Monday, 2 May 2011

Republican feeling

At some point surely the nation has to say 'enough is enough'? You'd have thought, wouldn't you? Instead we got fawning sycophancy from the media claiming that the entire country was obsessed with the wedding of two dull but rich and, (one assumes) pleasant creatures. No. Let's put a stop to this myth now. Most of us weren't even very interested. Most of us have better things to do with our time than consider what type of dress a stranger is going to wear to her wedding.

And then we move to the bigger picture: whether or not the state should have paid for this wedding given that it wasn't technically a state occasion (which is how they got away with not inviting either Tony Blair or Gordon Brown). And then we move to the even bigger picture: why on earth, in the twenty-first century, do we still have a monarchy in the UK? How does it sit comfortably alongside our idea of a thriving democracy where every citizen (not subject) is equal and everyone can aspire to hold the highest office in the land?

As a feminist I want to care about primogeniture, truly I do but why should I care what happens in one family? How does it truly change the chances of British women rather than one or two women in one family? Instead of concerning ourselves with whether a Catholic can be king/queen or whether a first-born daughter can rule we should be pondering the bigger question of how suitable the monarchy is for Britain today.

I don't think I've heard a single decent argument for retaining the monarchy, certainly not tourism (the Palace of Versailles is one of France's most visited sites and I'm pretty sure there's no one living there anymore) and the individuals themselves don't lend themselves to the argument of their continued elevation: Andrew and his dodgy dealings? Charles and his meddling ways and lack of belief in science? Harry and his ill-thought through escapades? And now Kate with what appears to be a well followed plan to snare the country's supposedly most eligible bachelor. I am not sure I understand how William doesn't worry about this - I wouldn't want to marry someone who had planned his/her life around trying to get close to me because of my position (I know, no danger there).

I wouldn't go so far as to proclaim 'off with their heads' but I am with Sue Townsend when she suggests sending them to live on a council estate if they insist on continuing to live off the state.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Service charge or tipping?

If I sit at one table and order a burger and fries and you sit at the next table and order a lobster meal we will both be expected to leave a 12.5% service charge. How is this sensible? The same amount of work may have gone into the preparation and the waiter's job was no more difficult for you than me, so why should you have to pay more service charge than me?

Since when did we live in a world where it was perfectly acceptable for restaurants to merrily add anywhere between 10 and 15 percent to the bill and call it service charge? As far as I am aware this is the UK, not the USA: waiting staff are paid minimum wage (whether or not minimum wage is a living wage is an another argument entirely) and the government doesn't tax them on assumed rather than actual wages.

So why do we have this charge snuck on to our bills? Why is it no longer acceptable to give customers the choice whether they tip or not? Why does the restaurant get to decide how much we should leave as a voluntary payment? In fact, why is it no longer even called a 'tip' but a 'service charge'? It sounds so much more official, so much more of an obligation that comes with eating out and now we're being either bullied or eroded into coughing up. British people are known for their reticence and their preference for shying away from an argument, which makes the insidious charge

If a meal is truly excellent or the waiting staff helpful and kind then I am delighted to leave a tip, but a tip of my choice, in cash so I know it goes straight into the hands of the individual at whom it is directed (and yes, you can ask for a tip to go to kitchen staff). But every time I receive a bill with a 12.5% service charge added to the total I want to rage and yell and not leave a tip at all, no matter how outstanding the dining experience might have been. If restaurants really think it is legitimate to add such a hidden cost to the price of a meal, then why is the disclaimer always hidden away in the menu in tiny, faint writing designed to be missed?

We thought we had come up with a way around this nonsense. As soon as the bill arrives we ask for it to be recalculated without service charge and we explain that we will leave a tip on the table instead. Until recently this was received with gratitude by waiting staff who appreciated customers wanting to ensure the restaurant owners are not able to consume their hard earned tips. Suddenly this has changed. Instead of gratitude the response is a panic stricken look and 'why? was something wrong? I have to ask my manager'.

No. No. No. Listen to what I am saying: 'I. Will. Leave. A. Tip. On. The. Table'. Even in restaurants that claim to give all of the service charge to staff I hear this response. The only reason for this can be that restaurants include service charge in their profit calculations. Why not simply charge more for the food and be done with it, customers would be none the wiser?

It is telling that some foreign waiting staff in the UK have no clue that service charge is not obligatory. In one restaurant my friends and I were actually shouted at and told we were obliged to pay the 12.5% (again, we had said we wanted to leave the tip in cash rather than pay on credit card) on the bill and that we couldn't leave until we had paid it! In another restaurant a waiter told us that if we refused to pay the service charge then it would come out of his wages. Either he was extremely cunning or he was being taken for an incredible ride by his boss.

People of Britain, stand up and take back the right to tip or not, join my call to abolish the service charge and bring back tipping.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Self welcome back

I appear to have returned to the world of blogging. First stop, old blog to import some of what I consider to be my better pieces. Second stop, let's hope I get there, write something new.
On a positive note:

I feel that a lot of what I write gives a fairly negative view of Rwanda and Africa in general. It’s easy to write that way, life in Rwanda is hard- not just for me but for everyone with whom I work and live. In Rwanda life is real, it is gritty and one really notices it happening.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. I have learned so much about life and the world’s ways whilst out here but also I’ve seen that Africa is not the terrible failing continent we are so often led to believe.

The Rwandans with whom I work are to the last intelligent, kind, compassionate people who work unforgiving hours in very challenging circumstances for very little reward. They do this because they care deeply about the children with whom we work and about the future of their country. They know that if Rwanda is to develop and succeed they have to ensure that everyone is on the development train, not just the rich, educated classes. These people, each one I am proud to call ‘my friend’ , are thinking people who work for their country and their people, how many in Britain, the USA or Europe can truly say that? These people are among the educated elite of their country yet they all say they would not leave their country except to study or travel- no matter how good life is outside they wish to stay here and help improve Rwanda’s world. How many in the developed world really feel like that?

Just as in other countries there are students who can think of nothing worse than school and learning, there are here too. It would be futile to try and claim that in Africa and other developing countries every child studies hard and never misbehaves- all children misbehave and all children get fed up with learning at some point- thankfully, Rwandan children are just the same, otherwise life would be very dull. Our boys, for the most part, appreciate the value of education and are fighting to make sure they use their chances well but the moment there’s the opportunity to do something more fun than learning, it is guaranteed that any number of the boys will be off, albeit with a quick glance back, apologetic look on their faces. And that’s how it should be; children being children.

Rwanda is developing. It’s not developing in a way perhaps many of us would like; Kigali is steaming ahead of the rest of the country. In Kigali? Want a DVD player? No problem. Chinese takeaway? Can do. High speed internet access? If you’re willing to pay for it. Running water? Most of the time. Electricity? We can’t guarantee it will be constant but yes, there is electricity. Strange mix of hi-tech and basic but that’s Africa, that’s how the developing world goes. 

The middle class is emerging in Rwanda. People in Kigali and even the smaller towns suddenly have a little disposable income, their children look no different to children at home; they wear baggy jeans, cool t-shirts and Nike trainers, only difference is that they probably bought most of the clothes at the open-air market in Kigali where all clothing is bought (a few shops are beginning to sell clothes in Kigali but nothing to which we in the west are used). 

The airport is the perfect place to watch the new middle class. Happy children race around the airport arrivals lounge in their clean clothes. They play games together, weaving in and out of the waiting people while their parents chat on mobile phones and admire new clothing.

While the lives of my kids are a million miles from Kigali international airport I can live in hope that that’s what these boys are aiming at. The middle classes began somewhere in Britain too, and now it’s the largest class bracket. Maybe my kids won’t have the easy life of the airport people but their kids might. All it takes is a little dedication on our part and theirs, they have to study, study, study, and believe that it can happen. Eighteen months ago if we’d have asked the boys what they wanted for their futures they would have told us that there was no point in thinking about the future as they would be dead soon. Today they tell us they want to finish school, get a job, earn money, build a house and have a family. And if that’s not positive, I don’t know what is.

Life, even here, can be beautiful.
Why should I pay more?

They try to charge you more based on the colour of your skin. You protest; it’s wrong, of course it’s wrong. 

Growing up in the UK one learns never to judge according to appearances so to be judged, so put in a box on the basis of skin colour hurts. But then look at it from the tomato seller’s point of view; she sees you in your nice clothes, your clean trainers and living in your big house. Then she looks at her clothes, her home and her life. A small patch of land upon which she grows just enough to feed her small children and to sell a little in the market every week is all she has. Her home is a mud hut without furnishings or furniture. Her children go bare foot; they probably don’t go to school because she can’t afford to pay for the uniform or the books. And you wonder why she might try to charge you a little extra for your tomatoes.

It’s true, it’s not your fault she’s poor and it’s true, you don’t have much money either. The difference is in what you mean by ‘no money’. When we in the west say we have no money we mean it’s time to cut back on eating out, it’s time to stop the shopping expeditions or there won’t be a holiday this year. There are places in the world, however, where no money means no money. No money means eating one meal every three days, it means not being able to afford clean water, it means no money to pay for medicine when your child contracts malaria, it means no food when the crops fail, it means feeling you’re failing your children when there is no money to send them to school.

The problem is that the places in the world where there is such extreme poverty are also the places where there are no mechanisms in place to fix the problem. Broadly speaking, in the west, if someone is truly poor then there will be public assistance or someone or some agency to whom they can turn but in a country so poor that it doesn’t have public assistance, then what?

But it is never a straight question of have or have not with countries. The UK has its ‘haves’ and its ‘have nots’ too, it’s just that the ‘haves’ are obliged to help the ‘have nots’ and there are far more ‘haves’ than ‘have nots’. It’s not quite the case in much of the world, however. Taxation doesn’t always work as it is meant, the ‘haves’ might be in the minority but they live so far removed form the bulk of the population they may as well be on the moon. They have no clue that in their home town there also live people who have literally nothing.

Until there is more equality in the world (naivety aside) Europeans will be judged by appearances, because we look rich to people with nothing. So in the market, haggle for a fair price, in the shops accept that you might have to pay a little more than a local and know that the all too common cry of the European, ‘but I’m poor too’ just doesn’t wash when you’re complaining of paying maybe a few percent more in the market. Spend one minute thinking of the life you lead, remember that you’re abroad because you choose to be, because you can afford to be and that you can leave and go home whenever you like, and then remember that although colour is only skin deep, poverty goes all the way to the bone.
Anonymous Plea

I am not a statistic.

I would like it noted by the leaders of the world that I refuse to be a statistic. I don’t want to be one of the nameless dead; nor do I wish to be represented by an anonymous soldier because the leaders sent too many people to die in a senseless war- I won’t be seen as cannon fodder. I don’t want to be a face in the crowd, I won’t be an island.

I don’t want to be known as a number anymore than anyone else; neither a national insurance number nor a barcode; not branded with a cattle prod. Reserve for me the dignity you might accord in death for my living years. Acknowledge my needs, my dreams, my hopes and my pains and remember that I feel just like you. I too love my children, have hopes for them. I cry when my husband, father, brother, friend or wife dies because it hurts me like it would hurt you. 

If the television is on and a face stares out at you, gaunt from hunger, remember that I am not a statistic, I am a person, a living, breathing human being, supposedly protected by the same international rights and mechanisms as you. I might not be that person on the television but I could be. So could you; only chance put you where it put you and only chance put that face on your television. Please don’t ignore that face, remember, it could have been you.

From Rwanda 2005

Emmanuel isn’t a SACCA boy but he’d like to be. He lives next door to our Kayonza centre with his younger brother and mother. His father is in jail awaiting trial for genocide crimes. His mother is deaf and the family is as poor as any other in Kayonza. 

The boy can’t be over eleven years old. He is tiny and prone to bursting in to tears (that’s how we knew he wasn’t a street child when we first met him- street children only cry from rage not from sadness).

Last weekend Emmanuel’s mother upped and left. She is meant to come back in two weeks but who knows. She left the children with the neighbour who is meant to feed, water and shelter them while the mother is away. Only problem is that the neighbour is also desperately poor and is unable to feed her own family more than once every two days, let alone Emmanuel and his little brother. 

What can we do when a hungry little boy comes to our house and tells us he hasn’t eaten for two days. We took it in turns to feed him until our social worker could get to the bottom of the situation. Since then he has been permitted to eat at our centre. It’s a catch 22 really; do we ignore that he’s hungry because we don’t want to entice him away from his family and onto the street or do we feed him and risk the enticing but keep him from hunger, sickness and misery? We opted for the latter but are very aware of the tightrope we’re walking.