Living the first two weeks of Trump’s America

20170131_080615“Donald Trump is poor.” Not something you hear very often. But when a homeless woman in Washington D.C repeated this over and over while I walked past her last week, I knew exactly what she meant. Not poor in wealth, but in every other way imaginable: poor in character, behaviour, knowledge, social progress, law, economics, empathy, leadership, respect for others, for women, for the environment and so on.

I arrived in New York City on Monday January 23rd – the first day Donald Trump officially took the highest office in the country, some would say the world. It was pouring with rain, and despite NYC never failing to impress, the usual buzz of the city was different. People openly talked about Trump and the events of his first hours as President on the metro, in book stores and over drinks. People looked as harrassed as ever, but also sad and uncertain. While life carried on, people operated in a zombie-like or agitated state and the normal day was regularly punctuated by someone announcing the latest shocking action by the President and the efforts to resist.

In DC, things became more surreal. Daily reports of outlandish and damaging executive orders were met with protests in front of the big government buildings that represent “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Justice’; lawyers, activists and refugee workers camped out at airports and a lot of concerned international workers from the  international organisations who worried they might be sent to their country or origin, even if they no longer called it home. Eerily, in between these outbursts, the city was quiet, not buzzing as usual, perhaps reflecting the anxiety or trepidation of its population.

20170204_122010I also visited family in a part of Virginia that principally voted for Trump. We attended an interfaith protest to tell immigrants they are welcome. The speakers included an excellent Egyptian American citizen who employs 100 of Americans, a reverend who reminded us of the struggles of the civil rights movement and an imam. It didn’t stop the haters driving by shouting ‘Allah is a paedophile” with ‘Americanah’ music blaring from the radio or a group of Trump supporters standing across the street with a Confederate flag, who said when invited to join us that ‘we were all Muslims’ and our protest was a conspiracy. Notably, despite the diversity of protesters, there were no Mexicans to be seen. Afraid of the consequences to even be seen in public?

This is an unprecedented time. America is currently led by a man with no regard for the rule of law or thousands of years’ establishing structures, rules, protocol, the rule of law or a public service system. The Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) says by the organisation’s reckoning, Trump is well on his way to violating the First, Fourth, Fifth and Eighth amendments of the US Constitution.

All because he mastered a simplistic, offensive, abusive and lazy narrative that appealed to those who felt left behind socially and economically, that convinced them he could “shake things up”, “drain the swamp” and make their lives “great again”, despite him having no intention of benefitting anyone other than Trump and co.

In his first two weeks, he has certainly ‘shaken things up”, but in a way that has frightened, insulted and attempted to expel those who have integrated to America and who work hard to make the country a productive nation. He has emboldened terrorist groups, sparked worldwide protest and surrounded himself with a group of unqualified, right-wing ideologues that have no desire to govern ‘on behalf of the people’, but to control and implement their own right-wing vision of the world.

However, its not all doom and gloom. The crisis is mobilising and organising people like never before. The ACLU had received over $24 million by the end of January and within 24 hours of the refugee ban announcement, volunteer lawyers had set up work stations at airports across the whole of the USA. In the UK, a petition to stop Donald Trump’s state visit picked up so many signatures that the Speaker of the House added his voice to say Trump was not welcome to speak to the Houses of Parliament and his trip is now being organised for the summer when no one is around to receive him.

Protests have been consistent in the US and around the world. In London protests continued over three weeks not only against Trump’s actions but also our own Prime Minister’s failure to condemn them. I’ve heard of several young American friends giving up travels or corporate jobs to work for Planned Parenthood or interview Trump supporters to understand their frustrations. So far, the fatigue is at bay.

It is rumoured that powerful corporations are also mobilising against Trump, in spite of his giving the green light to drilling projects such as the Dakota Pipeline – which has been so boldly opposed – and abandoning the regulations of the Dodd-Frank Act. The district and federal judges’ ruling suspending his immigration ban has so far upheld, to the relief of many families and the increasing apparent anger by the President that he can’t just do ‘exactly what he wants.’

An industry that is definitely benefitting from the current crisis is comedy. From the brilliant impersonations on Saturday Night Live, to the withering and hilarious critiques delivered excellently by John Colbert, John Oliver and Trevor Noah on the Late Show, Last Week Tonight and the Daily Show, these comedians are being given dream material. And boy, don’t we need it. As Alec Baldwin, stunning impersonator of Donald Trump on SNL says himself, “With Trump, the show just writes itself!”







Propelled by feeling, not fact

I was going to write something about the terrifying and farcical US election race a week ahead of the vote. I was going to say that there is a predominant global feeling (largely to thanks to endless social and digital media) that the world is currently headed for more destruction and loss of control than ever before, regardless of the progress that’s been made. About the fact that people seem to be voting with their feelings instead of from any fact-informed analysis. That when it comes to politics, we are often quite superficial and lazy about understanding policy and law because the media are supposed to break it down for us but instead concentrate more on personality traits and outrage.

I was going to say that research and evidence are being shoved to one side, to make way for fear, nostalgia, anxiety, and technology enabling us to express those feelings at any given moment.

But I realise Mark Mason already did it. Its called ‘Is it Just Me, or is the World going Crazy?’. Read and consider. Although I am a sucker for ‘Armageddon/man-made utter disaster is around the corner’ rhetoric, though try to support it being channelled into effective mobilisation, campaigning, dialogue and understanding, its worth remembering what others sacrificed to get us here and that – regardless of Trump – there is a lot to be thankful for.


Swimming 69km across Lake Geneva in under 28 hours

In January 2016, a few of us from the Serpentine Swimming Club swimmers started talking about a relay across the 69km length of Lake Geneva. It didn’t take long till we had a team of four swimmers: Emily Chong, Jo Dale, Bee Heller and myself with Octavia Williams as our reserve and support crew.

After months of upping our regular training at the SERPS in Hyde Park and doing individual swims elsewhere (I swam an 11.5km circuit of Robben Island in Cape Town) we convened in the Isle of Wight for a weekend in August to train and really get to know each other as a team. Two weeks later we were headed to Geneva with a lot of kit and a colour-coded rota for the swim. We stayed with a lovely friend of Emily’s in Geneva Viv Talbot, who made sure we were incredibly well looked after before and after the swim. As the wind was blowing during our first two days, we spent the time shopping, cooking, packing bags, seeing a few sights and of course testing the waters with a mandatory dip in the lake.


Jumping the fountains at Nations

Wednesday was forecast to be clear and calm so our swim was set. At 6:30am, we piled in a taxi to the other side of the lake at Villeneuve as the sun came up. At the jetty we met our boat and crew, and two observers including the Secretary of the Lake Geneva Swimming Association, Ben Barnham who had organised the swim. My South African friend Marelize, who lives on the edge of the lake, came to see us off donating a bottle of fizz for the finish.

We piled on board the motorboat with Captain Claude at the helm and his merry crew of 3 Frenchmen. It was a stunning day with water as smooth as velvet, blue sky and only a few atmospheric clouds. The boat spun round to find a suitable starting point and Jo jumped in and swam to a patch of shore, officially starting the swim next to the famed Chateau de Chillon.


Starting from the Chateau
Spectacular view

Soon we started to rotate into our routine – marked out on our A3 laminated rota – while the crew cracked open their first bottle of wine before 11am. Octavia was a star supporter, making sure we had everything we could have wanted and even taking time to pull faces at us in the water. The scenery was beautiful with the Alps providing an incredible backdrop. Daylight flew by on the boat through a mix of eating, dancing, singing and posing for pictures and suddenly I had glowsticks attached and was swimming us into the night.

Apart from a hairy moment with some waterskiers, the night passed without incident. While the water temperature stayed between 19 and 22, the air dropped to 15 degrees so we kept warm in between swims with lots of clothes and food, the occasional nap and frequent hysterics and glowstick dancing.

Night swimmingimg-20160907-wa0015

Our toughest swims were the 5th round during the early hours, but mainly due to anticipation, fatigue and the cold air that didn’t make us want to jump into the lake. Once in however, we warmed up quickly and kept up our speed, looking at the moon and stars and the lit-up boat as we breathed on both sides. The time passed quickly and Emily was soon swimming into the sunrise. We reached 24 hours after doing 6 swims each and the Jet d’eau was in sight. It looked both achingly close and far away.

Nearing the Jet

I was about to jump in for my 7th swim when Claude said “I think you can make it.” No pressure then. I swam as hard as I could, but due to the number of boats the water was choppier and I swallowed a lot of water in between strokes. The Jet didn’t seem to be getting closer and I didnt’ think I’d make it before my hour was up, but suddenly the team disappeared from the boat and I looked behind to see them in the water! As we came close to the beach, I turned around and Jo shouted ‘You’ve got 5 minutes left. Go!’ I swam my heart out and was soon clambering up the pebbled beach to the sight of confused beachgoers and our friends Viv and Rhoda encouraging everyone to clap us in. It was just before 1pm on Thursday September 8th, 27 hours 55 minutes after we started.

My fellow Jets ran out the water behind me and we had a massive group hug and dance, while an official announced our arrival over the tannoy, a moment I shall never forget. We were soon swimming back to the boat to pop the champagne cork with our crew.


On the beach at Bains des Paquis
Celebrating with our crew

There’s no way we would have enjoyed this as much or been as prepared without the support of our swim friends, family and others who wished us luck and gave us tips, kit and gifts  – special thanks to the Frequent Flyers who swam the lake earlier this year and to Volker Koch for the beautifully handmade JENBO Jets. We also had an incredible amount of support during the swim on facebook, twitter, whatsapp and instagram and as you can see from our twitter feed, we loved posting a rolling commentary and millions of pictures on facebook! It meant so much to have everyone tracking us and willing us on. Bee has prepared a fun 2 minute video of the swim here for all our fans!

Huge thanks to Katt Cullen from World Radio Switzerland, who interviewed us during and after the swim on her show, before showing us round Annecy. You can listen to the radio clip here. Thanks to Ben Barnham for taking the idea and making it happen. To all those wonderful people who donated to Peace Direct to support me, thank you for helping raise over £1,500. You can still donate here to support local people building peace round the world. And finally thanks to Lac Leman. Some days Mother Nature lets you cross and some days she doesn’t. That day, we had a free pass.

N and her Jet

Doing digital

Digital image

There are so many blogs on the effective use of digital to achieve non-profit organisational goals, that I’m reluctant to join the throng. However, here are two engaging and not overly technical resources that should be useful for anyone trying to put together a strategy for using digital tools and social media to produce more effective engagement (fundraising/volunteering/sharing resources/collaborating)

First is a talk from Duane Raymond, founder of Fairsay and man credited with turning Oxfam’s digital strategy around more than 10 years ago:

Top Digital tips for achieving organisational goals with the help of digital

Second is an easily readable report about the pitfalls of using ‘vanity’ metrics to measure the impact of your digital outreach, and how  (e.g. List size/Number of signatures/Website traffic)

Hope they help!

Why is there peace in Senegal?

IMG_8034Senegal is one of the world’s best kept secrets. On my recent trip to Dakar, I was immediately struck by the vibrancy of dress, music and culture, the friendliness of its people, and the beauty of its coastline towns and beaches with mangroves, perfect surf and pirogues rowing off in the sunset.

Every Senegalese person we met told us with huge pride that what makes their country stand out from its African neighbours is its peace. Senegal in fact has the enviable reputation of being one of the most stable countries in Africa.

A former French colony in western Africa, Senegal is a Muslim-dominated country where a Christian minority (5%) is well respected and has a long-running history of living peacefully with the Muslim majority.

So I wanted to know, in a time where religious tensions are resulting in horrific violence in so many places, what has made Senegal successful in maintaining interfaith peace?

A group of professors from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA travelled to Senegal and came up with some answers.

The first appeared to be the pride I mentioned. The Senegalese have a national idea of ‘Teranga’, a conception of hospitality that they feel they must live up to, including being good to each other. For example Muslims often invite Christians to feast at Muslim events and vice versa.

Secondly, Senegal’s political leadership has historically married people of other faiths. The first President of Senegal was a Catholic, and every head of state since him has had a Catholic wife. This example trickles down the rest of society. Despite Christians only making up 5% of the population, many middle class Muslim families send their children to Catholic schools, so that educated Senegalese Muslims are familiar with Christianity from an early age.

IMG_7927Thirdly it has to do with the influence of its religious leaders. Some of them converted from Islam to Christianity at an early age, meaning they understand both religions and in a way identify with both. They have connections with both communities and take opportunities to speak to counterpart religious leaders about issues of mutual social concern. What’s more, the Senegalese practice Sufi, a mystical branch of Islam that emphasises the importance of religious leaders.

Muslim leaders therefore play an important role in both local and national politics.

I wondered if it might have something to do with Senegal not having oil or gas, and therefore being less open to exploitation and profit-driven conflict. Saying that, the country does have gold, which has fuelled conflict in the separatist southern region of Casamance, though violence has mostly waned since a 2014 ceasefire and its stable economy is mostly based on agriculture and fishing (75%). Though tourism, communications and infrastructure play a significant part. I can’t find evidence to prove my thought, and Senegal has also been accused of corruption in other industries. But little violence.

0384--IMG_3070Goree island just off Dakar, is also where millions of slaves passed through to plantations in America and elsewhere from the mid 16th century to the 19th. Ivory and gold were also shipped by the ton. The prison where slaves were kept on Goree island is worth visiting. Its small and dank rooms are a gentle reminder of the men, women and children whose lives were brutally traded for cheap labour.

Both Presidents Obama and Mandela are counted amongst visitors.

However, present day Senegal remains peaceful and peace-loving. It is considered one of Africa’s model democracies, and has a strong tradition of stable government and civilian rule. The current President, Macky Sall, is bucking the African trend and reduced his presidential term at the start of this year from seven to five years. Concerned by the recent terrorist attacks in Mali and Burkina Faso next door, Sall’s government has recently called for increased regional security cooperation to protect itself from a similar attack.

If Senegal is hit by the extremists’ ISIS or Boko Haram, its people will be tested. Will their national commitment to peace make them even more resilient? Or will it rock the characteristic they hold so dear. I want to be optimistic, and believe they will stand strong in the face of violent threats or actions. A Senegalese toast ‘Ngoko Boko’ means “We are all together”. Indeed they are.


Self-improvement and psychology made simple

I’ve just discovered the writings of Mark Manson, who in his own words is “good at explaining complicated psychological concepts in ways that are understandable, actionable and entertaining.”

Just reading his top articles (quick and easy to digest) has given me tools for dealing with everyday negativity and problems, reinforced observations and trends I’ve learned about recently (in myself and others), and made me laugh.

Whether you are battling problems in a relationship, family, workplace, singledom or bigger social problem, you will find explanations that make sense because they are not ‘one-quick -solution-fixes-all’, are based on real experiences of the author, his mistakes and achievements, and do not get too heavy.

Here’s 3 ways he differs from other self-help:

  1. Happiness is like being cool, the harder you try the less it’s going to happen. So stop trying. Start living.
  2. Negative emotions are a necessary part of life and they should be managed and learned from, not avoided or denied.
  3. No, we cannot all be special and be winners all the time, nor do we need to be.

Also his essay: 3 Ideas that can change your life is especially helpful.

Enjoy. Start 2016 as you mean to go on!

Swimming the Channel the wrong way

refugees boats

As I prepare to swim across the Channel this week in a 6-person relay, the irony of all those attempting to travel the other way is not lost on me.

While we sit and watch the weather, praying for calmer winds so we can swim the 21 miles from Dover to Calais, people on the other side are praying for a very different reason. They are trying to reach British shores in search of a better life, family and friends, healthcare, education, freedom of expression and worship – all the ‘goods’ the UK has to offer those fleeing persecution, war and a low standards of living.

If only our boat was allowed to land on France and pick people up. But the French only let swimmers touch the sand, no boats allowed. We’d be stopped by French authorities (and likely our pilot) before we could say “Allons-y”.

The scale of the response to the image of 3 –year old Aylan Kurdi face down in the sand on a beach in Turkey has been incredible. People have donated so much aid to be sent to Calais that NGOs now have to stagger the transfers. I saw the endless bags at my local collection centre today. Videos of residents in Germany and Austria welcoming people as they arrive in train stations has gone viral online. People putting up refugees in their homes. This splurge of humanity in response to the death of a defenceless child has helped propel the UK’s PM David Cameron to commit to taking in 1000s more refugees, where before he was unrepentant in fear of political backlash at home.

But like any crisis, whilst we must applaud people’s compassion and continue to pressure politicians to commit to saving and protecting people’s lives, we must also tackle the root causes. Otherwise this wave of positive activism might itself drown out, and fail to help decision-makers build sustainable solutions to the crisis.

As a very apt editorial in the Guardian pointed out “what appears on our TV screens as a sudden emergency is really the culmination of years of failure to confront Syria’s bloody collapse. This, sadly, is symptomatic of a more profound myopia in European security policy. Not only Britain is responsible for European paralysis.”

This is why we must look at the reasons refugees or migrants (though most agree the lines are now largely blurred) are leaving their countries and help to solve them. A 13-year old boy interviewed this week at a train station in Hungary asked political leaders to stop the war in Syria, so they could go home. He didn’t want a new life in Europe, he’s been forced to move.

In Syria’s case, we are beyond the point of debating the pros and cons of intervention, whether or not it helped the Libyan people and whether tackling ISIS should take priority over stopping violence against the country’s people.

Governments need to focus on practical solutions, mobilising the resources they have (people, technology, funds, media, social media, partnerships) to solve the current crisis and meet the needs of refugees, while addressing the root causes at the same time. And yes, that means putting military options on the table if necessary.

No solution will be perfect. But we cannot stick our heads in the sand and hope the problem will magically disappear or be dealt with by someone else. In 2015, with technology and advanced systems at our fingertips we cannot allow people to have to leave their homes behind in search of refuge, only to be washed up on a beach before they’ve reached the age of five.