The universal language of child’s play

One of my greatest joys is watching my little girl playing, whether it be re-imagining her immediate environment with great creativity or interacting with her peers in new ways that as her parents, we haven’t experienced.

Like most kids in affluent societies, she has an excessive amount of toys, ranging from the recycled, or handcrafted, fair trade, sustainably-sourced, non-toxic, minimal packaging etc etc ones I prefer, to the occasional mass-marketed, plastic atrocity which has managed to find its way into our home.  But ironically, it is often the less usual suspects that become the most coveted ‘toys’; silicon muffin cases, old egg cartons, random buttons, a set of pencils with Christmas-themed erasers on their ends, a 1970s plastic sauce dispenser that was headed for the trash…

When I saw Italian photographer Gabriele Galimberti’s Toy Stories project, capturing children from all different countries with their toys, I loved that it showed children’s delight in building collections of their favourite things.  From dinosaurs to trains, from sunglasses to musical instruments, these collections tell the story of the child’s world around them.  They often reflect a child’s (or their parent’s) career ambitions, or in the case of the less privileged child who only has one or two beloved toys, also show the increased reliance on outdoor play with friends and animals in the absence of material objects.

While Galimberti found many similarities with the role played by toys and their significance from country to country, the photographer found that how children played with their toys varied. “The richest children were more possessive. At the beginning, they wouldn’t want me to touch their toys, and I would need more time before they would let me play with them… In poor countries, it was much easier. Even if they only had two or three toys, they didn’t really care.”

Here’s some of my favourite photographs and stories from the project, but do check out the rest. Must say, it looks like collecting sunglasses is a bit more fun than collecting guns…

Maudy, Zambia (photo: Gabriele Galimberti) Maudy was born in a hut in a small village close to Kalulushi, in Zambia. She grew up playing in the street with the other children in the village, who all attend the same school, where students ages 3 to 10 years old are in the same class. The village has no shops, restaurants or hotels, and just a few children are lucky enough to have toys. Maudy and her friends found a box full of sunglasses on the street, which quickly became their favorite toys.

 

Enea, USA (photo: Gabriele Galimberti) Enea was born in Tuscany to an Italian father and an American mother, but now lives in Colorado. His uncle is a musician and Enea loves to imitate him. He often plays with his small musical instruments, trying to play the theme songs from “Batman” and “SpiderMan.” Sometimes he plays with his older sister Anita, and they pretend to have a band.

 

Naya Managua, Nicaragua (photo: Gabriele Galimberti) Naya has few small cook tools but she never gets bored to play with them. She uses mud and grass from the garden to pretend to cook some cakes for her older sister. She says that in the future she will manage a restaurant and she’s sure that tourists will love it!

 

Jaqueline, The Philippines (photo: Gabriele Galimberti) Jaqueline has a lot of different toys but her favourite is for sure Tinkerbell, the little green fairy that her best friend gave her. Her father is a fashion photographer and almost every day takes photos of her too. Jaqueline says that she will be a model in the future.

 

Pavel, Ukraine (photo: Gabriele Galimberti) Pavel doesn’t have any doubts: he wants to be a police man. He loves guns and plays with them all the time. His younger brother is always under “Pavel’s arrest.” Pavel handcuffs him, questions him and accuses him of stealing cars. Sometimes he lets his brother be the police man, but only when other friends come over and become the “bad people” Pavel wants to arrest!

 

Chiwa, Malawi (photo: Gabriele Galimberti) Chiwa live in a small hut with her mother, father and sister. They don’t have electricity and running water. Chiwa used to help her mother to carry water at home from the river. In the village there are other 50 children (more or less) and they always plays all together outside. Chiwa has just 3 toys that some volonteers of an NGO gave to her when she was born. Her favourite is the dinosaurus because she says that he can protect her from the dangerous animals.

 

Radhika, India (photo: Gabriele Galimberti) Radhika was born in Mumbai 6 years ago but she lived the first 3 years in New York together with her family. Now she lives in Mumbai but her first language is still english. She knows just few words in hindi and just because her babysitter speaks just hindi. Radhika love table games and her favourite is “monopoly” because she can buy houses and hotels. From her room’s windows, at the 18th floor of a new building, she can see almost the whole city.

 

Taha, Lebanon (photo: Gabriele Galimberti) Taha was born in Palestine but now he lives in Beriut where he’s a refugee together with his family. They lives in a sort of shantytown together with a few thousand of other people. Everybody there is from Palestine. To get water and electricity they need to illegaly connect their house to the public service. Taha has just one toy, the car, and he didn’t have any doubt when i asked him to show me his favourite toy.

 

Stella, Italy (photo: Gabriele Galimberti) Stella was born in Italy to an Italian father and Australian mother. They live in the countryside of a small city in Tuscany. She loves to play with dolls and dress them up like princesses, and she also loves to dress up like a princess. Her favorite toy is the small pink pig behind her.

 

Norden, Morocco (photo: Gabriele Galimberti) Norden lives in Massa, a small village 40km south of Agadir. In the room where he plays and sleeps there is nothing, except for a carpet. Every day he wakes up early together with his family and he goes with the down to the valley where they have some pieces of land to farm. He spends most of his time playing with a small dog outside, even because the ones in the photo are all the toys he owns.

 

 

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Our suburbs. One man’s dream. One man’s nightmare.

It’s no secret that Australians have a penchant for big, wide spaces.  With a land mass double the size of Europe and a population just one twentieth* the size, it’s in our DNA to spread our arms wide and find a piece of land we can proudly call our own.

Enter the phenomenon of the Aussie suburb.  Like it or loath it (inner-city dwellers are typically conditioned to loath it), most Australians actually live in the ‘burbs; it’s simply that some suburbs do well on the cool scale and others don’t.   Some of us choose to live in the suburbs because that’s what we can afford, but it’s more complex that that.  Often we are indeed fulfilling our cultural mission to acquire a piece of country, realising a dream to curate a patch of soil, wanting an outdoor space for our kids to enjoy and seeking a contrasting retreat from relentless city life.

"It's all about the land value!"

"It's all about the land value!"

 

Just why is there so much bitter condemnation of suburbia?  Marxist geographer David Harvey describes suburbs as “Places where working class militancy is pacified through the promotion of mortgage debt, which turns suburbanites into political conservatives primarily concerned with maintaining their property values”.  Alan Gilbert, author of the Roots of Anti-Suburbanism in Australia writes: “Australian suburbs have been associated with spiritual emptiness, the promotion of an ersatz, one-dimensional consumer culture, the embourgeoisment of the working-class, and more generally criticised for being “too pleasant, too trivial, too domestic and far too insulated from … ‘real’ life”.  Songwriter after songwriter has immortalised our burbs for better or for worse; this ‘aspirational’ Hunters & Collectors song is one of my favourites…

I too am guilty of harsh judgements on many a suburb in my hometown, not least concerning the conservative, leafy, largely mono-cultural eastern suburb which I grew up in.  And I too have enjoyed many laughs watching Kath & Kim, with the illusion of laughing at ‘them’, rather than at ‘us’.

So is this obsessive critique of our suburbs a class-based criticism of the (vast) majority of our fellow compatriots, or is it perhaps, as former Fairfax journalist James Button alludes, a criticism of our former self? “The suburbs haunt the Australian imagination simply because so many of us grow up in them. For artists and for anyone, the place you are born in is the one place you never really leave.”

Ironically, living in a Melbourne suburb that that isn’t even on the scale of coolness makes my ‘burb all the more attractive.  While I’ve never quite adjusted to the lack of diversity for eating out options (unless 20 Vietnamese and Indian restaurants count as diversity) and hate being so reliant on my car to travel places, I live in a place where socio-economic indicators guarantee I’m not insulated from ‘real life’, surrounded by a melting pot of fleeting and permanent migrants from across the globe. I live in a place where each of my neighbours has a different world-view to the next one, and there’s no stereotype to live up to (except perhaps wearing tracksuit pants to the supermarket – I quite like that).

That said, a recent trip to Europe where we predominantly stayed in cities and in medium-density apartments did more than cure my wanderlast.  It made me crave the simplicity of small spaces and homes, where accumulation is impossible and it’s all about quality, not quantity.  Won over by each city’s compact infrastructure, historic architecture and creative use of space, it wasn’t until I returned home to my wooly bush and broad beans that I felt okay about the ‘way we live’ here in Australia…

Last week a friend sent me a link to one of the best blogs I’ve seen in ages. 52 Suburbs is Australian Louise Dawson’s attempt to profile 52 different suburbs (read neighbourhoods) around the world over twelve months. It’s about revealing places that aren’t known for much, and “finding ‘ordinary’ beauty in the places where ‘ordinary’ people live”.  It’s amazing. Here’s a few photos from her blog capturing the magic of my neighbouring suburb of Footscray.

 

 Redheads after some of Footscray's best cannoli - http://52suburbs.com/

Redheads after some of Footscray's best cannoli - http://52suburbs.com/

From Vietnam to vintage - http://52suburbs.com/

From Vietnam to vintage - http://52suburbs.com/

Great views for a factory. Tony, Lance and Brendan at the Ryco hydraulic factory. http://52suburbs.com/

Great views for a factory. Tony, Lance and Brendan at the Ryco hydraulic factory. http://52suburbs.com/

African Town - http://52suburbs.com/

African Town - http://52suburbs.com/

The most recent arrivals, whities Matt with son Euan 9 - http://52suburbs.com/

The most recent arrivals, whities Matt with son Euan 9 - http://52suburbs.com/

 

* my rough calculation based on wiki stats

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Towards greener pastures? Rio+20 and the role of a green economy in achieving sustainable development

A few years ago when I was working in East Africa with Oxfam, I recall a well-experienced and respected colleague bemoaning the emergence of climate change as an additional focus for the aid and development sector.

“HIV & AIDS, gender, conflict, food security… We’re already struggling to address these issues [in our responses to poverty and disaster]. Surely we can’t be expected to tackle this as well”.

While I was sympathetic to her plea, it seemed inevitable. Some of the least developed regions on earth are highly vulnerable to and already experiencing the impacts of climate change. To not advocate for climate action or integrate climate adaptation into development work would be missing the forest for the trees, or in modern parlance, be ‘sustainable development’ without the sustainability.

Africa map - impacts of climate change

Mapping Africa's climate change hotspots - http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/dec/01/cairo-cape-climate-change

 

Whether my old colleague still holds these views several years on I’m not sure. However, her exasperation would no doubt please former climate sceptic Bjorn Lomborg, who argues that sustainable development has become so pervaded by the climate change discussion, that it has lost the original focus on ‘development’, ie. lifting people out of poverty.

In a recent Newsweek article published in the lead-up to the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, Lomborg lamented Rio+20′s focus on developing a green economy, arguing that there are more critical environmental issues affecting developing nations and that to focus on reduced economic growth and consumption is to deny people who are living in poverty a critical path to economic prosperity.

Lomborg rightly highlights the need to address pressing environmental problems in developing countries, such as indoor air pollution, access to clean drinking water and poverty in itself.  But he misses the point that a country’s social and economic development ultimately relies upon a healthy environment, and when this is sacrificed such as in China’s cities and river networks, both the people and the natural environment pay a high price.  Furthermore, if the world is indeed awakening to the merits of green growth and the need for a more sustainable, greener economy, surely developing countries should have a seat at the table instead of just continuing to play catchup for years to come?

Wind turbines in India

Wind turbines in India - www.rechargenews.com/business_area/finance/article268520.ece

 

The Rio+20 summit has been overwhelmingly labelled a failure by most participants and observers for its lack of political leadership and ambition necessary to ‘solve the connected crises of environment, equity and economy’. This includes governments failing to stand up to fossil fuel industries and put an end to the massive subsidies which only encourage more pollution. Yet there is cause for some mild optimism with work ahead to define and work towards new sustainable development goals that build on the Millennium Development Goals (and involve all countries, not just developing nations), as well as committing to step up the transfer of ‘environmentally-sound’ technologies to developing countries.

While the summit may not have delivered a blueprint for delivering a greener model of development, it has succeeded in illustrating and acknowledging the failure of our current economic models to deliver a more equitable world and the shortcomings of using GDP as the primary barometer for prosperity.  That in itself, over time, may prove to be a rather significant milestone…

Woman washing on the banks of Lake Tana, Bahar Dar, Ethiopia (Photo: Carly Hammond)

Woman washing on the banks of Lake Tana, Ethiopia (Photo: Carly Hammond)

 

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Burmese days – Is the Golden Land on the cusp of a new era?

Young nuns in Hsipaw (photo: Carly Hammond)

Young nuns in Hsipaw (photo: Carly Hammond)

 

There are some special places on earth which lure you such that you make damn sure you visit and once you get there, become hooked and vow to return.  Such is my experience with the magical land of Burma.

Probably my earliest exposure to Burma was when I worked at Lonely Planet. As a company publicist, I defended the company’s Myanmar (Burma) guidebook, which by its very publication, promoted tourism in a country whose globally-revered pro-democrary leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was advocating a travel boycott. Lonely Planet’s line was, and remains, that tourism is a sector which locals can benefit from economically and that its guidebook helps travellers make more informed choices both about whether to go, and if they go, how to positively impact the local population.

Burmese girl on Inle Lake tributary (photo: Carly Hammond)

Burmese girl on Inle Lake tributary (photo: Carly Hammond)

Monks on their morning alms in Kalaw (photo: Carly Hammond)

Monks on their morning alms in Kalaw (photo: Carly Hammond)

 

Living in Thailand a couple of years later, I encountered a number of Burmese people and and started to learn more about the atrocious human rights record of the military junta. After reading a revealing report about human rights abuses perpetuated by foreign investment in Burma’s natural resources, I decided that I would visit and make up my own mind.

The month I spent in Burma was one of the most memorable of my life.  Engaging in some writing for Lonely Planet, I travelled from Rangoon up to Mandalay and then into the countryside, spending a significant portion of my time in the eastern Shan State, in small towns with minimal numbers of travellers and maximum opportunities for engaging with local people. From jaw-dropping cultural sites like Bagan to border towns bustling with Chinese trucks and traders, I managed to scratch the surface of a diverse and culturally rich country that mirrored no other. As anticipated, certain parts of the country were off-limits to foreigners; the military’s method for controlling what gets seen and what doesn’t. However no one stopped my interactions with Burmese people, giving me precious insight into how locals felt about their homeland and providing an amazing two-way exchange which I treasure to this moment. Day after day I would encounter older generations of Burmese, typically educated by the British and devoted supporters of the National League for Democracy (NLD). I discovered their appetite for international politics, which included tuning in short wave radios to catch the BBC World Service, and a strong desire to make connections with the world beyond their own borders, a freedom which we take for granted. With these poignant experiences my time in Burma felt vindicated, so long as I made conscious decisions around how to minimise the contribution my tourism dollar made to the junta.

Downtown Rangoon (Photo: Carly Hammond)

Downtown Rangoon (Photo: Carly Hammond)

Mandalay Fort (photo: Carly Hammond)

Mandalay Fort (photo: Carly Hammond)

 

A decade on and I am still yet to return, but there’s barely a week that goes by where I don’t think about the country and its people. I recently read Amitav Ghosh’s remarkable novel The Glass Palace, which brought chapters of Burma’s fascinating history to life, and provided a new layer of appreciation for the towns and sites I visited and an understanding of the individual toll of colonialism. In Australia, I’ve been fortunate enough to expand my knowledge of Burma and its people through close interactions with some Chin refugees, a growing diaspora. A largely Christian community, spending time with the Chin people has given me a better understanding of the ethnic diversity within Burma and experiences of a minority culture living within a repressive regime, which I didn’t really get a sense of during my travels.

I’ve also followed Burmese politics with a keen interest, which until recently, gave little signals of hope. However reforms over the past six months have ignited some real optimism. Firstly, in September 2011 the new ‘civilian’ government shocked activists worldwide when it announced it would halt construction of the controversial $3.6 billion Myitsone dam on the Irrawaddy River because it was ‘against the will of the people’. Sorry? The Burmese government decides not to pursue a mega project with its closest ally, China, because it cares about its people?!

Portrait of Burmese oppostition leader, nobel peace prize winner and democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi by KC after her release from house arrest, in Yangon, Burma (Myanmar) 2010.

Portrait of Burmese oppostition leader, nobel peace prize winner and democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi after her release from house arrest, in Rangoon, 2010. (Copyright: K C Ortiz)

 

The next piece of good news was the release of over 100 political prisoners a month later, followed by Aung San Suu Kyi announcing that she would stand for election to parliament in 2012. Holy moly! Early December, Hilary Clinton became the first US Secretary of State to visit Burma in over 50 years since the military dictatorship commenced, signalling a possible end to long-standing sanctions in place by the US, EU and Canada. Then in January a ceasefire was reached with Karen rebels and the government committed to releasing over 600 more political prisoners.

In Singapore in January, the Burmese President Thein Sein said “the future of Myanmar lies in peace and stability, while economic development is a secondary priority for the country”.  There’s clearly no flies on him, as the former will almost certainly ensure the latter.  An outstanding question remains though whether these these political and economic reforms will deliver positive outcomes for Burma’s most in need, or merely legitimise a grab for the country’s natural resources by the west and present a thin veiled democracy which masks ongoing repression.

Little girl selling cheroots at Mingun Paya (photo: Carly Hammond)

Little girl selling cheroots at Mingun Paya (photo: Carly Hammond)

 

While a long, hard road to recovery remains, I for one, am optimistic that things can only get better.  I long for the day when I can return to this remarkable place, meet more inspiring locals and engage in new friendships across the seas without fearing for their safety each time I make contact.  I long for the day when the rest of the world realises this unique jewel in Asia’s crown, can travel to Burma without completing a PhD in tourism ethics and has the opportunity to experience the people and cultures of this amazing country first-hand.

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