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Summer Postcards 2006

The Power of Whining

We should be thankful for an unlikely treasure

By Aria S.K. Laskin

MEHEBA, Zambia—Jean Zawadi doesn’t look like a fighter at first glance. With her tightly twisted hair, colorful “chitenge” (skirt) and sorrowful eyes, Jean paints the picture of a powerless African refugee, rather than a crusader for justice. And because Jean is both of these things, she is now in serious danger.A few months ago, Jean’s fourteen-year-old daughter Dayaka was raped in Meheba Refugee Camp. She is now pregnant, out of school, and severely depressed. Her desperate mother has gone to the police, camp NGOs, and even UN representatives without any response. She has written countless letters to the leaders of these organizations, demanding justice, or even a chance for it. Instead, she has been scolded for speaking up at all. One UN employee, in response to the threats being made to Jean’s well-being, told her she has “brought this on herself.”Her case, as you can imagine, isn’t unique. Since coming here one month ago, I have heard too many stories like hers. For example, in 1994, a Congolese man died after being jailed for complaining about inadequate food rations. Through coercion, intimidation, inaccessibility, and inaction, the people of Meheba are cheated out of their right to complain. In a refugee camp with 14,000 people, no doctor, and inadequate resources, the most glaring human rights abuse is not the abysmal living conditions, but the refugees’ inability to protest or speak up about the problems in their lives.Officially, my job here is to deliver computer literacy and journalism workshops. Unofficially, I am approached every day by countless people begging me to help them get ration cards, passes to leave the camp, medicine, or sponsorship for education—all basic refugee rights denied to people here every day. I do my best to cozy up to UN employees, but what about after my white posse and I get in our jolly little bus and take off? Recently, we’ve been talking about establishing a formal complaint system, but for such a thing to work, all the stakeholders first need to acknowledge the refugees’ humanity and their right to demand justice. From my talks with these UN and NGO employees—who, coincidentally, are the only overweight people I’ve seen since landing in Africa—I don’t like our chances. They are not motivated enough. My time in Meheba has made me incredibly thankful for many things: access to food, clean water, health care, endless condoms (wishful thinking), and education. But, above all, my life here has made me appreciative of my right to speak out. I’ve been thinking a lot about Harvard, too. There, undergrads are renowned for our ability to complain about our social lives, academic advisors, dining halls, and whatever else we woke up wanting to whine about. This attitude of self-entitlement used to drive me crazy; now, I can’t wait to wake up to the complaints of a crotchety student body. Because we can, and because of what it represents for the wider world, Harvard students, stand up for your right to voice your opinion! If you feel like spending hours every day writing emails about the soggy Marshmellow Mateys or how you can’t seem to get a party grant, then I congratulate you for exercising your rights. But please take a second now to take these finely-tuned skills and think of Jean and the other refugees of Meheba Refugee Camp. I am begging you to take some time out of the compilation of your daily list of grievances to speak out for someone who is unable to complain for themselves. And if you have more than a moment to spare, reply to this postcard with an email, and I will tell you how you can complain even more effectively. So go ahead. Whine away. But for the love of Jean, Meheba, and the millions of refugees in the world, appreciate it and act accordingly first. Aria S. K. Laskin ’08, a Fifteen Minutes associate chair, is a history and literature concentrator in Cabot House. Should you want to answer her postcard call, her e-mail is laskin@fas.harvard.edu.

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Summer Postcards 2006