To the members of this community, “hacking” isn’t just for girls with dragon tattoos, geeks, or Guy Fawkes-masked activists.
“It’s the out-of-the-way of looking at things,” says Mitch Altman, one of the founders of the hackerspace. “It’s not being afraid to take a radical approach. Someone who is a hacker isn’t afraid if their government makes laws, because they won’t think they’re important.”
Some hack computers, but others hack food and photography: to the members of Noisebridge, it is about challenging the fundamentals of creative projects. The physical space is impressive: 5,200 square feet broken up into several areas dedicated to one craft or another. Computer chips and hardware are littered about, colorful wires dangle from labeled drawers. In one corner, mushrooms are beginning to sprout and kombucha brews. In another, a hacker known as Rayc dons protective goggles and sparks spray around him as he sands something down. Another hacker, Jared, ignores the weekly meeting, instead choosing to tinker on what will become a Tesla coil. Everyone around is moving, creating, or brainstorming. The sound of clicking computer keys never stops.
What is this space of creative chaos? Noisebridge and its members are part of a growing number of “hackerspaces” in the world. These spaces are meant to provide a safe place for hackers to collaborate and socialize, typically in the field of technology. At this space in particular, members offer free workshops for affiliates and the public alike. Altman gives a weekly soldering workshop on Mondays but the space offers a variety of other classes from sewing and “zine” production to German lessons.
A luminous Florida sun reflects off of the lake at the Caliente Resort on a Saturday morning in April. Rich Pasco stands next to his groomsmen, clad in matching bow ties as his wife to be, Julianne, walks barefoot down the aisle. Draped in a veil crowned with a floral wreath, Julianne is the only person in his world.
Her three bridesmaids stand with plastered smiles as they hold their pink bouquets, floral wreaths atop their brows. The duo’s closest friends come together in Land O’ Lakes, Florida for the clothing optional ceremony. The couple met three years earlier at a nude resort in Los Gatos.
“I had been swimming in the pool and there was one open lounge chair right next to Julie,” says Rich. “We got to talking and she brought up her disabled niece. There was such compassion and love in her heart and this sparkle in her eye that she got from talking about her. I knew I needed someone like that in my life.”
The wedding invitations explained that it was fitting to pledge the couple’s union before the community that supported the growth of their love.
“When my mom got the invitation, she wrote me a five-word e-mail saying ‘I was sick. Sick. Sick,’” says Julie.
Life can be overwhelmingly stressful. Especially in a busy city, things can happen. Traffic, spaced-out people, sometimes everything is in the way and there’s nothing to do about it. Or is there?
Ever wonder how monks really are so calm, no matter what? That calmness is attainable too, and it’s easier than one would think. Meditation and yoga focus on breathing as a way of staying in the moment. Concentrating on breathing, allows the mind to be present and not distracted by the past or the future. Acupuncture can help relieve physical and emotional symptoms and balance the body to further encourage positive health choices.
Eastern holistic practices like yoga, meditation, and acupuncture have been used as effective therapies for centuries – for everything from joint pain to depression. Holistic practices focus on how the many components of a hectic lifestyle can add up and result in stress – holistic practitioners address these issues as a whole.
Adam Burke, director of the Institute for Holistic Health Studies at San Francisco State University, says that through student surveys, he has found the majority of SFSU pupils find themselves suffering from anxiety and depression at some point during his or her time here.
In what was proving to be a game for the ages, regulation would not be enough time to determine the outcome of the battle between two fiercely determined foes. The San Francisco 49ers and the New York Giants were locked in a tight defensive battle, momentum seemingly switching every other play. Miscues had been the story of the game at this point, costly mistakes keeping San Francisco from putting the game away long ago. Dropped passes, both on the offensive and defensive side of the ball had plagued them throughout. It was mental errors, however, that had proved the most damaging. A mind-numbing gaffe by special teamer Kyle Williams had gifted the Giants an opportunity to get right back into the game. And get back in the game is exactly what they did. New York tied the contest and sent the game into a sudden death situation.
The tension that built during the overtime period set the tone for the rest of the night. Though the first four periods had been back and forth, the emotional swings now had been escalated even more. The defenses were reigning supreme and the offenses had completely stalled. In a game where the first team to score would win, neither could muster any sort of rally. It would take some sort of divine intervention for one squad to breakthrough. And that intervention came, in the cruelest form of déjà vu imaginable. For one player, the infamy that would result from the aftermath would be catastrophic.
The 49er’s exhausted defense had made one last stop. A key hold deep in the Giants territory that would force the road team to kick the ball away and concede good field position to San Francisco, a precious commodity at this juncture. The home crowd anxiously awaited the punt, preparing themselves for the jubilation that would result from what they believed to be their ticket to the Super Bowl. The ball was snapped, the kick went up, and was received by none other than Kyle Williams, desperate for a chance at redemption. His heart, however, was too big for his own good, visions of grandeur clouding his judgment.In an attempt to undo his previous wrong, Williams had forgotten the cardinal rule of football: ball security. The tortured star charged right into the teeth of the Giants coverage, fueled by his desire to be emancipated from his status of the goat. He merely succeeded in burying himself deeper.He was ambushed by Giants special teamer Jacquian and once again relinquished the ball to his foes, a crucial strip that would completely alter the course of the game. This miscue had gifted them the victory, the ball already in scoring range during a time where the first to score would win. The euphoria 49er fans had been experiencing prior to the fumble was quickly replaced with confusion – not quite being able to comprehend the turn events that had just occurred.
They watched in hopeless anticipation as the New York offense prepared for the crushing blow. As the comprehension set in, fans told themselves not all was lost, that the kick was not a sure thing, that a blocked kick was still a possibility. None of them actually believed it. They knew deep down that their season was over, stolen from them in an unacceptable manner. There was nothing they could do about it. The kick went up and through the uprights, closure finally coming to the game they had already known was lost. For a fan base as passionate as this one, there would be no quick fix. They were about to embark on an emotional roller-coaster of epic proportions.
Constant snacks for late night study sessions and a quick slice after a night at the bar can easily be the cause of steady weight gain in college. It’s time to stop using money as an excuse for daily junk eating. Low-cost healthy alternatives are out there, and easily accessible for on-the-go students who balance work, internships, classes and a social life.
When students find themselves constantly saying “Tomorrow is time to eat healthier and finally lose this weight,” but can’t resist the urges, it’s time to consider other options. Physical and mental health won’t improve unless students truly start paying attention to their nutritional habits.
Ashley Hathaway, a certified nutritional therapist and Gut and Psychology Syndrome practitioner in San Francisco, believes that students on a tight budget are still capable of buying nutritional foods that won’t break the bank. Hathaway stresses that the budget conscious focus on quality versus quantity. Many students tend to grab things that are immediately satisfying to eat in the moment, like a donut or cup of coffee in the morning, but, according to Hathaway, they are only putting their money towards empty calories.
“They get a jolt from that,” explains Hathaway. “But later get quickly hungry because the body hasn’t truly been nourished.”
Finally home after a hard day’s work, Airec Sysprasert immediately and almost reflexively stays true to his routine. He opens his laptop, and, while he waits for his emails to load, he looks in the refrigerator and cabinets for something to whip up.
“I can begin my work only if I do these things first as soon as I come home,” explains Syprasert, a senior at San Francisco State University, “But even then, I get thrown off and I’ll be on the computer well into 4 a.m. trying to finish my work.”
When it comes to life in college, procrastination is a song and dance many students know all too well. It’s easy to get pulled away from the important school work, like reports and projects, when it means having fun or even just relaxing. After all, that paper is not due for another three weeks.
Once it hits the night before, however, one can only live with stress and regret. “Most of the time, I finish my assignments,” says Elizabeth Hernandez, a freshman at SFSU, “But they definitely could be better if they were done without procrastinating.”
According to a report by Piers Steel of the University of Calgary, research indicates three out of four college students consider themselves procrastinators. Steel asserts that these numbers could be on the rise with people making it a way of life and some even being chronically affected.
A multi-layered dress of dark silk ruffles and satin bows bury Andi Hernandez’s petite body. Voluminous, luscious locks of light auburn hair coil down her velvety corset. Tucked under her corset is a shiny blouse, complete with long, wavy sleeves. Raven-black billowy petticoats gather at her waist and form a bell-shape silhouette. The sharp heels of her knee-high, military-style stiletto boots snap on pavement.
The day Hernandez discovered Lolita fashion, millions of young women were doing the same thing; they sat at home and flipped through their precious fashion magazines. Flashes of lingerie and naked women have been the apple of the media’s eye for the last century. Sexism is prominent in the media largely because most of the media (and most of the world) is run by men. What Hernandez, like most other Lolitas, sought was an alternative.
At first sight, dainty Hernandez looks eccentric and intimidating. Then she smiles; the whites of her teeth outshine the glow of pearls threaded in her hair and around her waist. As Hernandez begins to talk about one of the most important moments of her life, her eyes radiate a sweet glow. She then holds out her hand to display a dazzling onyx jewel on her ring finger and her smile grows ten times bigger.
The first time Hernandez met Elliot Morrow, they sang karaoke together at a meet up in San Jose. The two were practically strangers when they sang “1000 Words” by Jade Sweetbox, a track from the Final Fantasy video game soundtrack. Now the song holds a special spot on their wedding playlist. The lovers dated for three years before they eloped on November 11, 2011. It only seems fitting that their wedding ceremony reflected the Japanese-inspired fashion that brought them together.
Flash back five years to a curious Hernandez cruising through magazines in high school. She remembers squealing when she stumbled upon a cute style while browsing Japanese fashion articles. Images of modernized Victorian dresses struck Hernandez with love at first sight. She’s been a follower of the Lolita fashion trend ever since.
“It’s definitely a world primarily made up of women who dress for women and for themselves,” says Angie Lyons, San Francisco State University student and local Lolita. Historical research fuels her interest in this highly antique fashion trend. Not only because of the origin of the style, but because of the influence of Victorian times.
Ask any Lolita to define her style and she’s bound to include “Victorian,” “cute,” “elegant,” or “innocent.” Lyons describes Lolita style as “princess clothes for the modern maiden,” which is pretty spot on. Essentially, these ladies are infatuated with the idea of pursuing the secret wish many women have – the desire to escape from patriarchal expectations to dress slutty. They want to be a princess, go for tea and receive an offer of marriage from a prince in wonderland.
Maybe Lolitas don’t necessarily marry Prince Charming, but according to a Canadian documentary, some refer to their world as Alice’s rabbit hole. In the documentary, the fashion’s followers say the common Lolita wants to live in a utopia where “creativity and expression are free of modern society’s expectations.” Once a Lolita gains the confidence to take that freedom, the world becomes Wonderland.
But there’s more to Lolita than dressing in princess dresses, petticoats, and corsets. Lolitas have rules, and the first rule is to minimize the amount of shown skin. The innocent style bloomed from the over sexualization of Japanese women. During a rise of prostitution in Japan, women sought a form of expression to rebel against society’s constant sexualization. Lolitas began to dress in innocent, modest clothing to counter the condescending perception of their race.
Not all Lolitas identify with the sociological conception of the fashion. Many associate Elegant Gothic Lolita with a genre of Japanese music. In the 1980s, the Japanese music industry latched on to EGL’s visual form of expression and incorporated Lolita fashion into their musical performances. The use of voluptuous hair, flamboyant makeup, and Victorian-inspired apparel among musicians is known as Visual Kei. In the past twenty years, the Lolita trend stretched worldwide with Visual Kei bands, turning from female rebellion into a form of individuality for all genders and races.
A well-known Visual Kei band is MALICE MIZER. It combines a gothic version of Lolita while still maintaining a sweet, Victorian performance. Members of MALICE MIZER are often dressed in black from head to toe, with pale makeup and shadowy eyes. Its use of dripping blood in music videos, heavy drumming, and extensive guitar solos are similar to American metal bands.
But the singer of MALICE MIZER won’t give a ghoulish screech like the vocalists of Necrophagist or Megadeth. MALICE MIZER’s vocals are much more musical and prominent, comparative to Gerard Way of My Chemical Romance. MALICE MIZER’s insertion of sweet French lyrics and playful keyboard chords produce a taste of Versailles, which is a core vision of Lolita for its Victorian-esque dressing gowns and attention to detail. The band’s balance of sour and sweet is similar to the huge sub-category of Lolita fashion, Gothic Lolita.
Opposite of gothic on the Lolita spectrum is Sweet Lolita. Erica Brown of Concord is a candied example of Sweet Lolita. A pink, sparkly bow sits on top of bundles of blond, curly hair. Each time her eyelashes blink, her straight-across bangs are flicked away from her doll-like eyes. Pastel shades of every color embody her cupcake-shaped dress. Ivory lace bloomers peek out from under her skirt. Her piggy pink shoes are bulkier versions of Mary Janes, with three times as many bows. Sometimes, the Sweet Lolitas wear candy in their hair (or wigs). Brown carries a heart-shaped wand, that of a child’s toy. She collects plastic children’s jewelry. She acquired heart rings and star bracelets in random places, some at the child’s makeup section of Target, others at Dollar Stores.
The Sweet Lolita’s child-like visage is commonly misunderstood, just as Gothic Lolita’s image is confused as a costume. With a childish appearance and the name “Lolita,” people foreign to the style assume the fashion is a fetish. This is one of the most common misconceptions of the Lolita trend. Every Lolita is determined to explain her fashion when it is confused with the sexually perverted novel, Lolita, by Russian author Vladimir Nabokov. Nabokov’s version of Lolita is a 12-year-old girl involved in incestuous, sexual acts with an older man. His book did not influence Lolita fashion, the literature is not connected to Japan whatsoever.
Lyons explains the only similarity between the two concepts is the name itself, “It’s unfortunate,” she says as she fiddles with the Hello Kitty keychain attached to her cell phone.
“I think it’s very strange when people equate Lolita the fashion with Lolita the book because pedophilia is all about wanting [sexual relations with] children, not about wanting women who dress like children,” says Lyons.
There is a gray line drawing the difference between Lolita and Harajuku fashions. Harajuku is the Japanese “style” Gwen Stefani popularized with her solo album in 2004– the same album that introduced Lyons to Japanese fashion. Most people outside of Japan quickly stamp the label “Harajuku” on any Japanese-inspired fashion. After Stefani released Love. Angel. Music. Baby., Japan’s Harajuku district became a capitol of fashion, and primary reference of Japanese fashion for the United States.
It’s true that the Lolita fashion began in the Harajuku district in Tokyo, but “Harajuku” is not a fashion trend– it is the physical area in which fashion trends are discovered and worn. A San Franciscan would not say she dressed in the Mission fashion to get coffee with friends. Imagine if Stefani’s infamous track, “Harajuku Girls,” was translated to San Franciscans as “Mission Girls.” The imaginary lyrics are amusing, “Mission girls, you got the wicked style. I like the way that you are. I am your biggest fan.”
Stefani is a shining example of evolving fashion, as her punk rock roots led her to Japanese fashion trends. Clothing outlets like Hot Topic cater fashion similar to Lolita, such as steampunk, pin-up or retro– all incorporate full skirts and the flattering accents of a women’s body.
Instead of shopping at Americanized retail stores to put together an authentic Lolita-inspired look, most Americans shop at Japanese designer stores in SF which import the styles straight from Japan. Angelic Pretty downtown SF and Baby, The Stars Shine Bright (also known simply as “Baby”) in Japantown are the two most-shopped spots for Lolita clothing in San Francisco– and probably in the entire nation– according to Lyons, a former employee of Baby.
Lyons worked at Baby during their first ten months of business in SF. Lolitas scattered across the nation came to visit SF for Lolita shopping. Lyons remembers Lolitas crying of happiness, just because they finally had access to the fashion they were most passionate about.
Countless colors of lace and frill create a rainbow of poofy dresses hanging along the walls of SF’s Angelic Pretty. Tables sprinkled with accessories like flowery bracelets, rose headbands, lace veils, and pearl necklaces complete for attention. Long socks are printed with rose, ribbon, cat, cake, fairy, and star patterns. It’s easy to spend a pretty penny in Angelic Pretty and then walk out looking even prettier than the Hello Kitty credit card swiped for the purchase.
Although buying designer brands is utterly expensive, many shoppers believe the cost is worth the amount of detail and high quality that the Japanese designers provide. Dresses are trimmed with lace, doused with jewels and stitched with ribbons.
Hernandez and Brown agree that most Lolitas receive expensive brand items as gifts from family, or save up over time and splurge on one essential piece, then enhance it with fixings with their casual wear clothing. The cost of dressing Lolita in the United States is a huge obstacle, as the only retail options are high-end Japanese brands with jacked up prices caused by import fees.
Clothing is the meat of Lolita fashion, but outsiders of the trend often don’t know about the communities of Lolitas, and the intense friendships created through this community. Official meets ups occur at least once a month, when members of the Elegant Gothic Lolita Facebook group organize tea time and shopping in Japantown.
A few years ago one of Lyons’ friends, Jennifer Torrence, borrowed a Lolita dress and joined Lyons on a Lolita meet up. Dressing up in Lolita for the first time, Torrence said she just felt really cute– and maybe a little uncomfortable. Despite her trouble breathing, she found goodness in the experience. The highlight of her time at the Lolita lunch was walking in as a newcomer and immediately being accepted by the community, and even more importantly– she was respected.
“Being around all these women who were just having fun and upbeat and sweet and cheery,” said Torrence. “That itself was a really good experience.”
That was the first and last taste of the Lolita community Torrence took. But after only one meet up, she believes if people understood Lolita is not a sexualized fetish (again, the confusion with Lolita the novel), they might be more receptive and keen on trying to understand the fashion, and likely to participate. San Francisco is a society of cliques and small circles where individuals are afraid of branching out from their long-term friends, and trying to find groups with similar interests. Because San Francisco is such a diverse city, these types of opportunities are plentiful, and the likeliness of finding one other person with a similar interest is tenfold.
On the other hand, San Francisco is one of the top destinations in the world. A lot of outsiders peek in to the safe zone many unique people call “home.” With that in mind, clashes of culture wreck the streets every day, and tourists are quick with their cameras to capture the city’s freak show.
Some onlookers are too bashful to ask the Lolitas to pose a photo. “I prefer when they ask to take a picture instead of me turning around to a sudden flash,” says Hernandez. She pretends to look out for photographers, peeking over each shoulder of bows and frills, then laughs.
A Lolita outing can resemble Disneyland. Groups of visitors line up to shoot a photo of Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty. In this case, the princess is a Lolita, and she likes to throw up a peace sign. This sounds tiring, but Lolitas are too polite to say “no.” Manners and the utmost form of elegance is valued by Lolitas, just as it was in Victorian times. It’s crucial for Lolita to remain civilized if she wants to embody the true meaning of her fashion. Usually Lolitas naturally carry those characteristics, or aspire to act as ladylike as Marie Antoinette. If the occasion rose, Lolita too would offer cake to judgmental masses of the working class, just because she is that sweet.
Many times the Lolitas are judged for resembling nursery rhyme characters, such as Little Bo Peep. Once Shannon Sorensen wore her petticoat and full dress to Great America and “some jerk” shouted at her, “Hey, where are your sheep?” She shook it off gracefully– Lolita style. Sorensen and many Lolitas agree that when the situation allows, they are quick to politely teach someone the difference between Lolita fashion and character costumes.
Adorable characters are seeds of inspiration for Lolitas to build on; a single look branches from that seed to create her outfit. But Sorensen doesn’t incorporate inspiration from objects or characters like other Lolitas might. Everyday clothing can be transformed into pieces for her Lolita look.
An elegant bow is tied at the collar of Sorensen’s solid black blouse. Sorensen explains the top is not a brand piece. “This shirt just so happens to go with this skirt,” she says as she fiddles with the peasant sleeves of her top. It’s tucked in to a black corset which is layered on top of a black, silky skirt with cascading layers of frill.
Sorensen says her Gothic Lolita style is very personal. “It’s become so much of who I am, that it’s just me.”
In fact, before Sorensen discovered the Lolita community at a crucial moment in her life. The Lolita had a difficult time in high school while growing up in a suburb outside of Santa Cruz. Stress from classes, crumbling relationships, and the pressure to fit in became all too much for her. Sorensen attempted to take her life three times throughout her high school career. But as she sought professional help and invested in her personal interests, she found a hobby to occupy her morbid thoughts.
Sorensen considers herself a “loner Lolita.” When she says the phrase, there is a soft ease in her voice and she chuckles. The Lolita believes she has found a hobby to occupy her time while alone, and that’s enough for her. Like in girl world, the Lolita community constantly expects each participant to “do it right.” This means hiding skin, having the bell-shape silhouette, wearing the brands, going for tea, and keeping ahead of the trends. But that’s not an element of Lolita that Sorensen appreciates, it’s actually one she tries to avoid.
Sorensen participates in Lolita her own way, by learning to sew her own pieces, writing non-fiction about Lolita characters, and finding music associated with the trend. She is solely paving a path to self-discovery, which gives a deeper meaning to this Japanese fashion.
It’s another day at Calen Perkins and Andrzej “Zej” Kozlowski’s home recording studio in San Francisco. Acoustic and electric guitars line the walls, none are tuned and many sit neglected, collecting dust. The duo sit quietly on the floor brainstorming what the next step will be in their career. Perkins twiddles his thumbs and thinks, but Kozlowski has an idea – though he isn’t sure if it will actually work. Many of their friends use a website to get their projects going: Kickstarter.
Kickstarter is a website for anyone who wants to create a project, self-promote, and raise funds. Based in New York City, Kickstarter consists of a team of thirty-six people. The website allows anyone around the world to pledge the amount of money they need for a project, try to get patrons to back it up with monetary donations, and hopefully earn enough money to create their project.
Perkins and Kozlowski are indie folk musicians attempting to use Kickstarter to raise money to record their first full length album.
“We have played a lot together over the last two years and now want to really record a good album,” Perkins says. “We chose to use Kickstarter because it seemed like the best way to raise money for our album. It’s a really easy-to-use format, and they give you lots of tips and guidance along the way to run a successful campaign and hit your goal.”
“It’s an entirely selfish art form, obstructing public spaces just to leave your mark on the world, but when we put it all together it looks like a strong community,” says Micah Serias. His large dark eyes scan the stickers, making out the San Francisco skyline. He scans each individual sticker, also known as a “slap,” with its signature design unique to each artist. The latest evolution of street art can be seen in sheets of tiny mail stickers on the bus, on newsstands, benches, and “pretty much anywhere somebody can see your name,” he says. “I’ve seen a slap on the Bay Bridge where people roll close to the wall and just throw up their name.”
Branding public space with the face of the people is nothing new to San Francisco. The city’s rich history of civil disobedience has been reflected in street art since the early sixties and art has often parallelled those movements for social justice. These illegal art installations stand out from the critically acclaimed art of the galleries because of the inherent risks to the artists. But like so many other illegalities, San Francisco allows residents to bend the laws of vandalism and foster creativity throughout the city.
Most recently slap art came to San Francisco State University in a completely unique art gallery, showing in the Cesar Chavez Student Center. Complete with a keg of Pabst Blue Ribbon and brats for every dietary restriction, students listened to a live band and took in the power of street art. Jordon Aydaub, an SFSU student and street artist, organized the event but the stigma of street art made the private owners of the gallery inflict some strict requirements.
“They said I needed to have a certain amount of illustrated pieces, and all these other random requirements,” Aydaub begins to comment before more people come up and congratulate him on the great turnout for the gallery opening.
This stigma within the art world has unarguably lessened through the pioneer work of key artists throughout the last half century. Most notably San Francisco’s Mission District has “the highest concentration of murals per square feet in the country… and some scholars believe an amount which supersedes that of any city in the world,” according to the book Street Art San Francisco: Mission Muralismo. The muralists of the 1960’s were believed to be inspired through Mexican muralist traditions.
Ten minutes until face off and the brown wooden benches of the Kezar Pavilion are quickly filling up. Outfitted with black Beats headphones, the DJ bobs his head up and down to mostly hip hop and some hard rock. Hoards of people enter, some juggle nachos, hot dogs, and energy drinks – most in clusters, and most clad in t-shirts supporting their gym or favorite fighter. Some groups are happy, cheerily chatting with one another, while others strut back and forth from one side of the arena to the other, game face on.
The star of this production, the cage, sits in the center, surrounded by cushioned blacks seats that constitute the “VIP area.” For the moment, the cage is empty. Its gray floor is clean and its padded corners shiny. For the spectators in the arena, the cage is unassuming, even though in just a matter of minutes, it will transform into a place of chaos. For the fighters waiting to enter, the cage is intimidating, threatening. For within the confines of this hexagonal structure, their fate will be decided. There is always one winner and one loser.
Zhong Luo, the owner of Dragon House, quickly appears for a few seconds and just as quickly disappears, talking urgently through his blue-tooth ear piece. Zhong Luo, or “Sifu” as he is called by his fighters, began learning martial arts at age three from his father and Grandmaster Luo Rong Qiang. By the age of five, Zhong Luo was already winning awards in hand-form competitions. When Luo was fourteen, he was well practiced in San Shou (Chinese kick-boxing), Mongolian-style wrestling, and weight-lifting.
A brief scroll down any notable news outlet’s web page will yield the latest from the turbulent political arena, which seems incomplete without an alleged sex scandal or controversial leaked footage; recaps of big-name universities’ athletic events, and the NCAA infractions thereof; multi-million dollar celebrity weddings (and subsequent divorces); not to mention the occasional, but always well-received, human interest piece that spotlights a local hero.
However, save for the now-quintessential photo of an enrobed East African woman delicately swaddling an emaciated, wide-eyed child gaping at the camera, one will be hard pressed to find detailed information regarding arguably the most severe human rights crises of the century. In the midst of volatile international relations and a domestic morale that has certainly seen better days, it would seem that humanitarianism and philanthropic efforts would become more crucial and prevalent than ever before, used at the very least as a means of boosting a sense of global optimism. And yet, as the famine in Somalia forges through the country and into neighboring nations in the Horn of Africa, it is ironically becoming the biggest deal that Americans aren’t talking about. The question is: Why?
The United Nations released its official declaration of the famine in two regions of Somalia, southern Bakool and Lower Shabelle, on July 20, 2011. Since then, however, the famine has spread to six different regions, forcing Somalis to seek refuge in neighboring Kenya and Ethiopia. Regardless of preexisting conditions in a country, a UN-certified famine must fulfill the following requirements: acute malnutrition rates among children exceeding 30 percent, more than two people per 10,000 dying each day, and each citizen’s average daily caloric intake falling below 2,100 (or just 40 calories more than an ultimate cheeseburger and 24 oz. vanilla ice cream shake from Jack in the Box). But while the July report ignited a global public outcry that made it seem as if the crisis had just occurred, Somalia and the greater region of the Horn of Africa has been suffering for some time.
A people’s history
The famine in Somalia did not occur in a vacuum. In fact, no food crisis does. In the case of Somalia, a number of factors contribute to the impending food shortage that has affected nearly half of Somalia’s population of just over 9.3 million.
Given its location on the equator, which slices through the southern tip of Somalia, the nation’s climate is mostly dry, arid, and hot, with average high and low temperatures ranging from 104 degrees to 59 degrees, respectively, each year. Furthermore, Somalia receives very little rainfall (a condition many environmentalists cite as yet another effect of global warming), which makes it susceptible to drought.
This is precisely what happened in the summer of 2011, and the inability to produce enough crops sent the prices of such essential foods as red sorghum (a grainy cereal that looks similar to couscous) skyrocketing. Following the United Nations announcement in July, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) released a study illustrating the extent to which Somali farmers were forced to inflate the prices of their products. In Bakool, for example, the going rate of red sorghum increased 186 percent between June 2010 and June 2011 (to put it in context, this would be as if the price of a 14 oz. box of Cheerios went from $4.69 to $13.41 at Safeway). The drought also had a significant effect on the local livestock, of which ninety percent reportedly have died of starvation since the onset of the drought. With the decline in availability of these two crucial sources of food, Somalis could do little else than hope for rain to replenish their crops.
Developmental dilemmas, civil unrest
Additionally, Somalia’s low status on the global power pyramid means that it suffers greatly from the slightest shift in economics. Acknowledged by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development as a least developed country–a title based on low income, weak human assets, and economic vulnerability–Somalia, according to SF State professor of Africana Studies Dr. Serie McDougal, is without the means to respond to such natural events as droughts, which is not the case in other areas.
“Somalia doesn’t have the infrastructure to deal with climate change, or even natural disasters,” he said.
McDougal exemplifies this developmental disparity in other regions as well.
“We all know about the earthquake in Haiti, but there was also one in Concepción, Chile [on February 27, 2010]. Even though the magnitude was larger, the latter dealt with it in a matter of months; with Haiti, it’s been years,” says McDougal, who has worked at SF State as a professor for four years and currently teaches several courses in Africana studies.
The irony is that even though Somalis suffer greatly from climate change conditions, they actually leave a pretty tiny carbon footprint compared to other countries.
“If there is a flood in San Francisco, we have the infrastructure to respond to it,” says McDougal. “We also have the irrigation capacity to use conserved water to bring it to places that have drought. But in San Francisco, with all of the industry and cars, we actually contribute more to the climate change than Somalia ever could.
“The people least responsibe for climate change are the ones most effected by it; Somalia is a perfect example of that,” he says.
The impact of these environmental factors notwithstanding, there is another element that plays into this multifaceted plight. The political field in Somalia is extremely vulnerable right now, which has paved the way for radical groups to emerge as national authorities. This group in question is known as Al-Shabaab, which means “the youth” in Arabic. Opposing the leadership of the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia–which is recognized by the United Nations, the African Union, and the United States–Al-Shabaab consists of the branch of the Somali Council of Islamic Courts that overtook the southern half of Somalia in the latter half of 2006, and has since performed a number of militant acts in the country, like the Mogadishu suicide car bombing on September 17, 2009, that killed 11 peacekeeping African Union soldiers and a number of citizens seeking care at a nearby hospital. Currently, Al-Shabaab controls southern Somalia, where the famine is most severe, and until very recently has denied the entrance of foreign aid organizations looking to provide Somalis with food and water.
Given all of these layers in the stratum that is the famine in Somalia, one might presume–hope even–that the case would be handled with immediacy and zeal. But alas, unlike the earthquake in Haiti and the tsunami in Japan, this particular human rights crisis is receiving little to no attention by the general American population. According to research done by CNN Money, Americans raised $275 million for Haiti and $87 million for Japan, both within the first week of the respective disasters. This money was generated through non-governmental organizations; the American Red Cross raised $2.8 million towards the Japan earthquake and Pacific tsunami response on text donations alone. Regarding Somalia, not only are statistics chronicling American donations elusive, but it was not until August 8, nearly three weeks after the UN’s declaration of famine, that President Obama permitted a donation of $105 million to be sent to the East African country. In overheard conversations regarding the topic, students still react in ways that indicate they were not even aware the famine existed. In Professor McDougal’s classes, he notices not necessarily a disinterest among students, but an overall lack of new information.
But who is at fault for that?
According to Kate Kilbourne, the web and social media manager for the Campaign for Female Education (Camfed), this responsibility lies squarely on the shoulders of the news.
“It has to do with media attention,” she says. “I fault mass media and its outlets. Famine is prevalent, but people don’t know about it.”
Professor McDougal takes a less critical perspective, instead looking more closely at the potential gains by developed countries in providing aid to Somalia.
“At any given time, there are a number of humanitarian crises in the world, and countries choose which ones to put at the top of their list [in terms of who to help] based on a strategic interest,” he says, citing as an example the United States’ decision to intervene in Libya, a country from which they could gain immensely, than that of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which is currently undergoing a civil war that has claimed over three million lives in a five-year period.
But both Kilbourne and McDougal’s ideologies align when it comes to the importance of preventative, rather than reactionary, aid.
Reflecting her organization’s focus on female empowerment, Kilbourne suggests that “rather than giving money or food to countries suffering from drought or famine, we need to train mother support groups on how to grow their own food so that they are less reliant on external entities.”
McDougal concedes that while it is a good sign that Al-Shabaab has lifted its ban against foreign aid workers entering the country, he still believes that “when it comes to precautionary aspects, it is really a question of this: can we achieve a stable, representative government, and can we get international private companies to invest in water conservation and agricultural self sufficiency in Somalia?” Until this happens, he argues, “it’s going to be this same crisis response, where we bring wheat, rice, and other food in the wake of a disaster.”
In the case of environmental disasters like the one in Somalia, philanthropy seems to take on a different meaning.
“There is definitely a philosophy of what it means to help,” says McDougal. “What I’ve been taught is that it’s a selfless and spontaneous thing: somebody drops their bag, and you immediately help them by picking it up. But when it comes to international relations, help is far from selfless. It’s very quid pro quo, and it transforms help into a strategic means of exercising power.”
So until the media makes an effort to illuminate the food plight in Somalia, and until larger governmental organizations sincerely accept the concept of helping without seeking anything in return, the chances of seeing a significant improvement are disconcertingly slim. Somalia has dropped its bag, and the rest of the world, for the most part, is taking its time in picking it up off the ground.