugated people and to human rights, and the willingness to admit her own failings and weaknesses. I conclude with a quote from her fantastic essay “Freedom from Fear:”

“It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it, and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.”

Recently released from house arrest, she has resumed her column for the Mainichi, the first of which appeared today.

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