By Aisha Ali
Staff Writer

When a boat carrying over 700 refugees capsized off the coast of Italy last April, it sent the Western world into shock. Only three days earlier, another ship from Libya with 400 refugee passengers sunk as well. By the end of 2015, nearly 3,000 refugees had died en route to Italy. This Central Mediterranean route (from Libya to Italy) has been a popular departure point for African refugees and migrants escaping the continent. It was also a destination for Syrians refugees before the Eastern Mediterranean (from Turkey to the European Union) became a more accessible and safer alternative. Of the 150,000 people crossing the Central Mediterranean in 2015, approximately 40,000 were from Eritrea alone. But unlike other nationalities on the same route, mainly Somalis and Sudanese, Eritreans aren’t leaving a warzone. So why are they braving dangerous waters to get to Europe? Why is Eritrea’s population fleeing?

To answer that question, a little background in Eritrean politics is needed. Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993 after a referendum unanimously passed in the formally annexed region, ending over 30 years of conflict between local separatists and the Ethiopian government. Although Ethiopia’s new government, formed from the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), initially supported the independence movement, the two countries soon began to argue over their border. This ultimately led to the Eritrean-Ethiopian War of 1998, which claimed an estimated 70,000 lives and hundreds of millions of dollars before a ceasefire in 2000. As a result, Eritrean economic development plummeted and a country with a once impressive 13 percent annual GDP growth rate began experiencing volatile economic changes. The war also left thousands of Eritreans internally displaced and trapped in a continuous border war with Ethiopia, where troops from both countries can still be found posted on either side. Since 2000, tensions between the two neighboring countries have only increased. In the last decade, Eritrea has found itself in the unfortunate spot of being oppositional to the only American ally in the region, Ethiopia, and thus subject to the wrong-end of U.S. influence. Leaked U.S. embassy cables from 2009 show that Meles Zenawi, the Prime Minister of Ethiopia at the time, was instrumental in the U.N. Security Council imposing economic sanctions on Eritrea, further diminishing its economic health.

Perhaps most detrimental to Eritrea’s potential growth, aside from Ethiopian interference, is the fact that the country has been ruled by the same leader since independence. Referred to as an “unhinged dictator” by the former U.S. Ambassador to Eritrea, Isaias Afewerki has routinely come under fire by human rights groups for creating a repressive regime. Mandatory conscription was introduced following independence, which on its own would not be cause for concern considering many other countries, like Israel and South Korea, have similar laws. But while national service in Eritrea is only supposed to span 18 months, most citizens between 18 and 55 years of age have found themselves indefinitely trapped. Eritrean rights activists refer to the country as an “open prison” because military personnel are often used for manual labor, such as mining for gold in the desert for less than $2 a day. Citizens also risk imprisonment and extra-judicial executions for simply voicing their opinions on the government, with over 10,000 political “dissidents” held in 300 prisons across the country. Journalists, in particular, face serious consequences for their reporting, as Eritrea is routinely cited as one of the most censored countries in the world. It is believed that less than 5.6 percent of the population has access to mobile phone and only 1 percent has an internet connection.

Considering the current conditions of life in Eritrea, it is completely understandable why Eritrea’s population has tried its best to escape. But the journey is dangerous and, at a price of $5000 per passenger to cross the border to Sudan, also incredibly expensive. Sudan is beginning to feel the burden of Eritrean refugees who cannot afford to pay for passage onward to Europe, as the number of new arrivals per month rose to 1,000 in 2015. The few who manage to successfully leave the African continent face another obstacle: deportation. Eritrean refugees arriving in Israel are subject to imprisonment or forced on a one-way flight back to the continent, typically to Rwanda or Uganda. At some point over the last few years, Denmark, the United Kingdom, and Norway have all attempted to deny entry to Eritrean asylum seekers on the basis that the Eritrean government plans to end indefinite service, a claim that has yet to be confirmed. In an effort to stem a further influx of refugees, the European Union has offered aid to Eritrea; though there is no guarantee it will ever reach the general population.

Image by Karen Zack


By Rebecca Benest
Staff Writer

While living in Tanzania over the summer and working at a grassroots organization to prevent HIV/AIDS, I was given the opportunity to go to a Maasai village and learn about their culture and lifestyle. The Maasai are semi-nomadic peoples in northern Tanzania and southern Kenya. They are inhabitants of some of the national parks that are common stops on Safari tours, and are well-known for their distinctive culture, dress and language. Although there are some aspects of their culture that have been Westernized, partially with the encouragement of the Tanzanian government, they still retain a large part of their culture and their population continues to grow as an indigenous group.


As part of the opening ceremony and dance, the Maasai men slowly walked into a cordoned area that was once a corral for their cows. They typically wear very traditional clothing during the ceremony, which is still significant in Maasai tribes. However, many of the younger Maasai dress in Western clothing when they go into town.


This is their dancing ceremony. While the women sing, the men take turns stomping rhythmically and jumping in the middle of the circle (at seemingly shocking heights). Afterwards, all the children are given a chance to get involved and try jumping while the women continue to sing and stomp to the rhythm.


They also showed us a traditional fire-making ceremony. Although this is not used as often anymore, especially as items such as matches become more prevalent, it is a ritual still used in ceremonies. By grinding a stick into a plate of wood, a spark is lighted, which they turn into a full flame with dry grasses. Because the ceremony took quite a while, the men in this photo would take turns grinding the stick.


The woman in this photo, although she might’ve been the mother of the baby she’s holding, probably wasn’t. The Maasai women tend to take a more collaborative approach to childcare, meaning that the women all helped with the children, and the children didn’t seem to prefer their “real mother” over the other women. The older children also were very active in helping to take care of younger children and babies.


This woman exhibits two of the cultural practices common among the Maasai. First is the piercing and stretching of the earlobes, which I saw among all of the women. They stretch the ears with wood, among other materials, and hang jewelry through the holes. The second is the circular mark on her cheek. This is made with wooden branding when the Maasai are still children; women receive a circle, whereas men receive two lines on their lower forehead. Although it objectively seems painful, she said the pain passes quickly and she doesn’t remember it; however, the practice is quickly falling out of use.


The medicine man of the tribe took us around their land to show us the various trees and plants used for a wide variety of medicines. They were used for everything from remedies for malaria to paste made from a specific plant to give men more “energy”.


This is one of several mud huts in which all of the families live. Inside the house are three rooms, with an additional room that can be completely sealed off where they keep and take care of baby goats. The beds are also made of the same mud as the walls, with blankets lying on top.


The Maasai children were very involved in the rituals showed to us by their elders. They wore more Western clothing, as opposed to the more traditional robes, although this may be a transition that comes with age. They were very interactive and enjoyed holding our hands, singing and dancing with us. Between our limited Swahili and their limited Swahili (their first language is Kimaasai), they were very excited to hear our names and tell us all they knew about “Obamaland”.

All images by Rebecca Benest, Prospect Staff Writer.


Soccer Match in South Africa

By Param Bhatter
Staff Writer

Could soccer be the most popular sport in the world? With the FIFA World Cup approaching, and all of the drama and excitement that it entails, soccer fans all over the world are getting more and more anxious with anticipation for the summer. As perhaps the one sport that is played and watched by all, from any culture, the world stage that soccer employs is perhaps the greatest of any sport. Soccer also happens to be perhaps one of the most democratic sports in the world, with every player, regardless of position, contributing equally to the team and having the ability to score. With over 1 billion people watching the world cup, nobody can deny the power of soccer and its ability to unify people all over the world.

But soccer is no longer just a sport. With such a global presence, soccer is now being utilized as a vehicle for addressing health issues around the world. Used as a tool to help break customary values and longstanding traditions, soccer is promoting HIV awareness in many separate parts of Africa.

In the Nkomazi district of South Africa, medical workers believe that 65 percent of people in the adolescent and young adult age group carry HIV. In this culture, HIV is extremely frowned upon and disregarded, and denial is often the easiest solution for victims of the condition. People who admit to having the disease are often ridiculed by their family and friends and considered outcasts.

In the last five years however, there has been an increase in the awareness of the virus, the options for treatment, and information passed on concerning how to limit its transmission, all accomplished through the sport of soccer. Spearheaded by former Stanford assistant coach, Sarah Noftsinger, the initiative has established a soccer league that runs in over five villages with over 2,500 participants and 160 teams that promote the spread of knowledge of HIV and AIDS. In the league, players receive instruction from trained coaches about topics such as HIV, domestic violence and self-confidence. Players are offered incentives such as nicer jerseys and uniforms for attending these sessions, as well as subjecting themselves to HIV testing after games to make sure they stay in prime athletic condition.

Similar to Noftsinger’s efforts in South Africa, another organization that has now started making tremendous strides towards linking soccer with HIV and AIDS education is Grassroot Soccer. Founded by a small group of French professional soccer players, this project has developed an interactive curriculum that promotes soccer-themed HIV prevention through a so-called “Skillz Curriculum.” By conducting small drills on the soccer field that relate to HIV, the program appeals to many youth who love the sport and can benefit more from the education than from traditional classroom learning. For example, participants set up a bunch of cones that each represent a certain HIV related risk. If a player hits a cone while dribbling, each teammates must do pushups or run, showing how one’s personal mistake affects the rest of the family and community. Coaches are there to help raise awareness regarding all the issues accompanied by HIV, in addition to supporting their team, testing the players regularly, and of course helping them improve their soccer ability.

Many evaluations, conducted by universities such as Stanford and Johns Hopkins have shown that Grassroots is having a positive impact on knowledge and social stigmas related to HIV. Behavioral studies have shown that Grassroot program graduates were nearly six times less likely to engage in activities that could lead to the transmission of HIV. Grassroot has now expanded its programs into several countries in Africa such as Nigeria, Zimbabwe, and Tanzania, and the group is hoping to take their mission and success story to other continents as well.

With the variety of cultures, ideals and traditions in the world that differ from region to region, philanthropists, doctors and leaders often find it difficult to promote wellness and change stigmas that already exists regarding healthcare. Sports are an underlying aspect of society found in every culture, making them a perfect vehicle for change and reform. Soccer is the most popular sport in the world, and is now just beginning to be utilized to benefit society in ways besides competition and entertainment. The potential that it possesses to change the world is endless, and we are only now starting to exploit it.

For anyone who would like to get involved, feel free to check out Grassroot’s website and see what you can do today!

Image by digitalrob70