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Staple Foods in Egypt

I imagine that for many of us in the United States, it’s hard to appreciate the full import of staple foods, largely because it’s not a concept that exists within our culture. Generally speaking, a staple food is one upon which a diet is based, but its importance is far greater than that. Culturally, it is a commodity without which one cannot feel safe and secure in their land and life. While in the United States we generally don’t place such stock in one particular food, the same is not true everywhere. Specifically, in Egypt, the staple food is bread. Regardless of the other food available a family or individual might have available, if they do not have bread, then they might as well have no food at all. As a result of its importance to Egyptian culture and security, bread has been the source of great national unrest in Egypt. When the price of bread skyrocketed, and its availability was reduced, there were riots in the streets of Cairo protesting the government’s actions and ludicrous price of bread.

My awareness of the situation in Egypt is based off the work of a professor, Dr. Jessica Barnes, who teaches at the University of South Carolina. Her research is focused on Egyptian culture. She is in the process of writing a book that discusses Egyptian dependence on foreign wheat and the consequences thereof, given the country’s dependence upon bread. The logistics of the wheat industry in Egypt are fascinating, and the effects far-reaching.

The availability of bread is uncertain for many Egyptians because of financial limitations and a significant dependence on international wheat. In fact, Egypt is the largest importer in the world of wheat. Approximately half of the wheat used Egypt is sourced from outside the country. Given the strong relationship between a stable wheat supply and populace happiness, the government invests significant effort keeping wheat supply stable. This is challenge given the necessity of importing large quantities of foreign wheat, and its process has been frequently plagued by both corruption and paranoia.

Dr. Barnes’ presentation focused on the efforts of individuals on all levels of society, from the government’s effort to import adequate amounts of wheat to the residents of Cairo depending on (what is in essence) a “bread card”, allowing them to purchase adequate bread for their lives. She also discussed the rural farmers of Egypt who not only produce wheat for the nation but also for themselves. Each strives to provide a measure of security to their lives and the lives of those around them through effort to procure enough bread for their lives.

As I learn more about other cultures, I appreciate more and more both the commonalities and differences that exist in the world. Yes, we live in different places, under different systems of government with different levels of comfort in our lives. And yet, when it comes down to it, we are all looking for comfort and security in our lives. Now, the paths we follow to reach this comfort are vastly different. In Egypt, that comfort and security is grounded in the possession of enough bread to eat. What is it for you?

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Brazilian Politics and the Rainforest

I know that for most of my life I’ve imagined the Amazon as an expansive, untouched wilderness that is filled with an astonishing diversity of creatures, some unique among every other species on earth. As it turns out, although some of this assessment is fairly accurate, several of the assumptions I’ve made about the Amazon are not particularly accurate. Perhaps most importantly, the Amazon is not untouched. I recently watched a Vox YouTube video detailing how the expansion of Brazilian agricultural and forestry industries has impacted protected indigenous lands within the rainforest. Many tribes have lived on the same land within the rainforest for hundreds of years but in the mid-to-late 1900s, their lands began to be constricted by a booming industrial sector that thrived off the abundant natural resources of the Amazon.

Fortunately, the Brazilian government acted, protecting their historic lands. However, industries have cleared significant swaths of rainforest surrounding these lands, leaving only the tribes’ small pockets of land as the remaining rainforest in some areas. The political tides in Brazil have swung toward a reduction in rainforest production in recent years. FUNAI, the government agency dedicated to the Amazon’s protection, has had its budget significantly reduced. Further, enforcement of many existing laws regarding the Amazon’s protection has been either reduced or eliminated. As a consequence of these changes, illegal encroachments into natives’ lands by many industries have skyrocketed, specifically within the last year. These encroachments are frequently accompanied by threats warning against retaliation, leaving the native population frightened and unsure of where to turn.

I would argue that it is simple to understand that the Amazon is an invaluable natural resource – one that is essential to the world’s climate. The Amazon is an irreplaceable natural wonder – and for that reason only ought to be protected. Further, those whose heritage is within the rainforest should have that heritage protected – they should be able to live upon their land without fear of having their home taken away. To anyone who is interested in learning more about this issue, I’ll attach the links to the videos used in reference to this video – I hope you all find them as informative and interesting as I did.

Links:

“Brazil’s Indigenous Land is being Invaded” — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oGjRNbXeRXI

“The Destruction of the Amazon, Explained” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SAZAKPUQMw0

 

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All About Germany

On Pastries and Internships

There are many things that I miss about Germany. The cold, kind-of blustery days spent discovering historic cities, exploring Weihnachtsmärkte (Christmas markets), Dönner kebabs, among others. But I think the thing I miss most is the plethora of delightful pastries, purchasable at almost every corner. It’s hard to find baked goods that are quite that good here in the US. But I got a throwback to those delights the Friday before Thanksgiving, thanks to efforts of the OU German Club. At their annual Weihnachtsbäckerek (essentially Christmas baking), one instructor brought a traditional Austrian cookie, Vanillekipferl. These cookies are essentially a shortbread with almond flower, providing them with a subtle sweetness that can be increased with a dusting of powdered sugar. I’m a sucker for baked goods, and those hit the spot. They’ll definitely be incorporated into my Christmas traditions from here on.

The German Club provides many opportunities to experience German (and Austrian) culture throughout the semester, opportunities that enhance my appreciation for the unique and storied history of that region of the world. Additionally, the German Club provides its members with the knowledge needed to take advantage of opportunities to study or intern abroad. At this same event, they included information about an agency that coordinates internships for interested students in Germany. One of the barriers to entry to this program was possession of a Lebenslauf (resumé in German). Although I don’t currently have the requisite skills to create this document, I hope to take classes that will continue to increase my skill in the German language. The German Club is an invaluable resource for enhancing my immersion in German culture, and I hope to take greater advantage of those resources in the future.

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South American Anti-Corruption Politics

Power corrupts. It certainly could be said to be generally true, and it’s a problem that is combatted in nearly every government in the world. In particular, South America is known for its struggle with and against corruption, an effort that continues into the present. The struggle in South America was discussed by two professors at OU at an international event that focused on corruption and the fight against it in Peru and in Brazil.

Corruption takes a variety of forms across the world – but the most common type discussed in this lecture was businesses taking advantage of government connections to make tremendous amounts of illicit profit. In both Peru and Brazil, companies would contribute significant resources to elect certain leaders who could provide government contracts – significant sources of virtually guaranteed revenue. Once these businesses, frequently large and potentially even popular with the citizens, had gained these contracts, they would drive up the costs significantly. This resulted in, essentially, the theft of millions, and in some cases billions, of taxpayer dollars.

As a consequence of this corruption, many politicians in South America have, in recent years, made strong (apparent) stands against corruption. Many of these leaders have ultimately been shown to be corrupt – accepting bribes from corporations to provide them with favorable rulings. Even judges, whose careers in the public eye had been made through strong anti-corruption campaigns have been shown to have been living in the pocket of these very same corporations.

In both Peru and Brazil, the situation seems to be improving in small ways, and corruption is certainly down from its all-time highs. The way forward is unclear, however. For virtually the entirety of their existence, the governments of Brazil and Peru have, at a minimum, existed with ever-present corruption. Should this corruption be eliminated, civil unrest would almost certainly follow, due to the dramatic changes in government structure. This is not an argument for corruption – rather, it is an acknowledgement that the situation is never black and white. There are always shades of gray.

P.S. One thing that I found very interesting at this talk is that at least some of what is considered corruption in South America, namely the participation of businesses in election through the contribution of funds, is legal in the United States. It makes one consider, at the least, what actually makes corruption wrong? And further, what actually is corruption?

 

 

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The Reunification of Korea

Among the most oppressed countries on earth is North Korea. South Korean leaders, with support of other nations, have attempted at various times to open peace talks with North Korean leadership, although the consensus is that little has been achieved through these talks. There are many challenges facing any unification effort, including enormous costs of reunification and incredible cultural disparities between the nations.

The significant challenge of potentially reunifying Korea can be likened to the reunification of Germany, a work still in progress. Although it has been 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, there are still challenges Germany faces to become unified in the eyes of all it’s citizens. Many former East Germans still experience less prosperity than their former West German countrymen, and some still feel like “second-class citizens.” As they first entered West (reunified) German society, they expected that they would immediately reach the same level of affluence enjoyed by West Germans. This was not the case, and today there still exists a continuing effort to overcome the two economies’ differential. At the time of reunification, West Germans made ~2 to 3 times as much as East Germans.

Bringing this conversation back to the reunification of Korea, South Koreans today make nearly 25 times as much as the average North Korean – a staggering difference in the wealth of these two nations. The costs of overcoming this wealth gap would be undeniably massive – certainly in the many trillions of dollars.

A wealth gap is not the only challenge facing unification – another tremendous and saddening issue is the health of North Koreans. This was not a challenge experienced by Germany, and, as such, there is virtually no extant information on how one could appropriately handle such a challenge. Many North Koreans have diseases that are significantly less frequent in more developed nations with strong healthcare systems. Tuberculosis, parasitic worms, and Hepatitis C afflict a large swath of the North Korean population. Should reunification successfully be initiated, the government will have to create a plan to provide healthcare to and improve the health of the population of North Korea.

Lastly, and perhaps most significantly, the cultural disparities between North and South Korea must be overcome. Even in Germany, where the cultural differences were comparatively small, there remain distinct political divides between former East and West Germany. Alternative für Deutschland stands as a representative of this divide. The cultural divide between North and South Korea is far more severe. South Korea is a strongly developed democracy, while North Korea is a ruthless and brutal dictatorship, one that allows any of its citizens few, if any freedoms. One defector who occupied a high place in North Korean government was given virtually no choice in his life. He was told to attend a university, he was told what he would study there, he was told what his job would be. Even high-ranking individuals are given no choices in life. This man was unprepared for life in South Korea, and today still struggles with the many choices that most of us consider a normal part of day-to-day life.

Its humbling to realize how little I know – it’s a big world out there. As I researched this post, I was struck by how little I actually knew about North Korea – the challenges faced by the people, the fight for unification, and even the challenges facing successful unification, after the process is begun. I’m reminded that I ought to look out more – after all, it’s so easy to get caught up in your own (or my own) world, wherever that world might be. And regardless of anything else, this story made me realize that there are people, many people out there, in need of help. And I need to do something about that.

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