How Lions Can Save the Maasai

lion

A lion roared in the distance as the sun set over the plains near Kenya’s Nairobi National Park. Hearing the noise, Nickson Parmisa, assistant chief of the local Maasai population, turned on his solar-charged battery, causing his metal and plywood house to be bathed in a blue light. As his wife cooked potato stew using a gas burner powered by cow dung, Parmisa turned on his iPad to track a radio-collared lioness that had been on a livestock-killing spree.

The lion, nicknamed Athi, was nearby, the iPad confirmed, but Parmisa was at ease.

“It’s good when the lion roars,” he said. “That means she’s not hunting. It’s when they are quiet you have a problem.”

Lions have traditionally been the Maasai tribe’s greatest adversaries. They are a deadly threat to the cattle and other livestock that are both an integral part of Maasai culture and the tribe’s greatest source of wealth. In the not-so-distant past, young Maasai men had to kill a lion to pass their initiation into adulthood. But now the tables have turned. Despite the ongoing livestock predation, lions may be the tribe’s strongest hope for preserving their way of life.

Read more at BBC Travel.

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The Last Eco-Warrior

Photos courtesy Judy Goldhaft

Photos courtesy Judy Goldhaft

“I don’t want to beat it,” Peter Berg says. “I want to seduce it.”

It’s March 2011, and the ’60s radical-turned-ecological visionary is dying. A tumor has paralyzed one of his vocal chords, leaving his voice scratchy and distorted, sounding, in his words, like a gravel truck unloading. “I want to seduce it into leaving,” Berg repeats. “Get it drunk and leave it in the gas station bathroom.”

Peter Berg spent his life fighting — for civil rights, to end the war in Vietnam, and for cleaner, more holistic use of the earth’s natural resources.

Intense, charming, abrasive, driven, Berg was known by friends and adversaries for never giving up and never compromising, no matter how big the opponent or how insurmountable the odds. His mission: To save humanity from its pathology of self-destruction.

“I’m an extreme personality. I tend to think in extremes,” he says. “It’s a planet-wide natural disaster we’re living through.”

Is he daunted by the enormity of the challenge? Berg leans forward in his chair, squinting hard at the absurdity of the question.

“No, I’m turned on by it,” he answers firmly. “It is the challenge. Oh no no, small groups of people cause enormous changes. I’ve done it.”

Read more at Narrative.ly

War On Drugs Targets Immigrants For Chewing The Traditional Plant ‘Khat’

khatThree Maasai men sit near the back of an open-air restaurant and nightclub outside Bisil, Kenya, a small town about 100 kilometers south of Nairobi. A pile of small leafy sticks rests on the table in front of them.

“This thing brings people together,” said Simon Suyiaka, 25, gesturing toward the twigs. “You have all kinds of friends, from lower class to upper class. Because we all chew.”

He’s talking about khat, a stimulant common in East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, better known in Kenya as miraa.

In contrast to the laid-back Kenyan scene, khat is illegal in the United States, caught up in a dragnet of policies of both the War on Terror and the War on Drugs. Its primary active component, cathinone, a relative of amphetamine and caffeine, is a Schedule I controlled substance, and arrests are on the rise. Read more at Reset.me

See more coverage of the War on Drugs at Alternet.org

“Indescribably insane”: A public school system from hell

CorbettWant to see a public school system in its death throes? Look no further than Philadelphia. There, the school district is facing end times, with teachers, parents and students staring into the abyss created by a state intent on destroying public education.

 In 2013, Philadelphia Public Schools were barely able to open their doors, thanks to Governor Tom Corbett deliberately starving them of funds. “It’s indescribably insane,” one activist says. “It’s an absolute atrocious mockery of anything related to public leadership.” Read more at Salon.com.

 

A Proper Maasai Wedding Starts with a Cup of Fresh Cow’s Blood

Kenya_Vice_05The blood was sweet, and thicker than I expected. A skin had already formed on the liquid seconds after it squirted from the cow’s neck. I downed the full cup in one gulp so I wouldn’t hold up the line of Maasai men waiting for their own mug of morning blood.

It was the morning of my friend’s wedding on the plains outside Nairobi, Kenya. Soon the bride would arrive in her white dress and a Pentecostal minister would perform the ceremony. But first, the men shared the blood from the freshly slaughtered steer. Read more at Munchies, VICE Magazine’s food channel.

Find all my Munchies stories here.

 

Murder in Benin

Murder in Benin

Update: On Saturday, February 25, a court in Benin acquitted four men on charges of murder and conspiracy in Kate Puzey’s death. After eight years in prison awaiting trial, Constant Bio Jacques, Joseph Uguwu, Aurélien Bio Jacques et Abdou Gafari Amoussa were granted their freedom. Many people involved in the case lobbied for the release of the first three men due to the slim and dubious ties connecting them to the crime. Constant Bio was acquitted based on a lack of palpable evidence to warrant a conviction.

 

Kate Puzey loved being a Peace Corps volunteer in West Africa. She taught English at a village school in Benin and fought tirelessly for girls’ empowerment and opportunity. But when she discovered a dark secret in her village, she knew she needed to take a stand– a decision that would ultimately cost her life.

Read an excerpt on Kate’s tragic murder below. The whole story can be purchased for your eReader at Smashwords.com or at for the Kindle at Amazon.

Update: Murder in Benin was awarded the 2015 Peace Corps Writers Publisher’s Special Award.

Murder in Benin: Kate Puzey’s Death in the Peace Corps
Aaron Kase
Copyright 2014 Aaron Kase
Bad news came in the morning. Rut Mulero, a Peace Corps volunteer at a rural health clinic in the West African nation of Benin, couldn’t believe what she heard: Someone’s throat had been slit. A brief phone call from the nearby village of Badjoude brought the news, with no information about the victim or the perpetrator. “We were wondering who would do such a thing, and why,” Mulero says. She hopped on a motorcycle behind a local nurse and zipped down 20 minutes worth of dirt roads to find out.
They arrived to find the health center deserted, so Mulero walked the short distance toward the house of her friend and fellow volunteer Kate Puzey, who taught English at the Badjoude middle school. Maybe Kate knew what had happened.
When she got close Mularo was surprised to see a mass of people around the house, blocking her path to the porch. Before the volunteer could push her way through, a Beninese man who taught at Kate’s school grabbed her and pulled her from the crowd. His name was Constant Bio, and Mulero knew him from his part-time job teaching language to new Peace Corps trainees. “I looked at him, like, what the hell is going on?” she recalls.
Constant held her hand and sat down with her. He tried to explain, but kept talking in circles, speaking of a knife and an attack, never getting to the point. “He was just kind of saying a terrible thing has happened,” Mularo says. She had to ask – where was Kate?
“I looked at him and said, is she alive?” she remembers. “He shook his head and put his head down. He didn’t even say anything.”
Kate Puzey, a popular, outgoing 24-year-old from Atlanta, was murdered sometime during the night of March 11, 2009, while she slept under a mosquito net on her porch. In the following days and weeks, three men were detained for the crime. Constant Bio was one. Also taken into custody were Constant’s older brother Jacques, who worked in the Peace Corps Benin headquarters in Cotonou, and Joseph Wgwu, a Nigerian motorcycle parts dealer who lived in Badjoude. Five years later, all three languish in prison, their trial postponed indefinitely for lack of evidence.
In the meantime, Kate’s family in Georgia has been left devastated. While her father battled terminal illness, in short succession they lost a daughter and saw the Peace Corps turn its back on them, ignoring their pleas for updates and information. The tragedy exposed an ugly side of the government agency, though it ultimately inspired the largest legislative reform in its history. Meanwhile, Barack Obama and Beninese President Yayi Boni have discussed the case in person; the FBI has been investigating; yet so far, all efforts have failed to bring justice for Kate Puzey.
The loud, abrupt grating of a generator shatters a quiet morning in Badjoude. The modern world is coming fast to the small village of 1,000 people, located in the northwest part of the skinny coastal nation of Benin. Cell phones in the village are ubiquitous. The main road was paved two years ago, bringing increased truck traffic and commerce. Electric lines and street lights are strung above the houses, although no current yet flows through them in June 2011.
Despite encroaching modernity, the energy and rhythms of traditional African life still dominate. Most of the population makes a meager subsistence living farming corn, millet and yams. Troops of cows and goats lumber along the dirt paths that wind between mud and concrete huts.
Kate Puzey lived in Badjoude from September 2007 until March 2009. All around the village, she was known by the French pronunciation of her name—Cat-a-rine. Two years after her murder, evidence of her presence resonates. A young rose planted in her honor grows in front of the teachers’ lounge at the middle school. A mural on one of the classroom walls depicting students holding a globe reads, “The world is in our hands. In memory of Catherine ‘Kate’ Puzey.”
Her house sits empty, a few hundred meters from the village center, just behind the marketplace on the road to school. Neighbors speak of Kate with fondness. “There was no pretense to Catherine,” says Ibrahim Zakary, an elementary school teacher who lives nearby. Resting under a mango tree with his family on a warm afternoon, he points to the path running past his house. “She would pass right by here on her way to school,” he remembers. “She was always smiling, always said hello to everybody.”
“Catherine shared everything with us,” says Tairou Deki, another neighbor. “She was like family.”
Benin, a narrow Francophone country of 9.2 million people squeezed between Togo and Nigeria on the Atlantic coast, is hailed as a model of democracy and progress in the region. Still, the country hosts endemic poverty, ranked 167 out of 187 nations in the United Nations Human Development Rankings. To tourists the region is known for stilt villages, voodoo culture and monuments to the transatlantic slave trade. Visitors who seek out a deeper experience will tell of an incomparable tradition of hospitality, where impoverished villagers share everything they have, where a meal and a bed for a night are never in question. Guests are honored and protected, especially foreigners like Kate who make a sincere effort to embrace the local lifestyle.
“She really, really was integrated in village,” says Kate’s mother, Lois Puzey, a short, gracious woman with gray hair and a mild Georgia accent, who visited her daughter in Benin in the summer of 2008. “She knew all the families, knew the kids’ names, and cared very much about the people of her community.”
Just up the road from Kate’s house, at the center of the village, a woman known as Madame SBEE stands outside her shop, vending a steady supply of phone cards, cigarettes, liquor and dry goods to workers laboring on a nearby ditch-digging project. Her nickname came from a job collecting water bills for pumps set up around the village, fed by a water tower maintained by the former Societe Benenoise d’Eau et Electrique. She was one of Kate’s best friends in Badjoude.
“She would come visit, and we would eat together and chat,” Madame SBEE remembers. “We’d listen to the radio and dance.”
After Kate was killed, the shopkeeper says she didn’t eat for a week. “Every time I wanted to eat, or listen to the radio, it was like she was here with me,” she says, shaking her head sadly and staring at the ground. “It’s me they killed that day.”
Kate’s very closest friend was Sayo Mouniratou, the village midwife, or “Sage Femme.” After the murder, the midwife left Badjoude to work in the nearby city of Djougou. “If I had stayed there, I couldn’t work. Even now, I’m not better,” says the Sage Femme, dressed in pink scrubs in one of Djougou’s maternity wards. “I come to work only because I can’t sit around and do nothing, but I still feel terrible. I thought after two years I would be able to forget, but I can’t,” she gulps, bursting into tears. Her youngest child, now four, still points at every white person she sees on the street or on television and says, ‘Look ma, it’s Catherine!”
“This touched us to the deepest part of our hearts,” says Roi Konde-Sekou the 11th, the traditional king of the Lokpa people who live in Badjoude and surrounding villages. A gray, wrinkled man, the king still speaks with force. Sitting outside a round hut painted with serpents and leopards that serves for the palace, Roi Konde-Sekou recites a royal lineage that goes back centuries. “In our entire history, nothing like this has ever happened,” he laments.
“She’s in heaven now,” the king continues sadly. “And the killers will get theirs.”
###
About the Author:
Aaron Kase is a writer who lives in Philadelphia. He served in the Peace Corps from 2006 to 2008 in Burkina Faso, Benin’s neighbor to the north, though he never met Kate Puzey. Contact him at aaronkase@gmail.com
Read more at AaronKase.com
Read more about the Kate’s Voice Action Network at KatesVoice.net. If you would like to support girl’s education and empowerment in Benin, consider donating to the Kate’s Voice Action Network.

VICE Magazine

img_6534My stories for Munchies, the VICE Magazine food channel, explore the world of food and drink in Africa, South America, Europe and across the United States.

Some highlights:

How to Eat Like Count Dracula in Transylvania: Dracula’s supper of choice is not usually available even to humans with an adventurous palate, but you can try the next best thing at vampire-inspired restaurants in Transylvania—now in present-day Romania.

How to Raise Bees in the Driest Place on Earth: The Atacama desert is notoriously inhospitable to life, and yet animals and humans alike find a way to survive. Among them are honeybees, fertilizing desert flowers and providing a sweet source of calories for the population.

A Proper Maasai Wedding Starts with a Cup of Fresh Cow’s Blood: On the morning of my friend’s wedding near Nairobi, I watched as Maasai tribesmen wrestled a steer to the ground and slit its throat. It would become the centerpiece of the wedding feast, but not before we drank its blood.

 

Read the rest of my my stories for Munchies at my author page.

Philadelphia Weekly

IMG831I provided award-winning features and commentary for Philadelphia Weekly, where I covered City Hall, neighborhood news and social issues.

Some highlights:

Natural Born Healer: Wellington Christian is a humble laborer by day, but by night he cooks up potions in his basement to cure asthma, diabetes and even cancer. Doubt if you want, but customers all over Philadelphia claim Christian has given them a gift that doctors never could: A clean bill of health.

The Ugly Truth About Philly’s Vacant Lots: Philadelphia’s vacant lots are costing the city millions. Developers want to build, but there’s no way to acquire most of the properties. Meanwhile, the city tries to dig itself out of a record-keeping disaster.

The BRT: It Just Won’t Die: No matter what Mayor Nutter throws at the Board of Tax Revisions to make it go away, it keeps coming back from the dead. Just call it the T-1000 of city agencies.

2011 Keystone Press Awards:

First Place, Investigative Reporting:
Off The Hook: Philadelphia strives to reign in an out of control towing industry. It would help if the city enforced the laws already on the books.

First Place, Feature Story:
Mind Over Murder: There are hundreds of unsolved murders in Philadelphia, but affected communities hesitate to cooperate with the police. Now, a small team of filmmakers sets out to solve the problem on their own.

Honorable Mention, Feature Story:
Purple Reign: Bullied gay kids aren’t satisfied hearing adults tell them “it gets better.” They’re demanding to know, “it gets better when?”

2011 AltWeekly Awards:

Honorable Mention, News Story (Short Form)

For Philadelphia Weekly: Under Press-ure, Electile Dysfunction, and Not a Pretty Picture

South Kensington: A Neighborhood on the Edge

S Kensingston

Photo by Hidden City Philadelphia

South Kensington is a neighborhood on the edge. Surrounded by gentrification on three sides, the decaying industrial corridor struggles to build a bridge between the past and the future. We dug into what’s at stake in a three-part series for Hidden City Philadelphia:

Weighing Directions as South Kensington Evolves: Should the neighborhood strive to preserve its industrial past, or will developers succeed in bringing hundreds of new residents to the area?

Future of American Street Hinges on Soko Lofts Parcel: How did Soko Lofts grow from 160 units to 320 to possibly 600? And what will happen to the parcel now that the developer has put it for sale?

On American Street, a Growing Manufacturer Holds On: In the center of the debate over the future of American Street is a deli meat company, Emil’s Gourmet. Will the company be swallowed up by coming residential development, or will the street, to the dismay of some residents, remain industrial?