Female workers administering polio vaccine in Afghanistan.
In 1988 there were 350,000 cases of polio worldwide. Last year there were 223. But getting all the way to zero will mean spending billions of dollars, penetrating the most remote regions of the globe, and facing down Taliban militants to get to the last unprotected children on Earth.
We are an hour or so east of Jalalabad, in eastern Afghanistan, when our Land Cruisers turn off the main highway and head toward a line of mountain peaks that marks the border with Pakistan. We pass a sandbagged machine-gun nest manned by Afghan cops, who glance at our white-painted vehicles with placid interest. There are two police pickups escorting us; at night this area is controlled by the Taliban, and even during the day they are watching. ¶ Soon we arrive at Lal Pura, a little Y-shaped bazaar of pharmacies, bakeries, and general stores straddling a fork in the road. Our convoy has come to hunt an enemy hiding in the mountainous terrain between Afghanistan and Pakistan. But we are unarmed, and the doors of our vehicles are painted in blue block letters: who and unicef. The adversary is the poliomyelitis virus, and the international delegation of doctors I am traveling with are at the forefront of a billion-dollar global battle to eradicate it from the planet. ¶ We pull into the Lal Pura health center, a compound of rudimentary one-story concrete buildings that provides basic medical services for the district, which extends roughly 10 miles east to the Pakistani border. The clinic staff comes out to greet us, receiving Ali Zahed, head of the World Health Organization’s surveillance program in Afghanistan, with particular warmth. Before he joined who, Zahed worked for the Afghan government, heading the polio program in the eastern end of the country, and he knows most of the staff in the districts personally, knows the hardship and danger that they face working in the mountains. Zahed is short, with a square jaw and slightly hooded eyes that combine with his pointed eyebrows in a variety of deadpan expressions—he’s a natural joker. But his face is serious now as he listens to the local staff; Lal Pura is a big problem for him and the polio campaign.
• 28 November 2013 • 31 notes
Hawaii governor signs same-sex marriage bill into law
Star-Advertiser: Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie signed the marriage equality bill into law today, making Hawaii the 15th state to legalize same-sex marriage.
He signed the bill before a crowd of several hundred people at the Hawaii Convention Center in Honolulu.
Now, the struggle over marriage equality will shift to the courts, where Rep. Bob McDermott (R, Ewa Beach-Iroquois Point) and a group of Christians will seek to block the state from issuing marriage licenses to gay couples on Dec. 2, as the measure allows.
The lawsuit contends that the 1998 constitutional amendment that gave the Legislature the power to reserve marriage to heterosexual couples outweighs a statutory change. Another public vote, the lawsuit argues, would be necessary to redefine marriage.
Judge Karl Sakamoto has scheduled a hearing for Thursday in Circuit Court.
Photo: Gov. Neil Abercrombie and his wife Nancie Caraway sit in the auditorium at the Hawaii Convention Center before today’s bill-signing ceremony. (Craig T. Kojima / Star-Advertiser)
• 13 November 2013 • 477 notes
Beautifully written by: Anantanand Rambachan; Professor of Religion, Saint Olaf College; huffingtonpost.com.
The word “Diwali” means an arrangement or a row of lights. Traditionally, Diwali is celebrated on the darkest night of the year when the necessity and the beauty of lights can be truly appreciated. Light is a symbol in the world’s religions for God, truth and wisdom.
Given the antiquity of India, the diversity of its religious traditions and the interaction among these, it should not surprise us to know that many religious communities celebrate Diwali. Each one offers a distinctive reason for the celebration that enriches its meaning. For every community, however, Diwali celebrates and affirms hope, and the triumph of goodness and justice over evil and injustice. These values define the meaning of Diwali.
For the Jains, Diwali is celebrated as the joyous day on which Mahavir, the great Jain teacher, attained the eternal joy of liberation or nirvana. It is an occasion for rejoicing and gratitude for a life spent in rigorous religious search, realization and teaching centered on non-violence.
For the Sikhs, Diwali is a “day of freedom,” when the Mughal Emperor, Jehangir, freed the sixth Sikh Guru (teacher), Hargobind, from prison. Guru Hargobind refused to accept his freedom unless the emperor released detained Hindu leaders. Guru Hargobind is celebrated as seeing his own religious freedom as inseparable from the freedom of others.
Even for the Hindu community, there is a confluence of many traditions connected with Diwali. Some celebrate Diwali as ushering the New Year and others as the triumph of Krishna over the evil, Narakasura. The most widely shared tradition, especially in North India, associates Diwali with the celebration and rejoicing over the return of Rama to his home in Ayodhya after an exile of 14 years and his defeat of the tyrannical, Ravana. Rama was forced into exile by the greed of his stepmother who wanted her own son to occupy the throne of Ayodhya. Citizens of Ayodhya joyfully welcomed Rama home by lighting thousands of earthen lamps, even as almost one billion Hindus do so today on the continents of Asia, Africa, Australia, the Americas and Europe. Hindus worship Rama as an embodiment of God on earth.
The meaning of Diwali, however, is not limited to the celebration of Rama’s return from exile, and we must look also beyond this event. In his version of the Ramayana, the account of the life of Rama written in the 15th century, the poet Tulasidasa tells us that the return of Rama ushered in a new human community in which all enjoyed peace and prosperity. Tulasidasa describes the characteristics of this new community in beautiful details that have profound contemporary relevance. I want to highlight four of its most important features. First, poverty was overcome, and none suffered for lack of life’s necessities. Second, illiteracy was overcome and opportunities for learning available to everyone. Third, diseases were overcome, no one died prematurely, and all lived healthy lives. Fourth, violence and hate were overcome and relationships characterized by love and the service.
It is easy and even tempting to think that the Rama, the embodiment of God on earth, effected this transformation in the nature of the community miraculously. If so, we could celebrate Diwali and our responsibilities are over until it comes again next year. Such a view, however, does not accurately represent Rama’s nature or mode of action in the world. Throughout the Ramayana, Tulasidasa describes Rama as seeking the help of human beings and fulfilling his purposes only through them. He asks Valmiki’s help when he wants to find a suitable place to build a home. He turns to forest dwellers for guidance. He befriends Sugriva and looks to him and his supporters to find his beloved Sita. He sends Hanuman across the ocean to locate and comfort Sita. He builds a bridge to the island of Sri Lanka only with the assistance of many, including even the animals of earth. The theological conclusions are important and challenging. First, a human community that aspires to be free from poverty, illiteracy, disease and violence is one that has aligned itself with God’s purpose. This is the community that Rama wills and which he governed after his return. One cannot love Rama and be indifferent to human suffering and to the nature of the community in which one lives. Second, God’s purposes are accomplished through and in cooperation with human beings. We have a vital role and responsibility in making this community a reality and it will not be realized without our commitment and cooperation.
We cannot celebrate Diwali as the return of Rama without being concerned about the reality of poverty, illiteracy, disease and violence in our world. If God’s purpose in the world is accomplished through us and in cooperation with us, it is also true that this work requires our cooperation with each other. Our hope is not in solitary effort but in working with others in the manner of Rama. We may not all agree on the precise paths for the goal of overcoming poverty, illiteracy, disease and violence. But even consensus about these as shared goals of our common life and as essential to the meaning of being Hindu is a grand step.
If working with others for the achievement of these ends defines what it means to be political, contemporary Hindus have a deep religious responsibility to be politically engaged. At the heart of this engagement must be a concern for the well-being of all. We ought to ensure that Hindus are known, in whatever part of the world we reside, Asia, Europe, Africa, North America and the Caribbean, for our commitment to overcoming suffering rooted in poverty, illiteracy, disease and violence. This commitment must become synonymous with what it means to be Hindu in our self-understanding and in the eyes of others. Politics, according to Mahatma Gandhi, is concerned with the well-being of human communities and anything concerned with human well-being must concern the person of religious commitment. Gandhi was deeply inspired by the life of Rama and especially by the nature of the community established after Rama’s return from exile. He understood his life’s purpose as working with others to make this community a reality.
Unfortunately, our religious traditions are known more for what we stand against than what we stand for. Religious identity has become negative rather than positive. We need to ensure that the positive dimension of our commitment is more prominent than the negative.
Let us celebrate Diwali, the festival of lights, with joy. Let each celebration, however be a reminder and renewal of our profound obligations to help bring the lights of prosperity, knowledge, health and peace to our communities, nations and our world. Diwali does not end when the lights go out.
• 3 November 2013 • 9 notes
In Your Own Words
by Mohan Rana
They said: Don’t go to the end of the Earth
because your lengthening shadow will frighten you.
There it is the world of winged pythons;
the earth there is ablaze with the fire they spit.
If you arrive where it is neither day nor night
you’ll be turned into stone while you are waiting.
As if I had heard these words of mine
from somebody else.
If I’d had a full life rehearsal
I’d have made some changes to the text;
but I can’t get away from my own words:
But I wasn’t good enough,
I couldn’t write for days.
Living in evil times, I turned evil;
not seeing time passing,
I became imperceptible
as if trapped in clockwork
driven crazy by my own words.
• 29 October 2013 • 1 note
On the front lines of polio eradication in Afghanistan
By Rajat Madhok
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan, 23 October 2013 – Eradicating polio in Afghanistan – one of only three countries where the disease remains endemic – is a battle taking place every day across the country. Against the larger backdrop of instability and suffering that continues to draw the world’s focus, it is also largely invisible.
But amid this scenario are those who fight social and cultural odds and work long hours trying to make the difference in a struggle between life and death. These men and women go from house to house, village to village and from one mosque to the next to speak about the importance of eradicating polio. Despite death threats and fears of being ostracized, these champions for the cause are undeterred, and their aim is clear – to rid their country of this deadly disease once and for all.
In 2012, a total of 37 confirmed polio cases were reported from Afghanistan, a significant reduction compared to 80 cases reported the year before.
As of 19 October, 8 confirmed cases of polio virus have been reported this year across Afghanistan. The polio-endemic areas in southern Afghanistan have not reported a polio case for the last 10 months
Mullah Abdul Rauf is the head of a madrasa (school for Islamic instruction) and supports the eradication of polio:
Initially madrasas were against vaccination and urged people not to vaccinate their children. Later we came to understand that in sharia law, there is nothing that prohibits this. The rumours in the community were that these vaccines are harmful and can affect fertility of children. Many mullahs and madrasas also told people that these vaccines are prohibited by Islam. We were not in a position to say that the vaccination is good, simply because we did not have enough information.
The issue of vaccination was shared and discussed with religious and Islamic scholars, and it was realized that the vaccination is good for the well-being of children. It is Islamic and the humanitarian right of all children to be vaccinated.
Despite death threats and fears of being ostracized, Rahila works as a mobilizer going door to door to vaccinate children less than five years of age against polio.
Mullah Abdul Rauf, the head of a madrasa (religious school), and Gul Mohammad, a community leader, allay fears and misconceptions of the polio vaccine.
• 29 October 2013 • 4 notes