Senegal

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Senegal, 108th globally in GDP ranking — and 151st, in GDP per capita — nevetheless has one of the most well-developed tourism infrastructures in the African continent, including a new international airport outside of its capital city, Dakar. Once the capital of French West Africa, with banking and other institutions still serving the area, the country has a newly minted commitment from Senegalese-born entertainer Akon — to build a 2,000-acre futuristic “Akon City” complete with its own cryptocurrency, development to commence in July.

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Senegal is home to a number of ethnic groups, the Wolof making up nearly 50% of the country’s population, with another 24% Fula and 15% Serer. The latter are deemed an ethno-religious group as their indigenous religion is still practiced today, and syncretised with Catholicism in a way similar to Cuba’s Yoruba, Haiti’s Santeria, or Ecuador’s overly of Pachamama onto the Virgin Mary. While French is the official language owing to earlier colonialism, languages of these groups are widely spoken — even in the capital of Dakar, where Wolof is more likely to be encountered.

 

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Though Senegal is constitutionally a secular nation, more than 95% identify as Muslim — and Islamic schools are more popular than the French education system. The Serer indigenous religion is still practiced, though most often syncretised with Catholicism, and a small percentage identify as adherents of Protestantism or other religions. Education is free and compulsory to age 16, though there is still a high degree of illiteracy, with a current literacy rate of 51.9% overall — 64.81% for males and an appalling 39.8% for females, despite a long history of valuing schools for girls.

 

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Women of Senegal have been making steady progress, though gender roles remain largely dictated by both tradition and religion. One area of success is parliament, due in large part to a quota system implemented in 2010: women hold 42.7% of the total seats, ranking 3rd in Africa and 7th in the world for same. They are the only Muslim-majority country with such a record — often accredited to a longstanding Sufi tradition of encouraging the development of girls and women. The World Bank places Senegal’s female participation in the labour force at 35%, however, with income disparity a key issue. Amsatou Sow Sidibe, former — and future — presidential candidate, aims to become the country’s first female president.

 

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The culture of Senegal places an exceptionally strong emphasis on hospitality. Creative expression, in the form of both traditional and contemporary arts, is also highly valued; Senegal is particularly known for its musical contributions to the world. Oral tradition in the form of storytelling, with the professional storyteller known as griot, is another key element of Senegalese culture.

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Senegalese people have a history of colonialism by both Dutch and French, the latter of which remains a significant cultural influence; prior to that time, they were also engaged in the Atlantic slave trade. Having reasserted their independence in 1960, they are a young nation with a quasi-democracy, who have remained largely stable since that time — with a strong work ethic and focus on the development of their nation and their society.

~EWP

 

Qatar

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Qatar, a tiny peninsula in the Persian Gulf that shares a land border with Saudi Arabia and is in proximity to the island nation of Bahrain, is often referred to as ‘the richest country in the world’; conversely, its detractors have called it ‘a family that has a country’ and implied that it has no significant historic, religious, or cultural heritage. Ruled by the House of Thani since its recognition as a country in 1868, independent since 1971 with a constitution since 2003, it is conversely — and controversially — referred to as either a constitutional or absolute monarchy.

 

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Qatar has a population of 2.3 million — with expatriates outnumbering Qatari 8:1. Its GDP is the world’s 4th highest per capita [IMF], based on oil discovered in 1940; the country is also the world’s leading exporter of liquefied natural gas. Profit from these resources is reinvested in the country’s infrastructure, which can be seen in its plethora of modern architecture and other such facilities; it has also been diversified in multiple property investments worldwide, for stable wealth protection.

 

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Qatar is a Muslim-majority country, with most citizens of sunni tradition; considering that foreigners far outnumber Qatari, however, other religions are also represented. Arabic is the official language with English widely spoken, and Qatari identify as being of Arabic culture, with specifically Bedouin influence. In its capital of Doha, the stunning Museum of Islamic Art celebrates that of Qatar and all other Muslim-majority nations both in and outside of the region, and Islam serves as a strong component of national identity.

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Education is compulsory and highly valued, with the highest literacy rate in the Arabic world; a 10-year plan for educational reform was launched in 2012, and a number of international tertiary institutions have branches in the country’s Education City. 

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The arts are also held in high value, with several other major museums for both Islamic and contemporary art — and Qatar as the world’s top buyer in the art market. Literature and music are also well represented, based at least in part on Bedouin traditions of poetry, storytelling, and dance.

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Though Qatar has a high quality of life index, the nation has been accused of human rights abuses — primarily in the arena of labour. With expatriates numbering 8:1 over Qatari, the vast majority are migrant workers primarily from south Asia, and frequent abuses including trafficking have been reported; new laws just announced have begun to address labour reform, though they don’t go nearly far enough. Other areas of questionable human rights have included LGBT, who have no legal protection; women, especially in areas of income disparity and access to abortion; harsh penal code; and, issues surrounding freedom of expression.

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Qatar has been in a diplomatic crisis, including economic embargo, by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and UAE since June 2017; the country is accused of supporting rebel groups in various Arab Spring and other uprisings, Iran, and Hamas in Palestine, and generally fomenting dissent among Arab youth, by use of its Al Jazeera media platform as well as funding. Qatar denies these claims and has been largely unfazed by the embargo, which is now seeming to weaken — in light of the country’s upcoming hosting of the 2022 World Cup.

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Qatar, a highly developed society, is in a heightened state of preparation for hosting the 2022 event and welcoming the world — with numerous new construction and infrastructure projects, and more. All eyes will be on this tiny nation, and troubled region — hopefully, with a positive effect on these various controversies as well.

~EWP

Romania

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Romania, with a recent socialist past and a legacy that includes Greeks, Slavs, Saxons, and more, is a geographically central and, in many ways, culturally Eastern European country — with a fast-developing economy and a strong focus on transparent governance. The oldest human remains in Europe (40,000 years) were located here, with evidence of human civilisation among the continent’s earliest as well. Nearby Hungary, Mongolian invasion, and the Ottoman Empire all represent strong cultural influences over the past millennium.

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Modern Romania, much as we might know it today, emerged in 1859 as a result of an alliance with neighboring countries. The Romanian culture, with large Hungarian (6%) and Roma (3-10%) minority groups, has characteristics of both Central (especially Austro-Hungarian, Polish) and Eastern (particularly Moldovan, Bulgarian) European nations — and some early cultures such as that of Armenia. Folk arts and pre-Christian mythologies, which remain strong in the rural life of Romania, indicate such cultural connections.

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A secular state by law, more than 80% of Romania’s 20 million people claim Romanian (Eastern) Orthodoxy as their religious identity, a result of the country’s Byzantine heritage — syncretised with earlier folk beliefs and myths.

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In Romania’s capital city of Bucharest, the influence of ancient Greece and of Europe as a whole is on display in its architecture. Socialist from 1947 to 1989, Romania was admitted to the EU in 2007 and identifies strongly with same — even distancing itself from a current alliance with neighboring Moldova, the two having once been part of the same country, while identifying the latter’s ideals and objectives as “not European enough.”

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Romanians place high value on aesthetics, and on the arts: literary, visual, musical, and performing. The culture has a long intellectual tradition that, while suffering greatly during the recent socialist era, is strongly in evidence again today.

 

20180809_121015_2_SignatureJews began living in the area of Romania as early as the 2nd century CE. Through the centuries, they were a target of persecution through the centuries, such as being specially taxed and made to wear identifying garments, and subjected to libel and criminal prosecution, rioting, massacre, and expulsion, and by late 19th century, large numbers emigrated. Nevertheless, by 1900, they still numbered 250,000 — more than 3% of the country’s total population.

20200118_131411In World War II, Romania aligned with Axis Powers 1941-44 — then sided with the Allies instead. Romanian government published findings in 2004 which indicate that 400,000-500,000 Jews in Romania or its territories died in the Holocaust. In April 2019, a Jewish cemetery in Romania was vandalised, along with other acts of anti-semitism; in November of last year, Romania announced plans for its first Holocaust museum. An approximate 3000 Jews live in Romania today.

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Romania’s intellectual and literary tradition has been influenced by, and influences, its educational system; literacy, around 48% in early 20th century, is more than 98% today and education, free and compulsory, is constitutionally guaranteed. Romanian philosophical tradition is longstanding, defined by major theorist Noica as consisting of paganism, cosmicism, and determinism. The nation also has a long and prolific literary history, stemming from the 16th century to include numerous writers today.

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Romania is an old society but still a very young democracy, just since 1989 — and still struggling with corruption and lack of transparency in its government. Citizens exercise their right to demonstrate as well as to vote — something that the diaspora also takes very seriously. With an estimated 20 million living in the country and another 12 million throughout the world, following major waves of emigration especially during the socialist era, returning home for political engagement has often been noted as a strong value — and a powerful social force.

~EWP

Rwanda

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Rwanda: a tiny country on the border of central and eastern Africa, today a bucolic setting with a strengthening economy, active involvement in the African Union, and the world’s highest percentage of women in parliament — with a colonial past, and a recent history of mass trauma.

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The area of Rwanda was settled as early as 10,000 years ago, and by larger civilisations from approximately 3,000 BCE, ancestors of today’s Twa peoples. Both Tutsi and Hutu peoples migrated into the area at some later, undetermined time, and indeed, the existence of any distinction between them — a major source of discrimination that ultimately led to the 1994 massacre — is strongly debated. The clan group, an early form of civilisation which crossed ethnic lines and was a precursor to the formation of kingdoms, remains in the cultural psyche of the Rwandan people today. Foreign colonisation represents two other cultural influences, as well as the psychological impact of colonisation itself: first German (1884-1916), followed by Belgian (1916-1962) — both of whom maintained a Tutsi monarchy.

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Rwanda’s recent history is filled with violence. The Social Revolution (1959-1961) was of Hutu against an entrenched and harsh Tutsi monarchy, and saw Hutu purges of Tutsi and the escape of more than 300,000 Tutsi refugees to neighboring countries, followed by dictatorial leaders and military coups. The civil war (1990-1994) with massacres of Tutsi, Twa, and moderate Hutu, ultimately led to the 1994 genocide of 500,000-1 million — in just 100 days, the brutality of which has no parallel.

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How does a highly traumatised culture heal, and what might be the lingering effects? Paul Kagame, vice president of Rwanda 1994-2000 and president from then until now, grew up in Uganda as a Tutsi refugee and was leader of the Tutsi forces during the civil war. His policy of healing has focused on asking Tutsi victims to forgive Hutu perpetrators, carefully fostering a Rwandan identity toward the establishment of social cohesion, focusing on humanistic and egalitarian ideals, swift formation of a National Unity and Reconciliation Commission, mandatory community service of 3 hours per month for all citizens, use of art for creative expression, and open dialogue — and national mourning. Not without his detractors, who point to violations of civil rights in a strong enforcement of the above, he has nevertheless led Rwanda to a highly functioning society today.

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The aftermath of the 1994 genocide, triggered by the assassination of the president but considered by many experts to have been planned for more than a year, saw many who lost their entire families, 500,000 children who were orphaned, hundreds of thousands who were severely maimed, an estimated 250,000-500,000 women and girls raped, and the loss of 70% of the Tutsi population. The long-term impact of such mass physical and psychological trauma, including the element of betrayal — victims were most often attacked in their own villages, by people they knew well — cannot be overstated. There were also deep politics as well as deep prejudices at work: Tutsi terrorist groups had been active for some years prior, supported in part by US military; Belgian colonists had for many years emphasised distinctions between these two groups, considering Hutus inferior and supporting the Tutsi monarchy. This eruption of violence, following earlier violent episodes, ultimately sprung from more than a century of brutality and injustice — on both sides.20181214_103841_2_Signature

Several major genocide memorials and museums have been developed, including a complex in the capital of Kigali that also inters the remains of more than 250,000 victims. The purpose, in addition to providing people with a place of remembrance, is to educate — and to promote peace.20181214_101835_3_Signature

The trauma is never far from the minds of Rwandan people, even those who were born after that time — and open dialogue rather than repression of the topic is encouraged. The country has come a long way since then, however; today, the largely subsistence agriculture-based economy is the strongest it’s been, the government less corrupt and more transparent than nearly any other in the African continent. Free education was expanded in 2012 from 9 to 12 years of schooling, and under the Vision 2020 development programme, health care has been made a priority.

20181215_114039_2_Signature In the aftermath of the 1994 genocide and quest for healing, Rwanda prioritised egalitarianism — and as the country had lost so many men, women’s participation became highly valued. Rwanda has ranked among the world’s top 10 countries for gender equality for several years and now in the top 5, according to the Global Gender Gap Report [WEF]; with a quota of 30% for women in parliamentary positions, it actually has the world’s highest percentage: 64% as of 2013, a record again broken when it rose to 68% in the 2018 election, and 50% of both the cabinet and supreme court judgeship. The nation has the highest percentage in the continent for women in the labour force, with wages at 88% of men’s, and education for girls is strongly emphasised. However, there is still a high percentage of gender-based violence, especially domestic, and girls and women are often prevented from advancement to positions of leadership, in school and in the workforce — so, there’s still room for improvement.

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Unlike most African countries — and despite the devastating and largely false distinctions made between Hutu and Tutsi — the people of Rwanda, including the Twa, come from the same ethnic group, Banyarwanda, and share a common language, Kinyarwanda, and heritage. They have long been an agricultural culture (though the Twa are hunter-gatherers to this day), with coffee as a primary export. Music, dance, and oral tradition are highly valued, especially in the form of festivals and other public events; a pop music industry is emerging. While traditional handcrafts were largely utilitarian, today in Kigali there are many galleries; notably, the Inema Art Center includes visual and performing arts, and also works with orphanages to mentor children: the arts as a form of empowerment.

~EWP

Palestine

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‘Palestinian Territories’ or ‘State of Palestine’, rich and poor, desert and urban, modernity and antiquity — Palestine is a land of contradictions. The region has been controlled by multiple peoples throughout its history — including (beyond the current two) Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Mongols, Ottomans, British — and many more. An ancient culture broadly defined as ‘Arabic’, it is a matrix of all these historic influences — and so much more.

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The West Bank region of Palestine is indeed a desert climate and topography containing a number of small towns and villages — and several larger cities, including its capital of Ramallah and the area known as East Jerusalem, which are well urbanised and densely populated. Shopping malls, museums and art centres, parks, government facilities, public transportation including metro — like any city, though perhaps with greater challenges than most. Palestinians number 6.7 million living in their home territory (2.93 mil West Bank, 1.88 mil Gaza Strip, 1.89 mil Israel, primarily East Jerusalem) — and another estimated 6.3 million diaspora, in Jordan, Chile, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, the Americas, and more. Across 5 countries, 1.5 million Palestinians currently live in 58 refugee camps, and 5.25 million hold UN refugee status. According to a 1965 resolution, most Arabic countries will permit residency but not citizenship for Palestinians, as it would interfere with their right of return.

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Income disparity and the dichotomy of rich and poor is pronounced in Palestine’s West Bank region. Wealthy business tycoons and their families live in a manner very similar to their global counterparts; others live in ways akin to that of developing countries, including food and water scarcity. The economy is heavily dependent on foreign aid and has suffered sanctions and blockades over the years, including recent pronounced reduction in US aid programs; tourism, particularly to religious sites, is another significant source of income. One outcome of the Palestine Investment Conferences of 2008 and 2010 is Qatar’s commitment to the construction of a planned city near Ramallah, to be called Rawabi.

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Street art abounds everywhere in Palestine — on the wall, that separates Israeli from Palestinian territory, but also on every other available wall, or so it would seem. Frequently political, it just as often displays Palestinian cultural features — and the universal longing for, and attachment to, home and homeland. Palestinian culture is often identified with that of Arabic, particularly Levantine, to include such values as family solidarity, hospitality, and honor, as well as clearly defined gender roles and patriarchal systems.

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With underpinnings of all those historic cultures previously mentioned, and the uniqueness of their 20th century experience — first of British mandate followed by the creation of the State of Israel — Palestinians also differ culturally from other Arabic peoples in many ways. In finding ways to deal with the difficulties of their circumstance, education and intellectual pursuit, including public debate of issues critical to social development, has become an especially high value, along with entrepreneurship; resourcefulness and resilience are key. Civil society has been described as active and dynamic, moreso than in other Arabic societies and also out of necessity; in politics, pluralism and openness, transparency and accountability, are alongside but increasingly replacing patronage and corruption.

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Much has been made of the wall that divides Israeli from Palestinian peoples — as a necessary security measure based on terrorist acts of previous decades; as a barrier to employment and an improved economy; as an unbridgeable social divide; as an illegal occupation. The wall has also served as a continual source of political messaging, by Palestinians as well as foreign supporters. It provides a striking image of ‘barrier’ — of sociopolitical separation and divisiveness, exclusion and marginalisation.

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In a longstanding conflict such as that experienced by the Palestinian people, with extensive walls, refugee camps, continual military presence, resistance forces, aggressive politics, acts of terrorism, economic sanctions and blocks to employment, cultural compromise, and other trauma and hardship — there are always psychosocial repercussions. Profound insecurity typically brings distrust, social dissolution, increased risk of mental health problems, issues with authority, emotional detachment, self-destructive behavior, heightened sensitivity to perceived rejection / exclusion / criticism, increased interpersonal conflict including violence, learned helplessness, and a general susceptibility to abuse — or extreme defensiveness against same. All of these are to be expected, in varying degree, among those living in Palestinian territories — alongside a powerful resilience, determination, and innovation, for survival.

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Over the years, many efforts have developed to bridge the gap between Palestinians and Israelis. One such, adjacent to the wall in Bethlehem, is Wi’am: The Palestinian Conflict Transformation Center, a civil organisation founded in 1994. According to their website, “wi’am” in Arabic means “cordial relationships” — the development of which is their express mission, through an integration of the traditional Arabic conflict resolution method of “sulha” with western models. Though the conflict, after all these years, seems insurmountable, there is still hope to be found among the Palestinian people.

~EWP