Writing and Social Context

A few weeks ago I wrote of the importance of
context and writing. These are a few examples of the kind of writing that
explains context and helps the reader understand how culture and other dynamics
in a social context affect the lives of people.

A few weeks ago I wrote of the importance of context in reporting. Here are a few examples of the kind of writing gleaned from the New York Times that explains context and helped me understand how culture and other dynamics in a social setting affect the lives of people.

Sharon LaFraniere in Forced to Marry Before Puberty explains how poverty and patriarchy in rural Africa lead to the indenturing of young girls and often to marriage before they reach puberty. It’s a practice being banned in more and more places. LaFraniere says it results in “adolescence and schooling cut short; early pregnancies and hazardous births; adulthood often condemned to subservience.” She writes it also exposes young girls to HIV at an age when they don’t grasp the risks of AIDS. LaFraniere provides context to what is otherwise a puzzling and frustrating behavior on a continent known for its social and familial bonds.

Juan Forero explains the political context in which Evo Morales contended for the presidency of Bolivia in Elections Could Tilt Latin America Further to the Left. Free trade and U.S. drug policies mix with unproductive economic policies to alienate the poor who are in the majority in Bolivia. Morales articulated this alienation and offers hope to those who are left out of the economy leading to leftward drift common across Latin America today. Forero’s writing offers insight into this nascent political change.

Amy Waldman wrote an unusually fine four-part series on the changes resulting from a new superhighway under construction in India. In the first part, Mile by Mile, India Paves a Smoother Road to Its Future, she lays out a word picture of the social change that is rushing across India at break-neck speed and how this highway is affecting social, religious and cultural systems as well as influencing family life and living patterns. Waldman writes that the highway is “a conduit for the forces molding the new India.” Beyond its descriptive overview, her writing also captures the ambiguity of the changes the superhighway represents, and to a degree enables.

Lydia Polgreen provided a glimpse into the surreal change that oil has brought to Ebocha, Nigeria in Strangers in the Dazzling Night: A Mix of Oil and Misery. Due to natural gas flared off oil wells, darkness never comes to Ebocha. The flares light up the night sky as if the city were locked in perpetual daylight. Oil, however, has not dimmed the grip of poverty. The people remain as impoverished now as before oil was discovered. Polgreen’s article made me recall the emptiness of “trickle down” economic theory embraced so energetically by the Reagan Administration. It was a false promise then, as it is now. The people of Ebocha give witness to this hollowness by living in a town that never sees darkness but continues to see poverty as extractive technologies exploit their landscape but leave behind few benefits.

Michael Wines provides an intriguing, if frustrating, look at the failure of development to bring change to the poor in Malawi in Amid Squalor, An Aid Army Marches to No Drum at All. It’s an instructive view summed up by Wines in this short paragraph, “Government corruption siphons money and will. Global charities compete for their own pet projects, rather than cooperating on an integrated plan. Malawi hasn’t the money or political consensus to do what is needed on its own.” For those of us who hope to see poverty reduced in the developing world, Wines’ article offers hard insight into the multiple forces that conspire to prevent progress. He does a service by shedding light on the various behaviors that impede development.

Once again, Sharon LaFraniere offers a perspective about the challenges of educating young women in Africa, one that I’ve never before seen in print. In Another School Barrier for African Girls: No Toilet, she provides insight into a cultural reality that is virtually overlooked when we think of the challenges of educating African women. The absence of toilets for girls at school makes for an inhospitable environment. Embarrassment and humiliation become stumbling blocks that result in young women dropping out of school, especially as they reach puberty and the age of menses. I don’t know if this could be a tipping point as Malcom Gladwell identifies one, but something so simple as a latrine to enable privacy and sanitation might provide an environment for young women to continue their education, a key to liberating them from oppressive burdens and lack of knowledge in rural Africa. LaFraniere has provided us with unique insight.

These are but a few of the writers I’ve read recently who provide important context and, thereby, have helped me see a more complete picture of the world.

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