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Just Another Day in Paradise: When an AK-47 no Longer Makes You React…

June 26, 2012

After being out of Africa for almost a decade my mini-adventure last weekend, complete with a crazy driver, lots of baboons, and a couple of AK-47s, was a good little re-introduction to the Continent.

With two new foreign friends J and P, and our Ethiopian friend, Y, I was headed to the Negash Lodge and Mount Wenchi, a few hours outside of Addis.

View over Lake Wenche, Oromia, Ethiopia

P reasonably decided he wasn`t comfortable risking the company car on the mountain roads. His car is a Toyota forerunner, maybe 5 years old. Well I had to laugh when the car we rented instead showed up at our door, a completely delapitated 20 year + Toyota visibly on its last legs. What we didn’t know when we agreed to rent the car was that it came with a mandatory driver, Birhanu. Now for those of you who have been with me for awhile you`ll remember many colourful characters from my earlier travels such as Captain Red Hat from Peru or our Mongolian driver who developed such a special fondness for me our group eventually nicknamed him my “Mongolian boyfriend”.  Well Birhanu is going in the books as yet another memorable driver.

Gratuitous shot of me and my mongolian driver, a.k.a. my mongolian boyfriend [SIC] circa 2007.

Now I`ve had many experiences travelling in groups where we had many complaints about the excessive speed of the hired driver, or in many developing countries, a driver`s intoxication, but Unsafe and Excessively Slow was a new experience for me. Birhanu would slow down to a crawl and honk 15 times when a goat appeared on the road 200 metres ahead. That`s a nice change we thought…until he started passing other trucks on winding roads in the dark when we could see headlights approaching.

In any case, thanks to Birhanu`s impeccable driving skills we reached our destination much too late to do the hike we had planned for Day 1 of this mini-adventure. Instead we had a leisurely lunch in the bar up in the trees of our lodge and recovered from our slow but harrowing drive.

One of the huts at Negash Lodge, Ethiopia.

We then headed to the pool for a dip in the natural springs…P was smart and jumped right in. By the time I was ready for a dip there was unfortunately a young man who had decided to hack up every last piece of phlegm in his lungs and spit them into the pool…needless to say I didn’t make it into the pool that day.

The locals were just as confused by our behaviour; why we were laying out baking in the sun was their first worry, but spending hours beside each other, not talking, but quietly reading books – what is wrong with these farenjis (foreigners) anyway? Well farenji or not, P and I both happen to be at the end of a lovely novel set in Addis, Cutting for Stone, that was worth every last confused stare from the locals.

At sunset we sat on the porch with glasses of Amarula (a South African liquor similar to Bailey`s but made from the Marula fruit) watched the monkeys, and finished our books.  As into the final pages of the story as I was, my mind kept wandering, thinking how similar this scene was to one more than 15 years ago; sitting watching the sunset in South Africa at the end of my year as a Rotary Exchange Student. And thinking of all the things that have happened to bring me back full circle, to a sunset in Africa, 15 years on.

View from the porch, a baboon and a little vulture friend in the background.

The next morning we were raring to go on our hike, the big event.  I didn’t know much about the hike so I had no idea of the beauty that was to come.  The drive from our lodge to the lake was the most memorable part of the day for me (ok, that and the Ak-47s). We were only 160 km outside of Addis but 100 years away. We passed through little villages with people from many different cultures,even the language had changed from Amharic to Oromo.

Donkeys on the road to Wenche.

Smiling family, as curious as we were.

To market, to market, Oromia, Ethiopia.

The hike was almost as spectacular as the drive, with lush greens surrounding a lake inside an extinct volcano. We met many villagers on their way to market and some on their way back from church. We crossed the basin of the valley, walking by waterfalls, goats, and many children following us for sections of the path.

Back from church.

View down into the valley, Lake Wenche.

A beautiful little girl we met along the way.

We then took a small boat to a local Orthodox monastery on an island in the middle of the lake.

Orthodox monastery in the middle of the lake.

We rode horses up the final steep section of the hike.  The view on horseback was wonderful as you really got a feel for the villages.

Some children along the way.

View of the valley from horseback.

We passed one thatched house where a lady had just emerged from the house sobbing and covering her face. We were told a 6 year old child had just died from an unknown sickness, within the last 10 minutes. There is a medical clinic in Ambo, only 5 kms, but might as well be a world, away.

At the end of our hike we decided to reward ourselves with some cold drinks at a local watering hole. Well. After a few minutes a group of about 40 men showed up and stood directly behind us.  At this point I turned around and there was a man wearing traditional robes but as an accessory had an AK-47 laying flat on his forearms about 1 foot from where I was sitting.

Now you know you`ve been out of Canada for a long time when the sight of an AK-47 in the hands of a robed man does not make you run. It did put me on alert, but not enough to leave behind my Coca-cola.

So J continued to tell Y and I a story she`d been in the middle of while  Y and I began stealthily surveying the situation. Something was up. It had nothing to do with us but we were definitely in the wrong place at the wrong time. I noticed things getting tense and whispered to Y that  I thought we should go. J later told me she noticed the scheming going on between Y and I but thought it better to keep telling the story as if nothing was going on. At this moment, P arrived back from his bathroom search, completely oblivious to what was transpiring. He assumed they were just there to party. Behind us, things were getting tense and it was clear to me things were about to get physical.

At this point I revisited the AK-47 issue and tried to make some NOW-eyes at P, got up and walked quickly to the car. The others followed. Y and our guide followed closely behind and this time Birhanu was on the ball and got us out of there in a hurry. Y told us that right before we started to move, one of the group had asked what the foreigners were doing there and another instructed them to grab some stones. It was apparently a clash between the local Oromo peoples, larger in number, and the Tigrayan peoples, who although fewer in numbers, largely control the wealth in the area. Nothing to do with us but we were very close to really being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

So to take a line from Phil Collins and Ghosh, one of the characters in Cutting for Stone: Just another day in Paradise.

Until next time!


The Sudanese have more fun: World Refugee Day

June 19, 2012

June 20th is World Refugee Day so today we joined refugees and others working with them in Addis Ababa for a day of recognition of their situations and celebration of their cultures.  The day was mostly happy, with music, dancing and even a fashion show.

Of course there was also some sadder points, the most striking was a play put on by a group of refugees portraying a typical refugee family’s story. It started with a family at home and all of the sudden an armed group came in – the striking thing was that the looks on the faces, their movements, nothing seemed like a play, watching people depict this when they’ve actually gone through it was jarring. The way they held the guns and shook each other, with a sad comfort that no actor could do justice, it was a very sad scene.

Seems from the play depicting a refugee family’s experience.

After the play we were all ready for something a little lighter.

First there was a fashion show with traditional  clothing from the home countries of the refugees here in Addis; Eritrea, Djibouti, Sudan, South Sudan, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, and of course, Somalia.

Next came traditional music and dancing from each group.  First the Sudanese came on and it was so lively I thought, oh the Sudanese definitely have more fun…

…but then, from the group I least expected it…I learned a completely new side to Somali Culture…After welcoming one after another beautiful, quiet, robe-covered women at the UNHCR I was not prepared for the wave of Somali refugees that crowded on stage and overtook the traditional dancers when their traditional music came on.

It was really touching, having heard so many of their stories that you expect would be nothing less than soul-crushing and to see them all having a blast together, seemingly completely carefree, was a beautiful sight.

A dance group from the Great Lakes region.


Surprise! I’m in Ethiopia

June 18, 2012

In case you thought I had fallen off the end of the earth these past couple of months, I haven’t. But I tried.  And I made it as far as Ethiopia.

My original plan of spending the summer back in Canada regrouping and focusing on writing quickly went the way of the dodo when an opportunity came my way to volunteer with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in Ethiopia. For my friends and colleagues in Toronto this should come as no surprise. When I could no longer hold back destiny and decided to make a go of international law, when I made the decision that I had to do something else with my life (at least for awhile), the something else I pictured in my mind was working refugees in Ethiopia.

A night of traditional dancing in Addis Ababa.

By my final months of work in Toronto I became borderline obsessed with all things Ethiopian. I had long decided this would be my next big adventure. During long nights at the office I would chat with our cleaner Wafi, wishing the language barrier didn’t keep her from telling me about life at home in Ethiopia. My good friend LVS and I read, and consequently fell in love with, the novel Sweetness in the Belly, partially set in the Muslim city of Harar, Ethiopia. And soon I was convincing everyone to come to dinner with me at Ethiopia House…some willingly…some only to humour me.  And not for the first time in my life, found myself inspired by the antics of Ewan McGregor and his best mate Charley Borman, this time as they rode their motorbikes through Ethiopia in the Long Way Down.

And before I knew it I was swept up in all things Habesha and utterly ready for my next big adventure.

Happy to finally be in Ethiopia. My first traditional meal out with my host Lisa.

So almost two years on, as ready as I was to be in Canada for the summer, this chance seemed to have been written in the stars. The timing was perfect, it was with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), and most importantly, it was Ethiopia. There could be no more perfect way to round out my first 2 years as an international lawyer (except maybe if it were paid…but let’s not get carried away now, does anyone actually get paid to do international law?).

So here I am, working with the Resettlement Unit at the UNHCR in Addis Ababa. Resettlement means the people are already recognized as refugees here in Ethiopia and are hoping to be “resettled” to another country. The bulk of my work involves conducting initial resettlement interviews with hopeful refugees, analyzing whether they are candidates for resettlement and then preparing an analysis and recommendation to be sent to the powers that be. I will also be conducting various types of interviews with an aim to assessing the best interests of the child, a legal framework that was developed in international law but has since been adopted by the Supreme Court of Canada in cases affecting children’s rights in Canada. My day-to-day work also involves shorter interviews and telephone conversations answering questions the refugees may have or more often, just listening to their worries. From the intensity of the interviews of my first couple weeks it seems I will likely gain a few years of experience in a few short months.

So here I am, ready for a very meaningful summer.  Oh, and hopefully an adventure or two along the way!

Ladies and Gentlemen, please start your engines and switch gears from South America to East Africa.

Not a great shot, but foreshadowing of some great dancing pics to come.

Busy Saturday night at Yod Abyssinia, a traditional, if not touristy, restaurant in Addis.

Stay tuned!

Geneva One Year On: Not Quite As Scary Anymore

June 17, 2012

Although from this blog it likely seems Colombia was my first foray into international law, that isn’t actually the case. My first step into the world of international law was following the LL.M. programme at the ADH Academy in Geneva, Switzerland.

Last week I had the opportunity to travel back to Geneva to visit with (most of) my ADH family and finally obtain our LL.M.s! Those of you who supported me through my LL.M know that it`s not without some irony that I call the chance to return to Geneva an `opportunity`. However,  one year on – Geneva was not quite as scary anymore.

Although I knew how important it was for me to attend this graduation after the amount of work we put into the degree, my return was also an unexpected chance to make peace with the city. I was able to wander around and see some tourist sites and appreciate the beauty of the city and surprisingly, it felt a bit like coming home. Most of all, it was a chance for one more weekend together with my ADH family.  I think I had underestimated the strength of the bonds we made there when we were all fleeing the city as fast as possible or hiding as we finished our theses; reconnecting with friends and our professors was without a doubt the highlight of the weekend.

Felicitations/Congrats to the ADH Class of 2010-11!

ADH Class of 2010-11. Photo Courtesy of ADH Academy.


Receiving my LL.M. Degree from our Director, Professor Paola Gaeta.

Post Masters ceremony with my Thesis Advisor, the esteemed Professor Louise Doswald-Beck and my friend and thesis-writing buddy, Helena Sunnegardh.

Dinner at Chez Ma Cousine with Lena, Cesar, and Diego.

With Claire, Lena, and Marion at my favourite Creperie in the Vielle Ville, Geneva.

With Marion, Claire, Marie-Astrid and Jenny before the ceremony.

Me posing as a tourist in the Vielle Ville, Geneva.

Vielle Ville, Geneve.

Parting shot, Lac Leman, Geneva.

Please stay tuned for my upcoming blog post “Surprise! I’m in Ethiopia”.

The Road to Chololobo

March 10, 2012

A few weeks ago I had one of the most memorable professional experiences of my life.  I finally got to go out (FAR out) into remote indigenous communities with the team from ONIC.    I was part of a joint ONIC /Avocats Sans Frontieres Canada (ASFC) team that travelled from Bogota to the remote Vichada region of Colombia.

We travelled to the remote areas of Vichada department in the south-east of the country near the border with Venezuela.  The aim of the trip was to visit two remote communities, El Merey and Chololobo, to assess the situation of the people living there and to gather facts intended both for the general protection of these people and also for possible legal actions related to these communities. Both communities are indigenous communities of the Sikuani people. The situation in both communities is precarious, albeit for various reasons including land disputes with non-indigenous persons, the presence of paramilitary groups in the area, and large experimental agriculture projects.

Both communities are extremely remote and not often visited by outsiders (well, minus unfortunate sporadic visits from paramilitaries in the area).  We travelled by bus from Bogota to Villavicencio, by 4-seater Cessna planes from Villa to Cumaribo, Vichada (on the way back we flew in an old WW2 plane) and then from Cumaribo out into the savannah for hours by jeep to reach the communities. We were a team of 6; 3 of us from ONIC (myself, and Jose Luis and Javier from my section, Territorio), C. from ASFC, our trusty driver Don Julio (well mostly trusty, minus the few beers chugged before heading on the road, which is sadly the norm here), and Javier’s father Hernando,  a Sikuani elder who knows the area and communities well and acted as translator (Sikuani/Spanish).

Joking around in the Villavicencia airport, Javier was actually a child model in his state's tourist campaign.

Starting our adventure, Villavicencia.

Ready for Take Off, Villa.

Jose Luis and I, human rights adventurers.

View of the plains from the plane.

We arrived on the dirt airstrip in Cumaribo to find we were out there. It was wild, dirt runway and plains that seemed to go on forever. The “airport” was a roof with no walls and behind that was a little bar. There was a particularly creepy big camouflaged military advertisement overhead saying “Travel safely”. I wasn’t sure if it was supposed to be ironic or what, and a group of locals, beside a group of about 15 young military guys, guns in one hand, beer in the other. The foreigners had arrived. There was no way we were going to go unnoticed here.

Cumaribo airport, Vichada.

Welcome signs, Cumaribo.

On the way to Cumaribo proper we passed metal and wood make-shift shacks housing persons displaced for reasons related to the conflict.

The road into Cumaribo.

When we drove into town I felt the same old-west-swinging-doors-in-the-tavern feeling that I’d felt at the airport, this place definitely does not get many outsiders.  We arrived at the Casa Blanca, our base camp in Cumaribo, and stepped out into a wall of heat that took your breath away. It was more than just hot, it was open oven door and insert foreigner hot.

After lunch, visit planning, and requisite respite from the heat, we headed out to Santa Teresa, Javier’s father’s reserve (also Sikuani people), about 30 minutes outside of Cumaribo.  There is a military checkpoint on the edge of town and you can only enter or leave between 6 a.m. and 7 p.m. and the young recruits eager to prove their power were about as cheerful as one would imagine. They swung their machine guns on their shoulders as they approached the jeep. In the distance stood another of the creepy “safe trip” camouflage-covered billboards.

Our visit to Santa Teresa was one of my favourite parts of the trip.  The community was amazingly calm and the sun’s rays danced along the savannah as it set.  But the best part was meeting Javier’s grandmother, Simona. When we asked her how old she was she said she didn’t remember anymore.  She told us that she’d been sick for two weeks with something in her chest and couldn’t eat anything.  I was totally in love with Simona.  She mostly spoke Sikuani, but as we sat quietly at sundown she slowly started to ask me some questions in Spanish.  I could have stayed in Santa Teresa for days, but sadly we had to make it through the checkpoint before 7 p.m.

Santa Teresa Indigenous Community, Vichada.

Simona, Javier, Hernando and I enjoying what would turn out to be dangerous coffee in Santa Teresa at sunset.

The following morning we were off into the real meat of our trip. We travelled ten hours through the savannah to reach the first community of El Merey. The landscape in this region puts one in mind of the African Savannah, comprised of vast grasslands as far as the eye can see.  During the trip we drove through several outposts including Tres Matas and El Catorce that were formerly controlled by the FARC.


El Catorce, Vichada

C and I, Tres Matas.

Father-son coffee break, Tres Matas.

Not even two hours into our drive we got our first taste of savannah excitement, a full out police-chase that passed us in the middle of nowhere. I’ll admit my body tensed up, it’s impossible not to out here. There is really no one around, you don’t come across many other vehicles, and when you do you can’t help but get nervous. All of the sudden a white truck came firing down the track in our direction, I remember it hitting a huge bump and seeing its headlights flash but then it just sped right past us.  Only seconds later the 2nd truck came, I tensed up when I saw 2 camouflaged guys, machine guns swinging on their backs as they stood in the back of the pick-ups.  I felt only slightly better when I saw the “policia” sign on the side of the truck, I felt much better as it continued in the opposite direction.  It turned out that both those trucks were apparently police so I guess we only saw half a police chase, but then I guess you could say that anytime you see a police car speed past you. In any case, apparently there was some paramilitary activity just to the north of Cumaribo and the police were off in a hurry to check out the situation.

Although that was the last of our paramilitary excitement for the day, it was not the end of the tension. After driving 3 or 4 more hours out into the savannah, we experienced the effects of Big Business and Big Agriculture on remote areas firsthand. First we came across an experimental pine forest, an experiment by several entities including a Japanese business. Pines are of course not native to the area but had been planted to see if they could grow in the environment, they are to be used for their wood, essential oils, and also their roots (those are all the details I got).  It took us 30 minutes to drive through the pine forest.  What would have been beautiful in Canada or another northern landscape was just completely out of context with the ecosystem of the savannah.

Not long after leaving the pine forest we came upon a much scarier experiment; a GIANT, and I mean giant, plantation of soya beans and other genetically engineered crops that went on forever. It was wild. My colleagues said it was just like Avatar.  No one knew about this. It is apparently a huge agriculture experiment run by a state-business partnership, AgroColombia (again, for this post I am getting all of this information from locals on the ground). We all sat quietly as we drove through the seemingly never-ending crops that had replaced the virgin plains. There was an eerie feeling in the air.  We drove by the huge mill they had constructed, a landing strip, and huge monstrous hoes and tractors, and an administration building with rowed rooms, that looked like a motel but I assume were housing for the workers.

Fields of crops, Vichada.

Approaching headquarters.

Big Agriculture, Vichada.

Big Business, Vichada.

I can’t say I felt any safer here than with the almost-paramilitary run-in that morning.  Aside from the wild ecological destruction, the saddest part of these couple of hours was seeing the expression on Hernando’s face when he saw the destruction of his ancestral lands for the first time. He had no idea of the scope of this experiment and there had definitely been no consultation as far as he knew. For the indigenous peoples of Colombia the earth is a living being and the mother of all people.  But for the immense sadness on his face, one could not imagine the pain he must be feeling.

Javier and I, picnic lunch, lost in the savannah, Vichada.

After getting somewhat lost in the savannah, we finally arrived in El Merey. Again, I fell in love with El Merey. There was something about it, it was just so Out there. It was a very small and very poor community.  There was one motorbike that the whole community shared but finding money for fuel was a big problem this far out. The people were very happy to see us, especially the children.  We sat in an open area outside on benches and addressed the community. I was just in my element here. Sitting taking notes at this client meeting felt natural to me although it was a world away from my experiences with clients on Bay Street.  But as far away as it is, the feelings are the same. People are coming to you with problems that are usually the biggest stress in their lives and relying on you to help them. It’s a lot of stress, especially in a situation like this, as Jose Luis put it, when we’re their only hope and they can’t afford for us to go back to Bogota and get busy with other files.

Arriving at El Merey.

The community of El Merey, Vichada.

JL and I hard at work, El Merey.

Hernando translating from Spanish to Sikuani for the people of El Merey.

JL, Javier, Hernando and I with the people of El Merey.

Javier talking to community members.

Me with some new friends in El Merey.

Thumbs Up in El Merey.

The people of El Merey told us of the many effects of this project and of a rubber company operating within the area. Of course there had been no consultation process on any of this. From what we were told the experimental farm is outside of the indigenous reserved territory but it is still on ancestral land.  As for the rubber company, they told us of threats made to members of their community, including threats of violence if they did not come to work for the project and as a result there are in fact members of the community working for that company. We were told of a local woman who was raped by workers from the farm. We were told stories of pollution and environmental illnesses that all began after the arrival of the rubber company. Of scarcity of food and disruption of hunting patterns. Of shortages of food and the resulting hunger. These were the stories of the people in this remote community, long forgotten by most of society, unable to enjoy their inherent rights as indigenous persons.

One last goodbye, Javier and C. leaving El Merey.

We spent one night here in this outpost called El Progreso, Progress.

Morning coffee in El Progreso.

The second community we visited was Chololobo, another Sikuani community.  Although they also told us of environmental issues and scarcity of food, the problem they are most preoccupied with is the question of amplification of their territory. One of the major complications with the amplification is the proper title to a finca, or homestead, on their ancestral land. Many years ago a non-indigenous man married one of the women of the community and as a result of her death, he took power over the land and through a series of transactions the indigenous community no longer has proper title to the land, although they claim that it rightly belongs to them.  The situation has been further complicated by threats from paramilitary groups operating in the area, the non-indigenous title-holders, and lack of any protection from local authorities.

Arriving in Chololobo

The children of Chololobo.

Meeting with community members, Chololobo.

Sikuani Elder, Chololobo.

Although the visits to these communities are incredible, one cannot help but feel the weight of their hope on your shoulders. They simply cannot afford to have us come back to Bogota and forget about them.

I promised them I would bring awareness to their situations by writing about them in my blog. If you could each just pass on this link or “like”/ “share” it on facebook, you would all be helping me fulfill my promise to the people of El Merey and Chololobo.

And in case there was any doubt, Yes, I am once again, head over heels for Colombia.

Big Sky, Vichada.


International Women’s Day: Who Runs the World? Well maybe not quite yet…

March 8, 2012

A post in celebration of International Women’s Day.  Before you stop reading, thinking I’m not interested in Women’s Issues, I beg you, even if it’s just for these 5 minutes on this one day, please just humour me, who knows you might learn something. In exchange I promise you, the next post will be an adventure-filled Post complete with police chases, rides in old WW2 airplanes, and visits to remote communities far-off in the savannah.

Today, March 8th is International Women’s Day. It’s a day to celebrate all that is feminine. But as much as I love being a woman and cherish all the wonderful women in my life, as much as it should be a day of celebration, a day to rejoice in how far we’ve come; I can’t help but focus on how far we still have to go.

Authorities from various Indigenous Groups, Women's Day Panel, March 7, 2012, ONIC.

We held a Women’s Day panel discussion at ONIC yesterday, and it was empowering to hear a panel of all-women Indigenous Authorities addressing the crowd. But as an introduction, our Consejero Mayor (president of ONIC) started his speech with; I won’t talk too much today because today and tomorrow we should listen to the women’s voices. And as well-meaning as that statement was, I couldn’t help but think to myself the sad reality is that even within a human rights organization – sometimes that’s about as far as it goes; they’ll listen to us today and tomorrow, and then get on with their show.

That may not be all of your experiences but having visited more than 50 countries and having lived in 8, I can tell you that discrimination against women is the one constant I have observed in every single society I’ve visited in this world. Well ok, along with Coca-Cola and soccer. So inequality of women, Coca-Cola and soccer are the constants I’ve observed.

Some of you are probably thinking to yourselves, that is so passé, that was our mothers’ and our grandmothers’’ Cause-Celeb, but that just isn’t the case. As far as they got us, the work just isn’t done. Although Canadian society did its best to hide this fact from us during our childhoods. The summer after graduation it hit me like a ton of bricks. Working as an around-the-clock caretaker for adults with physical and mental disabilities I was making what worked out to less than 2$/hour while half the guys from my high school were standing on the road with a Stop sign in a construction hat making their first year’s tuition in a few weeks. Well that was your choice you say, you could work in construction too, it’s hard work standing in the beating sun all day. Of course it is, but so is changing adult diapers, so is giving constant love to people who just scream at you and physically assault you with no comprehension of what they are doing, so is being present when they have to call in a priest to read the last rights to someone you’ve been caring for around the clock (And yes, I realize that some caretakers are men). The real question isn’t the difficulty of each task; the question is how we value “Women’s work” or jobs that are traditionally held by women in general.

Suffragettes hard at work.

Nellie McClung and the Famous Five Statue, Ottawa. Don't know who these ladies are? Look them up!

I never planned to work with “Women’s issues”, it just kind of happened. As a child the answer to “what I wanted to be when I grow up” changed every year, but the constant theme was that I wanted to work for justice. Except maybe the year I wanted to be the first woman to play in the major leagues, but my myopia put an end to that. Or the year I wanted to be a Supermodel, where do I start…let’s just say my height put an end to that. But I didn’t want to work in women’s rights – Boring, I thought. I wanted to Save the Rhinos, or the Manatees, or be the next Diane Fossey. But the truth is that as I began to travel and volunteer, and well, just live, I no longer had a choice. This is the one injustice that hit me over and over again, regardless of where I was in this world.

And if you say you don’t see it you’re either incredibly lucky or have your eyes closed to what is really going on around you.

No one wants to talk about it, but it’s not just girls being sold into prostitution rings  at the age of 10 or women having acid thrown in their faces in far-off countries (Article on “Saving Face”, Academy Award Winner 2012) . It’s treating girls differently (and not different but equal) than boys, date rape, and spousal abuse and not being paid the same for our work, and companies not being able to figure out a structure that works for maternity leaves and joking at work about women and “their babies”. It affects the poor and the rich alike, it’s women all around you who have been sexually abused by their partners and girls from the most well-off families that were abused by their parents’ friends throughout their childhoods, it’s partners at law firms who put their hands on female articling students’ thighs and no one doing a thing about it.

These are the stories of girls and women that I have worked with all over the world.

It’s sitting around a table at work in a “human rights” organization where even there, you’re the only woman at the table and the men are discussing who should go on the next work trip,  choosing the men by abilities, the women on their looks. Even living in Switzerland, the international headquarters of Human Rights, we learned the last Canton in that country didn’t allow women to vote until 1991 (UN (Committee on Women’s Issues (CEDAW) Report). You read that right, 1991. And even being in an LL.M. programme specialized in International Humanitarian and Human Rights Law, one professor had no idea that International Women’s Day existed. It seems like even though people have now come around to talking about Human Rights (and we have come a long way, I was considered a “hippie” in undergrad when I tried to tell people about this government called “the Taliban”). Well it’s the same thing with Aboriginal rights, no one wants to talk about that either, but my experience this year is that even if you can get people to talk about Aboriginal Rights, mention more than a word about Aboriginal Women’s Rights – and then they turn and run (Oh, and a tip, if you want Girls’ rights to be noticed you better use the term “Children’s Rights” because the second it’s “girl”, we’re out of here).

Sadly I could give you examples for the next two weeks, but I won’t, because I’ll lose half of you as readers, maybe I already have.

You might say it’s the same for men, but take my word for it, after visiting, and really listening to people, in more than 50 societies, I can promise you that it’s not. In literally every situation I’ve worked in I’ve seen it, whether it’s victims of the armed conflict whose most immediate worry was not only the use of rape as a tool of war, but the constant physical abuse from their frustrated companeros, to friends telling you of personal experiences they’ve faced, to showing up month after month to act as Duty Counsel in our own courts to find that 80% of those who can’t afford a lawyer are women, and that although they maybe there as a result of a landlord-tenant dispute, once you dig a little deeper, that landlord dispute is often as a result of them having to flee an abusive husband and not being able to pay their rent.

One of ONIC's lawyers explaining the situation of indigenous women in Colombia during 2011-2012.

Indigenous Authority from the Sierra Nevada, speaking in celebration of International Women`s Day.

These are the stories I’ve heard first hand, from women all over the world. Now, in our lifetimes.

Many women and men I know don’t want to talk about women’s “issues”, it is somehow still taboo. But it’s not some taboo topic that has nothing to do with you, it’s your mother, your sisters, your friends, it’s you. And some of you may say, well that’s not true, none of my friends or acquaintances have told me things like that, well maybe think about why they haven’t told you. The latest number from the UN is that 1 out of 3 women in the world will face gender-based violence by the time they are adults. That is not someone else’s problem. It is all of our problem. (I am having trouble opening up the UN WomenWatch Stats Page this a.m. for the reference but that’s the latest stat I’ve read, also mentioned in this talk given by Sheyrl wuDunn one of the authors of Half the Sky).

The head of ONIC's Women, Gender, and Family Division, addressing the crowd in hounour of International Women's Day.

A former colleague once said to me, well I don’t have children so it’s never been an issue for me. All I can say again is, you’re either extremely lucky or walking around with your eyes closed. And if you are that lucky why not use your position to help all of the other women who aren’t as lucky as you, or at very least, be conscious of it and not shut down the topic when others bring it up.  Even if you have no interest in personally working on Women’s’ Issues, at least help create a positive space so that others may do so. People will say, but look at her and her, she’s made partner or she has her own business. Although they are wonderful role models for girls, that’s not the end of the story, it’s only the beginning. The rest of the story is making it as possible for girls to get there as for boys. What it takes for a woman to get there is often a completely different story, many of these Wonderwomen juggle several jobs, mother, partner, house-manager, volunteer and you wonder when they’re going to collapse (or where you can get a prescription for that) and others are women who had to act like men to get there. Including those who whether knowingly or not, stepped on other women along the way, said best by Madeleine Albright in one of my favourite quotes of all time There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other (See Madeleine Albright on Being a Woman and a Diplomat at minute 12:30).

You may say, but it’s not like that, or that hasn’t been my experience. And that’s fine, you don’t have to agree with me, but this has been my experience.

You may think by now that I hate men, but that’s not the case at all, I have many wonderful men in my life whose eyes are wide open to this, including a supportive fiance who thought to wish me a Happy Women’s Day this morning and my brother, who was in fact, the only person to realize I was purposely making a “feminist” statement by wearing huge hoop earrings and bright red lipstick on my first day as a litigator.  I am so tired of hearing people, saying a woman-friendly statement only to follow it up with but I’m not a Feminist. The word “Feminist” means wanting equality for men and women but sadly the old radical-feminist image is what comes to mind and people still refuse to use it. But all it means is that you believe that men and women are equal, that men and women, boys and girls, should have an equal status in our society.

That’s not being a radical feminist, that’s being a decent Human Being.

So on this Women’s Day I challenge you to two things (and then I promise to stop preaching);

1. To not just listen to women’s voices today and tomorrow but to start listening to them. Full Stop.

2. To openly call yourself a Feminist, even if you’re a man, and if anyone flinches when you say it, just say it means that I believe men and women are equal and should hold an equal place in our world.

Thank you for reading.

p.s. Although sadly, I’m sure by this point I’ve lost many readers, I promise the following post will be a light and exciting tale of my recent travels through the remote savannah of South-Eastern Colombia.

One Week to Fall Back in Love with Colombia: Part Two, Coffee with Jesus

February 29, 2012

(This post is the follow-up to One Week to Fall Back in Love with Colombia: Part One, Medellin)

Much relieved, I finally arrived in Salento, a quaint little town in the south of the coffee region that has been almost-overrun by backpackers. Generally not my scene, but whatever, I was ready to read, write, and relax without being harassed and Salento was going to be just what the doctor ordered.  It was however, still pouring rain, and pitch dark by this point.  I found my hostel, thankful I had made a reservation, only to hear the last thing I wanted to hear…they had given away my room…alone, in the pouring rain after 9 hours of travelling (half of which was spent almost giving myself a heart attack) and now they had given away my room.

This relationship “Break” was not working. I was not happy with Colombia.

The hostel offered me a room at a nice “finca” (farm) outside of town for the night at the same price as my room at the hostel. Although the last thing I wanted to do was worry about getting up in the morning to move hostels, this was a better option than wandering around in the rain in the dark by myself.  “You can help yourself to our free coffee while you wait”, the owner said. One of her employees showed me to their kitchen to wait. When I asked where the coffee mugs were he couldn’t find any, and then pointed at a couple of old dirty mugs that backpackers had left, obviously for quite awhile, half-full of old coffee in various places around the room. It was one of those grungy scenes that I ate up as a 20-year old backpacker but now, although I hate to refer to myself as old, I’m just too old for this [insert choice word here].  Forty-five minutes later a lovely woman named Luz Angela and her young son showed up in their family car, to take me to their farm.

The minute I arrived at El Rancho I knew I would stay for days; it was a beautiful old farmhouse, with a veranda that looped around the outside of the house and hammocks to snooze in. Ohhh yes, I am so over the grungy hostels of my 20s.

Happy to be at El Rancho, Colombia.

That night I sat down to a beautiful “trout” dinner (although Colombian “trout” in no way resembles Canadian “trout” and I have yet to figure out what we would call this fish, its taste and texture is some kind of half-trout-half-salmon fish) with the 5 other guests, 4 of whom also had booked rooms at the hostel but whose rooms had been “given away”.  A side note, given that I was 20 years younger than the other guests at the finca, but definitely older than the guests at the hostel, I had a sneaking suspicion that anytime an  “old” person showed up, the rooms were “full”. And if that’s the case, fine by me, the finca out in the country was much more my scene.

Delicious trout dinner at El Rancho.

The next morning we were up early to see the famous Valle de Cocora, Cocora valley.  This valley is home of Colombia’s national tree (although it’s not really a tree), the Wax Palm. Our first stop was to the town square where we caught a “Willy” or 4×4 Jeep up to the Valle. It’s about a 35 minute ride on a rough road, and they usually pile up to 13 people in one Jeep, standing room only.  We got lucky and only had 7 in ours.

"Willy"s lined up in the Plaza Mayor, Salento.

When we arrived in the Valle we tried to ask people which way to walk but they all just wanted us to do a tourist-horseback ride and wouldn’t tell us where the hike started.  So we walked straight along the road in order to get away from the peddlers as fast as possible. This was our first mistake on a day that ended up being much more than we bargained for. The lesson of the day, as it had been on many other days, was that the authors of this Lonely Planet had not in fact been on the hike they were describing. The “well-signed” [SIC], 2.5 hour hike was actually a 5 hour hike, 7 if you get lost, which we did.

Although it was a much bigger outing than we signed up for, it was a beautiful hike.  The wax palms against the rolling hills of the coffee region created a very distinct scenery.

Wax Palms, Valle de Cocora.

More Wax Palms.

Still more Wax Palms.

Early on in the hike.

After a few hours of hiking we came upon a family farm where we had some great hot chocolate with the requisite bread and cheese for dipping (putting cheese in your hot chocolate is required in Colombia).

Mid-hike hot chocolate.

Can never have too many wax palms.

After that break we headed into the steep downhill, muddy portion of the path and were VERY thankful for our rented rubber boots.  After another couple of hours we reached another stopping point famous for its hummingbirds and hot chocolate (although the hot chocolate at the “non-famous” stop was much better).

River to cross along the way.

Humingbirds at the 2nd hot chocolate stop.

At this point we were getting a little worried, this 2.5 hour hike had turned into a full day event, it was now almost 4 p.m. and the last jeeps headed back to town at 5p.m.  We started off back down the trail, and followed the river to the bottom. This last part of the trail ended up being extremely tricky, the first part of this section was home to 5 or 6 wooden, swinging “bridges” over the river. The trickiest part was the last couple of kilometres of an old mud road that had been completely hollowed out by rain. The muddy bumps were hard to even manouever on foot, to make matters worse the road was lined by barbed wire, which I did end up falling into at one point, ripping my pants, and slicing my thigh.  But no time to stop, we finished the hike at a jog and arrived at the jeeps at 5 p.m. on the dot, and made it out just in time. A little more than we had signed up for but all-in-all, a very good start to my stay in the coffee region.

A few hours in.

One of the "bridges" along the way.

Safe and sound back in Salento with Jane, Charlie, and our new Argentinian friend we met en route, and our "Willy" of course.

After another homemade dinner at the finca, we decided tomorrow would be horseback riding.  The following morning we did a nice horseback ride along the river, through an old unfinished rail tunnel, to a beautiful waterfall.

Waterfall in the woods.


That afternoon, after our ride and 2 days into my time in the coffee region I finally had a coffee!! And what a coffee it was! We went to Cafe Jesus Martin, a cozy little cafe in Salento with by far the best coffee I’ve had in Colombia, and one of the best I’ve ever had, I’m still deciding whether it’s THE best (those of you in Toronto will have to stop by our place this spring and decide for yourselves!). That night we had more of the local trout at a restaurant in the square and then headed back to the farm for another long night’s sleep in the country.

A cafe at Cafe Jesus Martin

During all of this time I had been texting everyone at my office, trying to find out if our latest work trip was actually going to happen. Although everything happens last-minute here, I at least needed enough of a heads-up to physically get myself back to Bogota and as I’d been messaging them for days with no response, air tickets were now way beyond my human-rights lawyer’s income and I needed to take a full-day bus back. Given this uncertainty I decided that I better do a coffee tour the next day, I couldn’t leave without doing anything related to coffee! So the next day I headed back to the infamous hostel to do a tour of their coffee farm.

The first hour was an explanation by the British owner, in English. The second hour was a tour, in Spanish. Not even one minute into the 2nd hour it became apparent that some people spoke a little Spanish and some spoke none at all, relying again on the old, well there’s always someone that speaks Spanish. Which is fantastic, unless you’re always the Someone that speaks Spanish. Today I just couldn’t do it, I needed at least a couple of hours away from being the interpreter/organizer/point of attention, I just wanted to be able to enjoy one thing like a normal tourist. Don’t  get me wrong, for the most part I don’t mind it at all and enjoy translating for people but sometimes it just gets a bit much, especially when everyone is peppering you with questions and comments to translate and cutting you off and no one bothers to say thank you, which is what happened at the end of this tour when people realized I actually really spoke Spanish.

Raw coffee beans.

Coffee berries on the tree.

Grinding the beans

Roasting beans the old-fashioned way.

Almost ready! Notice the unhappy helper in the corner.

In any case, it was great to finally  have a coffee experience in Colombia. Although as nice as it was, I still didn’t feel I really knew that much about coffee. The guide had mentioned that Cafe Jesus Martin actually does a 3 hour coffee appreciation workshop. I thought to myself, that’s what I need! So I went back to the finca, and asked Jane and Charlie, my new American friends, if they would consider doing the workshop with me. Although I could tell they were nowhere near as excited about it as I was, always good sports, they agreed to join me (I needed at least 2 people for them to run the workshop).

During all of this time I was still trying to get ahold of anyone at my office for any information as I would have to leave the following day if this work trip was going to happen.  Friday morning I finally got a text from my boss saying he would confirm by 2 p.m. 2 p.m. came and nothing, 4 p.m., 11 p.m., nothing. Finally I said to myself okay if I have nothing by the time I wake up tomorrow, I will write them and say I will just keep travelling. I was not yet ready to risk that I could be facing another week alone in the office until the others showed up. So that’s just what I did, I wrote the email…and low and behold not only did I get a text, but an actual telephone call from my office. Saying that the trip was happening, we would leave Monday, meaning I would have to get the bus back to Bogota the following day, just in time to leave for the next trip.

That afternoon, Charlie, Jane, Luz Angela, and I did the coffee workshop.  It was much better than we had imagined.  Jesus himself was our guide (well Jesus of Cafe Jesus, not THE Jesus). He is a Salento local who is passionate about coffee. As those of you who have been to Colombia know, one of the most dumbfounding things for a foreigner is that you just can’t find a good cup of coffee in this country. He described Colombia as a coffee-producing country and other countries like Canada, Switzerland, or the U.S. as coffee consuming countries. Currently, almost all of the high quality coffee is exported while the low quality, un-exportable beans are consumed here in Colombia.  His vision is to create a Coffee culture here in Colombia.  He wants to develop a taste for good coffee in Colombians.  Because every part of the coffee process is crucial to a good cup of coffee they do everything, from the buying of beans from certain local farmers, to their coffee shop (Cafe Jesus Martin) where the barista prepares each cup with “love”.  He belongs to international coffee associations and uses their standards for each stage of the development, but he does not, nor does he have any plans to, export the coffee. His goal is simply to bring good coffee to Colombians. Hallelujah!

Jesus introducing us to the process.

Jesus took us through tests like you would at a wine tasting. We learned about the colour, the taste, the aroma,the roasting, and the bean selection.

Sorting the beans by hand.

Learning about coffee!

Jesus and his roasting machine.

After our lessons we all headed to the cafe for some fancy cappuchinos.  Now I felt like I finally had experienced coffee in Colombia!

Back at the Cafe Jesus Martin.

Our barista Diego, making our coffees with love.

A coffee made with love.

The grande finale.

The new coffee connoisseurs.

I shared another great dinner with Charlie and Jane and the next morning I was off on a 11 hour bus journey back to Bogota….to see whether this work trip was actually going to happen.

I don’t know that I fell completely back in love with Colombia in one week, but we are making good progress…stay tuned!

Some Colombian love.