Meeting global food demand through gene transfer

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The current exponential growth of human population places incredible demands on agriculture. It is estimated that agricultural production must double in order to meet projected demands by 2050. This increase must be made despite a steady loss of arable farmland, dwindling fertiliser reserves, increasing salinity of soils, limited irrigation water, climate change and shrinking of genetic variation in agronomic crops. Based on current agricultural increase, yield trends are inadequate to meet food demands by 2050.

Even now, about 870 million people are chronically undernourished. Over one billion people live on less than one pound per day and must spend over half of their income on food. Each year approximately eleven million children living in impoverishment die before reaching their fifth birthday and every day about 25,000 people die due to starvation related complications – making malnutrition one of the largest contributors to human mortality.

Inventive solutions

Meeting global food demands in the coming decades will require inventive and sustainable solutions. The scientific community agrees that one of the best ways to meet this demand for food is to enhance the ability of crops to harness energy from the sun.

Both food and biofuel production require photosynthesis to utilise abundant solar energy and store it in biomass via carbon fixation. However, photosynthesis is often limited by the availability of carbon dioxide. All plants use a photosynthetic mechanism known as C3 photosynthesis. Plants that use only C3 photosynthesis for the uptake of carbon dioxide are greatly hindered by oxygen, a waste product of photosynthesis. Interestingly, about 4% of plant species are able to overcome inhibition of oxygen and enhance their photosynthetic efficiency with a more efficient carbon fixation process, termed C4 photosynthesis, which acts as turbo charger to operate in parallel with the existing C3 pathway. In hot climates, C4 plants are more productive, drought tolerant and require less nitrogen than C3 plants.

Gene transfer

The specific objective of my research is to work towards comprehensively identifying the genes required for C4 photosynthesis with the goal to transfer them into economically important C3 crops, in particular rice and wheat which together account for about 40% of human food supply. Introducing C4 photosynthesis into these crops will potentially increase current yields by 50% while adding greater nitrogen- and water-use efficiency. If rice and wheat alone were to be converted to C4 and given the right environment, theoretically 1.4 billion more people can be fed per year without need for more farmland or agricultural inputs. This would be an incredible and sustainable solution to global food security and supply!

Transferring C4 photosynthesis into C3 crops involves alteration to leaf anatomy and partitioning the biochemical reactions encoded by existing C3 genes into different cell types, which facilitates more efficient carbon fixation. Thus, understanding how these photosynthesis genes are regulated paves a path to engineer more efficient crops for increased food and biofuel production. Transfer of C4 photosynthesis into important C3 crops could yield considerable gains by boosting world food supply at a time when agricultural production is predicted to drop beneath global demands.

*Gregory Reeves [2014] is a Plant Sciences PhD Candidate in the Department of Plant Sciences, University of Cambridge.

Why the future of the Arctic matters

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Today more than ever before, the circumpolar region is integrated into the international system. Although the North has always been connected to the rest of the world through trade networks and migratory routes, globalisation and climate change have created unprecedented connectivity through communication systems, global markets and environmental cooperation.

But the Arctic is not just connected globally – it has quickly moved from the periphery to the world’s centre stage and, as climate change takes effect, it looks likely to stay there.

However, despite meaningful moves away from colonial policies, the globalised narrative of the North is still an extractive one. Political rhetoric, business forecasts, and climate science all measure the Arctic’s significance in terms of benefits for the rest of the world. Because of its ecological vulnerability, the region is often called the canary in the coalmine for climate change. What happens in the Arctic in the years to come will be an early indicator of the future environmental changes for the rest of the Earth.

What’s more, climate change consequences like rising sea levels that are deemed unacceptable for the developed south are not only tolerated in the Arctic, but capitalised on. Anticipated open waters from climate change have prompted countries to highlight the importance of their national Arctic territory for mineral development, shipping routes and energy security for economic growth.

Rather than concentrate global attention on what can be extracted from a melting Arctic, the international community should focus on the new avenues globalisation has created for investment in and knowledge exchange with Alaska. Unstable markets and high cost of production provide policymakers in Juneau and US with the chance to reformulate how decisions on infrastructure investment are made – the chance to invest in livable, sustainable places rather than resource rush settlements.

Smart growth

Investing in complete streets and smart growth principles are one key way to take advantage of that opportunity. Smart growth is a type of community planning that encourages compact, walkable, and transit-oriented development. It focuses on sustainability and creating a unique sense of place through expanding the range of transportation, employment and housing choices; promote public health, and preserve and enhance local identity and culture. Through policy regulations like zoning ordinances, local growth boundaries, shared development rights, and environmental assessments, smart growth increases family income and wealth; provides safe walking routes for children; stimulates economic activity; and fosters livable, healthy places for diverse communities.

Such policies capitalise on globalisation’s decentralisation of political power; utilise today’s international communication and information systems; and support the rich, diverse cultural perspectives of Arctic residents. Smart growth provides the physical infrastructure to increase productivity and innovation, to develop a thriving local economy and to take advantage of access to global markets.

In a way, the Arctic is inevitably the world’s distant early warning line for climate change. The North Pole, along with other geographies like small island nations in the Pacific, will be the first and potentially hardest hit by ecological shifts and weather pattern variations. But unlike the original Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line which consisted of a series of radar stations in the Arctic region warning of impending Soviet invasion, national and international policymakers today must think beyond constructing expensive, isolated stations that provide little to Arctic peoples but security to the security of the Western bloc of the world. Investing in place means moving beyond the dominating narratives of an extractive Arctic globalisation from a southern perspective. Investing in place means investing in local infrastructure that foster economically, environmentally, and culturally thriving communities for the ‘northerners of the 21st Century’ who live there.

*Victoria Herrmann [2014] is a Research Associate at The Arctic Institute, doing a PhD in Polar Studies. To find out more about her analysis of the Arctic Human Development Report II: Regional Processes and Global Linkages report at thearcticinstitute.org.

Seven lessons in mentorship

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Mentorship is all the talk in professional development and leadership circles, but what does real mentorship look like? And how do you go about building mentoring relationships? We assembled a distinguished panel to discuss these questions with Gates Cambridge scholars and this is what we learned. 

Mentorship sounds warm and fuzzy, but it’s a slippery concept. Practices that appear similar at first can be quite different on closer examination. Coaching, emerging from a tradition of American sport, focuses more on improving performance as a craft.  Apprenticeships, with their origins in pre-Industrial Age Europe, involve direct training and observation often of a specific technical skill.  Advising might come close, but advisors are often transient. They might help navigate a specific situation or blind spot, but then move on.

A recent panel organised by the Gates Cambridge professional development programme served as a platform to understand the concept of mentorship and identify some helpful lessons.

Lesson #1: What is mentorship? Look to the cultural traditions of South Asia for a possible model.

One speaker suggested that we learn from the “guru-shishya” model for relationships to understand the concept of mentorship. Borrowed from the cultural traditions of South Asia, the guru (mentor) and shishya (mentee) relationship has two features worth noting. First is the idea of cycles – learned wisdom and experience is being passed onward, much like in a baton race. The second builds on the first point and goes further: even though the guru and shishya have disparate levels of experience, the two are brought together in a relationship as equals participating in collaborative learning. This mutual respect and commitment to each other – bounded by a sense of shared values or interests – drives the mentorship forward.

Lesson #2: Great mentors build your confidence by helping you come up with the answers.

Effective mentors aren’t one-way transmitters of experience (though their experience certainly helps!). Neither does a mentor need to be an expert in your field or craft. But they’ll know to ask the right questions and then help you arrive at the answers. Together, you and your mentor can explore any number of topics. For example, you might focus on “growing edges” – the areas in which you want to develop further expertise or knowledge. Mentors can also help you figure out “how things work”, such as with finding life balance, tackling new challenges at work, or deciding on a career or job change. The insights that come from this relationship should help build your confidence as you pursue your goals. Such mentoring relationships can have varying levels of formality – from mutually defined expectations to more informal meet-ups – and it’s a shared responsibility to define this as needed.

Lesson #3: To be a mentee, try mentoring yourself.

Even if you’re early in your career journey, you’ve got wisdom and experience that someone else will find valuable. Look within your communities and you’re likely to find a possible mentee – someone trying to find their first job, apply to college or graduate school or navigate a new field of work or study. Develop empathy for the practices described above, and pay the cycle of support forward. Who knows? You might even find that you end up mentoring one of your mentors!

Lesson #4: Before trying to find a mentor, define short and/or long-term goals.

Approaching a mentor with a few concrete goals will help the mentor know where to begin and ensure that you aren’t wasting their time. If you’re unsure of where you want to go in the next few years, you can still identify a few short-term goals – learning a skill or getting experience in a certain job or sector. If you’re less sure of these short-term goals, but have a sense for longer-range trajectories, a mentor can help you in figuring out what those near term actions might be.

Lesson #5: “Kiss a lot of frogs”. 

Brought to you by the Brothers Grimm, it’s a simple point but worth emphasising: you might end up meeting a lot of possible mentors before the right relationship sparks. Some might push a line of advice too hard, others may simply not have the time to truly invest, and sometimes areas of commonality that you thought might be present don’t materialise. But rather than sit and wait for mentors to appear in your life, be active in your college and work communities. Those are the places you’ll find your next mentor.

Lesson #6: Reciprocity and gratitude seem obvious, so practise them!

Mentors are taking time amidst busy schedules and competing demands to support you in your growth. Gratitude and reciprocity is a must. As you develop your relationship with your mentor, figure out ways you can show this – there’s no formula and the main point is simply to do what you feel is genuine.

Lesson #7: Mentoring relationships can have many arcs.  

The natural arc of a mentoring relationship can lead into multiple possibilities – professional collaborations, friendship that widens to family or acquaintances and the occasional meet-up. If your career path or interests have changed in significant ways or taken you in a new direction, this might also mean that your mentors will change too. Even in these cases, past mentoring relationships can evolve into a longer-term friendship.

There are no magic solutions when it comes to thriving in the face of doubt and difficulty, but building on a mentor’s wisdom and experience can be a great place to start.

*Victor Roy [2009] is a Gates Cambridge scholar as a PhD student in sociology and political economy at the University of Cambridge focusing on innovation in health. He is co-directing (with Andrea Cabrero) Gates Cambridge’s scholar development programme. He is also an MD candidate at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine and is a Paul and Daisy Soros Fellow for New Americans. Follow him on Twitter:@victorroy.  Picture credit: Stuart Miles and http://www.freedigitalphotos.net.

Tax justice is a matter of power, not ethics

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This week got off to a rough start for the global super-rich. Leading newspapers around the world, including the Indian Express, Le Monde, Haaretz, the Guardian and the Financial Times, opened this Monday with the largest data leak in banking history. ‘Swiss Leaks’ disclosed information about how HSBC, the world’s second biggest bank, helped rich individuals to avoid taxes and launder money. If they were unlucky, celebrities and politicians could read their names in the morning news next to those of drug dealers, arms traders, terrorists, dictators and their kin.

The amount of money piled up in secret accounts of HSBC’s Swiss arm is staggering. The American fashion designer Diane Halfin von Fürstenberg, for instance, allegedly held $6.3mn in her anonymous HSBC accounts. Most likely this money was out of reach for the US treasury. This is just one example that shows that “capital is back – but capital taxes not at all,” as Gabriel Zucman, researcher at the London School of Economics, puts it. He estimates that the well-to-do’s of the world keep $7.6tn, or eight per cent of global individual wealth, in tax havens. As a result, states collectively miss out on $147bn tax revenue annually. This amount equals the 2012 rescue package for Greece. No wonder Swiss Leaks provoke a moral outcry against the tax dodgers. Indignation was also all around after Offshore Leaks and China Leaks in 2013 and the Luxembourg Leaks in 2014, all made public by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). Yet, the moral club, as much as it is appropriate, will get us nowhere. For the core of the problem is the distribution of influence between business, government and employees, not the misconduct of a greedy elite. The issue at stake is power, not ethics.

Broken trust
Don’t get me wrong, no tax system will work without moral behaviour and trust. If the trust is broken, society will become impossible – just think Greece. Or go back in history to the 14th to 16th centuries, when taxation has been a deeply conflictual, indeed violent issue between the nascent modern state and its citizens. However, situating the root causes of tax avoidance and evasion in power rather than in ethics leads us to fundamentally different policy prescriptions, for those holding power rarely share it because of moral suasion. Feminists can tell you a thing or two about that.

Real change in tax justice only comes if we change the rules rather than beg for compliance. Taxation and the distribution of state revenue are the central point where the interests of the state, business and employees intersect with each other. Taxation helps to balance the interest of businesses to accumulate capital with the interests of employees to get fair pay, have stable jobs and social security. Depending on how the state designs tax policies, they further the interests of one group over those of the other. Taxation redistributes power.

We can see this mechanism at work in two different historical phases: During the so-called Western post-war consensus (1950 to 1985) and the neoliberal area (1985 until today). The post-war consensus between businesses and employees was forged by Western governments against the backdrop of the Cold War. Western workers accepted capitalism – and hence the dominant position of capitalists – in return for an extensive social welfare state and comparably high wages. This phase was characterised by historically low levels of inequality in Western societies. From the mid-1980s onwards, the post-war consensus eroded in light of the international integration of financial markets and rapidly growing cross-border trade. Liberal economic policies reinvigorated growth and were combined with tax policies that favoured businesses, particularly the large and internationally operating ones.

Even the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), two organisations hardly known for their socialist legacy, shout it from the roof tops that this second phase is
characterised by alarmingly high levels of inequality. The publications of the IMF and the OECD provide evidence on how the tax policies of the past 30 years favour capital over labour. Take the corporate income tax rates. In the 1980s they ranged from 48 per cent in poor to 38 per cent in industrialised countries. By 2013, the corporate income tax rates had fallen to 28 and 22 per cent respectively. As a result, corporate taxes contribute today nine per cent to the OECD states’ overall tax revenues. Taxes on personal income (both from wages and capital gains) amount to 25 per cent of the total. General and specific consumption taxes and social security contributions, which are disproportionally paid for by labour, make up 57 per cent. In short, labour pays currently the biggest share of the tax man’s bill.

Government sanction
The real scandal behind Swiss Leaks and Luxembourg Leaks is not that rich people and corporations use tax havens to avoid taxes. The scandal is that governments are allowing them to do so. Despite the mobility of international capital, corporations and the wealthy operate within the confines of the law. So, while rich individuals and businesses can use tax havens to “play states off against each other, [the] remedies lie in a state’s own hands”, Helen Thompson, a political economist at the University of Cambridge, points out in a publication from 2006.

Yet, governments largely did nothing, despite all the rhetoric about the “crackdown on tax havens”. The data that ICIJ used for Swiss Leaks has been available to the governments of France, Greece, the United States, Great Britain, Australia, India, Germany and others since 2010. In the past five years some governments asked individuals to quietly settle the bill; others sued a handful of the tax dodgers. Overall, however, the data has neither been systematically analysed, nor have governments tried to effectively address the underlying tax avoidance schemes.

One of the challenges in tackling tax avoidance and evasion among the bold and the beautiful is that the legal distinction between the income of the corporation and its owners is weak. Governments design tax laws that help businesses to remain internationally competitive. The rationale is that the government trades tax revenue for economic growth and employment resulting from successful business activities. However, since the legal distinction between the business and the business(wo)man is blurry, the tax laws that governments design to support their corporations also benefit the entrepreneur. This is why rich individuals who can afford the respective lawyers, tax advisers and fees prefer to retain their wealth in corporate structures. Tax avoidance and evasion can thus be tackled only if corporate and individual wealth taxes are reformed in tandem. And here we are at the crux of the matter: taxes are only as just as the economic and social systems they finance.

*Andrea Binder [2014] is doing a PhD in Politics and International Studies. Picture credit: zirconicusso and http://www.freedigitalphotos.net.

Prisoners and full-time students

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What does a criminologist do in her free time? Teach statistics in a prison, of course! You’re teaching … prison guards? No, I’m teaching inmates. What?! But… isn’t that dangerous? Are their guards with you in the classroom? Do you feel safe? These are often the first questions people ask me when I tell them I’m teaching through the Prison University Project in San Quentin State Prison.

Yes, I feel very safe. No, there’s no guard in the classroom with me. Prisoners can only take classes if they have (reached) a certain ‘safety level’: either they didn’t commit a violent offence or they have shown good behaviour in prison and have moved to a lower safety level. It’s a privilege to study through PUP and the students would be crazy to lose this opportunity by misbehaving in class. I feel that PUP students actually show more respect, motivation and interest than the average college student outside prison. The only situation I can imagine in which a student might hurt me is when he has mental health problems and ‘loses’ it. I think the chance of this happening is as big or small as in any teaching situation. Moreover, if this happened, I believe that the other students would help me out because they respect the teachers so much.

So, how does that work, teaching in prison? I teach Introduction in statistics to around 10 men. I’m responsible for one of the three times a week that they are being taught. Those two hours with the students are amazing. What I love about teaching is the fact that it brings me into a flow: there’s no room for distraction because there are 10 people to whom I’m trying to explain the material. Besides, I’m a geek and I love explaining statistics puzzles. There is an extra challenge since there are no computers that we can use. That again means there’s less distraction, also because I am not allowed to take anything inside apart from study materials.

Good swimmers for a raging sea

And then there’s the question that society wonders about: why would you teach prisoners anyway? I’ve discussed this issue before. I said that taking someone’s freedom is the punishment and we shouldn’t want to punish prisoners even more. Moreover, we obviously want to prevent reoffending after people leave prison. Employment and thus education are extremely important here. Many prisoners come from a disadvantaged background and never had the opportunity for good education, let alone a university education. PUP is an opportunity for these people to turn their lives around and become responsible, productive citizens. For the students’ responses to this question, click here.

Another aspect about teaching is that PUP creates an environment where everyone is respected, where the men can just be students, where they can have positive interactions with students and tutors. I cite my student Brian:

“The Prison University Project is an island in the raging sea of California Department of Corrections. We, the students, are a university community on the grounds of San Quentin Prison… The focus of our community is the university and its lighthouse of volunteer professors that guide us through the adventure of education. Students recognise how fortunate they are to have such a prominent pool of educators. Swimming in a rich pool develops good swimmers for a raging sea. I may be a prisoner, but thanks to all of you I am also a full-time student, working towards a positive goal, blind of prejudice, enriching the world.

This week I started teaching Statistics in the new semester. I can’t wait to go into the flow every week, and to teach another group of students everything about proportions, confidence intervals, regression and significance!

*Sytske Besemer [2008] did a PhD in Criminology and is doing a postdoc at University of California Berkeley. Photo credit: PUP.

Tackling the stigma of ill health through education

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What’s the best way to ignite change in medicine? It’s a complex question with complex answers, but forgive my somewhat trite and very Zen phrasing when I say “change comes from within”. I believe there are few better places to bring about change in medicine than within the hospital/medical setting itself. Peeking into the profession from the outside proves to be difficult; it’s hard to challenge the experience of doctors, nurses, health professionals and patients. But what if we target physicians, patients and most importantly medical students in ways that change the way they see their profession? Rather than continuing with rigid ways of studying, what if we teach through sharing knowledge and resources more widely? 

Untapped resources in the university setting

Let’s step back and take a look at our universities. In a single institution, there are massive amounts of resources. Every discipline is there for the asking, experts in practically every field, peer-reviewed literature at the tips of fingers, and then there are the students – hundreds of thousands of students who are revving to delve into their fields and use what they’ve been learning. 

Doesn’t this look like a hotbed for social change?

Educational facilities— check. Manpower— check. Resources and interest—check and check.

Yet what a majority of college and medical school social change clubs tend to do is simply link to external organisations and volunteer or fundraise. This is not to minimise the importance of these clubs; the experiences that the students collect are no doubt invaluable. But it seems like a key link seems to be missing. Academics. Merging academia with social responsibility is a synergistic relationship that has scarcely been explored.

There have been pilots of this sort of work. Just recently there was an article on a collaboration between the New York Academy of Art and the city’s medical examiner’s office to give faces to unknown individuals who met brutal deaths and whose skeletal remains were found on the streets of New York. In 2013, UCSF medical students were highlighted for editing Wikipedia pages for medical school credit. But we shouldn’t stop there. There is an opportunity to tackle an issue that has been hotly debated and is difficult to conquer. The issue of stigma in health.

Social stigma is the hidden burden of many, if not all, illnesses and can lead to limited access to health services and shame patients into avoiding treatment of curable disorders. The repercussions are huge. Take mental health, for example. An estimated 3.8 million people in the United States live with untreated mental illness in any given year. This includes around 40% of people with untreated bipolar disorder and 51% for untreated schizophrenia. And the consequences of this are, of course, extreme. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 13,000 suicides are committed each year by adults in the US with untreated schizophrenic, manic or depressive symptoms.

There is serious power in using education to reduce the effects of stigma. A study conducted in 2003 analysed the efficacy of intervention with young people aimed at increasing mental health literacy and found positive attitude scores rose significantly after a short educational workshop.

More accessible information

Educating the public on the underpinnings of mental illnesses can have a tremendous effect and can reduce many preventable tragedies that the world faces today. And medical students are the perfect people to do it. Students serve as the ideal link between the “lay-man” and the world of pure academia as they themselves are amidst the transition. What if they translated that hard-to-understand peer-reviewed literature to make it more accessible? Not only does this benefit the students by assuring that they understand the content thoroughly (if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t know it well enough”, right?), it also gives medical professors the opportunity to clarify evidently hard-to-understand topics. Doctors within the institution can share these articles with patients, and before you know it the entire hospital is involved in a multi-faceted way.

That’s the basis for The Humanology Project, an organisation I founded based at Stony Brook University. Students translate peer reviewed literature into readable blog posts with professors doing the fact checking. The process has been illuminating, fulfilling not only for the readers but for the students themselves. With my eye to the future, I hope to integrate the organisation more seamlessly with Stony Brook Medical Center and eventually begin to collaborate with other university hospitals. Communicating the specificities of science can have a tremendous effect on the way we view and interact with patients. The potential to bring about social change is trapped inside our educational institutions. It’s up to us to unlock it.

*Neha Kinariwalla [2014] is doing an MPhil in Modern Society and Global Transformations. Image courtesy of ddpavumba at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

 

On faith and secularism

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I recently accepted an invitation to visit a church in Kalinga Linga, one of the many shantytowns in Lusaka, known locally as compounds. The service was held in a dilapidated classroom where the floor was worn out and had big ruts, the furniture was small, old and not very comfortable and there was an uninspiring zinc roof with some bright florescent tubes attached to it. There were no musical instruments or equipment, but there was plenty of music from the human voice and an African choir can transform the voice like no other. The choice master conducted the range of male and female voices methodically, showing skill, depth and a superb understanding of harmony. The singers sung with a passion for God you can only find on this continent.

Zambia is a very religious country and in 1991 President Chiluba declared that the country was a Christian nation. Gay rights became a political football which rival political parties play to try and discredit each other in the eyes of the most important institution after the state, the Church.

People in Kalinga Linga face many hardships and being able to eat two meals a day is a luxury for many families, yet their faith is deep and unwavering. I have often wondered how those in precarious circumstances maintain their faith, but perhaps the answer lies in the deacon’s opening statement. He said: “Let us thank God that we are alive and energetic.” How strange that those struggling with survival should appreciate and honour the gift of life which those living in comfort take for granted so easily, as they yearn for what they do not have.

Thankfulness

The deacon said that January is the month of thankfulness and I thought how hollow this might sound to a cynic reading about the terrible events in France. Secularism is the privilege of the comfortable while those languishing in the compounds or the banlieux cling to their faith for in faith there is hope and with no faith there is hopelessness.

In the compounds people identify with Jesus because he was poor, he suffered and he was redeemed. Perhaps they need to believe that there is more than this life and the harsh hand it has dealt them. Of course, many well off people are religious. Wealth does not insulate us from illness, accidents, crimes, loss and other vagaries of life or existential crisis. Likewise, there are poor people who have given up waiting for a God who does not heed their prayers. Life is too complex to conform to simple bivariate explanations.

Yet the multitude of faithful poor, downtrodden people in the world is still astounding. In Africa they look to Jesus or Mohamed to find the courage to face another day hustling in the markets, begging in the streets or doing what it takes to put food in mouths. In religion there is community and in community there is help when the load becomes unbearable. There is the discipline of the choir and the literacy of religious studies. And when confronted with the humiliations of poverty the churchgoers in the compound can reclaim some of their dignity.

Perhaps the poor do have more to gain from faith then the middle classes, and religion for all its good and bad will not give way to secularism in Africa.

*Zenobia Ismail [2013] is doing a PhD in Politics and International Studies. Picture credit: ‘Hands’ by africa and http://www.freedigitalphotos.net.