Nascent Collectivities: Transnational Abandonment, I

On November 20th 2008, as reported by George Washington University’s student newspaper, the Hatchet, a Latino worker installing windows in a GW residence hall was killed after a fall from the 7th floor. The worker, Rosaulino Montano, worked for Engineered Construction Products, a window subcontractor for primary contractor Clark Construction. His death was featured in one article in the Hatchet, which also reported that the Occupational Safety and Health Association (OSHA) was investigating the incident. The coverage of Montano’s life and his relationship to the university was brief. The Hatchet reported that he lived in Virginia and had several children. The conditions of his work, the events of the accident, and the relationship of the university to Clark Construction or Engineered Construction Products were not examined although the article did note that he was subcontracted to work at GW. There have been no follow up articles.

OSHA reported that sanctions had been imposed on the firm that had hired Montano. The firm “…received one serious violation for violating OSHA’s fall protection standard (1926.501(b)(1)) and a monetary penalty of $2,500.  This was the only citation and penalty issued in relation to Mr. Rosaulino Montano, 46, fatal injury.   No other employer …was deemed responsible for ensuring safety at the site.”

A brief Hatchet article dutifully marks Montano’s death: “A man fell to his death while installing a window on the seventh floor of the new GW residence hall.” It is reported that he “lost his balance” and “died instantly after he fell out of the window and hit the concrete below.” The article gives a few details about his life. Through a statement by a university spokeswoman, his family is mentioned. After this brief enunciation of concern and regret for loss of life, there is no further curiosity about his life or the manner of his death.

The language of the Hatchet article evokes personal feeling and sympathy or charity (he lived in Woodbridge and had several children) yet the structural contexts of his death aren’t explored. There is little investigation of his employment status, no investigation of what it means to be subcontracted, and no investigation of the routes, economic or otherwise, through which he came to work at the university.

The relationship between Montano and the university community is thin. His life and his death have little content or detail, and no noteworthy or substantial legal, social, economic, or emotional connection to the university community. While there are a few modes of identification, his ties to the university community are tenuous. University business continues, there is no memorial service, there are no statements of regret by university officials, and there is little coverage or desire for information about his life. The conditions of his employment, the conditions of his work, the details of the accident which killed him, and the routes through which he came to work at the university are not visible in accounts of his death.

Short lived regret and sympathy doesn’t pursue what happened to Montano’s family; they are abandoned to depoliticized charitable discourse. It doesn’t pursue the role of the state, the economic arrangement between subcontracted company and the university, the citizen status of the worker, or the relationship between his labor and the life and well-being of the university community.

Giorgio Agamben has something to say about the biopolitics of life and the institutional role of universities in neoliberalism that might help us understand `what happened to Rosaulino Montano”:

If the exception is the structure of sovereignty, the sovereignty is not an exclusively political concept, an exclusively juridical category, a power external to law … or the supreme rule of the juridical order …: it is the originary structure in which law refers to life and includes it in itself by suspending it. . . . (W)e shall give the name ban … to this potentiality … of the law to maintain itself in its own privation, to apply in no longer applying. The relation of exception is a relation of ban. He who has been banned is not, in fact, simply set outside the law and made indifferent to it but rather abandoned by it, that is, exposed and threatened on the threshold in which life and law, outside and inside, become indistinguished. It is literally not possible to say whether the one who has been banned is outside or inside the juridical order. . . . It is in this sense that that paradox of sovereignty can take the form `There is nothing outside the law.’ The originary relation of law to life is not application but Abandonment” (Agamben’s italics).

In a world of abandonment, bodies who do not fit into regimes of life are written out of discourses of mourning, structure of feelings, knowledge systems, and world view of the university. In the rhetoric of abandonment, subcontracted means outside of a collective narrative, recognition of name, traditions, and care of a community, the feelings of community belonging, and the protections of institutions of the state. A public discourse demarcates among kin and those who are not kin, differentiating and marking out, a political space between those who are directly and deeply involved in community and the university (through a relationship to an employer, a relationship to intellectual labor, or a relationship of in loco parentis) from those who are not seen as deeply or directly involved in the work of the university. Public mourning tells us who is valuable and who is not valuable, who is intelligible and not intelligible, which subjects, which bodies, which labor, and which behaviors contribute to domains of value and utility that neoliberal universities produce. Exceptional subjects are included in relationships of ethical responsibility and are mourned. Unexceptional subjects are abandoned to discourse of charity.

The single public text of Mr. Montano’s death reveals a structure of American modernity and liberalism that makes Latino workers disappear.  The domesticated immigrant worker in the neoliberal center is identified through markers as father and family man. Work and heterosexuality has the effect of briefly making Montano’s life visible so he can be recognized, his death can be regretted, and responsibility can be directed to the subcontracted company. The events of his life and death are then quickly folded from view. Montano’s death does not become a presence which resonates after a fleeting moment when the events of his death are duly recorded and regret is expressed. He becomes in the structures of feeling of the university a ghostly presence, there but not there, a palimpsest of whom unactualized traces exist.

Rachel Riedner, rach@gwu.edu

The ordinary household: Dirty little secret

I have a dirty little secret. Well, perhaps it’s not so little. And maybe, it’s not that dirty. But it’s something I like to keep secret. You see, my parents, for as long as I have been alive, have employed domestic workers. I don’t want to self-flagellate in public, but this fact of my life is something that I have come to look upon with a mixture of shame, confusion, righteous indignation and an understanding of the practical realities of the global economy.

I suppose if you’re going to understand where I’m coming from, you’ve got to know where it is I’m actually coming from. I am a citizen of a bustling South East Asian metropolis, where it’s common for members of the upper classes to employ domestic workers. There are over 250,000 registered domestic workers in this tiny yet imposing concrete-glass-steel city of 7 million. For families accustomed to the luxuries that life in this city has afforded them, a live-in maid is just another luxury accessory. In my tight knit South Asian community, our affluence has allowed us to enjoy these luxuries, and so from the time I was literally a baby to today we have always employed domestic workers.

This practice was not something I questioned; living in my upper middle class bubble everyone I knew either in my community or at school had hired help. Our school gates would be crowded at the end of the day with a sea of women’s faces, noisy chatter and swarms of fans fighting off the heat and humidity that is so common to this city. Our kitchens and homes would be busy, busy, busy with deft hands, sweaty brows and tired muscles from all their hard work. At dinner parties, we would laugh, drink and eat while our maids worked to keep us well fed.

It was normal. And I never thought anything of it.

And then my bubble burst.

It was time for me to grow up, to move away and to experience life. I moved half way around the world to the UK, where things were very different to how I had grown up, despite my home city’s British heritage. College would open my eyes to so many new things, but most importantly, it opened my eyes to all the ways my privileged experience made me different. Often when I mentioned to friends or acquaintances how life back home necessarily included year-round air conditioning, ridiculous amounts of shopping and live-in domestic workers, I received looks ranging from incredulousness to derision.

Apparently, not everyone was accustomed to employing domestic workers to carry out the daily chores of cooking, cleaning and care taking in the home.

That experience at college simply taught me that the practice of employing domestic workers was not universal. It wasn’t until I got to graduate school, however, that I really began to question the practice altogether. I had taken a class on global and domestic labour that more than opened my eyes.

It blew my mind.

I had never thought about how domestic workers’ working and living conditions are exploitative; that certain countries like the Philippines are heavily reliant on remittances from overseas domestic workers to keep their economy afloat; or that the women (and it’s almost always women) that leave their families and young children behind are profoundly affected by this distance. Of course, I knew that Maria* and Anna*, our live-in domestic workers, had children back home, whom they saw once every two years but until now I had never thought of this situation as anything other than business as usual.

It wasn’t until after I had taken this class that I realised that the women whom my parents have employed over the years, were people. I don’t mean to say that I didn’t think of them as human beings. Of course I did. But it never occurred to me that their individual stories came together to tell a much, much larger tale – a tale of loss, community, discovery, negotiation, acceptance and, most importantly, survival.

The women who have worked in our home over the years have undoubtedly had an impact on my life, intertwining their stories with mine. I realise this now, and as I share my story with you, I hope to share pieces of theirs too.

Chandini Patel

Inside her soul: echoes II

unmade beds,
dirty clothes,
the stench of yesterday’s garbage
in my nose
and my man wonders why
i don’t love him
no more
well, he should read this poem
she’ll speak of my grief
of how I
toss and turn
toss and turn
wondering why
why?
HE took me
from the afric’s shore
i died that day
you shackled me with your shame
violated
my ancestral rite
of chastity
only to label me
i need purity
so I rise every morn
before the SON
to make the beds
to wash the clothes
to try and remove
the stench of garbage from my nose
noon time comes
all to soon
back broken
flesh weary
babies sold for a small sum of gold
at night
i conversate with the moon
hoping he will
give me direction
and I pray for
the resurrection
of me
pray for the day
your love no longer enslaves me
pray for the day when echoes of the past no longer haunt me…

Alicia D. Harris, Alicia_d_harris@yahoo.com

Nascent Collectivities 2

In my previous posting, I looked at testimony of Everlyn Masha Koya, a twenty two year old sex worker-turned-peer educator from Isiolo, Kenya. Ms Koya’s failure to persuade women who have children to leave the sex trade led me to reflect upon contradiction between women’s economic contributions to nation-state and the nation-state’s desire to control women’s behavior and women’s sexuality. Yet it is also a story about state efforts to provide women with different economic opportunities and about women’s efforts to negotiate better lives for themselves and for other women. What else could Ms Koya’s story tell us?

Ms Koya’s grant from the state suggests that it, or its agents, have an interest in expanding women’s economic opportunities. As Rajeswari Sunder Rajan points out, the state isn’t a monolithic structure. It is made up of different institutions and individuals who do different, sometimes competing, things. While one arm of the state might be securing its sovereignty by making it possible for sex workers to have access to military bases, another arm of the state might be securing grants to give women training so they have a wider range of economic opportunities. As Sunder Rajan argues, “any understanding of state-citizen relations requires…attention to the microlevel workings of state regimes” (6).

Ms Koya’s testimony suggests that the state might participate in the exploitation and oppression of women’s bodies and lives. But if we look at different branches of the state, and different individuals who work for it, the state also can be used to improve women’s lives. As Ms Koya reports, “Then in July [2009], officials from the [government's] Arid Lands Office held a meeting for sex workers at the Isiolo stadium. We were asked to quit. They asked us to identify what kind of business we wanted to start, trained us in how to conduct business, budgeting, keep a record of our sales, savings and also asked us to go for HIV testing. I was lucky to test negative.”

What else can we learn from this story?  Within the situations that she has inherited, Ms Koya’s efforts to transform her own life and the lives of other women, to work for freedom from violence tells us about what women are doing within, and against, epistemic violence. In some locations, because of their economic contributions and their perceived social role of servicing male sexual need, sex workers have been able to emerge as a collective and make demands on the state. As Cynthia Enloe points out, there have been efforts by women in Kenya and in the Philippines to create networks of women in countries that host American military bases. This is a step towards addressing and dismantling the global gender structures on which military bases depend. There are other transnational and local efforts, including daily work of survival by growing gardens and recycling waste, organizing gender forum; occupying leftist organizations which don’t address gender and gendered labor; fighting back through state institutions and on the streets; union organizing; reporting which reframes issues as women’s issues; reporting which reframes issues as more than just women’s issues; story telling; women, and people around them, saying “enough,” and many other activities for dignity and well-being.

If we look closely, we see women actively participating in public life. Women are at the forefront of resistance movements in places like Honduras and South Africa. Women protest the failure of the state to investigate the systematic murder of women in Vancouver and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Women challenge the meaning of public space and public mourning in Argentina and Iran. Women organize feminist media in Costa Rica. And there is the more quiet, everyday work of women to improve the daily conditions and work to enable themselves and their families to survive in the face of everyday poverty or ‘natural’ disasters. This happens just about everywhere and has different contexts but let’s point to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, as one place where women struggle to survive.

Paying attention to gendered violence and power, all forms and mixes of it, that work through the family, the community, the state and its institutions, and through economic structures and arrangements is important work. But so is paying attention to women’s individual and collective efforts, in the context of gendered power, all forms and mixes of it, to “transform the conditions of their lives” (Kabeer, 54). Women are not just victims of material forces, state power and cultural patriarchy. Women actively seek to work for the health and well being of their families, their children, other women, and their communities. In the context of structural constraints, we see women like Ms Koya struggling, negotiating, working, and, even, organizing. It’s important to pay attention to what women are doing, their activities and obstacles to their activities, in relation to the gender-structured conditions that they’ve inherited.

Rachel Riedner rach@gwu.edu

Black Looks: Sange

We thought collecting black gold would make us truly free

You do not blame a woman whose belly has been empty for fifty years

If she scoops the sand onto which the gari has spilled

Hoping to sift through later

So as soon as we saw the tanker tipping over

Agonizing

Slow

Like a tortoise that had fallen on its already cracked back

Tyres spinning desperately in the air

We ran to grab our buckets rusted to a brown that was indistinguishable from the earth that barely sustained and the huts that no longer sheltered

Scoop scoop black gold that nourishes

Thick oil gurgled like blood in the throat of a man dying bad death

Spreading out a slow persistent stain that no funeral rites would wash away from our land

But to our half-starved minds delirious with third-world hunger—the kind that makes foreigners pledge ninety cents a week to send a naked child to school—the gurgling was A song

Into whose discordant melody we fused words of hope:

School fees for my children

White man is dead1for my wife

Medicine for old and food for babies

Black gold black gold

Happy day this is true independence
Scald scald black gold ignites

Split-second the song is drowned a horrible death world cup screens melted shapeless plastic flash and boom boom flash it is civil war all over again murder by first degree burns no more rust buckets no hope for white man is dead no one to cry foul oil rushes like enraged bulls flaming river engulfs sweeps into an eternal sea sang qui coule sanguine though none will hunger or thirst yet shall there be weeping no gnashing for no teeth remain

No

No

No

Black gold kills black death

The persistent stain soils my land like a baby neglected in a pit latrine thick liquid stain in which floats the solid black excrement of bodies

Charred beyond recognition

No our independence is burnt out

Charred beyond recognition

Like the profit they said black gold would bring…

By Annie Quarcoopome. Annie Quarcoopome writes at Black Looks. This poem appeared there. Thanks to Sokari Ekine, at Black Looks, for publishing and collaborating.

Haunts: FIFA and the maids

The 2010 FIFA World Cup is drawing to an end. On the pitch, it has been filled with thrilling moments and surprising turns. Off the pitch … not so much.

Ever since South Africa won the bid to host the 2010 FIFA World Cup, the government has been feeding promises and creating expectations about how good this is for the country, for the economy and for the workers and the poor.

This World Cup will make more money than any in the history of the event. A total of $3.3bn has been raised by FIFA from television and sponsors, dwarfing the amount made in Germany.

It has also been one of the most expensive World Cups ever. FIFA has spent $1.1bn.  South Africa has paid out $5bn getting the Rainbow Nation ready for its biggest moment since the 1995 Rugby World Cup, building stadiums, roads and public transport links.

The Cape Town seaside stadium, with 37,000sq m of glass roofing to protect spectators from the elements, is the most expensive building. It rises amid mounting claims that South Africa – where half the population still survives on an average of £130 a month – has mortgaged itself to host a football spectacular that will bring little benefit to its people.

As reported in the documentary, Fahrenheit 2010, the £68 million Mbombela Stadium has been built on the site of a school serving a poor community in Nelspruit, near the Kruger Park. It seats 46,000 and will be used for four matches, while local residents live in dwellings without water or electricity.

The stadiums are magnificent, the atmosphere and anticipation is heard through the sounds of the vuvuzela. But Dennis Brutus, late sports-justice activist, predicted that the World Cup would result in a shocking waste of resources. He said, “When you build enormous stadia, you are shifting those resources from building schools and hospitals and then you have these huge structures standing empty. They become white elephants.”

Former president Thabo Mbeki also predicted. He claimed the 2010 World Cup would be the moment when the African continent “turned the tide on centuries of poverty and conflict“. Such ambitions were never likely to be fulfilled by a sports event, no matter how big and how lucrative. But the claim was grand, almost as grand as the bill paid for the event.

In the end, will South Africa have spent billions of dollars on a 30-day advert that quickly fades as the sporting world moves on? If so, South Africa will have missed a great opportunity, a defining opportunity, to think through and act on celebration.

Thabo Mbeki’s words could have provided that opportunity. The conflicts that mark South Africa today — include poverty, xenophobia, racism, sexism, environmental degradation, violence, health and well being — are not exclusively South African or African conflicts. While the world press and much of the South African press has suddenly discovered the poors of South Africa, from Blikkiesdorp to Khayelitsha to Barracks and beyond, who has discovered the particularly South African celebration?

What is there to celebrate? Since the transition from the apartheid regime, South Africa has celebrated and been celebrated for democracy, freedom, rule of law. These are fragile and important structures, which have been avoided in the current State discussion and even more in those of FIFA.

In 1994, for example, South Africans celebrated democracy, meeting by meeting, engagement by engagement.

When the Reconstruction and Development Programme was presented, in 1994, it emerged from RDP councils that had tried to include everyone. While the RDP itself has had mixed results, the process of a national critical conversation was important. It involved domestic workers and their bosses as equal participants, if not always partners.

The 1994 Women’s Charter for Effective Equality, organized by the Women’s National Coalition, emerged from a creative research and inquiry campaign that, from 1992 to 1994, attempted to include all women, where they were, not where they were meant or imagined to be. It too involved domestic workers and their bosses, and their inputs were of equal and interrelated value and weight.

And today? Other than a few very transitory jobs, what has the World Cup done for domestic workers in South Africa? Has it promoted their rights? Has it engaged or consulted them? Has it told them that, irrespective of legal status, they are full and free citizens who are covered and cherished by the Law? No.

If anything, the private lives and domestic spaces in which real democracy either begins or founders, have gone untouched and uncelebrated. Not only by FIFA but also by the media and by advocates for social justice.

There has been no engagement in any kind of consultative democratic and democratizing process. And so the poor and disenfranchised simmer with resentment and a yearning for democracy.

What is there to celebrate? The games have been exciting, but games are always exciting. South Africa could have offered a precious space to witness transformation in process. South Africa once gave transformation a new importance. It was a gift the Rainbow Nation offered the world. This World Cup was an opportunity to live it at home. An opportunity squandered.

Oliver Meth, olivermeth@hotmail.com, Dan Moshenberg, dmoshenberg@gmail.com

Kafila: “Mother I will make you cry today”

‘Mother I will make you cry today’

(On June 30th 2010, Asif Rather age nine ran out of his home in Baramulla in Kashmir to look for his older brother. As he left, he told his mother ‘I am going to make you cry today’. Minutes later he fell victim to shooting by the forces. At the time he was 150 meters from his house. – The Indian Express)

He stood at the sunlit door
A nine-year old with tousled hair
Asif Rather, student of class four,
Baramulla, 55 kms from Srinagar

‘Where is Touqeer?’
He sought his older brother.
‘Nowhere! You come back now
Here’s tea and last night’s bread
My baby, let me comb your hair’

Outside, the sounds Allah o Akbar
Chanting at once, one thousand strong

‘Mother, I’ll get him back’
‘No child, Touqeer is big, he’s with friends
My youngest, you’re too small
See here is cream skimmed off the milk
Now come, you make me angry’

The little form at the sunlit door
Ran out, unheeding
The face appeared, smiling at the window pane
‘Mother, you cant be angry; I’ll make you cry today’
And he was gone

Outside the milling crowds of tall and lanky youth
And one lost boy in a forest of long legs
And long sticks cut from poplar trees
Some hands clutch roadside stones
‘Touqeer!’ he called out
Was that his blue shirt?
But there were hundreds in blue
He felt the tears well up
Quick jammed with grimy fists.

He stood confused, afraid, ashamed
‘I should have had the milk and last night’s bread
So hungry and so far from Ma..
But Touqeer, where’s he?’

And then it burst
The tear gas shell tore his tender flesh
‘Allah’ he cried his small hand warding off
the evil that drew blood.

The crowd stood still
A dozen hands reached out
To hold the falling body
His bullet broken neck
Gently rested on still hands
Of weeping boys
The tousled head of hair
Blood drenched, hung in strands
On a shining forehead

And twisted in the sinews of my mind
Are seven words
(Seven lines of Quran’s first Surah)
‘Mother I will make you cry today’
How many mothers of my Kashmir
The place where I was born
Will cry today?
Will cry tomorrow?

Dr. Syeda Hameed is a writer and Member, Planning Commission of India. This poem first appeared in Kafila.

Black Looks: Kimpa Vita – a profile of courage

Today, July 2nd, is the anniversary of the death of Kimpa Vita who together with her baby (Kembo Dianzenza va Kintete) and her boyfriend, were burned to death on July 2nd 1706 by the Catholic church. I only just found out about Kimpa Vita – there is so much of our African and Diaspora history that is unknown to the majority of African people. Who was Kimpa Vita? Information is scarce but Kimpa Vita is one of a long line of courageous politicised Queens of the Kongo (parts of present day Angola and Congo) who fought against slavery and colonialists as early as the 15th century. Women such as Ndona Nzinga, Ndona Mafuta and Ndona Dondwa. The importance of Kimpa Vita is that she fought against slavery and exposed the racism and misogyny of the Catholic Church and also incorporated traditional religions with Christianity.

Beatrice Kimpa Vita was born in 1684 in the kingdom of Kongo. In 1704, at the age of 20 years, she started her non-violent mission of the liberation and the restoration of the kingdom, destroyed by the Portuguese. She fought all the forms of slavery, from those of the local practices to those linked to the European domination. She adapted Christianity to the African realities, teaching people that there are also Black saints in paradise, contradicting the Catholic priests who taught that there should ONLY be WHITE SAINTS. She led thousands of people to rebuild and to repopulate Mbanza Kongo, the capital, whereas King Pedro IV, imposed by the Catholic Church, had taken refuge in the mountains. That is a rare phenomenon, in a social context where the women were supposed to be submissive to the men.

Today she is remembered in “Kanda commune, northern Zaire Province” of Angola

I would really be interested in finding out more about these African Queens so if any one knows anything please do leave a comment.

Sokari Ekine writes and organizes at Black Looks: http://www.blacklooks.org/. This post appeared originally there.