Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Skinny Models

I recently completed some required online training on 'Prevent' (the UK government's strategy to reduce the chances of people becoming terrorists).

Driven by statutory requirement the training was unsurprisingly not hugely inspiring.  However, one part of the module did cause me to perk up a little - if for entirely the wrong reason.

The module supposes that:

"One widely held theory is that terrorism, or an act of terrorism, is only the tip of an iceberg. An iceberg only has 10% of its mass above the water and the analogy is that underneath the terrorist attack there is a great deal going on, including the exposure of individuals to influences that drew them into terrorism..."

Complete with an interactive picture of the pointy shaped iceberg of everyone's imagination, the trainers argue that people who eventually become terrorists are those with a complaint who move through a process of radicalisation, as if going from the bottom of the iceberg to the top.

There's lots here that's not to like.

Firstly, the 'widely held theory'. Hmmm. Well, its difficult to find evidence of it being very widely held. A few newspaper articles seem to invoke the idea and a couple of academic writers seem to have given a nod to it. Who in practice I wonder holds this theory?

As for it being a theory - well, if a theory is a model of something in the real world and the image of an iceberg is considered to be a model, then yes its a theory. But its a terribly worked theory....Surely these chaps can do better?

Finally, for practical purposes, what does the model as it stands enable us to think about in terms of radicalisation? Not very much that is useful sadly.  So it helps us see that the terrorists who commit an offence don't just exist in isolation. Wow.  And maybe perhaps we can see each terrorist has a past when they were not terrorists but were perhaps in the process of becoming one. Again, not particularly surprising (though sadly not logically anything to do with icebergs and how they are formed). Beyond that the theory offers nothing.

So the whole iceberg thing is a pleasant distraction for us in the training and gives us a neat short cut to understanding a key point.

Where's the harm in that?

No harm I guess. Its just a bit naff really. And gives theorists and trainers a bad name.

The problem is that they have focused most of their attention on the shape of the iceberg. They've fallen for the old 'reduce the world down to separate objects that you can see' trap (although sneakily here they've gone just that little bit beyond to think about the part of the iceberg that is deviously hidden under water and which only fish, whales and submarines can see.)

Some questions (arising out of some fairly basic ideas in systems thinking) that we might useto develop a richer model and therefore a possibly more useful understanding of radicalisation:

  • What is it that makes the iceberg appear to us as a single whole? Where can we draw the boundaries between that which is 'iceberg' and that which we consider 'not iceberg'?
  • What relationships do we notice between an isolated iceberg and other icebergs in the same area? Is there some wider 'iceberg grouping' of which the single isolated iceberg might be considered or even experienced to be a part? 
  • What are the processes through which the iceberg gets formed?  How is the iceberg connected to that which is around it over time? And indeed, how might we distinguish between the iceberg as a 'thing' and the ongoing process by which a lump of ice is formed and destroyed in the sea? What is the relationship between form and organisation?
And then perhaps we even ask ourselves about what our way of answering these questions tells us about our way of seeing, framing and thinking?

If we're going to develop an analogy to understand complexities of radicalisation (or indeed, any complex human process) and we're going to look to icebergs (or any other natural phenomena) for inspiration then surely we can do better than treat them merely like lumps of rock?  I'm sure ocean scientists (and even icebergs) would appreciate us not denigrating them so much. 

Friday, July 14, 2017

Scooping up

So a brief cycle of inquiry into parenting was initiated by reading something by Magda Gerber a couple of days ago. Explaining her notion of edu-caring I read the following as an example of where I could make a change in parenting practice:

"Whereas the care-giver may scoop up an infant unexpectedly from behind, thereby startling, interrupting and creating resistance in the infant, the educarer always tells the infant before she does anything with him or her and thus gains cooperation"

Having read this little phrase the first thing that happened was that I started becoming more aware of moments when I would do something to Amaya, without telling her what I was doing. It was an occasional observation here and there. Where I pick her up to change smell if she needed a change. Or take away her bowl from breakfast.  I quickly began to get a hunch that quite often I was doing something that Magda had argued against. And I started to wonder whether this was perhaps something I could change. 

And then today, I had some new information to add to my inquiry.

Amaya and I were coming back from Burnt Oak having met Joanna and her daughter Lianna from our days in playgroup in Colindale. We were leaving the coffee shop where we'd spent a relaxed and enjoyable hour or so.  Amaya was in her red three-wheel pushchair and we were about to cross the road. It was near Amaya's nap time and I figured that she was ready to sleep.  A few moments earlier at the coffee shop and we got our stuff together, both Joanna and I had given the kids our phone to distract them little. Amaya still had my phone and I didn't want her to drop the phone on the busy road as we crossed. Without thinking much or saying anything,  I just pulled the phone out of Amaya's hand. 

Cue screaming daughter. Not a mad wail just a low level angry cry. Immediately my thoughts recalled some of Magda's words. 

On the other side of the road, I gave the phone hurriedly back to her to bring some calm. She stopped crying and we walked on for a minute as she played away. 

And then my second attempt with Magda's words more in my mind. 

Hia. Hu phone leilewchu. Tu suijaje. I'm about to take the phone. You can go to sleep now. 

Amaya let go off the phone and within moments nodded off. 

So a little cycle of learning for me about telling Amaya about what I'm going to do before doing it. I'll probably try to develop my noticing of this way of being with Amaya and Raahi for the next little while and see what comes about. 

Friday, May 20, 2016

A Gentle Stroll around Mount Kenya

Starting off
I was walking with Milena, a German student spending a year at University in Nairobi. From Nairobi we were driven by James (full of knowledge and insight) to Nanyuki, a bustling town that acts as a gateway to Mount Kenya.

We picked up final provisions at the Nakumat supermarket and just outside we were introduced to Daniel who was to be our lead guide for the trip. From there it was a 20 minute drive up to the Sirimon gate through some hillside plantations – land that was once forested that was given by former president Daniel Arap Moi to local people to plant and harvest.

When we stepped out of the car just in front of the entrance to Mount Kenya National Park, I saw the rest of the 'crew' were already there. They were hovering around plastic bags that were piled about on the small patch of grass. There were bags of ugali flour,  a bowling ball sized watermelon, onions, pumpkin, bags of rice, salt and milk powder, an aluminium kettle and an assortment of sufurias.

We pulled our bags out of the back of the taxi while James went over to the entrance gate. He came back requesting copies of our id.  Then without much fanfare we were introduced to the rest of the team  As well as the Daniel there was an assistant guide, Wanjohi. There was also two porters (tall Paul and stocky Godfrey) and a cook called Githai. That was the crew.

We picked up our comfortably light day packs and set off with Daniel toward the route that would take us into the National Park. Immediately the first spots of rain descended and we walked back toward the gate. I took out my waterproof trousers and pulled them on easily. Milena took out her canary yellow poncho and eased it over her head and backpack. A small tear appeared instantly in the fabric of her bright yellow poncho.

Eland Ghosting past Old Moses
We started off up through a lush rainforest with nettles, sweaty ferns and mushrooms on the ground, trees dripping with wispy mosses and plenty of elephant dung splats but no elephants. Daniel, Milena and I walked together with the rest of the crew further back.

The pace was fairly steady and easy.  With the persistent rain we didn't stop much. Four hours on over a slight curve in the path we sighted the bunkhouse we'd be sleeping in.  On our approach a male and female eland in the distance spotted us just as Daniel spotted them; the eland, recognising strange otherness, simply ghosted away into the vegetation. Just when we entered the banda - not much more than a couple of long shacks -  a massive downpour descended, clattering away at the tin roof. This was 3300 metres and that night sleep was already uneasy -  I was already developing a slight headache from the altitude.

Expressive Lobelia

The next morning, after early breakfast of omelette, fried 'nduma' and Kenya tea prepared by Githai, my head eased a little and we left Old Moses Camp. We stretched our legs up heathland that looked back down over the plains below.

The land was rich with plants. There were giant groundsel and large tussocks of olive coloured grass. We saw the occasional red hot poker and plenty lobelia - one variety looking like cabbages, another variety looking brown and withered and another that was devastatingly symmetrical.

After a couple of hours we crossed the Ontolili River and then up a steep valley side. Githai and Patrick had gone ahead so that at the top of the hillside (3850mt) we were presented with midmorning tea and a chance for a breather. But our break was cut short by another downpour.

Donning our waterproof layers, we hustled down a step path to shelter under the edge of some rocks and wondered whether it would pass.  After 15 minutes it didn't look like it so we set off on a long wet trek through the Mackinder Valley - an eerie alpine valley dotted about irregularly spaced giant lobelia that cast recognisable silhouettes - a wise old man, a clenched fist, two people deep in conversation.
Around mid afternoon we arrived at Shipton Camp - in the shadows of the peaks of Batian, Nelion and Lenana (Daniel told us the peaks were named after the sons of a famous Kikuyu elder). We were greeted by a cup of tea prepared by Githai, a chance to clean our feet in hot water and to dry off.

We had an early dinner of chapatis, vegetables and spinach. With rain continuing to fall outside Daniel spoke to us of the plans for reaching the summit. We  had two nights at Shipton during which we could attempt to ascend to the Point Lenana - at 4985 metres it is the highest point on the mountain that can be reached without technical climbing.  He suggested that he the best thing would be to go for it as soon as the weather cleared.  So we were in bed in the small dorm room by 7pm, darkness descending on the camp with equatorial speed.

Night ascent

Daniel came to wake us at 2.30am with news that the night had cleared and we could attempt an ascent to Point Lenana. I thought I would take a look out and as I stepped out of the hut and looked skywards I stumbled over an unexpected step and a more unexpected sight of a billion stars and galaxies lighting up the night sky.

We set of from camp at 3am - Daniel in the lead followed by Milena, me and then Wanjoh. The other members of the crew had remained in camp awaiting our return. We started off gently along a slippery path next to slowly rising river bed. 

After a short time, we left the river and the path began to steepen. We started to walk up the slope in the dark of night with a million stars, a crescent moon and several head torches lighting our way. It went up and up and the pace of our walking slowed down. I didn't have much of a sense of overall direction but recognised that we were climbing confronted a steep scree.

I remembered the advice I heard a couple of times to keep breathing and tried to inhale deeply in through my nose, hoping to alleviate the sickness and headache. Through the nausea I took a small sip of the now icy cold water from the plastic bottle in my jacket pocket.  Occasionally a bursts of a chant, a  refrain from a song or some other catch-phrase would pass through my mind but nothing stayed long in the thin air.

Sometimes I'd make10 paces together.  Sometimes I managed just 5 steps before leaning over the found bamboo stick that had been with me since the second morning. Sometimes I could only make one step before taking one breathe of freezing cold air and then moving forward another step.  Once or twice I took a step and leaned slightly too far back losing my balance momentarily but catching myself before tumbling down.

With a pounding head and some place beyond weary I kept going cursing,  praying, calculating, pausing.  As the dark faded and the first signs of day began to break gently, Wanjohi, the lithe Kikuyu guide who was alongside me started to point out features of the mountain around us: over there is Batian and Nelion; that's such and such a ridge. I  didn't manage to take much in, unable to spare energy to follow his finger or make much sense of the cold, grey mountainscape. Nevertheless I nodded at the lesson.  Wanjohi began to say, in his inscrutable but gentle way, that "it" (never called the top) was not far now.

After just over 3 hours and dawn breaking, Wanjohi and I reached a hidden rock face that showed the mountain was a bit of a joker as well as an crazed army sergeant.  I was not ready to quit but I was also gobsmacked that there was still more to come.  I laughed out loud but then began clambering slowly up the icy rocks. At some point Wanjohi offered to carry my rucksack, noticing perhaps my increasingly clumsy manner. After half an hour uncertain scrambling we made it to the point where "via ferrata" had been nailed permanently into the rock face and another route to the top joined our. We followed the metal rope along and up to a vertical  metal ladder. Getting onto the ladder felt dangerously slippery when I was so tired.

And then suddenly, we were there. I'd reached the top. But even here, on the summit, there were a few more steps to climb to reach the highest point. Exhausted I felt unable to slump down without first placing a foot on the topmost rock, barely noting the small plastic box and Kenyan flag placed there. I stepped up the final few paces and looked around. Having done so I edged a bit back down and then sat down to take some of the vista in. I looked back down the mountain through the valley we'd crossed, I  peered over the other side, taking in the vast but retreating glacier. I took a couple of snaps and still feeling sick but worried about my energy levels, I forced myself to chew a couple of bites out out of a half frozen Snickers bar.
The descent back to Shipton Camp was painful as my pounding head and sickness were multiplied by exhaustion. I forced myself to eat half a snickers bar on the descent but only sleep would ease some of the pain. I just wanted to lie down on the rocks and sleep. An hour and half later we were down at the hut and I was washing my face with some warm water.

Alluring Proteas

The next day we woke at 5am and packed our bags.  We started off with another steep climb up scree before reaching the top of a valley.  We schlept across a tricksterish bog and reached a forlorn looking hut which was to be our breakfast spot. Graciously, we were nourished with nduma porridge, a small omelette and beans and even some fruit. I devoured the lot.

Then for three hours we traversed a sweeping ridge - on one side we were above the deep Gorges valleys on the other low-lying moorland.  We rested up on the ridge for lunch by a favourite viewing spot - unable to see either the valley or opposite mountainside or the moorland  because of the persistent rain and low lying cloud cover.

We set off again along what seemed to be both path and narrow gully for water running off the mountain.  Slowly the species of plants started multiplying. There were more a couple of proteas, more Everlastings, a couple of isolated flowers here, another couple there, and grasses.
And then we arrived at a narrow path that lead us right through the middle of a sea of abundant proteas; in the gentle rain the close branches caressed and flicked at us lightly and after an hour of walking through this forest of proteas  I arrived at a small river -  running torrential from the rain -  deliriously happy.

From there we met a small road head and Daniel told us it was a further 11kms walk on muddy path.  Despite already having walked some 20kms I enjoyed deliciously this final trek; I left my rain-hood down and gentle warm rain poured over me.  The final stretch up to the camp was a dirt road, partly submerged in the water, partly squidging mud.

We reached our third camp twelve hours from when we left Shiptons in the morning. Milena had a shower whilst I unpacked and Githai prepared hot dinner of beans and vegetables.  We left Mount Kenya National Park the next morning via a forest of native bamboo (probably the source of my found walking stick) sighting two bucks on the edge of the track before they scampered off.
Reaching the Point Lenana was tough but I enjoyed more experiencing the diversity of the mountain landscape we walked through.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Not Conquering Mount Kenya

“What is extraordinary and eternal does not want to be bent by us...” Rilke

I'm due to go walking on Mount Kenya later this week. I set off from our home in Nairobi on Thursday and will be on the mountain for 5 days (going up Sirimon route and down Chogoria, for those of you who know).

My initial thought when the possibility emerged was positive but I went back and forth between being convinced to go for it to being certain I should stay in Nairobi. Several times. Each day. Every day for three weeks! 

In the end I decided to give it a go.  However, I've set myself a specific purpose. Surprisingly its not reaching the top of Mount Kenya though I would certainly like to achieve that.

Being defeated by what is extraordinary

As I've been thinking about the climb, I've been listening to people who have climbed. People say you have to have a positive attitude and imagine that you will reach the top. 

At the same time I've been struck by one image that goes around when thinking about climbing mountains - its seems we (men?) are quite drawn to the idea of conquering mountains. 

I'm sure that the notion of 'conquering' a mountain is a helpful motivation for some people but it strikes me that, at over 5000 meters, Mount Kenya is a pretty formidable thing.  I'm not convinced that I want to defeat this mountain or take any other sort of war-like attitude towards this massive thing. 

Even Edmund Hillary's famous quote about not conquering the mountain but ourselves still draws upon ideas of war and vanquish with all that this entails  - like a winner, collateral damage etc.


Some other ways of relating to more-than-human?

It seems that its quite easy to reach for images of war when it comes to relating to that which is neither human or man-made. Just like we want to defeat the Zika virus it seems we like the idea of going to war with mountains.

I want to explore some other 'images' of my relationship to the mountain.  I'm interested in seeing what happens if I don't use war-like images in preparation for and whilst I am walking.   

What happens if I think of my climb as being about 'befriending' rather than 'conquering'. How does my experience change if I'm focusing not upon simply getting to the top of the mountain but say 'dancing in tune' with it.  What happens to the 'success' of my climb if I hold less “hawkish” metaphors in my head than battle and defeat?  Will I be able to make the climb or will I 'fail'? 

Over to you

Perhaps, while you're chilling out at home or going to the supermarket, you could notice or spend a moment to reflect on how you relate to that which is neither human or man-made. Do you relate to it as if its a like a battle between two opposing sides? Or is there some other way of relating? Let me know what you come up with and then come back here to find out what happened with me.  

Rainer Maria Rilke quote from The Man Watching, translated by Robert Bly in Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Tony, curry king of Crawley, makes a discrete rustle unpacking his italicised meal.
Like a lazy traitor, the cover, now removed, provides an inviting field.
A red-eyed seagull welcomes the spiced whiff with symphonic hoots of glee and warning.
Too late, King Tony tries to shut the bombastic gate.
His meal has bolted. But this everyday emperor smiles benignly.

Friday, May 15, 2015

An eclectic tribe gathers.
Like a clattering necklace they have come together 
Not as a purposeful line of defeated. 
Instead they want to rejoice.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

He wraps up a viscous bloom of othering in cheap crinkly film from the local supermarket. Offering it to a supine population that dozes gentle in a bed of silence. 
A hesitating phoenix is boiled slowly to its own death
whilst browsing John Lewis catalogues and football scores online. 
Remove from basket.