Light, in the Heart of Darkness

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Byline: Rhona Murphy

Machine Guns, thieving cabbies, and a sweet baby girl: welcome to adoption in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

I knew that adopting a child from the Democratic Republic of the Congo would not be easy. But I never expected to be stuck on a pitch-dark road in the middle of the night, somewhere outside the city of Kinshasa, wondering if I was about to become another grim statistic in this troubled country.

It all started back in early 2009, when I had applied via an agency in the U.S. to adopt a child. Having fallen in love with Africa on various visits–the people, the land, and the endless skies–adopting from there was especially appealing. International adoption is a roller-coaster process, however; after a long year in which nothing seemed to be happening, I heard of a new option in the form of a pilot program in Congo. I was intrigued. I was also wary. More than 5 million people have died there since 1998 from poverty, war, and disease, half of them children. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

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And so, in the summer of 2010, with swirling thoughts of Joseph Conrad and his dark colonial tales, I applied.

On March 17 this year, I got the much-anticipated referral phone call from my agency. A few hours later, I was looking at a photo of a beautiful baby girl named Anna. Was this really my future daughter? It was hard to think about anything else. In June, I was finally able to travel to Bukavu in eastern Congo to meet her. An orphaned child, she was living with a foster family. It was unclear when I would be able to take her home; my agency recognized the great need in Congo, but was still sorting out all the details of the new program.

My boyfriend, David, and I landed in Kigali, Rwanda, late on a Saturday night. We spent the entire next day being driven to the Congolese border. When we got there, a simple wooden bridge separated these two war-torn nations. Soldiers stood around with Kalashnikovs.

A couple of hours later, we walked into a modest home, where an 11-month-old sat on a woman’s knee, staring at me with the most enormous brown eyes: Anna. I think my first feeling was relief. It was really, truly her. We gazed at each other, and then the woman put her on my knee. By the time I said goodbye on that bridge two days later, I was entirely smitten.

Months passed and I was very conscious of the looming Congolese elections, set for Nov. 28; friction was guaran-teed. I had to get there before that date. Then, in October, days before I was due to fly to Kinshasa to finalize every-thing with the U.S. Embassy, my agency warned that it was too dangerous. But I had received little recent news of Anna. What if the elections resulted in total anarchy? It was too much of a risk. With my best friend, George, in tow, along with baby supplies and the strongest mosquito repellent we could buy, we flew to Kinshasa.

The first thing we noticed upon landing was how eerily dark it was, as the city and its environs have little electric light. When we stepped outside the decrepit airport, we were hounded by taxi touts, with no sign of the driver we had hired to pick us up. We decided to take the most reliable-looking cab we could find.

That’s when we wound up on that dark road, in the middle of nowhere, with the driver attempting a shakedown and refusing to drive. We stood our ground, and eventually he drove on, muttering angrily.

Anna appeared at our guesthouse in the morning with her foster mom, who had flown with her from across the country. Just like the first time I saw her, I will never forget exactly what she looked like in that moment. The feeling of relief was there again, mixed with incredible joy. She was actually here. And she was almost mine.

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The first week was a whirl of meetings with officials. David arrived, and the people outside our guesthouse got used to our comings and goings, smiling at “le bebe.” But the tension in the city was palpable. Soldiers were all around with machine guns, warding off political protests.

And finally one evening, after three long weeks, we headed back to that dimly lit airport, my baby daughter in my arms. The steps of an airplane never looked so welcoming. I whispered to Anna, “I will bring you back to visit.” And I will, someday. In the meantime, my family and friends are getting to know this happy little spirit, as I am. She literally lights up every room she enters.

Rhona Murphy is publisher and managing director of Newsweek International.

What do you expect of yellow people?

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SOME YEARS AGO, participating in a symposium, Professor Arthur Schlesinger Jr. suggested that a lack of concern for Southeast Asian Freedom (in those days he supported our venture in Vietnam) betrays truly the innate racism of many Americans. There is no reason to suppose, he said, that Communism is obnoxious only to white people. It is true that yellow people, particularly if ruled by Communists, acquire a strange immunity to Western criticism. Oh, you can find those who cry out, but the fact of it is that they are very lonely. Shortly before he died, General Franco executed five terrorists, each one of them guilty of murder, and only after a delibrate trial at which they were represented by counsel. You’d have thought masked men had formed a posse to execute Princess Di, John-John, and Little Orphan Annie. Even the Pope got into the act, and Mexico’s ambassador to the UN suggested that for so heinous a crime, Spain should be thrown out of the UN.

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Consider the difference now where Red China is concerned. Hugh Davies, the Peking correspondent of London’s Daily Telegraph, advises us that since August, not five people have been executed in China, but “more than five thousand.” The means of effecting these executions are not without interest. For instance, two weeks ago a dozen defendants accused to rape, murder, and theft were made to paradise in Peking’s stadium, where they underwent summary trial. The crowd, presumably well trained by routine practices during the Cultural revolution, hissed as each defendant was held by two security offices “and pushed forward with a placard around his neck detailing his offenses.” The judges too were well trained: Guilty, and condemned.

It there is an appeals process in China it is presumably conducted by ambulatory appeals courts and deliberated between the stadium where the defendants were found guilty and the field outside the city to which they were thereupon driven to be shot. Mr. Davies did not witness the execution, but he lingered over the photographs of it that were posted on public notice boards. “One showed a line of men on their knees facing away from their executioners, a group of burly-looking security guards. Each guard held a pistol to the back of his victim’s neck. At intervals behind the execution party, soldiers stood with legs apart and rifles raised, as if to offer cover in case of trouble. The next picture showed the executioners standing to attention before 12 corpses.”

Now, strictly speaking, what goes on inside China is an Internal affair. But so is it an internal affair what goes on (or, if you prefer, went on) inside Spain. Or Costa Rica. You will say, Ah, but in Costa Rica we are heavily involved. To which the appropriate answer is, Yes: we are heavily involved in trying to prevent the kind of callousness toward human life that is characteristics of every Communist regime. The Communists do not monopolize crime; indeed the title for free-enterprise crime appears to be as sedentarily American as the America’s Cup was for so many years.

And here you begin, I think, to get an idea of the Communist perspective. What does it matter, in terms of human costs, if there were indeed five thousand instances of rape and murder and theft in China in the recent period? An estimated 16 million people died in three years of starvation after Mao Tse-tung announced in 1958 his Great Leap Forward. So what? Cambodia’s Pol Pot Slaughtered on the order of 20 to 25 per cent of the population: so why would they worry, in Cambodia any more than in China, if joe shot jim?

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You see, the Communists wish to nationalize crime. Moreover, they do this without compensation. That is, when the state executes a Chinese or a Russian, there is no compensation experienced by the rest of the population. It hardly adds to the sense of security of the Russian citizen when the population of Gulag rises. And one doubts that the average Chinese feels compensated when he beholds a spectacle of what is, really, mass killing by the state.

It is very perplexing, this lack of energetic humanitarian protest over the habits of the Chinese. The combination of being yellow-skinned and being protected by Marxist theological cover permits savagery; clothe it in acceptable robes, and the eexecutioners get invited to Western banquets, and the subject just never comes up.

>>> View more: Daughters of darkness: in the brothels of Bangladesh, generations of outcast women have created their own communities

Daughters of darkness: in the brothels of Bangladesh, generations of outcast women have created their own communities

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LOOK ONLY at the stone walls and crumbling structures in these photos, and you might mistake the scene for a ghetto in Eastern Europe. The isolation is the same, the sense of being cut off, the dampness and squalor. Here are society’s rejects, making their own way in their own world.

But look into the haunting, kohl-rimmed eyes of the women, and images of the ghetto vanish. This is Kandupatti, an enormous, mazelike brothel that served for years as both home and workplace to at least 1,000 of the estimated 150,000 women employed in the state-regulated sex trade in Bangladesh.

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Located in the capital city of Dhaka, Kandupatti was a city unto itself for 200 years. with its own economy and subculture. In its harsh control of women, the brothel reflected the strict Muslim culture that created and sustained it. But in Kandupatti, women enjoyed the freedom that came from knowing they were absolute outcasts, freed from everything except the iron rule of the johns and their money. Unlike their countrywomen, they wore revealing clothing. They fought over men in public. Though often run by pimps, they controlled some money of their own. They kissed each other and made open displays of affection. They often looked for a way out–sometimes agreeing to marry steady customers in order to escape–but Kandupatti was what they knew. Some families included three generations–grandmother, mother, and daughter–who called it home.

Shehzad Noorani, who is a winner of one of this year’s Mother Jones International Fund for Documentary Photography awards, spent almost a decade taking pictures of the “sex workers” of Kandupatti–much to the confusion of his compatriots, many of whom looked askance at his interest. A Bangladeshi photographer, Noorani became friendly with the women and girls, watched their fights, and witnessed their tragedies. The calm beauty and classicism of his photos reveal his respect for these women. In a world where prostitutes are seen only as sexual objects, he has captured the ordinariness of their daily lives.

Three years ago, prompted by the fear of AIDS and a growing religious conservatism, the government of Bangladesh decided to close the country’s brothels. Kandupatti was the first to be shut down and demolished. Last year, Bangladeshi newspapers reported that neighborhood “muscle-men and goons” attacked two more sprawling brothels in the red-light district of Dhaka, evicting the residents. Some of the women and children were shipped off to state-run centers miles outside the city–places not unlike prisons–for what the government called “rehabilitation.” Human rights activists say the women have been subjected to physical torture. Others, deprived of their homes and livelihood, have been left to fend for themselves.

Despite the evictions, the Bangladeshi sex trade, with all its risks and violent repression, still flourishes in a country where women who are alone have few other options for survival. The state has so far been unwilling to provide sex workers any real means of self-sufficiency. To do so would require seeing them as they appear in these photos–as immutably human, frozen in timeless postures of love, desperation, and betrayal.

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LIFE IN THE BROTHELS

Clockwise from left:

A woman attempts to drag a reluctant man into her hut, At as little as 41 cents per client, it can take 20 customers a day to make ends meet.

Public squabbles are not uncommon in the brothel, where emotions run high.

A woman kisses another on the cheek, an unusual display of affection in Bangladesh.

Children in the brothel have few options, and often follow their mothers into prostitution.

Clockwise from above:

In a room slightly larger than her bed, an exhausted girl rests for a moment between clients in the century-old Tanbazar brothel.

A fakir blesses and purifies a girl in Kandupatti; the women take part in many rituals seeking fortune and safety.

Shilpi, 20, lies in the arms of Sawar, her client and boyfriend in the Saeedpur brothel. He wants her to marry him and leave the brothel; she worries about her financial security.

Hina takes a puff of marijuana from a client’s pipe in the city of Jessore. Drug use makes it harder for women to escape the brothel.

Photo Essay by Shehzad Noorani

Long Commutes Seen Influencing Teacher Job Choices

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A new report highlights a big reason teachers may be leaving urban schools: They want to work closer to home.

The study, conducted by researchers from Stanford University, in California, and the State University of New York at Albany, is based on five years of data on all teachers who began their careers in New York City public schools between the 1995-96 and 2001-02 school years.

Echoing previous studies, the researchers found that much of the high teacher-turnover rate in New York City’s central-city schools is caused by teachers’ migration to higher-achieving schools or by white and Hispanic teachers’ departures for schools with higher percentages of white students. The new wrinkle in the study is that the geographic proximity of teachers’ schools to their homes may be just as key a factor in their decisions to change schools.

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The researchers found, for example, that teachers who are not New York City residents are five times more likely than residents to transfer to teaching jobs outside the city, both after the first year of teaching and in subsequent years. Among city residents teaching in the public schools, the teachers working farthest from their homes were also the most likely to leave.

“This suggests that one of the reasons teacher-attrition rates may be high in inner-city schools may be because they import so many teachers,” said Susanna Loeb, one of four authors of the new study, which is scheduled to be published in May in the journal American Economics Review.

“But it also points to the benefits of trying to grow your own teachers or attract people from the same area into teaching,” added Ms. Loeb, an associate education professor at Stanford. Her Albany co-authors on the study are Donald J. Boyd, the deputy director of the university’s Center on Public Policy; Hamilton Lankford, an economics professor; and James H. Wyckoff, a professor of public policy.

Top Teachers Leaving

The study is among several recent reports to examine the exodus of early-career teachers from urban schools, which have the greatest need for skilled teachers. (“Teacher Turnover Tracked in City District,” Feb. 23, 2005.) In New York City, for instance, 27 percent of first-year teachers do not return the following year. Those exit rates are particularly high, the new study found, for teachers who scored highest on the general-knowledge portion of their certification exams. The study shows they often leave for schools in which students’ exam scores are higher.

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Geographic proximity of schools to teachers’ homes can be particularly important, though, in a school system such as New York’s, where 34 percent of all newly certified teachers live outside the city. Among the teachers scoring in the top 25 percent on their certification exams, a group that could arguably be called the city’s most qualified teachers, 38 percent reside outside New York City.

Ms. Loeb said the new findings mirror the research group’s earlier findings on new teachers’ career decisions. In those studies, focusing on where teachers began their careers, the researchers found that teachers seek out schools that are either close to home or similar to those where they went to high school.