A visit to Mulago Hospital in Kampala, Uganda

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As we enter the long corridor a strip light overhead flickers for a final few seconds before finally joining some of the other lights in the corridor that have long since given up and now do little more than collect dust. The few remaining lights throw strange long shadows down the corridor next to the wheeled beds that rest head to toe along the side of the corridor. It reminds me of the Kampala traffic jam that stacks up outside the hospital in the choking city heat.

No natural light makes it into the corridor but somehow the faint smell of congested traffic makes it up onto the third floor of Mulago Hospital to intermingle with the smell of humans and disinfectant. Avoiding the few harsh strip lights that still work, patients lie either in the shadow of their own headboards or with their thin sheets pulled over their heads.

As I walk down the corridor I step carefully over the relatives, water bottles, half eaten meals and other day to day items that are dotted across the floor. The patients rely on relatives for not just company but also for a lot of the day to day care they need. The smell as you pass some patients makes it abundantly clear that some patients are not receiving the care they need.

I glance sideways making small talk with my eyes to some of the patients whilst trying to keep moving on and keeping up with the representative of Hospice Africa Uganda who I am shadowing. Dressed in the dark blue shirt with a golden collar that marks her out as a member of the palliative care team my host takes large confident strides that exposes her familiarity with the surroundings.  She doesn’t look down as she steps over brothers, books and broken bits and pieces. Instead she angles her thick note book that she is carrying towards the strip light above and looks over notes of the patients she is there to visit.

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We push through some thick wooden swing doors on our left into a room that has one of the young patient we are there to visit as well half a dozen others. The patient we are visiting has terminal cancer and relies on the visits of the Hospice Africa team to bring oral morphine to help her with the considerable pain she would otherwise be in. My host from Hospice Africa Uganda goes straight to her bedside and lowers herself and her voice as she makes confident but kind eye contact with the patient. Speaking in the local language, Luganda, my host subconsciously runs her fingers over the shoulder of the patient as she speaks.

I am told that they ask how bad the patient’s pain is and decide that the current level of morphine is suitable. The sister of the patient, herself barely out of her teenage years, looks on with the juxtaposition of her own youth intermingled with the inevitable death that rests so close to her own, and her family’s, life. Looking as though she is unsure of her role in the nurse/patient dynamic that plays out in front of her the sister reconciles her position by just being physically close to her sister. Both protective and supportive she leans on the bed side throughout the consultation.

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Selfishly my thoughts drift as the Luganda speech drifts around me. I start to think about how if I was diagnosed with terminal cancer I would want to be free, bathed in natural light and surrounded by fresh air not stuck in a overcrowded hospital. Almost immediately I catch myself and realise how ridiculous this thought is – all across Uganda there are patients who are dying of cancer in natural sunlight, surrounded by fresh air with their families who are also in insufferable pain because they have no access to the medical support they need. The pain medication, oral morphine, which the hospice team was there to deliver is little more than an aspiration to most cancer patients in Uganda – let alone early diagnosis and treatment.

Just before we leave, a colleague from the US organisation ‘Treat the Pain’ asks if the patient would like a Polaroid picture with her sister. For the first time a flicker of excitement crosses the patient’s face and she shuffles a symbolic couple of centimetres up the bed for the photo. Together the two sisters sit with their heads pressed together watching as their own images slowly appears in the Polaroid picture.

As we stand to leave we collect up our belongings leaving nothing but the sister, the patient and the Polaroid picture behind.

Speaking later when we are far away from the cluttered dark corridors of Mulago I talk to my colleague from Treat the Pain and we both reflect on how the photo felt like a symbol of how little we could offer as non-medical staff in such situations. The stories we write, the advocacy we engage in, and people we interact with will hopefully change the lives of many more patients to come, but for that one girl and her sister we could offer nothing more than a Polaroid picture – it felt useless.

I know in both my heart and mind that it is important to record stories, to take down testimonies, to photograph suffering. I know it, but sometimes it is hard to feel it in the intensity of the personal suffering you have barged in on, especially when you can offer so little in return.

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Click to enlarge the photos.

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A global look at the UK’s obesity crisis

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At work today I put my weight, height, age and nationality into the BBC BMI global comparison tool*.

Its results were stark. In Uganda (where I currently live) my body mass index (BMI) of 22.1 is higher than 71% of males aged 15-29. That said, it is also in the ‘normal’ range.

What caught my eye though was when I swapped around the country of residence to the UK. Suddenly it goes from telling me I have a higher BMI than 71% of Ugandan males of a similar age, to telling me I have a lower BMI than 78% of British males aged 14-29.

Both in Uganda and in the UK my weight to height ratio puts me in the minority – in Uganda for being bigger than average, and in the UK for being lower than average.

The fact that I have a healthier BMI than many Brits is perhaps not surprising considering that 67% of guys in the UK are considered overweight or obese (57% of women).

As an article in the Guardian notes:

“Fat, not thin, is today’s norm [in the UK].”

The same article however goes onto explain why we have stopped noticing how fat we are as a nation stating:

But studies show that we don’t notice because it has happened gradually and we have got used to seeing people who are overweight.” 

In short, if our friends and family are overweight, this reinforces a message that says we are ‘normal’ and not overweight.

This is of course nothing short of self-delusion. A form of denial with potentially serious consequences.

This self-delusion combined has allowed me in the past to put on weight to an unhealthy level. Like most people my weight fluctuates over the years. On one occasion a few years back I was slightly alarmed to notice that I slipped over 12 stone (76 kg – giving me a BMI of about 26 well into the overweight range) but I had not necessarily conceptualised that my weight was considerably too high or the health impacts that this was having.

This was partly self-delusion but also because I was surrounded by much fatter people.

I wonder how many other Brits (and middle-class Ugandans) would be equally alarmed now if they were to weigh themselves and place that on the BMI chart.

My guess is that many would be deemed ‘overweight’ who do not think of themselves as such.

Of course, this isn’t just a vanity thing, being overweight has serious health repercussions. For example, the length of your life is dictated by your weight, we know that on average moderate obesity cuts life expectancy by two to four years and severe obesity by an entire decade.

This is in part because obesity is closely tied to potentially serious and/or fatal conditions such as type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, some types of cancer, and strokes.  

Although perversely I think it is easier to live an unhealthy lifestyle in Uganda (carb heavy diets, sugary drinks, cheap beer, busy roads discouraging walking and cycling etc) I think it is much harder to be in denial about your weight here because of the relative skinniness of those around you.

Coming back to the UK for short periods from living abroad in contrast I was shocked how visually obvious it was that we are in the midst of obesity epidemic.

This global perspective doesn’t remove my own levels of self-delusion (especially when the prospect of another cheap beer is offered) but it does mean it is harder to ignore the obesity levels of others around you.

More information:

* Before someone comments, I accept that BMI is a crass tool for an individual’s weight. It is simply used here as a signpost to a wider problem of obesity in the UK. 

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2 questions from the People’s Assembly demonstration from last weekend

Over the weekend ten’s of thousands of people marched in London as part of the ‘People’s Assembly’ demonstration demanding an alternative to the government imposed austerity plan.

Out of this event though Hynd’s Blog has two simple question. The latter of which the answer is obvious, the former, not so.

1) What on earth is Russell Brand talking about? I mean, I like him, I think he is funny, but this speech is barely coherent.

2) Are we all agreed that Caroline Lucas is awesome? Her speech in contrast to Brand’s didn’t involve any removing of clothes but it did at least coherently outline why an alternative to austerity is important…you know, the whole reason why people were there.

This is not just a frivolous observation about ones oratory skills over another, but a serious point about how we bring about radical change. My feeling, reinforced by the weekend’s events, is that we are always more likely to bring about change by working within the system, voting for what we believe in. Caroline stands as a proof of what can be achieved by just one radical elected representative.

There is a time and place for people like Russell Brand. I am just not sure that he is the catalyst to change that so many on the left make him out to be and I wonder if it does us any favours to trot him out at every event? This weekend was good for the Russell Brand show, but was his speech a tool to help bring about change?

I think not!

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Journalism is not a crime #FreeAJStaff

NYT FreeAJ

This protest from the New York Times was a powerful reminder of the importance of press freedoms and the potential impact that the trial of the Al Jazeera journalists in Egypt could have.

NGOs and governments alike have spent the last 24 horus urging the Egyptian government to free the Al Jazeera staff who have been on trial for charges including belonging to and aiding a terrorist organisation, the Muslim Brotherhood, and of “manipulating” images to suggest “there is a civil war that threatens to bring down the [Egyptian] state”.

The charges have long been rejected by Al Jazeera and have been condemned as a clamp down on free press by human rights groups.

It is with great sadness then that I read that the journalists have been jailed for 7-10 years.

Responding to the news, Amnesty International described the verdict as “an absolute affront to justice“.  The Guardian quickly published an article that condemned the verdict as:

a shocking blow to the principle of free speech

Perhaps the strongest condemnation was reserved for Al Jazeera English’s managing director Al Anstey who said the verdicts defied “logic, sense, and any semblance of justice”.

As a passionate defender of freedom of speech, Hynd’s Blog stands in solidarity with all those calling for the release of the Al Jazeera staff. This verdict is not just an affront on these journalists but to the principle of good journalism and freedom of speech. It is a tacit acknowledgement that anyone could be arrested for simply doing their job and reporting the news!

More information: 

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24 hours of politics on twitter – free owls and violence against women

The micro-blogging site twitter has transformed how we do politics. For better or worse it thrusts politics into the interactive which inevitably results in the sublime, the ridiculous and of course, the disgustingly offensive. The last 24 hours has given us two contrasting examples.

To start with the sublimely ridiculous:

Labour owls

*The Labour Party later claimed that they had been hacked.

But then to follow we have the sinister. This from Conservative MP Michael Fabricant which is at best bad taste and inappropriate but at worse seems to suggest he would be forced to punch a female journalist if he were forced to have a conversation with her:

Michael Fabricant

 

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Leader of the only Green run council to stand down

Jason Kitcat
Jason Kitcat, Leader of Brighton & Hove City Council (the only Green run council in the country) has announced his intentions to stand down from public office.

Writing on his personal blog Kitcat said:

“In 2010 as a family we agreed that, if re-selected for the 2011 council elections, this would be my last term on the council, and so it will be.” 

Kitcat has lead the council through a turbulent time. A fellow Green Cllr was quoted in The Guardian as saying:

“Jason Kitcat’s policies have time and again betrayed working people, city residents – and the electoral interests of the Green Party of England and Wales.”

Others however will remember his time in office as that which saw 500 empty homes bought back into public use and 400 affordable homes built, 20 mph limits introduced in residential areas in the city centre, and some of the best school exam results the city has ever seen.

Either way, Kitcat is a likable figure head for The Green Party in Brighton. But, after seeing how Kitcat has been dragged through the media mud and attacked from within his own party, one wonders who will be willing to take over from him?

 

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Greens polling 8% – neck and neck with the Lib Dems

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The Green Party has today latched on to the latest Ipsos Mori polling that puts them on 8% of vote share ahead of the 2015 General Election. This, according to the Ipsos Mori polling, leaves them neck and neck with the Lib Dems.

Cue an excited press release from The Green Party.

Everything about their press release is true but for it to be useful in understanding the Greens prospects come 2015 it needs to be placed in a little bit of context.

1)      The Greens took just 1% of vote in the 2010 election. It looks like they will make big gains on this come 2015.

2)      An average of the last 20 opinion polls put The Green Party on 5% and the Liberal Democrats on 8%. In other words, if I was a betting man I would still be predicting The Green Party will finish 5th behind the Lib Dems.

3)      Lord Ashcroft today confirmed in a separate poll of Tory/Lib Dem marginal seats that the Lib Dems will keep hold of some of them – just not many. However, you can bet your bottom dollar they will return more MPs than the Green Party (who currently hold one).

4)      The Ipsos Mori poll asked just 1,001 their opinion – it needs to be taken with a pinch of salt.

All that said, the fact that the Green Party are polling like this nationally might well prove to be an additional headache for Ed Miliband’s Labour in their marginal battlegrounds such as Stroud and is a big step up from where they have been coming into previous elections.

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Blogger invites all to join unique protest against The Sun’s page 3

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Thanks to my local newspaper, The Stroud News and Journal, for covering my article calling for people to return their free copy of The Sun.

You can read the Stroud News and Journal article here and you can read my original article (that has now received over 45,000 hits) here.

 

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Why Amnesty International is right: Both the village of Kafr Qaddum and Murad Shtewi must be freed

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The village of Kafr Qaddum in the West Bank was the scene of some of the worst violence I saw during my half year working as a human rights monitor there.

The village holds weekly demonstrations to demand that their main road be reopened. It was closed by the Israeli military authorities in 2002 to prevent Palestinians from travelling on roads designated for use only by Israeli settlers and adds on nearly 20km to their travel to the main town.

These demonstrations are violent affairs. This is my account of a ‘not so peaceful protest’ which includes footage of a Palestinian being mulled by an Israeli military dog (see below) as well as multiple protesters being shot directly by heavy metal tear gas canisters. This is my account is of a 17 year old boy who was relearning to talk after being shot in the head by a tear gas canister.

As I said – the demonstrations are violent affairs littered with human rights abuses. It is not surprising then that on a number of occasions the Israeli military tried to stop human rights monitors and members of the press from entering the village. On one occasion before a particularly brutal response to the protest I had to travel through the olive groves to avoid the Israeli military checkpoint to gain access to the village.

In midst of this madness trying to marshal events was the figure Murad Shtewi. Murad is (was) a leading activist in the weekly demonstrations held in his village. I met him on a number of occasions normally over strong Arabic coffee and cigarettes to discuss what had occurred in his village during the previous week. Invariably the conversation focused on army raids and arbitrary arrests (painfully common events across the West Bank) but this was juxtaposed to Murad’s middle-eastern understanding of lavish hospitality and his talk of non-violence resistance.

I liked Murad for having optimism in the face of such continued violence (violence that Murad experienced first hand, in the video of the dog attack you can see Murad being pepper sprayed in the face for trying to intervene in the dog attack on his nephew).

Despite witnessing so much violence Murad was also committed to non-violence. This commitment to non-violence is one of the key criteria for Amnesty International who now consider Murad a ‘prisoner of conscience’ after his arrest at around 3am on 29th April of this year (arrests in the middle of the night are common place in the West Bank – even when detaining minors).

Murad is charged with organizing a demonstration without a permit, causing a public disturbance, and throwing rocks during a demonstration. Amnesty International has responded to these charges saying:

“In Amnesty International’s assessment, the charges of rock-throwing and of causing a public disturbance are unfounded. Murad Shtewi has been persecuted for expressing his non-violent opinions and for his role in the peaceful protests in Kufr Qadum against Israel’s illegal settlements. His arrest and detention are a measure to punish him and stop him and other village activists from exercising their rights to freedom of expression and to peaceful assembly.”

As such Amnesty International is calling for Murad Shtewi to be released immediately and unconditionally, as ‘he is a prisoner of conscience, detained solely for the peaceful exercise of his right to freedom of expression’.

This is a call that I am happy to publicly back. On every occasion that I went to Kafr Qaddum I never once saw Murad throw a stone. On a number of occasions I did see him telling others not to throw stones. I also talked to him at length about the importance of non-violent resistance.

This is also the third time Murad has been arrested (each time released without charge) in the last few years, the first was after the dog attack on his nephew.

Simply put, I can’t see how this latest arrest of Murad has any purpose other than to try and deter him from organizing legitimate protests against the Israeli policy of segregation in the West Bank.

It is in light of all this that I ask you to take a few seconds to send this sample letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that significantly not only calls for Murad’s release but also to:

‘take effective measures to prevent the use of unnecessary and excessive force by Israeli forces against peaceful demonstrators’

Please help me help Murad by taking this small action.

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Shocking acid attack on Green MEP at Austrian gay pride event

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Green Party MEP Ulrike Lunacek has been attacked with acid during Vienna’s pride parade.

Austria’s first openly gay MEP and leader of the Austrian Green delegation to the European Parliament was reportedly sprayed with butyric acid at the recent ‘Vienna Rainbow Parade’.

Speaking to The Local after the attack Lunacek said:

“These kinds of isolated cases showed that the fight for tolerance, acceptance and respect in Austria was not over. People who spread fear and hate needed to be opposed.”

This attack is unusual because of the public profile of the victim. However, we know that LGBT residents all over the EU suffer a disproportionate likelihood in being victims of violent attacks. As Stonewall’s ‘Gay Crime Survey’ in the UK commented:

“[There is] a picture of lesbian, gay and bisexual people suffering wide-ranging abuse, from physical assaults and threats of violence through to harassment, verbal insults and damage to their property. Hate crimes and incidents affect gay people of all ages living in all regions of the country”

The same survey found that “One in six lesbian, gay and bisexual people have experienced a homophobic hate crime or incident over the last three years” alone.

For the majority of tolerant Brits and other European citizens it is hard to imagine that such attacks exists at all yet alone with such regularity and severity. But it is incredibly important to remember that this hate filled and often violent reaction to people’s sexuality still impacts on thousands of people’s lives all over the world but significantly also in our own European back yard.

One of the most important things we can all do to combat this is to read more around the issue. As such, I hope this more information is of use.

More information:

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Greens and UKIP on course for big gains but no new seats at General Election

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The average of the most recent 20 opinion polls put the Green Party on 5% of the vote for 2015 General Election, five times the vote share they secured in 2010. UKIP are also set to make big gains securing 12% more than they did in 2010. Thanks to the current electoral system though, neither are likely to gain more MPs.

The UK Polling Report polling average ‘takes in polls from the last 20 days and gives them weightings based on various factors, including how recently they were conducted, the past record of the pollster producing the figures, the methodology used, the sample size and how many polls have been produced by a single pollster.’

Although the average does not necessarily reflect a greater likelihood to accuracy, it does stop those with vested interests cherry picking the most favourable results to imply an unrealistic support one way or another.

Comparing them to the actual vote share from 2010 also gives a rough idea of how the party’s fortunes have fared over the last 4 years.

2010 result Current polling average +/- %
Conservative 36% 32% -4%
Labour 29% 35% +6%
Lib Dem 23% 8% -15%
UKIP 3% 15% +12%
Green 1% 5% +4%

 

The clear winners are UKIP (although despite this jump in vote share they are still projected not to win any seats – time for electoral reform?) while the clear losers are the Lib Dems (although it is thought that Lib Dems will still hold 30-40 seats – time for electoral reform?).

Despite massively growing their vote share The Green Party is also unlikely to take any new seats but will probably hold Caroline Lucas’ Brighton Pavilion seat (although it is Labour’s number one target for the South East).

The Conservatives show a clear drop but nothing of the magnitude of their coalition partners. Labour, although showing a decent rise are being compared to the lows of the Brown years and are not polling high enough to consider winning a majority (another coalition on the cards?).

All in all regardless of millions of votes switching between Greens/UKIP/Lib Dems – the core 28-36% vote shares of Labour and the Conservative will ensure one of them will attempt to run this country without the backing of the vast majority of voters, let alone non-voters!

With this in mind I think the case for electoral reform has never been clearer.

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Palestinian human rights activist on BBC’s ‘Desert Island Discs’

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Raja Shehadeh, the human rights lawyer and writer who founded the human rights organization Al-Haq, yesterday appeared on BBC radio 4′s ‘Desert Island Discs’.

Just before he tells Kirsty Young his final choice of disc (about 38 minutes in) he makes an important point about the importance of humanizing the conflict and generating empathy between different people. A point that should be axiomatic but is so often ignored and/or forgotten.

As with all things Israel/Palestine related I need to cover myself and say that I don’t know enough about Raja to make any sweeping generalizations about him. On the occasions though that I have read his work or heard him speak he has always come across as passionate, articulate and most importantly willing to build rather than burn bridges.

This for me as a human rights activist is incredibly important. As an aspiring writer though I have also been taken aback by the beauty in which he forms his words.

A friend sent me this quote from his book ‘Palestinian Walks: Notes on a vanishing landscape‘:

To my left at the perfectly still waters of the [Dead] Sea, transformed by the sun into a luminous platinum sheet, and to my right at the formidable wall of incandescent rock along which we were travelling, towering steeply, challengingly, seemingly an impenetrable line of defence, a mighty gateway into another world. 

This imagery resonates powerfully with my own memories of walking in the West Bank.

This book, Palestinian Walks, is itself a combination of his human rights activism and his commitment to personalize the conflict that is intertwined in some truly beautiful adjectives.  It is a deeply personal reflection of walking, or not being able to walk, in the West Bank.

I think this is why I was drawn to the Desert Island Discs programme, because it is once again a deeply personal reflection on the conflict and the human rights abuses that occur there.

 

 

 

 

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Lib Dems worst EVER YouGov ratings

The Lib Dems have dropped to their worst ever YouGov poll rating today with just 6% of those polled saying they would vote for them at the General Election. This is the worst result for the Lib Dems in a YouGov poll since the company started in 2001.

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Significantly, the Green Party are just 1% behind them on 5% and UKIP have more than doubled them on 14%.

A closer look at the statistics also spell out some worrying findings for the Lib Dems.

Firstly, a look at those who said they voted Lib Dem in 2010. 32% of them now say they plan to vote Labour, 18% Conservative, 13% UKIP, 11% Greens and just 24% said they will stay with the Lib Dems.

Compare this in contrast to Conservative or Labour who are holding onto the 76% and 84% respectively of their 2010 voters.

It is clear that the Lib Dems are struggling to keep hold of their own voters and importantly, they are also failing to pick up soft Conservative votes (only 1% of those who voted Tory in 2010 plan to vote Lib Dem in 2015).

Secondly, on the 5% of young voters (18-24) said they plan to vote Lib Dem in 2015. It is worth highlighting that this is considerably less than the 11% of 18-24 year olds that are planning on voting Green.

This could spell bad news for the Lib Dems for two reasons. One it doesn’t bode well for the long-term growth of the party (political parties, like banks and car manufactures target you when you are young hoping brand loyalty will keep you with them the rest of your life). And secondly, it could spell disaster for Lib Dems in some key seats that have large university populations (the one that jumps to mind is Clegg’s home of Sheffield).

It is important not to read too much into this. The 5% headline figure is pretty similar to what they have been polling over the last few weeks. It does though just mark a new, unwelcome, milestone for the Lib Dems in their desperate fight to regain some popularity in the polls.

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How and why to return today’s free copy of The Sun newspaper

justice
When you get your free copy of The Sun in the post today, you can return it to FREEPOST, The Sun, London E98 1AX.

My suggestion is to write “Justice for the 96″ or “You dropped page 3 once, why not forever?” on the front. But I trust Hynd’s Blog readers to think of their own creative slogans as well (suggestions in the comments box below please!).

Let’s get creative and tell The Sun that we don’t want their divisive, misogynistic, lying newspaper in our front rooms.

UPDATE:

Love this from my friend Ellie:

Sun

Wow, the Labour Party has just been entered into the ‘what single tweet has made you most angry/disgusted/disappointed’ competition:

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My former Head of Year, (Mr) Gareth Warren has passed away – some reflections.

Mr Warren
It has taken me a few days to firstly hear, then to process, the news that my old Head of Year, (Mr) Gareth Warren, has passed away. He was just 61 years old when he died of pancreatic cancer.

I don’t want to eulogise him here. Nor do I want to place him on the pedestal that society reserves only for the dead. Instead I want to explain why I respected him, even as a teenager when respect was perhaps in shorter supply than it should have been, and significantly why I still respect him to this day.

Mr Warren (it still fills wrong referring to teachers by their first name) had the image of being tough. Almost to the point of caricature he had a way a sweeping into a classroom that would bring silence and apprehension to even the worst behaved of kids. Invariably he would burst in, take a few exaggerated slow steps through the door and pick with a trained eye the instigator of the troubles before muttering through a thick growl their surname (a hangover from rugby coaching that found its way into the classroom). Their surname would inexplicably gain a syllable at the end adding an ‘e’ noise (Hynd became, Hynd-e).

This, if your name was muttered, was your cue to follow him out of the classroom.

This demeanour though was at least only part charade. Embedded within his teaching was a philosophy of tough love. I have never met a teacher before or since that was better equipped to deal with the plethora of problems, mood swings and anxieties that teenagers have.

When it was needed he was there with his thick growl to bollock you, and believe me, bollock you he would. But, at the same time, he was also there to support you when you needed. I can think of a dozen kids in my year that would have been expelled from most other schools but who stayed at Chosen Hill thanks to Mr Warren’s personal intervention and support.

The current Deputy Head, Shirley Bridgen gave a reasonable summary of this approach to the local paper saying:

“He genuinely believed that all children deserved a chance, especially those who struggled at times to find their way.

“To these students there was an open door, always a way back – this was his philosophy”

This is true. But all of this though makes him sound incredibly earnest like some sort of British Erin Gruwell. He wasn’t – he had a great patience and sense of humour when dealing with kids and style all of his own.

Maybe an anecdote will serve best to illustrate this:

I can remember flouting the no jewellery rule day in day out at school wearing some wooden beads around my neck (don’t ask, something to do with the fashion in the late 90s). To begin Mr Warren asked me to take them off, which I did before putting them back on again. Later, he tried confiscating them for a week – after which I would put them back on again. Finally it got to point where he walked up behind me one day and put one hand on my shoulder, untied the beads, and said (and I remember this very clearly), “Steve you are as insolent as you are annoying” before smiling to himself and walking off shaking his head.

Later that day I got called into his office. He was sat behind the desk wearing my beads and my sunglasses (also confiscated earlier that week). He sat me down and asked me why I didn’t want to be a year 11 prefect. To which I answered, in a way that only an insolent and annoying 15 year old could, that I didn’t want an unpaid job that made me stop people wearing their own necklaces.

Trying not to smile but obviously smirking he then asked me if I would help him out. He asked me if I would speak at some careers event at Gloucester Rugby Club later that day on behalf of the school. I agreed I think mainly because Mr Warren had asked me, not because I actually wanted to.

I guess this anecdote is just about his skill as a teacher, balancing hard-nosed discipline with a light touch of humour and goodwill.  Turning around a situation in one day to be about the student and ultimately what was best for them.

When leaving the Rugby Club after the event Mr Warren thanked me for giving such a good speech. Despite myself I remember enjoying the compliment. Maybe fishing for another I then asked him why he asked me to talk at the event. He answered, “Because Hynd-e, I can’t get you to shut up so I thought you might as well put your gift of the gab to good use”.

13 years later I work in Communications. I think he might have spotted something in me before even I did.

 

UPDATE (from facebook):

Celebration of the life of Gareth Warren will take place on Friday 20th June, 3:30pm at Gloucester Cathedral. All are welcome.

Family have requested no mourning clothes.

Donations to Pancreatic Cancer UK via www.justgiving.com/GarethWarren

 

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4 year old who featured in Channel 4 documentary on palliative care has passed away

I have today written for ehospice about 4 year old Abdurahmane who featured on Channel 4’s ‘Unreported World’ documentary who has sadly passed away just a few days after the powerful documentary was shown. Like so many that heard his story I am really sad to have heard this news. I am writing now to encourage you to watch this Channel 4 documentary that looks at access to basic pain medications in Senegal.

Abdurahmane has passed away but I hope his death, as his life was, might be part of what brings about the change so desperately needed in many countries around the world – by no means just Senegal! 

unreported world

This is what I wrote for ehospice:

The life of 4 year old Abdurahmane touched the lives of millions. Abdurahmane had retinal cancer and featured on Channel 4’s ‘Unreported World’ documentary looking at shortages of pain medications across Africa and specifically in Abdurahmane’s home of Senegal.

At the time of filming the documentary he had been in the hospital for three months, receiving chemotherapy, which had shrunk the tumour in his eye.

Abdurahmane had also been one of the few people in Senegal to receive morphine to control the pain he was in. The documentary explained that when stocks are low, the hospital pharmacy gives children priority to the morphine. Sadly though, even in this specialist unit the stocks of morphine sometimes run out.

Human Rights Watch last year highlighted that the authorities in Senegal allow only a very small amount of morphine into the country each year. It is thought they import as little as just one kg, enough to treat about 200 cancer patients when there is demand for tens of thousands of patients in severe pain.

It was through the story of Abdurahmane though that this problem was highlighted to the millions of viewers around the world who would have by now watched the documentary.

It was with great sadness then that a few days after the programme first being shown we learnt of Abdurahmane death.

The award winning journalist Krishnan Guru-Murthy who met Abdurahmane and built up a relationship with him broke the sad news on twitter saying:

“Very sorry to say that 4 year old abdourahmane who we filmed about morphine shortages has died”

The impact that Abdurahmane had on the viewers was immediately obvious in the string of responses from memebers of the public.

It is hoped that Abdurahmane life and death will continue to inspire and will drive the change in Senegal that is so desperately needed.

More information:

You can watch the documentary for a limited period on the Channel 4 On Demand facility by clicking here.

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Latest figures: Green Party membership up while the ‘big’ three all see slumps…

Green Party leader Natalie Bennett
The Green Party sent out an interesting press release today stating that their membership had ‘grown by 23% in the first 5 months of 2014’.

Let’s keep this claim in perspective, it has grown from being small to not quite so small, but the fact that it has grown at all, let alone to some 17,000 people, is interesting for two reasons.

Firstly, it is well and truly bucking the trend of party membership that is being endured by the big three political parties.

Party political membership has been on the dramatic decline since the Second World War resulting in just 1% of the population now holding membership to a political party.

As the BBC rather dryly pointed out:

“There are more members of the Caravan Club, or the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, than of all Britain’s political parties put together.”

Indeed, the Conservative Party membership is thought to have almost halved under Cameron (although figures are not official it is thought to be as low as 134,000 now!)

A House of Commons briefing paper put the Labour and Lib Dem membership on 193,000 and 49,000 respectively (although in reality the figure will be much lower by now).

So, for The Green Party to be able to claim to be ‘on course to break 20,000 members’ by the end of the year is a pretty impressive, especially  considering the general discontent with party political politics.

Secondly it is an important building block to the long-term success of the party. Although The Green Party had a reasonable local and European election last month, we know that voters can be fickle and that many of these will vote elsewhere come May 2015.

Members in contrast have shown a commitment (they have paid some of their hard earned cash to start with) to the party that should be longer lasting. Members provide a volunteer as well as economic base for the party to grow from. This in turn can help the party launch better (funded) election campaigns that will potentially lead to more elected representatives which eventually can  lead to their actual goal – more Green Party policies being introduced.

More information:

You can find out about joining the Green Party by clicking here.

UPDATE: Liberal Democrat Mark Pack has just tweeted this:

Points to take from this are: One, small recent upsurge in Lib Dem membership but, two, this surge takes them to just 44,000 – 5,000 less than the figure the 2012 HoC paper put them on.

I wonder how much of this recent ‘growth’ can be explained by some of the 35% of Lib Dem members that left between 2010 and 2012 (42,000 down from 65,000) coming back to the party after venting their anger at the coalition?

 

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Amnesty International turns 53 and needs your support more than ever

Amnesty International yesterday celebrated its 53 birthday. They celebrated it with this message:

Amnesty

Please join them in finishing this mission.

All of these small actions, some that cost money others that cost time, all help contribute to Amnesty’s work.

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Channel 4 looks at Africa’s scandalous shortage of pain medications

“without the political will to change, vulnerable people remain deprived of humane treatment and an end to life free of pain.” 

This is the conclusion of the Channel 4 documentary, ‘Africa’s Drug Scandal’ that I helped to coordinate through my work – the African Palliative Care Association. The documentary is due to be broadcast on Channel 4 in the UK at 7:35pm on Friday 30th May 2014.

I am posting about it here because it strikes me as a rare opportunity to get a large number of people thinking about an issue that is incredibly important to me.

The documentary focuses in on the issue of access to pain medications – predominantly oral morphine. Having access to such medication is something that most people in the UK take for granted. If you were diagnosed with a life-threatening illness tomorrow you would assume that you would be given the appropriate pain control that would firstly enable you to live your life to the full but secondly, would enable you to die a peaceful death.

For the majority of people in the world this is simply not the case. Indeed, as ehospice reported last November, due to a lack of access to inexpensive and effective essential opioids more than 4 billion people, over half the world population, live in countries where regulatory barriers leave cancer patients suffering excruciating pain.

In countries like Senegal where the documentary is set the situation is dire. Last October Human Rights Watch found that the government only imports about one kilogram of morphine each year – enough to treat about 200 cancer patients when there is an estimated need in the tens of thousands of patients!

And so, this is one of the corner stones of my organisations work – to lobby, offer training, educate and empower people to ensure that everyone has access to the pain medications they need.

unreported world

It might seem like an abstract issue, but as Krishnan Guru-Murthy, the renowned Channel 4 reporter finds out, once you see a patient suffering in unbearable but perfectly treatable pain you instantly understand the importance of the issue.

Guru-Murthy concludes the situation amounts to “needless cruelty”.

I find it impossible to see how anyone, when faced with this reality could conclude anything different.

The programme can be watched live online here, on 4OD for 30 days after broadcast here, and you can read a preview in the Radio Times here.

Let me know what you think of it in the comments below.

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One novel way to avoid paying a bribe to traffic police in Uganda

I got that all too familiar feeling in the bottom of the stomach that I get when faced with confrontation with authority. A traffic policeman waved me into the side of the road with a stern, if slightly comic, reproachable look on his face. Walking calmly up to the car I can remember hearing the heavy clump of his standard issue boots on the hot cracking concrete as he approached my car window.

Sat looking forward through my dusty windscreen I prepared mentally for the relentless burst of enthusiasm that had served so well before in dealing with traffic policeman. I had of course not done anything wrong but I knew from experience this was not enough to avoid trouble.

I knew the drill. The best way to escape either an arbitrary fine (an offense in Uganda is ‘the inconsiderate use of the motor vechicle’) or in many ways worse, being forced into paying a bribe, was to speak in a friendly, informed and most importantly, relentless way.

From previous experience I knew the subject matter wasn’t important, and so I rehearsed in my head…The weather, wonderful. The place I am going, I heard it is magical. The place I have come from, even better. My friends first experience of Uganda, perfect!

The policeman leaned on the passenger’s window:

Traffic policeman: ‘How are you today?’

Just as I was about to launch into my boundless tirade of optimism my fiancé started speaking:

My fiancé: ‘Ahh, I am well ssebo (sir), how are you? Today is the perfect day for being in Uganda I think. You know ssebo, I love you Uganda so much. I love it so much that I have learnt the national anthem. Do you want to hear me sing it?’

She then breaks out into the national anthem. I sit and watch. I try not to smirk at the ludicrousness of the situation. Most of all though, I try to read the policeman’s face. Looking on I am caught in a mixture of apprehension to what the policeman’s reaction would be and, utter awe for my fiancé’s formidable friendliness.

Questions started to swim to the tune of national anthem in my head…Is this pushing it too far, to literally and totally inexplicably start singing the national anthem?

Of course not.

Within a few lines the policeman starts to join in. The contort reproachable burrows that were resting on his forehead relax and before long he is positively beaming as the two of them are singing in unison.

With a big smile on his face, the traffic policeman waved us off wishing us a good day in English to which we subconsciously respond in unison with the Luganda, ‘bera bulungi’ (good day!).

At this point I glance in my rear view mirror I can see the policeman taking the concept of jollity to a whole new level.

I can’t guarantee this approach works with all law enforcement officers, but on this occasion on this particular stretch of road in Uganda, it worked a treat!

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