Vice TV produces Voodoo and Vaccines in Benin, Africa

Vice TV got our attention a year or so back because of their work producing the best destination and culture videos out in the community. These were the guys that were making guides to North Korea and covering Mongolian yak racing. These guys were the film makers and the story tellers that we aspired to.

Their work has paid off. Among numerous partnerships and work that they’ve got coming down the pipeline, you can now see many Vice videos over at CNN, and the group has cemented a place in the community as leaders in quality, edgy film making.

Vice’s most recent production in collaboration with looks at the challenges and rewards of working with vaccinations in Benin, Africa. It’s a sobering look into the culture of West Africa, and the documentary is a great piece. Take a look at it below.

Ethiopia tops list of African nations improving quality of life

Ethiopia suffers from a bad image thanks to the war and famine of the 1980s. As my series on travel in Ethiopia showed, however, this is a land of friendly people, beautiful nature, and fascinating historic sites. Infrastructure is slowly improving and the Ethiopians are making serious efforts to boost education, access to clean drinking water, and other improvements to the quality of life.

These efforts have been recognized in the UN’s 2010 Human Development Report. It ranked Ethiopia as number 11 in the world for improving human development since 1970, the highest ranking in Africa. The report was prepared by the United Nations Development Programme and measures progress in health, education, income, gender equality, and other areas. Researchers then formulate a “human development index” (HDI) for 135 countries.

Other high-ranking African nations include Botswana (14th), Benin (18th) and Burkina Faso (21st). All of these countries and some others have done especially well in the past ten years. Only looking at the past decade, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Rwanda, and Uganda all come out in the global top ten.

One of the biggest areas of improvement was in education. Literacy has almost tripled in Sub-Saharan Africa in the past 40 years to 65 percent. Also, life expectancy is up and infant mortality is down.

Sadly, not all the news is good. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zambia, and Zimbabwe were the only three countries in the world where quality of life actually went down.

Good news for Ethiopia is good news to travelers too. While the country is still an adventure travel destination, it’s not as rugged as many people think. I spent two months there and my wife spent three weeks, and in all that time we never got sick. Chalk one up for good sanitation and clean water! Also, Ethiopia scores well of gender equality, which meant that, unlike some countries we’ve been to, my wife didn’t get harassed by obnoxious guys. Good education meant we met lots of people who spoke English and wanted to improve it by chatting with us. Improved infrastructure meant there were more paved roads along our route than there were ten years ago.

When it comes to improvements in a country’s Human Development Index everybody benefits, even people who don’t live there!


Peace Corps volunteer murdered in Benin

“Did you hear that a Peace Corps volunteer was killed last week?” one of my friends asked me when we were at a restaurant with a group of returned Peace Corps volunteers. I hadn’t heard, and she didn’t have any information, only that the incident happened in some country in Africa and that the victim was a woman. The news was startling, particularly since I hadn’t heard or read anything about it.

After a bit of sleuthing, I’ve gathered some details. The information about what happened is sketchy, and the death is under investigation.

The volunteer, Kate Puzey was a 24-year-old living in Benin, West Africa. Last week on Thursday morning, friends found her dead outside of her house in the village of Badjoude where she was posted as an English teacher. It is believed that she was murdered, although, I haven’t found more details than what’s in this article at Finding Dulcinea. The official news is that she died sometime the night before she was found.

This story is one that resonates with me for a few reasons. One is because Puzey was the age I was when I was in the Peace Corps. It’s a time that I can recall as if it happened last week. There are certain sounds, sights and smells in a West African country that one doesn’t forget. There was also a coziness to being in a village with people who welcome you into their families and culture without reservation and an amazing amount of generosity. That the coziness could be dangerous is alarming. It doesn’t make sense.

From what I read, Puzey was one of those vibrant, loving volunteers who dove into her time in Benin with open arms and a giving heart. The fact that someone could have done such harm to her is hard to imagine. In general, a person who is an outsider but is welcomed into a village as a guest–and then brought into the fabric of village life, is given a high amount of respect and regard. The villagers would have seen ensuring Puzey’s happiness and safety as something to take seriously.

I can’t imagine what the 100 volunteers posted in Benin are feeling. This is not a death caused by not wearing a motorcycle helmet and having an accident–or becoming ill. This is maliciousness at work. People who may think their villages are safe may be thinking again. Families of volunteers who have heard the news most probably have the jitters.

For an occurrence that is so rare to have not made more of a news story is a bit stunning to me, particularly since both McCain and Obama praised Peace Corps as an important part of world development and volunteerism. Particularly when someone so engaging as Kate Puzey was killed in a place where such things virtually never happen.

My thoughts are with her family and the volunteers who have lost their friend, and possibly feel that the world is less safe than they thought before.

Here is another post I came across about Kate’s tragic death.

Travel Read: 100 Places Every Woman Should Go

I never knew there could be a book so thoughtful and inspiring for women as this one. Stephanie Elizondo Griest’s second travel book, which lists far more than just 100 Places Every Woman Should Go, is truly an encyclopedia for women travelers. It’s the kind of book that could never have existed fifty years ago, but is so refreshing that free-spirited, female travelers should feel grateful that it exists now, and fully prepared for that next trip into the wide, wonderful world.

Griest’s great book is packed with helpful historical information, inspiring stories, and travel tips. It’s broken up into nine sections — my favorite being the first: “Powerful Women and Their Places in History.” There’s so much worth digesting in each locale described. For instance, I had no idea that the word “lesbian” came from the birthplace of Sappho (Lesbos, Greece). Griest fills each description with great travel tips that often include specific street addresses for particularly noteworthy sights.What I like most about the 100 places she chooses is that she shies away from identifying places that every woman obviously dreams of traveling to, like Venice, Rome, and Paris. Instead, she paves a new path for women, encouraging us to visit Japan’s 88 sacred temples or stroll through the public squares of Samarkand, one of the world’s oldest cities in Uzbekistan.

Griest does not limit her list to concrete or singular places. Sometimes, she finds a way to take us to virtual spots like the Museum of Menstruation or creates lists like “Best Bungee Jumping Locales,” “Sexiest Lingerie Shops,” or “Places to Pet Fuzzy Animals.” These 100 “places” are really all-encompassing, and Griest manages to take us on an imaginative journey around the world, packing all her feminine know-how into each description.

I did find, occasionally, that there were some places missing from some of the identified places in her list. For instance, I was baffled as to why two Russian writers were on Griest’s list of “Famous Women Writers and Their Creative Nooks,” but Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, and Jane Austen were absent. I was additionally confused that cooking classes in India and Thailand were not on the list of “Culinary Class Destinations.”

Griest’s opinions of places are somewhat biased, too. While she does a fairly good job covering the globe, a single locale in French Polynesia or the South Pacific is missing, and some places like Oaxaca, Angkor Wat, and New York are mentioned several times. Her college town of Austin landed on the list, but places like Budapest and Cairo are never acknowledged.

With every list, however, there is bound to be some bias and some personal flair and choice involved, and Griest’s original and creative sensibilities are still well-worth reading about. The great thing about this book is that you can flip to a place description, be perfectly entertained and inspired, and then tuck the book away until the next time you feel compelled to read about the places you can go. Or, you can read it in one sitting like I did and be completely blown away by the amazing places in this one world that it’s hard to imagine why we live in one city for so long and not just pack our bags and get out there and see some if not all of it.

Click here to read my review of Griest’s first travel book, “Around the Bloc: My Life in Moscow, Beijing, and Havana.” My review of Griest’s third travel book, “Mexican Enough: My Life Between the Borderlines” is forthcoming, along with my interview with the author in early January. Feel free to jot me an email (Brenda DOT Yun AT weblogsinc DOT com) if you have a question for Stephanie.

Click the images to learn about the most unusual museums in the world — featuring everything from funeral customs, to penises, to velvet paintings, to stripping.

Face to Face with West Africa’s Wildlife

The Penjari Biosphere is a wildlife preserve in a remote corner of the West African nation of Benin. Like many such wildlife areas, it struggles with poachers and environmental problems, but tourism, in the form of photo safaris like the one in the video, is an important source of income for the area.

Even the most jaded tourist, wary of tourist traps and non-authentic experiences, would find a safari like the one in the video exciting. The fact that getting up-close and personal with wild animals is an attractive proposition is nothing new to the African tourism industry, but fully capitalizing on the tourist potential while protecting the wildlife for future tourism is the challenge. But, there are now economic reasons for creating a sustainable tourist model. The more interest in wildlife tourism grows, the more demand there will be for sustainability.

This video was taken in early morning, when the Penjari’s animals all head for the nearest watering hole. Check out the menacing elephant about a minute-and-a-half in.
Video courtesy of Boing Boing