15 February 2009

mid-lent term dispatches

The atmosphere in Cambridge has been noticeably different during Lent Term, the middle third of the academic year. It seems like everyone is hunkering down and working much harder, yours truly included. Certain Michaelmas Term luxuries, such as attending lectures for classes I am not taking for credit, are now largely a thing of the past. At least eastern England at this time of year is damp, cold, and gross, so it doesn't feel like we're missing anything.

An unpleasant class. One of the changes in format in our program during Lent Term has been semiweekly student-led seminars. Last week a classmate from Sudan conducted a seminar that was supposed to be about NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and civil society in Sudan. As many of you know, I was an activist with Save Darfur while I was in Alaska. My Sudanese classmate is a very pleasant guy, but occasionally he has made comments that have made me bristle. During his presentation, he spent relatively little time on the topic and mostly tried to debunk what everybody knows is going on in the Western part of Sudan.

He used many of the tropes that the Sudanese government uses to defend itself, including:
(1) referring to Darfuris are "rebels" and never once using the word "civilians";
(2) asserting, without evidence, that the Janjaweed militias are a "myth";
(3) cataloguing crimes and abuses perpetrated by employees of international organizations working in Darfur--which undoubtedly have happened--while never mentioning the hundreds of thousands of murders and rapes in Darfur, the millions of refugees streaming out of the country, or the burned villages;
(4) suggesting that the Darfur atrocities have been fabricated by some kind of Western activist-government-media conspiracy against Sudan.

As far off the mark as I think he was, I didn't know if challenging him directly on the facts during class would be the right approach. Perhaps fortunately, I didn't really have a chance, because he went on long enough that there was very little time for Q and A. From talking to some other classmates afterward, I got the sense that everybody knew the score. One recommended that I look at it as an "anthropological experience." I don't know if I will try talking to him about it in a less public setting, or even if it's worth doing so. If my German classmate were a Holocaust denier, I don't think I would bother trying to reason with her. The best approach I can think of for now would be to say something like, "that's not how I understand the situation in your country at all-- I'm just interested to hear more about where you're coming from?"

Cambridge has balls. Luckily even in the middle of Lent Term it isn't all work and no play. On Friday I attended the somewhat misnamed Springball at Churchill College. Springball is a very early preview of Cambridge's famous May Balls. If you thought formal hall sounded decadent, you ain't seen nothing yet. May Balls are all-night parties put on by most of the colleges, mostly during one week in mid-June (they were in May a long time ago, hence the name), and they are nothing if not celebrations of excess. Think of them as a cross between prom and Project Graduation, marinated in booze. Ticket prices vary widely, but a middle-of-the-road May Ball starts around £100 (about $145). The more prestigious balls are very hard to get into; the ball at St. John's College once made a Time magazine list of the 10 best parties in the world.

Churchill's Springball is nowhere near that level, but it's a pretty crazy party nonetheless. I went with a large posse of Gates people, many of whom are at Churchill, and we stayed from 8 pm until the bitter end at 3 am- which is very early by Cambridge ball standards. The food was generally pretty bad (surprise!), though I was a big fan of the donut stand. Activities included multiple concerts and dance floors, sumo wrestling in big padded suits, massages, an inflatable obstacle course, karaoke, and laser tag. I lost one of my cufflinks in the ball pit, and one of my friends -- who worked the second half of the ball in exchange for attending the first half for free -- miraculously found it at the end of the night and got it back to me.

You will surely be hearing more about May Balls, as I'm going to be attending two. One is an Oz-themed ball at Jesus College, which is where many of my Development Studies classmates are. The other is, obviously, Emma's ball. Fortunately I have no part in the planning of our ball, which got some bad publicity recently for a poorly chosen and subsequently withdrawn theme: "Empire." I didn't find the theme all that upsetting, and I do believe the intent was to "reflect the style and fashions of both Britain at the end of the nineteenth century and the diverse countries and cultures with which Britain was then entwined," but I'm irritated that the committee was so politically tone-deaf.

The contrast in subject matter above is not lost on me, and on Saturday I talked on the phone with my friend Kate, whom I'll be visiting at her Peace Corps post in Cameroon in late March. We shared a laugh over how a sentence like "I lost my cufflink in the ball pit" could be so completely foreign to her day-to-day life. Though I'm completely immersed in it right now, I am sure that Lent Term in Cambridge will seem alien to me too when I'm where she is.

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