I have always been interested in geography and the far reaches of the world—the people, their customs, the flora and fauna. I love maps and have since a young child looking at the topography, the demographics and historical points of interest. I blame my parents for this affliction as they subscribed to National Geographic throughout my childhood. The magazine, and maps that came with it several times a year, was my window to the world which is important when one is growing up in a small Appalachian town in western Pennsylvania.
How small you ask? Small enough that some folks never leave the county let alone the surrounding counties. A statistic I once read stated that 50% of people settle within 50 miles of where they grew up. I find that hard to fathom.
As an avid traveler I keep a global perspective daily due to planning future adventures as well as working for a large corporation with overseas interests. Events that happen outside the USA often have a causal effect here in Colorado so keeping an eye on the world issues is just part of the job. To me this is normal; to others concerns beyond the walls of their building might be of no immediate issue.
With the growth of cable TV and the 24×7 media culture that it brings to us we cannot escape the global perspective. Ignore it and it will return to haunt your decision. The world is becoming more spatially aware thanks to the cable networks but it is a slow process.
It is human nature to be myopic and ethnocentric to some degree. Once the basic needs of life are secured these issues can be addressed and lessened through education and experience. Sometimes they are often one in the same as experience is the best teacher.
It is safe to say most people in the USA have their basic needs met and do tend to their education as validated by a 99% literacy rate. Compare that to just over a 25% literacy rate for the African nation of Chad one could conclude the United States people have it pretty good.
So why is geographic knowledge so dismal for such a literate country?
In researching for this article I found a CNN geography survey from a few years ago. The results were atrocious. This was in no way a solitary finding, just one of several, but indicative of a trend that has far reaching implications.
The survey group in this instance was 18-24 years old. Not only was the knowledge of local geography terrible where 33 percent could not find Louisiana on a U.S. map but so was their grasp on an international perspective. In this category, of the respondents, only 25% could find Israel or Iran on a world map! The results were worse once the questions became more specific about the foreign country regarding their size, population or domestic resources. Their knowledge of state and country capital cities was just as lack luster.
This geographic myopia was below my awareness level until my brother Tim went off to war this past spring.
He did not go to Iraq or Afghanistan. He went to Sri Lanka as a volunteer with Doctors without Borders (known worldwide as Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)). He offered a year of his time to assist MSF wherever they needed a surgeon. Because of this friends and acquaintances often asked me about Sri Lanka. Many did not even recognize its name, let alone its civil war, for which I blame the US centric media for their blatant focus only on issues that affect the United States in a rather direct manner.
For Tim, our family and friends, the war in Sri Lanka came to the forefront of our consciousness since the Sri Lankan government raised the ante in the 25 year old civil war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) last December. Fighting between the two forces resulted in numerous civilian casualties and many injured mainly from artillery bombardments that each side blamed on the other in a media propaganda front line.
He arrived in the capitol of Colombo in March. Our regular communication methods—cell phone, text messaging and email—ended once he moved to his hospital in Vavuniya a few days later. I resorted to old fashioned postal mail and the news networks for communication and information.
This is when I realized information about the country, or its war, was hard to find. Was it because Sri Lanka is a small country halfway around the world? Rhetorically, could most Americans even find it on a map?
Thanks to Google my search for information did not take long. Of the numerous sites offered up I found the most useful sites to be the BBC and MSF for general news and the humanitarian perspective–not NBC, ABC, CBS nor FOX.
More to my surprise was the encyclopedic level of information about Sri Lanka on both the BBC and MSF sites improving my working knowledge of Sri Lanka on all levels. Did you know the name Sri Lanka was only adopted in 1972? Prior names of this island nation go back to ancient Greek times when it was known as Salike, then Siclen Diva and more recently Ceylon.
The war ended 18 May when the Sri Lankan army killed or captured the remainder of the LTTE leadership. Approximately 300,000 civilians are currently in temporary refugee camps awaiting relocation back to their villages. While the numbers of newly wounded have dropped MSF surgeons are still operating on an enormous backlog of injuries as well as everyday issues from the camps inhabitants.
Please consider a tax deductible donation to MSF to support their worldwide cause.
Some editorials on the people, places and issues in Sri Lanka as seen from a volunteer’s perspective:
Now for some geography miscellanea:
Get out and Explore the World!
PS – Thanks Mom & Dad!