Obiter Dictum

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Goodbye Hugo Camps

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Yesterday, politician Steve Stevaert committed suicide. Less than 24 hours later, one of Belgium’s best known columnists, Hugo Camps, wrote a column on Mr Stevaert that is nothing short of character assassination.

It’s funny how journalists who pontificate about the rise of public opinion spouting on social media, give themselves the right to do so too, simply because ‘it is their job’. The only difference between Camps and the rest of us is the fact that the opinions of Camps & Co come wrapped in prettier words.

Mr Camps has the right to his opinion, just like everyone else. But yesterday he crossed a line which he shouldn’t have crossed. He abused his power – something he accuses Mr Stevaert of, ironically – to publish a piece that destroys the politician. He used his soapbox to let readers know, amongst others, that Stevaert was false, dictatorial, had a problem with women and that “insiders knew he had DSK tendencies”.

In a few cruel sentences, Camps took away one of Stevaert’s most basic human rights: the right to be innocent until proven guilty. He used his power as journalist to become Stevaert’s judge, jury and executioner.

I’m done with Hugo Camps. This time he went too far. His carefully cultivated ‘grumpy old man’ persona isn’t remotely entertaining any more.

You have become the Uncle Scrooge of decorum and empathy, Mr Camps. That is how I will remember you. I leave you with these words from the book “Telling True Stories”:

“To write about one’s own life and the lives of family and friends is to accept that exploitation of self and others. To write about yourself and the people in your life is to accept that, in part, you are a bastard. You must face and come to understand your demons.”

You play lightly with the demons of others, Mr Camps, but I doubt whether you have had the courage to face your own.

Written by sabineclappaert

April 3, 2015 at 11:27 am

The power of a happy workforce

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This is the fifth year of the eurozone crisis, and that warrants a moment of reflection. Five years of doom-laden headlines, televised economic meltdowns and mass lay-offs have charted a course of destruction across European societies. And Flanders is no exception: The crisis has left our labour market battered.

The figures are grim: In September, Flanders had 229,127 out of work – an increase of 8.8% on the region’s figures for the same period last year.

For those who are working, the crisis has meant an increase in “invisible” job stress. “Doing more with less” has become the new business mantra, and most employees know that while they have a job today, it could be gone tomorrow. In times of evaporating security, most of us also face the reality of having to work until we are close to 70.

Not surprisingly, many employees feel over-stretched and worn out. In Belgium, one in four employees run the risk of burnout, according to research by IDEWE, which is responsible for workplace protection. In addition, they say, most businesses do not provide an appropriate level of attention to and investment in employees’ mental health.

And yet, amid all this doom and gloom, there is cause for optimism. A group of business leaders is beginning to talk about the importance of being happy at work.

Respecting boundaries

It’s a trend that has been visible across Flemish media since the beginning of the year. In September, after one of her younger employees died of a heart attack, Saskia Van Uffelen, CEO of IT company Bull Belgium wrote an opinion piece in Flemish daily De Tijd pleading for the respecting of boundaries, taking time out and recognising that we are fragile. “Being expected to work longer also demands a change in the way we work,” she says, “and at this pace, working until we are 70 is unrealistic.”

Being ready for the war for talent is a process of strategic change – SASKIA VAN UFFELEN

Colruyt Group COO Frans Colruyt, meanwhile, said in a recent interview with De Morgen that, since his 15-month sabbatical, he has been practising mindfulness and believes we should pay closer attention to our bodies.

But why are these people standing up for a more humane approach to work in times of crisis, when, at first glance, business can least afford it? Enter the Happy Organizations community, founded last March as a Belgian network of more than 750 business leaders who believe in the importance of happiness at work and want to bring the topic into the open.

The BEhappyday event, organised by the Happy Organizations community, was founded by Jean-Paul Erhard, managing partner of HR network Peoplesphere, and Laurence Vanhee, former head of HR at the Federal Public Service Social Security (though she prefers to call herself Chief Happiness Officer) and Peoplesphere’s HR Manager of the Year for 2012. It brings together companies that invest in the well-being of their employees and takes place on 20 March – designated International Happiness Day by the UN.

We are not resources

“I do not manage resources, because we are not resources. We are people,” Vanhee says. “I need fun and passion in my job, and I want to be happy at work. I want to be treated like an adult, have responsibility and freedom and be able to make my own decisions. Surely I’m no exception?”

At this pace, working until we are 70 is unrealistic – SASKIA VAN UFFELEN

It is exactly this message that BEhappyday is trying to take to the business community: If you want a happy, productive workforce, as a leader you need to facilitate the productivity and happiness of your employees. Or as Vanhee’s professional theory states: Freedom + Responsibility = Happiness + Performance.

In her new book, Happy HR, she argues that the old way of doing business – in which companies measured the effectiveness of employees according to their physical presence during a required time – has become counter-productive both in the changing realities of the 21st century, which will bring together four generations on the work floor and see significant talent shortages, and during times of crisis, when companies are expected to do more with less.

In the book, she explores new approaches in HR, arguing for policies based on freedom, responsibility, performance and happiness. “If we want our organisations to thrive in the coming decades, we need to start treating our employees like capable adults, who, given the opportunity, can contribute to our organisations in ways we never explored or encouraged with our old business models. We also need to find ways of working that appeal to the entrepreneurial, ‘always-connected’ mindset of the younger generations.”

Henri Van de Kraats, managing director of contact centre provider IMABenelux and part of the Happy Organizations community, agrees. “We’ve reached the end of a certain logic,” he says. “It’s time to realise that something fundamental needs to change in the way we work.”

For too long, leaders have set sky-high targets, he says, turned up the pressure and managed people in a top-down “command and control” manner. Seldom did managers stop to ask workers how they were feeling. But times are changing. Eventually, organisations that think they can become successful by squeezing everything out of their people will become unattractive to prospective employees and will lose the race for talent.

Talent shortage

Bull Belgium’s Van Uffelen is leading the charge for a change in workplace attitudes. “The old way of doing business doesn’t work for younger generations,” she says. “In 2020, seven people will leave the Belgian labour market for every three who enter. This means that 40% of today’s workforce will disappear. It will create a huge shortage of talent. It also raises a very important question: What do leaders and companies need to change to ensure people want to work for them?”

We are not needed at the front to command, but in the middle, cheering on – MIEL HORSTEN

Research strongly supports the need for companies to change to a new way of working, which is more independent of place and time and focused on output rather than physical presence. It also stresses the need for employers to make workplace mental health a priority issue. It is not simply the right thing to do; it also makes a company more competitive and profitable.

For Van Uffelen, making sure Bull Belgium embraced the changes in the labour market led her to add five key performance parameters to her long-term business strategy: communication, collaboration, efficiency, innovation and leadership. “Being ready for the war for talent is a process of strategic change, not a matter of a trendy new coat of paint and a funky open-plan layout,” she says.

Happy employees, happy clients

At ALD Automotive Belgium, a leader in the financing and management of vehicle fleets, they also got the message. “Our entire brand is built around employee and customer happiness, embodied in our slogan ‘One, Ready, Smile’,” explains general manager Miel Horsten. “A company’s most important stakeholders are its employees. If you have happy employees, you create happy clients, which in turn lead to happy shareholders. It’s that simple.”

We must learn to trust people and let them solve problems without constantly looking over their shoulder – HENRI VAN DE KRAATS

For Horsten, making sure employees are happy goes much further than installing a new canteen or allowing people to work from home a few days a week.

“Changing the way you do business starts at the top and should permeate every aspect of the way in which the organisation functions,” he says. “For us, it meant taking the hierarchy out of our organisation, changing the way in which we manage to reflect the culture we want to create, decreasing the time we spend in meetings by 80%, setting an example as leaders, giving our people freedom and accountability to take on projects beyond their roles if they so wished. Ultimately, my aim is to inspire trust and create a culture that accepts risk-taking (and therefore also failure) and rewards engagement, creativity and innovation.”

But all these leaders admit that adapting their organisations to this new world of work isn’t easy. “It’s a learning curve, also for us as leaders,” admits Horsten. “We still have a long way to go and a lot to learn.”

Van de Kraats agrees: “As leaders, we must stop wanting to fill up the room and learn to exhibit less ego. We must learn to trust people and allow them to solve problems without constantly looking over their shoulder. Leaders who continue to cling to a domineering leadership style will create a paralysed, tense culture. And that’s anything but beneficial to innovation or growth.”

Protection for people

Taking that message of freedom to others in the business community isn’t always easy, especially in difficult economic times, they all admit. But when it comes to how they ensure their business stays at the top of its game, they all agree: No factor is more critical right now than their people.

“One of our biggest responsibilities as CEO is making sure we protect our people, and thus our organisation, from becoming over-stretched,” says Van Uffelen. “We need to develop business models that facilitate the new world of work; we must remove obstacles, and we must inspire people to be the best they can be. It will only benefit our organisations.”

It’s a huge task, and one that demands a different kind of leadership, notes Horsten. “As leaders, we need to be able to be introspective, to realise that we don’t have all the answers – and that we’re not expected to, either. We are not needed at the front to command, but in the middle, cheering on, making sure we get there, as a team.”

“Just as importantly,” adds Van Uffelen, “we need to learn to switch off our laptops, put away our PDAs and go home on time.”

Written by sabineclappaert

November 28, 2013 at 5:04 pm

Mother’s pride

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Image

The retrospective of Flemish mother-and-daughter artist duo Memymom is sure to ruffle a few feathers during its premiere exhibition at De Brakke Grond in Amsterdam this week. Images of a young Lisa De Boeck, photographed by her mother, Marilène Coolens, between 1990 and 2003 form the centre of the intimate retrospective.

The cross-generational collaboration between the Flemish mother and daughter, which continues today, began with what the pair describe as a “hangover from the past”.

Coolens began taking the photos that now make up The Umbilical Vein when her daughter was just five and continued until she turned 18. Images of a nine-year old De Boeck sitting on a bed in a Pucci blouse and high heels, others of her pouting seductively at the camera à la Marilyn Monroe or posing as Catwoman, capture the transformation of a child into a young woman.

The photographs will leave few people cold. They taunt viewers, who find themselves wanting to give them a comfortable place within an understandable context. But a nagging question remains: Are they a statement on the sexualisation of girls, or do they simply add to that imagery? Or are they about something else altogether?

According to the duo, they found inspiration for the characters De Boeck portrays in their experience of the 1990s, the decade during which most of the photos were taken: pop culture, fashion, pedestrians on the streets of Brussels.

De Boeck usually seems quite serious in the photos, often almost unhappy. But Coolens encourages you to look closer to find a child’s daily reality. And you find this in tiny details, such as a faint trail of spaghetti sauce in the corner of Catwoman’s mouth. Some viewers appreciate the way in which the work plays with the concepts of identity, family and growing up, but others – often mothers who have daughters – question the way in which Coolens portrays her daughter.

De Boeck, now 28 and a photographer and video artist in her own right, is quick to counter the allegation of inappropriateness: “I was like a cat who knew exactly what to do to get food: I knew what I had to do to make my mum pick up her camera,” she says. “I loved being in front of the camera. I would find a scarf, put on her lipstick or high heels…”

Coolens says that the collaboration with her daughter has always been very intuitive. “It’s also the reason we named the retrospective The Umbilical Vein,” adds De Boeck. “There is no connection more fundamental – or invisible to others – between a mother and her child than the umbilical vein.”

To De Boeck, the implicit bond with her mother is fundamental in the strength of the images. “It was a game I could only play in the safety of my mother’s presence. She gave me the freedom to play without misunderstanding the characters I was playing, and she did it without saying a word. Now that I’m grown up, I realise how privileged I am to have such an intuitive bond with her – both as a daughter and later also as an artist. Even today, our bond as artists is fluent and spontaneous. And the same things still inspire us: places, people, especially women. That’s why the feminine is so often a theme in our work.”

The retrospective, which was commissioned by De Brakke Grond’s director, showcases 80 photos out of more than 1,000 taken over 13 years. It is interesting to see the changes in the photographs as the years progress – not only in a young De Boeck growing up, but also in the changing dynamic of the collaboration between mother and daughter.

“When Lisa was very young, the photos were more spontaneous and playful; they were less directed than those in which she is 15 and wanted to have her own say about how the photos were taken. You can see that in the images,” explains Coolens. “The way in which she chose to play with the camera – on her own terms – is perhaps most visible in the photos ‘I’m an Old Woman Now’, in which she longingly pouts at the camera, and ‘The Misfit’, taken a few moments later, in which she decides to act grumpy and cantankerous.”

De Boeck laughs: “I find it fascinating to see myself in those early photos. I don’t remember posing for those first photos, so it’s really interesting to look back as an adult on my childself.”

The last photo in the Umbilical Vein series was taken just after Lisa turned 18. Called “La Veuve Joyeuse” (The Merry Widow), it shows Lisa in a long black coat, a black ostrich feather in her hair, gazing pensively off into the distance.

So why did the duo stop the project just as Lisa turned 18? “My dad had died the year before,” says De Boeck. “The last picture was a way for us to process that loss. Of course it doesn’t solve anything, but it does confront the beautiful brutality of life.”

Coolens and De Boeck continue to collaborate. In the last decade, they have worked on more than 10 projects together. Their recent work continues to push the boundaries of emotional aesthetics, stopping just short of the erotic. “We create dark fairy tales and invent mysteries in which anything your mind conjures up could happen,” says De Boeck.

Flanders in Amsterdam

Last week’s opening of The Umbilical Vein in De Brakke Grond was a festive affair, introduced by Flemish visual artist Michaël Aerts and with live music by blues musician Roland Van Campenhout. It also marked the start of a crowdfunding initiative for a book based on the exhibition, for which best-selling author Saskia De Coster wrote a story.

Sounds like a big Flemish reunion, doesn’t it? That’s because De Brakke Grond is a Flemish cultural centre in Amsterdam. With a name (The Brackish Ground) inspired by the swampland that dominated the area in the middle ages, the centre opened in 1981, the culmination of 10 years of planning after the then Flemish and Dutch ministers of culture agreed to investigate new forms of collaboration.

Today, the centre showcases the best in Flemish theatre, dance, music, visual arts and film. West Fleming Piet Menu, who served as a programmer at the cultural centre from 2002-2007, became its director early last year.

[Published in Flanders Today, September 2013)

Written by sabineclappaert

October 1, 2013 at 6:18 pm

Happy birthday Mairead Maguire

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Mairead Maguire was the aunt of the three Maguire children who died as a result of being hit by an Irish Republican Army getaway car after its driver was shot by a British soldier. Mairead was awarded the 1976 Nobel Peace Prize for her extraordinary actions to help end the deep ethnic/political conflict in her native Northern Ireland. She shares the award with Betty Williams.

 

“Violence is a preventable disease.”

Mairead McGuire_sml

[Excerpt from my interview with Mairead Maguire. Photo by Jillian Edelstein]

“I believe we can solve anything peacefully if we start from the point that life is sacred, that we don’t have the right to kill someone else’s son or daughter. Yes, we have big, complex problems and yes, we are different. But we are also very much alike. The problem is that we put too much emphasis on our identities – I’m a woman, not a man, I’m a Catholic, not a Protestant – soon it becomes very threatening when someone challenges this identity; you see that clearly here in Northern Ireland, or between Jews and Palestinians. We need to learn to mellow our identities and recognize our common humanity.”

Common humanity stands as a central theme in Mairead’s vision of the future she wants to help create.

“We live in a society that desperately needs creative solutions to its problems; that requires debate on the type of future we want for ourselves and our children. We need to recognize that there is no ‘other’. We are each other,” she smiles. “Our real identity is not our ethnic or tribal identity. We need to learn to let go of that until we reach true inner freedom. Sometimes you meet people whom you can clearly see have reached their inner freedom, people like Nelson Mandela.”

Written by sabineclappaert

January 27, 2013 at 6:51 pm

Interview: Marleen Temmerman

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Despite staggering advances in medical science and technology over the years, women around the world continue to suffer gravely as a result of inadequate access to basic reproductive health services.

Roughly 134 million women are “missing” worldwide as a result of sex-selective abortions and neglect of newborn girls. Complications in childbirth are responsible for the deaths of over 350,000 women annually, 99 percent of whom hail from developing countries.

In this context, the appointment this past October of fifty-nine-year-old Marleen Temmerman – known as ‘Mama Daktari’ in Kenya, where she worked as a gynaecologist for many years – as head of the Department of Reproductive Health and Research at the World Health Organisation (WHO) is a promising move in the right direction.

IPS correspondent Sabine Clappaert spoke to Temmerman, an illustrious Belgian physician, about her plans to weave the reproductive health agenda tightly into the WHO’s mission.

Q: Why did you decide to leave your career as Head of the Obstetrics and Gynaecology Department and member of the board of directors at the Ghent University Hospital to join the WHO?

A: Throughout my career, my goal has always been to improve the reproductive and sexual health and rights of women and girls across the world. While I wasn’t actively looking for a new job I realised that this opportunity at the WHO presented a very powerful lever to help me achieve these goals.

Q: What budget are you working with and are the main priorities in your new role?

A: I have a working budget of approximately 40 million USD, which is less that what it has been in previous years. The crisis is clearly also impacting the budgets allocated to sexual and reproductive health. At the time of my appointment, for example, I was promised a significant contribution by the Belgian government. Sadly, it never materialized.

I do fear that the difficult economic climate will mean that sexual and reproductive health are seen as less of a priority, yet nothing is further from the truth. If we want the next generations of women to be healthy and empowered, we need to give them access to facilities and programs that keep them alive and well during pregnancy and childbirth or give them access to family planning services so they can plan their own future. Family planning is key not only to women and children’s health, but also to slowing unsustainable population growth and sustaining the economy and ecology.

We have three key priorities for the coming years: family planning, adolescent sexual and reproductive health and rights as well as mother-child health during pregnancy and at childbirth.

Family planning is without a doubt my first priority. An estimated 222 million women do not have access to family planning; women who would like to delay or stop childbearing but who are not using any method of contraception. In China, for example, only married women have access to family planning clinics. If we could change policy to also give single women access to family planning, we could help make a real difference. The (many) challenges vary per country.

In my new role, I will be looking at why this problem persists and how we can reduce it from various perspectives: by looking at contraceptive solutions in the R&D (research and development) pipeline, through implementation research that aims to identify possible barriers – cultural and religious beliefs or the availability and cost of family planning, as well as what educational initiatives need to be taken to correct misconceptions at the community and individual level.”

Adolescent sexual and reproductive health is also enormously important if you consider the fact that in the age category 15 – 19 year old girls, abortions and complications during childbirth remain the number one cause of death. Ensuring that teenagers everywhere have access to sexual education and family planning services is crucial.

Q:  Have you always been an outspoken human rights activist?

A: I come from a family that is socially engaged. Both my mother and father have always been very active in their local community. I can’t turn a blind eye to social injustice. For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to do something about it – especially injustice toward women and girls. And even today there is still so much injustice against women: violence, female genital mutilation (FMG), forced marriage and honour killings, to name a few. I can’t simply stand by and do nothing.”

Q : In 1994 you founded the International Centre for Reproductive Health (ICRH), which today is active in many countries across the world including Kenya, Mozambique, China and Guatemala. What lessons did you learn ‘in the field’ that you take with you into your new role at the WHO?

A: One of the most important lessons I’ve learnt is that collaboration is key to the success of projects in the sexual and reproductive health realm. A perfect example: at the moment we’re working on a project in Kenya that aims to support girls and women who are victims of sexual violence. We’re training medical staff to make sure they follow correct procedures and do all the right medical checks. We also ensure that girls are given psychological support and that they have access to legal advice. Collaborations such as these, across different sectors and professions to offer maximum support is how we can really affect change for girls and women everywhere.

Secondly, I’ve learnt that sexual and reproductive health remains a sensitive topic; that changing attitudes, behaviours as well as political vision and policies is a long, slow process. We have to remain committed to the importance of improving women’s sexual and reproductive rights. One of my biggest concerns is that, due to the crisis, budgets allocated to sexual and reproductive health will “disappear” into general health budgets. If this happened, it would take away the focus and attention that we must keep on this topic to help drive real change.

There is still so much to be done to end FMG, to lower mortality rates during childbirth or to make sure that every girl and woman has access to sexual and reproductive health facilities. There is a saying that says ‘If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together’. I think we must go fast and far. And we can only do this together.”

Q: What is the developed world’s role in assuring reproductive health/justice in the global South?

“I think the developed world has a fundamental responsibility toward developing countries. The traditional north-south view is clearly out-dated, but on the other hand, women’s rights and gender equality are much more advanced in the developed than in developing world. It is our responsibility to support women in the south, to ensure that programmes of sexual and reproductive health don’t ‘disappear’ into global health initiatives, that we continue to commit sufficient resources and budgets to advancing women’s access to sexual and reproductive health facilities.

Q: What has been the hardest lesson for you while undertaking your work in Africa?

There is no doubt about it: the young women and new-born babies that have died in my arms simply because they were in a part of the world where I did not have access to medical technologies that I would have access to in Europe or another developed part of the world. There is nothing worse than the powerless feeling of holding a dying young woman in your arms and thinking “if we were in another part of the world now, she would have lived”.

I am also always shocked by the ease with which our societies brush over topics such as sexual violence, as if it is normal. So often I am told “but it is part of our culture”. This has to change. The way we bring up boys and girls and the gender roles we instil in our children must change.”

(Published in IPS NEWS, January 2013)

 

 

 

 

 

Written by sabineclappaert

January 23, 2013 at 7:44 pm

Interview with Alice Herz-Sommer (109) – world’s oldest Holocaust survivor.

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Alice Sommer1_Jillian Edelstein copy

Alice is about to turn 107 when I meet her on a crisp-blue autumn afternoon in November 2010. She still lives alone, in a ground-floor apartment on a broad leafy street in north London. She always leaves her front door ajar so she doesn’t have to get up every time someone comes to visit, and as I will learn, they come from all over to visit Alice.

I knock loudly to announce my arrival. A high–pitched voice calls for me to enter. A gentle push of the door reveals a dimly lit room, my eyes strain to separate shape from shadow. Slowly they appear: an upright piano against the wall and, in a chair just beyond its reach, Alice, wearing pearls, a pleated grey knee-length skirt… and faded blue Converse All Star sneakers.

Playing the piano saved Alice’s life. Born in Prague on November 26th, 1903 of Jewish parents, she was a celebrated concert pianist who performed all over Europe until, in 1943, she was sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp, together with her husband and six-year-old son.

Alice survived. Her husband didn’t. His last words to her before he was shipped off to Auschwitz: “Promise me that whatever happens, you will do nothing voluntarily.” Many women who were given the chance to follow their husbands and did were sent to their deaths.

During the two years of her incarceration, Alice performed more than one hundred concerts for her captors. “Sometimes the conditions were unbearable: no heating, our fingers cramped-up from the cold; we hadn’t eaten for days; it was difficult to concentrate. But I had to play; I had to stay alive – for my son,” she says. “Music saved my life,” she will tell me ten times over during our afternoon together. And that of her son, it seems, who also survived the camp.

Alice doesn’t talk about the horrors of the concentration camp. In unspoken agreement, she doesn’t volunteer and I don’t ask. It seems sacrilegious to the spirited woman before me to rake up the memory. ‘I don’t hate,’ Alice shrugs. ‘…not even the Germans. There is bad and good in us all. Even terrible things can result in miracles,’ she smiles.

Life is music.

To Alice, life is music. Her mother and father were musicians, as were two of her four siblings. Her son, Raphael Sommer, would also become a renowned cellist. ‘I don’t know how musical genes are passed on from one generation to the next; it’s a miracle!’ One conviction Alice never doubts: ‘The life of a musician is a privilege, of that I am sure. Every day we are full of the most beautiful thing ever created by mankind: music. What happens in the world around one is not so important. To be filled with this incredible beauty, yes, that is a privilege.’

Alice still plays the piano two hours every day, from ten to twelve. ‘My neighbours all say: it must be ten ‘o clock, Alice is playing!’ she chuckles. She holds up two gnarled forefingers to my face. ‘Now that my hands don’t work so well anymore, I play with these two fingers. But it’s ok, it works!’

The phone rings, the first of many times that afternoon. I get up to bring it to Alice. Always it is the same: people, mostly journalists and students, who want to meet her. A little shakily, Alice lifts the receiver:

‘Yes…?’ [silence]
‘You are calling from where…? Ah, Berlin!’ she nods a smile in recognition.
‘Of course you may come! Call when you are in London.’
‘…two ‘o clock,’ she finishes, lowering the handset back onto its hook as a distant voice continues to bubble into the room.

‘Everybody wants to meet you,’ I tell Alice. ‘You are famous!’

She chuckles. ‘Yes. Yesterday there were five, the day before ten – all students, sitting on the floor to ask questions,’ her arm sweeps across the room. ‘I love meeting people! They are so interesting.’

‘Do you have time to stay?’ she asks suddenly.

I glance out the window at the fading light and at the luminous 15:35 on Alice’s bedside alarm clock. Alone in an unfamiliar city, I mumble something about leaving before dark. ‘I want to watch a film with you,’ Alice says, ignoring my remark. ‘It’s about my life.’

With those four words she wipes the relevance of my logistical concerns off the table.

Alice points: ‘The DVD, there – put it in the player! And biscuits, get some biscuits.’ She waves me to the tiny kitchen. Finally, I pull my seat up beside hers as the hesitant sound of the first piano notes drift into the room. ‘Put it louder!’ Alice prods as the opening credits roll across the screen.

One hour and six shortbread biscuits long, we watch Alice’s life roll across the screen in Everything is a Present – the documentary by Christopher Nupen in which a 98-year-old Alice speaks of her childhood, her mother, Theresienstadt, love, the beauty of nature and the influence of music on her life.

Always it comes back to music.

As we watch the film and crystal clear notes fill the room, Alice closes her eyes, her fingers playing each note in the air, lost to her music.

For a heartbeat, time stops.

I watch Alice, oblivious to my presence, playing Bach, the television flickering images into the semi-darkness. I remember her words: “A musician is full of the beauty of music. To be filled with this beauty is a privilege.”

Optimism.

For Alice, optimism is a way of life. Asked what she thinks the secret to a long, happy life is, she answers: “Optimism, of course!” laughter rising from her belly as if I have asked the silliest question in the world.

‘I have always tried to fill my life with beauty. The beauty of music, the beauty of nature, the beauty of love – the love between a mother and her child – those things are extraordinary,’ says Alice, opening her eyes.

To illustrate her point, she tells of her twin sister, Marianne, who died at the age of seventy. ‘My sister was always waiting for catastrophe, always,’ she rolls her eyes. ‘Of this I am sure: if you are a pessimist, the whole organism is in tension all the time. It is not good for one’s health,’ she shakes her head and prods me to take another biscuit.

The film ends. I ask Alice what the biggest lessons are that she learned during her long life. For a second she is silent, eyes closed in contemplation. Suddenly she turns to look me straight in the eye: ‘To learn. Learn, learn, learn – that is the basis. And to be thankful for everything: for being not hungry, for seeing the sun, for a smile, for a kind word from somebody.’

With that she learns closer and cups my cheek. ‘Life is beautiful! Beautiful, I tell you!’ she laughs. I join in her laughter, wondering how I will ever do justice to the legacy of this amazing woman.

Alice Sommer
DOB: 26.11.1903
Date of interview: 16.11.2010
Location: London, UK

16112010_Alice Sommer

Written by sabineclappaert

November 27, 2012 at 11:52 am

Gradberry: An Innovative Career Portal For Young People, by Young People

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There is an old saying that goes “necessity is the mother of invention”. It is a saying that still holds true for today’s young entrepreneurs.

Before me sits Iba Masood, a twenty-three year old Dubai-based entrepreneur and finalist of the Cartier Women’s Initiative Award who, together with her co-founder Syed Ahmed, has developed an web-based career portal that helps address one of the world’s most worrying trends: rising youth unemployment.

In 2011, Iba founded Gradberry, today the leading careers portal for student internships and new graduate jobs in the Middle East. ‘We focus exclusively on internships and vacancies for students and fresh graduates with zero to two years of experience,” explains a bubbly, energetic Masood during our interview at the Women’s Forum in France earlier this month.

With over 10.000 unique viewers and 300.000 pages views each month, Gradberry clearly addresses a burning need among recent graduates in the region. And if this early success (the Beta-version of the site launched in November 2011) is a sign of things to come, the site’s future looks bright, also in other parts of the world.

Iba, an honours graduate from the American University of Sharajah (UAE), learnt the harsh difference between student life and the working world even before she left the cocoon of campus.

“As we entered the final months of our studies, we had two ways of trying to find a job: via the big multi-nationals that came to campus to court final year students – but let’s face it: how many students could they employ; or by trawling job sites in search of internships and entry-level positions that all demanded “3 to 5 years experience”. Not only did we not have the experience employers demanded, I was also lost for direction in finding jobs that I could apply for, and I was wasting time that I simply did not have in the lead-up to my final exams,” Masood explains.

Tough economic times weren’t making matters easier. When her class graduated in 2010, economies were shrinking and unemployment rates rising, which also meant plummeting job opportunities throughout the Middle East.

The region today faces a whopping 24% youth unemployment rate.  “These are tough times for young graduates, I can tell you. Here I was, graduating at the top of my class and yet I couldn’t find a job,” sighs Iba.

The child of two entrepreneurs (her parents run a diesel supply business), the last thing Iba was taught to do was sit still and do nothing. “Everything becomes outdated so quickly these days… I realised that every day I sat at home waiting for the perfect job to come along took me a step further away from the ever-changing realities in the job market. The best thing I could do is get a job as an intern so I could learn and apply what I had learnt at university to stay up to date.” 

Iba didn’t let the grass grow under her feet. During her studies, she had already spent time as an intern at McKinsey & Co and Dubai Islamic Bank. Soon after graduating she started as financial analyst trainee at GE Healthcare.  But her entrepreneurial roots soon pulled her to what she knew best: starting her own company. After a short stint at a local public relations firm, Iba approached Syed Ahmed (Gradberry’s co-founder and current CTO), with the idea of a graduate careers portal. “As a fresh graduate of Mechanical Engineering, with some serious talent in design and project management, Syed was facing similar issues with the graduate job market. He loved the concept and came on board as a co-founder. We set up the initial domain, registration and design, and created the website with $200.” 

“The reason behind the site is obvious. Looking around me I saw so many young people fresh from college or university struggling to find a job – any job,” says Iba. “With Gradberry, our aim was to connect employers, graduates and universities through a single website, and allow students to find internships and entry-level positions that require no experience.” 

“Things are moving fast,” smiles Iba. “We’ve had over 8,000 students register on the site and over 150 employers, ranging from Google to Philips, are using it to hire interns, student freelancers and new graduates.” 

Our next goal? “To become the Linkedin for students and graduates globally, the primary method of finding fruitful working opportunities for the youth through social networking.”

Written by sabineclappaert

November 2, 2012 at 5:33 pm

Entrepreneurs and Women: Keys to Growth in Africa

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DEAUVILLE, France, Oct 25 2012 (IPS) – The international financial crash of the late 2000s created more than a global economic recession: it accentuated popular doubts about the paradigms on which our economies are built and prompted a closer look at two crucial drivers of economic growth: women and entrepreneurship.

At the recently concluded Women’s Forum held in France earlier this month, a pivotal point on the agenda was how to promote sustainable economic and social development in the world’s second fastest growing region: Africa.

Recent research from the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) shows that natural resources account for only about a third of Africa’s growth. The rest is the result of internal structural changes that have stimulated domestic economies: telecommunications, banking and retail are flourishing and construction is booming.

Trade between Africa and the rest of the world has increased by 200 percent since 2000 and the continent is also gaining increased access to international capital, with the annual flow of foreign direct investment (FDI) into Africa increasing from nine billion dollars in 2000 to 62 billion dollars in 2008.

With a population that is set to more than double from one to two billion by 2050, Africa’s potential is enormous – if it can create the conditions for women-led, sustainable development by opening up the formal economy to female entrepreneurs.

Turning the spotlight on human capital and innovation

Members of the 40-strong African delegation attending the meeting agreed on one thing: Africa must learn to take better advantage of its human potential to boost the kind of economic development that benefits a broader expanse of society.

In particular, attitudes toward entrepreneurship need to undergo a radical change.

“Many Africans today still aspire to become doctors or lawyers, but entrepreneurs only if they can’t find jobs. There has to be a rapid change in this mind-set. Young people don’t know what it means to become entrepreneurial. We need to show that it is a real option,” according to Anne Amuzu, a businesswoman from Ghana.

Inspirational role models of successful African entrepreneurs are important.

Women such as Bethlehem Tilahun – founder of SoleRebels, one of Africa’s best-known shoe brands – who was counted among the top ‘100 women to watch in 2012’ by Forbes magazine, are examples of the impact women can make in the global landscape.

An estimated two-thirds of African women participate in the labour force and, according to the World Bank, the rate of female entrepreneurship is higher in Africa than in any other region of the world.

Many of these women are active entrepreneurs in their countries’ informal economies.

The message that women can make a real difference to the continent’s future has made its way beyond Africa’s shores.

“Women in the private sector represent a powerful source of economic growth and opportunity,” said Marcelo Giugale, the World Bank’s director for poverty reduction and economic management for Africa.

The European Commission too has recognised that women are powerful drivers of sustainable development.

As part of achieving its commitments to the Millennium Development Goals, the EU has supported the enrolment of roughly 85,000 female students in secondary education, in 10 sub-Saharan African countries over the past five years.

“(Encouraging) women entrepreneurs can fuel growth. But this will depend on having appropriate training and opportunities for young people. Education can help achieve this, but we also need to inspire with role models,” Nigest Haile of the Centre for African Women Economic Empowerment told participants at the conference.

Better access to financial markets can help bring more women entrepreneurs into the formal sector and enable them to expand their businesses.

Training and other forms of education with an emphasis on improving business and financial skills will also help spur growth.

Many leaders firmly believe entrepreneurial training should start in schools if young people are to become financially literate and seriously consider starting their own businesses as a viable option for building a solid future.

A recent report by Ernst & Young suggests that dedicated training dramatically improves student perceptions of a career as an entrepreneur.

Africa’s recent growth spurt has already made life more rewarding for many of its inhabitants. Business opportunities abound and governments are showing an increasing willingness to get out of their way.

According to the World Bank’s annual ranking of commercial practices, 36 out of 46 African governments made things easier for business in the past year.

(Published on IPS News, October 2012)

 

Written by sabineclappaert

October 25, 2012 at 5:29 pm

Upper Crust

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(Published in The Word magazine, August 2012)

If you remember just one thing from this paper on dining etiquette, let it be this: never ever upstage anyone. Even if you know that what they’re doing is terribly impolite, etiquette demands that you always remain gracious.

“Whatever you may have been told, etiquette is first and foremost about making people feel at ease,” says Brussels etiquette coach Melody Kissoon.

In the intricate dance of the high-society dinner party, where menus are strategically chosen, seating plans carefully arranged and the company deliberately selected to ensure an optimum match, both host and guest have distinct roles to play and strict rules to adhere to.

“The most important role of the host or hostess is to make guests feel relaxed and comfortable by being gracious, calm and confident. As guest, on the other hand, it is important that you have the poise and skill necessary to navigate the scene and handle any kind of situation that may arise,” adds Kissoon.

Understanding the basic rules of dining etiquette is mandatory. Being appropriately dressed, knowing the difference between a white wine and red wine glass or knowing on which side of your plate the side plate is located, are basic prerequisites to being a polite host or guest. “But in high-society circles proper dining etiquette goes much further,” says Kissoon. “Few people for example, are aware of the difference between the British seating etiquette, which places the host and hostess at the long ends of the table, or French seating etiquette, which has the host and hostess opposite each other in the middle of the table.”

Understanding seating hierarchy also helps clarify who’s-who at the table. “The host will always have the most important female guest on his right, while the hostess will seat the most important male guest on her right.”

“There are strict rules as to who sits where at the table and it would be extremely embarrassing if you had to be asked to move, both for you and your hostess,” adds Kissoon. “Also remember: the hostess always governs the table, not the host.”

“When it comes to eating and drinking politely, proper dinner etiquette goes well beyond knowing that one has to use cutlery from the outside-in or knowing which glasses to use for each wine.”

“One of the biggest faux pas guests can make is beginning to eat before the hostess,” adds Kissoon.

Finishing a meal in style is equally important.  “At the end of a meal, it is polite to place your knife and fork together in the centre of the plate vertically, with the tines of the fork pointing up and the blade of the knife to the centre towards the fork,” which is the British way of indicating that you have finished your meal. Of course in other cultures there are other ways of doing so.” And what of the napkin? “It is always placed on the left side of one’s plate, but never refolded,” Kissoon points out.

After dinner, as guests relax and the night swoons to an end, collars are loosened, laughter rises boisterously and a flirtatious hand is placed on a nearby arm. What is the perfect hostess to do with rowdy guests or inappropriate situations? “She has to be the one to politely and surreptitiously explain the problem to the guest, or if necessary ask them to leave, and all without other guests noticing anything is amiss.”

“Host or guest, in high-society we expect people to have grace, dignity and elegance, whatever the situation,” Kissoon smiles modestly.

Written by sabineclappaert

September 19, 2012 at 2:32 pm

With a little help from my friend

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A new buddy scheme is helping former psychiatric patients rebuild their social lives, one coffee at a time.
© Sarah Eechaut
(photo by Sarah Eechaut)

 

For most of us, going to the movies, meeting a friend for coffee or strolling through the park are small pleasures we take for granted. Many psychiatric patients, however, are denied these moments of everyday happiness because they are socially isolated. With often only psychiatric staff, close family or other patients to rely on, what they miss most are friends. Buddywerking Vlaanderen, a social support project set up by Flemish minister for health and wellbeing Jo Vandeurzen, aims to help patients rebuild their social lives by offering them the simple pleasure of a friend.

Despite the sharp wind and unusually bleak summer skies, the terraces surrounding Roeselare’s town square are packed. Behind glass partitions people huddle down in warm jumpers and extra scarves over coffee, kriek and hot chocolate, desperate for a few moments of fresh air and friendly faces. Somewhere among the rows of tables sit Christine, 59, and Nougeria, 54, one of an estimated 200 duos that Vandeurzen’s Buddywerking Vlaanderen project has brought together across Flanders.

“Christine is not a ‘patient’; she’s my friend,” begins Nougeria, the buddy with whom Christine, who was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) 10 years ago, meets every Thursday.

Christine (photo left) and Nougeria (photo right) meet for coffee on the very terrace where I interview them today. “This is our spot,” grins Christine. “Sometimes we just have coffee and watch the world go by and sometimes, if I feel strong enough, we’ll go for a stroll along the store fronts surrounding the square.”

Reaching out

Christine whose physical affliction has isolated her, first met Nougeria two years ago, when she approached Buddywerking South West Flanders to request a buddy whom she could meet with on a weekly basis.

“Living with CFS is a huge adjustment, not only for me but also for my family. My illness forced me to quit my job as a secretary. Now I’m at home full-time and I have very little contact with anyone beyond my immediate family. I approached Buddywerking because I could use a friend who was not part of my direct environment, someone who did not have to deal with the realities of my illness every day – an outsider whom I could talk to, not only about my illness but about other things too.”

The fundamental premise of Vandeurzen’s Buddywerking system, which has been around since 1995 but has been rolled out in various parts of Flanders only since 2007, is to match a “buddy” – someone in a stable life phase who is prepared to commit to meeting with an (ex) patient once a week for at least a year – with a “participant”, to help improve the participant’s social life.

Research proves that a well-entrenched buddy system offers many advantages: It takes socially weaker individuals such as Chrisitne, whose physical illness isolates her, out of their isolation. It helps remove stigmas around certain afflictions; it improves the quality of life for the participant; and it decreases the risks of relapse and of suicide.

But the buddy system is much more than simply a matching of patient to buddy. A detailed process supports the duo well beyond the initial matching, from intake interviews with both parties and educational and networking sessions for the buddies, to follow-up evaluations and networking with other organisations in the mental health sector.

The search begins

Marian Deldaele of Buddywerking South West Flanders, who accompanied Christine and Nougeria during the interview, explains: “We take great care to make sure we have a good match between the buddy and the participant.

First, we select our buddies through intake questionnaires and interviews during which we get to know them better and make sure that they are indeed suited to becoming a buddy. Being a good listener with a stable and patient personality and empathy for people with certain vulnerabilities is very important,” she says. “Once we have ascertained that someone has the capacities to become a buddy, we begin the search for a matching participant.

Matching a buddy to a participant is part science, part intuition and experience, according to Deldaele. “We consider things such as character type, age and, of course, hobbies and interests.” A match between a buddy and a participant always starts with a three-month trial. “At the end of this period, we talk with both parties to make sure the relationship is developing in a positive direction. It’s also a perfect opportunity to find out whether the buddy needs support on specific topics or whether we could have them attend training sessions to help them better understand or deal with specific situations.”

Both Christine and Nougeria still remember meeting each other for the first time. “Nougeria was the first buddy I was introduced to,” smiles Christine as she looks over at Nougeria. “I guess we were lucky; we hit it off immediately and now we’ve been friends for more than two years.” Nougeria completes her friend’s thought: “The first time we met, I asked Christine: What do you expect of me? She was very clear: She wanted someone she could talk with, not only about her illness but also about both our lives, the things that interest us, things that are happening in the world…”

Another perspective

Vandeurzen, who rolled out the Buddywerking project to the whole of Flanders at the end of 2011, explains: “We wanted to give our participants a contact in the ‘real world’. Not a medical practitioner who analyses them, but someone who is just there, as a bridge to the outside world.”

The benefits of the system are clear to Christine. “Having Nougeria to talk to gives me another perspective on the world. Sometimes it’s something as simple as helping me see a situation at home in a different light, and sometimes, it’s her own life experiences that provide me with valuable insights. Nougeria also works full-time, and we talk about her work sometimes, too which I find very interesting. It keeps me connected to the real world.” Nougeria smiles, placing her hand on Christine’s: “We’re not always serious; sometimes we also laugh about the silliest things,” she winks as they both break into laughter.

But not everyone is as lucky as Christine. “We do have more participants than we have buddies,” says Deldaele. “There is a waiting list for buddies at the moment. Like the other 12 chapters of Buddywerking, we keep searching and hoping for more enthusiastic people to become buddies. Most pressing are buddies for younger people and male participants.”

“Spending time with Nougeria is a real boost,” concludes Christine. Nougeria waves away her friend’s grateful glance. “Helping people get back on their feet, there’s a lot of fulfilment in that.” They look at each other. “That’s why we’re here telling our story today,” adds Christine. “To help people take that first step to ask for a buddy. We both get so much back from it.”

www.buddywerking.be

(Published in Flanders Today, August 1st, 2012)

Written by sabineclappaert

August 1, 2012 at 3:47 pm