Brazil’s 16-year-old Baseball Wonder Turning MLB Heads

A prospect with a 94 mph fastball gets a lot of attention, no matter where he is pitching — even when that prospect is a diminutive 16-year-old from a country with little baseball tradition.

Eric Pardinho’s blazing fastball has brought scouts to this city 50 miles west of Sao Paulo in soccer mad Brazil. The 5-foot, 8-inch tall right-hander could get a lot more attention July 2, when Major League Baseball teams can begin signing international players. Pardinho is No. 5 on MLB.com’s list of 30 world prospects to watch.  

 

Pretty impressive for a kid who was introduced to baseball almost by accident.

“I am only here because at 6 years of age I was playing paddleball on the beach and my uncle thought my control could be good for baseball back in Bastos,” he said.

Also throws change, slider

Bastos is a small town outside of Sao Paulo with a sizeable Japanese population. The Japanese began bringing their love of baseball and sushi to Brazil in the early 1900s.

Pardinho, whose mother’s parents are Japanese, started gaining attention last year when he struck out 12 in a win over the powerhouse Dominican Republic at the under-16 Pan Am Games. In September he got two outs against Pakistan — both strikeouts — in a qualifier for the World Baseball Classic, a 10-0 win played in New York City.

The young Brazilian’s changeup and slider have also earned praise from local coaches, who already see at him as a potential national star for baseball’s return to the Olympics in 2020 at Tokyo. At the moment Brazil has only one player in MLB, the Cleveland Indians catcher Yan Gomes.

Since January, more and more visitors have come to watch Pardinho workout at a new MLB-sponsored training center in Ibiuna, another city influenced by baseball-loving Japanese immigrants.

Eager to sign

Pardinho is eager to sign with a team and move to the United States.

“There is a lot that I will only learn when I go,” said Pardinho.

 

The pitcher said his height should not be an issue, though his family members still hope that he will grow more in the next year.

“Some time ago there was an issue with shorter players, but now there are teams that don’t care. It matters more that I have a safe fastball and two more good options, including a curveball that I control well,” he said.

‘He destroys them all’

Other MLB hopefuls agree: facing Pardinho is a huge challenge.

“Pardinho’s curveball is amazing, he is more than fast. His height doesn’t matter because his arm can do wonders,” said third baseman Victor Coutinho, also 16.  

 

Also a pitcher, Heitor Tokar practices with Pardinho every day and believes in his friend’s future in the sport.

“Pardinho doesn’t feel any difference when he throws against players taller than him, he destroys them all,” Tokar said.

Even Pardinho’s coach, Mitsuyoshi Sato, knows the teen is headed for bigger challenges, and protects his arm. Sato pitches the soon-to-be pro no more than two innings at weekend tournaments.  

Room for improvement

 

Pardinho’s father Evandro makes the hour-plus drive from Bastos to check on his son, and Sato makes sure Pardinho is a priority for Yakult training center medics. Pardinho has the support of an orthopedist, a physiotherapist and a fitness trainer. He also has a technical trainer.

“He still has to improve physically and mentally. I don’t want him to do too many fastballs now because I worry about a possible injury,” said Sato. “No arm is prepared to pitch that fast, much less the arm of a kid.”  

 

Sato believes Pardinho has room for improvement in the control of his changeup so he can spare his arm and shoulder.

Pardinho thinks if he has success, he could change baseball in Brazil.

“If I do well, maybe more and more Brazilians, not only those of Japanese heritage, will think of playing on a diamond, too.”

 

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Tsetse Fly’s Weakness May Be Its Symbiotic Bacteria

The fly that carries African sleeping sickness may carry the seeds of its own destruction, according to new research.

Scientists have detailed the unique relationship between the tsetse fly and bacteria in its gut the fly can’t live without.

The tsetse fly spreads African sleeping sickness to humans from wild animals and has caused several major epidemics in the past.

The parasite responsible for sleeping sickness is one of the few pathogens able to pass from the blood into the brain. It disrupts the sleep cycle and leads to mood changes, confusion, tremors and ultimately organ failure.

Researchers have long hoped to take advantage of a number of the fly’s unusual properties. Like mammals, the tsetse fly lactates and gives birth to live young.

The tsetse milk contains bacteria called Wigglesworthia that the mother passes on to its young. Despite having one of the smallest known genomes, Wigglesworthia is a big deal for the tsetse fly. Without it, the fly becomes infertile.

In the report published Wednesday in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, researchers from Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, and the University of Pavia in Italy described a number of ways that the tsetse fly depends on Wigglesworthia. The bacteria supply B vitamins that the fly can’t produce on its own and doesn’t get from blood, its only food source. Without B vitamins, the fly can’t properly nourish its young, and they starve.

Proteins’ roles

The scientists also examined the tissue that houses the bacteria. The fly produces a special protein that guides the bacteria where they are needed. Another protein hides the bacteria from the fly’s immune system.

This leaves the researchers with several attack strategies as they move forward. They could try to produce drugs that target Wigglesworthia directly, or unleash the flies’ immune system on the bacteria, or block one of the several pathways that the bacteria use to support the fly.

“There’s a lot of potential places you could throw a wrench into the works,” study co-author and entomologist Geoffrey Attardo told VOA.  “It’s just finding a place that’s optimal.”

Recent efforts to stem the spread of sleeping sickness have been largely successful. According to the World Health Organization, the number of reported cases fell from almost 40,000 in 1998 to just 2,804 in 2015.

But researchers say it is still important to develop new control methods that are cheaper, easier to deploy and more effective.

“During epidemics, the political will to address this is there, but then when the disease goes away, the control efforts stop,” said Attardo. “Then flies come back in from wild areas, and the cycle starts again. And 20 or 30 years later, you have another epidemic.”

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Chilean Scientists Produce Biodiesel From Microalgae

Biodiesel made from microalgae could power buses and trucks and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 80 percent, Chilean scientists said, possibly curbing pollution in contaminated cities like Santiago.

Experts from the department of Chemical Engineering and Bioprocesses at Chile’s Catholic University said they had grown enough algae to fragment it and extract the oil which, after removing moisture and debris, can be converted into biofuel.

“What is new about our process is the intent to produce this fuel from microalgae, which are microorganisms,” researcher Carlos Saez told Reuters.

Most of the world’s biodiesel, which reduces dependence on petroleum, is derived from soybean oil. It can also be made from animal fat, canola or palm oil.

Saez said a main challenge going forward would be to produce a sufficient volume of microalgae. A wide variety of fresh and salt water algaes are found in Chile, a South American nation with a long Pacific coast.

The scientists are trying to improve algae growing technology to ramp up production at a low cost using limited energy, Saez said.

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Tennis Star Venus Williams Sued in Fatal Car Crash

Tennis star Venus Williams is being sued by the family of a man who died in a car crash in which she was involved.

Court officials in Palm Beach County, Florida, confirmed that the family of Jerome Barson, 78, filed the lawsuit against Williams on Friday.

A police report released Thursday described Williams as being “at fault” in the incident, which took place this month. Police have not charged Williams with an offense.

An attorney for Barson’s wife, Linda, who was driving at the time of the crash, accuses Williams of running a red light as well as inattentive and negligent driving.

The attorney, Michael Steinger, said he thought there might be video of the crash that was captured by surveillance cameras at the guard houses protecting Williams’ neighborhood.

An attorney for Williams, Malcolm Cunningham, said she entered a six-lane intersection on a green light but got stuck in traffic while trying to turn. The light then turned red while Williams was still making her turn, he said.

Williams said she didn’t see the Barsons’ car before she crossed into their lane. Jerome Barson spent two weeks in a hospital with a fractured spine and internal injuries before he died.

Williams is in England preparing to play in the Wimbledon championships, where she has won the women’s singles title five times. Her younger sister, Serena Williams, the world’s fourth-ranked women’s tennis player, is not playing in the tournament because she is pregnant.

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Trump Revives National Space Council, to Be Led by Pence

President Donald Trump is forming a National Space Council to be led by Vice President Mike Pence.

 

The president signed an executive order Friday to revive a council last in place in 1993.

 

Trump says the announcement sends a clear signal to the world about the United States’ leadership in space. He says space exploration would help the economy and national security.

 

Members of the council are to include the secretaries of state, defense, commerce, transportation and homeland security, as well as the head of NASA, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the national security adviser and the director of national intelligence.

The council will also draw on insights from scientists and business leaders.

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McCartney, Sony/ATV Settle Dispute Over Rights to Beatles’ Songs

Paul McCartney has reached a confidential settlement of his lawsuit against Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC in which he sought to reclaim copyrights to songs by the Beatles.

The accord disclosed Thursday in filings with the U.S. District Court in Manhattan ends McCartney’s pre-emptive effort to ensure that the copyrights, once owned by Michael Jackson, would go to him starting in October 2018.

U.S. District Judge Edgardo Ramos signed an order dismissing the case, but agreed to revisit it if a dispute arose.

The dismissal request had been made by Michael Jacobs, a lawyer for McCartney, on behalf of the singer and Sony/ATV.

It was unclear how the accord affects McCartney’s copyright claims. The singer’s representatives could not immediately be reached Friday for comment.

McCartney, 75, had sued on January 18 for a declaration that he could reclaim more than 260 copyrights, including for songs credited to him and John Lennon such as I Want to Hold Your Hand, Yesterday and Hey Jude.

The registrations at issue also covered Maybe I’m Amazed and several other songs McCartney recorded as a solo artist. They even covered such titles as Scrambled Egg, which is close to the working lyric Scrambled Eggs that McCartney once used for the song that became Yesterday.

McCartney had been outbid by Jackson in 1985 for the Beatles’ song rights, which were later rolled into Sony/ATV, a joint venture with Sony Corp. The pop star’s estate sold its stake in that venture to Sony for $750 million last year.

McCartney sued a month and a half after a British court said the pop group Duran Duran could not reclaim rights to its songs, in its case against Sony/ATV’s Gloucester Place Music unit.

Changes made in 1976 to U.S. copyright law let authors like McCartney reclaim song rights after periods of time elapsed.

In his lawsuit, McCartney said he could begin exercising his rights on Beatles songs, starting with Love Me Do, on October 5, 2018.

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Court: US Can Seize New York Tower Linked to Iran

A New York jury ruled Thursday in federal court that a skyscraper with apparent ties to the Iranian government can be seized by the U.S. government, in what prosecutors are calling the single largest terrorism-related civil forfeiture case in American history.

The jury found that the Alavi Foundation, which owns about 60 percent of the 36-floor building, funneled money to the Assa Corporation, a shell company for Iran’s state-controlled bank that owned the remaining 40 percent of the building.

The defense argued that the Alavi Foundation, founded as a charity by the shah of Iran in the 1970s, had been tricked into believing that Assa had been sold to private investors after the 1995 implementation of U.S. sanctions on Iran.

“It’s really difficult to understand why you can be held accountable for the knowledge that you were trying to get, but you were lied to about,” defense attorney John Gleeson said during closing arguments, according to The New York Times.

Prosecutors asserted that officials from the Alavi Foundation lied, hiding and shredding documents in an attempt to erase guilt.

“The owners of 650 Fifth Avenue gave the Iranian government a critical foothold in the very heart of Manhattan through which Iran successfully circumvented U.S. economic sanctions,” Joon H. Kim, a lawyer from the prosecutor’s office, told French news agency AFP.

Situated on New York City’s posh Fifth Avenue, the building is valued at between $500 million and $1 billion. The court has decided to distribute the proceeds from its sale to the victims of Iran-sponsored terrorist attacks.

In particular, victims of the 1983 Beirut Marine barracks attack and of the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia will receive benefits. Tehran has consistently denied involvement in either of the attacks.

In 2013, a lower court decided the case in the U.S. government’s favor, but the decision was stayed on appeal.

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Thailand, China to Sign $5 Billion Rail Infrastructure Agreement

In a major boost to Thailand’s transportation infrastructure, the military government is set to sign a more than $5 billion agreement with China for a high-speed rail network.

The first stage of the rail, the 252 kilometers from Bangkok to Nakhon Ratchasima, is a key step in a line that, once complete, will stretch more than 1,260 kilometers to Kunming, in China’s Yunnan province. The next stages will reach the Thai border with Laos. 

Analysts see the rail line as an extension of China’s One Belt, One Road initiative, expanding regional trade and investment. The project also highlights China’s growing regional influence.

The agreement, expected to be signed in July, follows almost two years of delays in negotiations, with final details of the contract still to be made public.

The deal has also raised widespread criticism of the government’s use of powerful clauses in an interim charter.

Economic boost for Thailand

Economists say investment in Thailand’s rail infrastructure needs to be a priority.

Pavida Pananond, an associate professor of business studies at Thammasat University, said general improvements to Thailand’s transportation network are welcome.

Several other countries, including Japan and South Korea, have put forward transportation plans and proposals for rail systems in recent years.

“It’s good for Thailand and it’s good for Thai business. I would say a clear ‘yes’ because Thailand is in dire need of better infrastructure, especially with regard to transport,” Pavida said.

Thailand, she said, faces high transportation logistics costs due to a reliance on roads.

Talks surrounding the Sino-Thai rail agreement have been bogged down for over two years due to disputes over land access to China, debate over interest charges on loans from Chinese banks, and the eligibility of Chinese engineers and architects to work on the project.

Professor of economics Somphob Manarangsan said the rail project offers the region significant economic potential and a boost in Chinese foreign direct investment.

He said Thailand is also looking to China to invest in the government-backed Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC) that is targeting regional foreign investment.

“Thailand wants them [China] to move their regional supply chain outside of China to the mainland of ASEAN [Association of South East Asian Nations] area, which has Thailand at the hub, connecting to CLMV [Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam],” he told VOA.

The rail network includes a 410-kilometer section through Laos, in which China is contributing 70 percent of the total $5.8 billion cost. Laos sees the rail line as vital to enable it to export goods to the Thai seaport of Laem Chabang, near Bangkok.

Special powers raise concern

But the project has come under increasing criticism in Thailand after the military government, in power since May 2014, insisted on using powers under Section 44 of the interim charter that give the government absolute authority in policy application.

The government claims the use of the special power was to ensure Chinese investment, expertise, technology and equipment.

Former army chief and Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha told local media the use of the charter powers was to clear legal hurdles in the Thai-Sino rail project, “not a special favor to China but to Thailand’s benefit.”

But the use of the laws was challenged by organizations of Thai professional engineers and architects who said Chinese engineers were not registered to work in Thailand.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University, in a commentary, said Thailand should press for open bidding on the project to ensure the country ended up with the “best bid with the best value.”

“Instead, opting for the Chinese plan is poised to violate a slew of Thai laws and undermine the government’s own good governance agenda,” Thitinan said.

Besides exemptions to Chinese engineers and architects working on the project, the charter articles also exempt state procurement laws and environmental regulations covering forest reserves, which will be set aside for the line’s construction.

Thammasat University’s Pavida said other concerns include levels of transparency on the agreement.

“People don’t know the details. People haven’t seen much information on the potential benefit, and partly, this is because the feasibility study has been done by the Chinese,” she said.

“So, if you look at that and the Chinese try to sell their technology and then we let them do the feasibility study, so they would say, ‘yes, it is feasible.’ So that’s one of the reasons why people do not have trust in the rush into this,” she said.

Analysts said the government’s push to sign an agreement comes as Thai’s Prayut is due to visit China in September to attend meetings of the BRICS — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — forum in Xiamen.

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India to Rollout Momentous Tax Reform, But Many Fear Rocky Transition

India is set to rollout a momentous tax reform at midnight Friday that will transform the country of 1.3 billion people into a single market.

The Goods and Services Tax (GST) will replace an entanglement of more than a dozen confusing levies with a single tax and bring down barriers between states.

But the transition is bringing upheaval. The new tax has sparked strikes, protests and concerns it could disrupt many businesses unprepared for a leap into the digital economy.

In markets across the country, confusion and chaos prevail among millions of small shopkeepers and traders, who have for decades maintained records in dusty ledgers and issued paper receipts to customers. Some are hurriedly investing in computers as new rules require all but the smallest businesses to submit online taxes every month.

Calculator to computer

Suresh Kumar, who runs a family owned store in a bustling neighborhood market in New Delhi, has never operated a computer and does not have an Internet connection in his shop. His customers mostly pay in cash and a calculator on his counter is the only modern gadget he has used since he opened this shop 47 years ago.

“How will I pay the salary of an accountant? I can barely cover the costs of these three men who help me,” Kumar said, pointing out that stores like his run on wafer-thin profit margins to stay in business.

The archaic accounting systems that were the method of operation of thousands of shops and traders also kept them out of the formal economy.

But as GST draws them into the tax net, government revenues are expected to get a huge boost in a country where tax compliance has been very low.

​Growing pains

The government agrees there will be growing pains due to the scale of the task ahead but points to long-term advantages. Over time, the new tax is expected to add about 2 percent to gross domestic output and vastly improve business efficiencies in the world’s fastest growing economy.

Economists say the GST will be a benefit for manufacturers, because it will free up domestic trade by cutting through a gigantic bureaucracy that involved a myriad of tax inspectors and checkpoints at state borders.

At the moment, trucks transporting goods lose an estimated 60 percent of transit time as they wait at state borders. Paying bribes was a fact of life accepted by businesses.

The tax will also make India’s $2 trillion economy more attractive to investors as it makes the economy more transparent.

More time needed

But in recent weeks many businesses have called for a postponement of the July 1 rollout, saying they did not get enough time to prepare.

K.E. Raghunathan, president of the All India Manufacturers Organization, said businesses need more time to adjust.

“The way it is being implemented, it is bound to create lots of chaotic conditions,” he said.

Underlining concerns of millions of small and medium manufacturers, he said, “they neither have the wherewithal to understand the sudden implementation and if they approach chartered accountants or consultants, it costs lots of money.”

A big concern is that the GST being rolled out by India is far more complex than that introduced by other countries where a single rate prevails. There will be four layers of taxation with rates of 5, 12, 18 and 28 percent.

Manufacturers and traders complain the different levels are creating confusion.

More than 50,000 textile traders went on strike this week. Thousands of other traders shut businesses Friday.

Many big and small retailers worried about the switchover have been offering massive discount sales across the country to get rid of their inventories.

Government pushes ahead

But the government has brushed aside concerns about businesses not being prepared for the switchover. 

“If he is still not ready, then I am afraid he does not want to be ready,” said Finance Minister Arun Jaitley recently as he rejected calls for a delay of the rollout.

Businesses say the tax rollout is the second disruption they have faced, coming months after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s radical move to scrap 86 percent of the country’s currency, which slowed the economy.

As customers pour into his shop to buy stationery and other items, New Delhi shopkeeper Vimal Jain wonders whether he will handle customers or enter transactions in a computer starting Saturday. 

“Now this is another headache,” he said. “We had barely begun to recover from demonetization and now this sword hangs over our head.”

The tax will be ushered in at a grand midnight ceremony in parliament, but even that has become contentious. Calling it a “publicity stunt,” the main opposition Congress Party and several other parties have said they will boycott the special session.

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In the Age of Smart Devices, How to Protect Yourself from Surveillance, Abuse?

As technology has become part of our daily life, it’s increasingly been used to intimidate victims of domestic violence. In Australia, an organization is helping victims discover smart devices abusers might be using to invade their privacy and control them from afar. As Faiza Elmasry has the story. VOA’s Faith Lapidus narrates.

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Experiencing Hurricane-Force Wind

The 2017 Atlantic hurricane season has arrived. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says there’s a 45 percent chance that this year’s activity will be above normal, with up to four major hurricanes. VOA’s George Putic visited the wind tunnel at the nearby University of Maryland to experience the hurricane-strength wind and check out the latest in the science of predicting the stormy weather.

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US Growth in First Quarter Better Than Expected, Global Outlook Improves

U.S. economic growth in the first quarter of 2017 was better than expected but not by much. The Commerce Department says U.S. GDP, the broadest measure of goods and services produced in the country, grew 1.4 percent from January to March, 0.2 percent faster than the previous estimate. But many analysts believe U.S. growth will improve in the second quarter. And growth prospects for the global economy are the best they’ve been in six years. Mil Arcega has more.

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Preterm Births in US Increase for a Second Year 

New government data show the health of pregnant women and babies in the U.S. is getting worse, and a report by the National Center for Health Statistics shows the number of babies born prematurely has been increasing since 2014.

Preterm American births increased in 2016 and 2015 after seven years of steady declines. Prematurity rose by 2 percent in 2016 and by 1.6 percent the year before.

Stacey Stewart, president of the March of Dimes, a nonprofit U.S. group that works to eliminate prematurity and birth defects, called the increase “an alarming indication that the health of pregnant women and babies in our country is heading in the wrong direction.”

Expand health care

Stewart called on Washington to expand access to quality prenatal care and promote proven ways to help reduce the risk of preterm birth. Noting that the U.S. Senate is considering a health care bill that many Americans believe would reduce health benefits for poor families and change coverage for maternity and newborn care, Stewart said now “is not the time to make it harder for women to get the care they need to have healthy pregnancies and healthy babies.”

In the U.S., about 400,000 babies born each year before the 37th week of pregnancy are considered preterm. No one knows all the causes of prematurity, but researchers have discovered that even late-term “preemies” face developmental challenges that full-term babies do not. Several studies show that health problems related to preterm births persist through adult life, problems such as chronic lung disease, developmental handicaps and vision and hearing losses.

African-American rates

Research also shows that African-American women are 48 percent more likely to bear a child prematurely than all other women. And African-American infants born with birth defects are much more likely to face severe outcomes, compared to other U.S. newborns.

African-American women in general are worse off than low-income white women, Stewart said.

“We want to make sure that all babies have access to opportunities to be delivered at full term,” she told VOA, “that mothers have the opportunity to have healthy pregnancies and deliver their babies full term, and we know we must do a much better job in African-American and Hispanic communities and in other communities of color,” to make sure that solutions are available.

The report from the National Center for Health Statistics, which is part of the government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, shows that preterm rates rose in 17 of the 50 U.S. states, and that none reported a decline.

The incidence of low birth weight, a risk factor for some serious health problems, also rose for a second straight year in 2016. Again, rates of low birth weight babies were higher for African-Americans than for other racial groups.

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Simple Malaria Intervention in African Schools Leads to Big Improvement in Students’ Performance

New research suggests that the ability of children in Africa to perform well in school could be dramatically improved through basic malaria education and treatment. While less fatal among older children, malaria infections often reduce a child’s ability to concentrate, as Henry Ridgwell reports.

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Ambitious Cambodian Dance Troupe Honors Artistic Traditions in New Ways

Prumsodun Ok, a Cambodian-American born to refugee parents, knew he wanted to be an “apsara” dancer from the age of 4, when he was entranced by a performance captured on one of his family’s home movies.

No matter that the dance dated back to the seventh century, or that traditionally apsaras were beautiful, heaven-born females, destined to entertain gods and kings at the Angkor temples in the ancient Khmer Empire, modern-day Cambodia. Ok focused on the stylized grace of the dancing and thought little about the fact that the dancers were women, because he was a kid and he had a dream.

But he put that on hold for 12 years. 

Growing up in Long Beach, California, home to 20,000 Khmer immigrants, Ok was bullied because he was “different.” He recalls being branded as gay and “kteu” — Thai or Cambodian slang for someone who is born male but acts or looks female — when he was 5. That name calling led him to self-identify as gay in his teens.

“I don’t know when I knew,” Ok said about realizing that he was gay, “but I can say that I only became comfortable in my latter years of high school. This is me, this is who I am, and no one can change that or take that away from me.”

That was about the time when, after years of watching his younger sister practice traditional Khmer dances, that he found the courage to approach her dance master.

A rising star among dance students

“I really love dance. Can you please teach me?” Ok pleaded, and Sophiline Cheam Shapiro agreed. Teenager Ok quickly became a rising star at her Khmer Arts Academy in Long Beach, which is affiliated with an arts ensemble in Cambodia.

The school, founded by Shapiro, teaches traditional arts to Cambodian-Americans. Shapiro was one of the first graduates from Phnom Penh’s School of Fine Arts after the fall of the Pol Pot regime and is revered as one of Cambodia’s leading contemporary dance choreographers.

In 2015, Ok, now 30, moved to Cambodia and established Prumsodun Ok & NATYARASA, the country’s first gay dance company. Male dancers ages 18 to 24 fill roles traditionally performed by women. The troupe stages Khmer classical dances as well as new works that Ok creates.

“What I’m doing is drawing from our traditions and using these traditions in ways that people could never imagine to create a more inclusive and compassionate and just Cambodia,” he said.

Coming from “a long tradition of people who are in the service of society … of humanity,” Ok said he has learned “that service is not just about being comfortable: those who are comfortable are not always necessarily right.”

Cambodian society’s tolerance

Srun Srorn, 36, the founder of CamASEAN and a human rights activist, told VOA Khmer that while the majority of LGBTQ Cambodians are marginalized and discriminated against, society is more tolerant of their role in the arts.

Ok’s group “is more professional, so I think it will bring the positive [response] from the community,” Srorn said. “So far, this part of the art — performing — is not getting any negative reaction from the public.

Ok says his role as a teacher of dance goes beyond the classroom.

“Getting them to learn how to see, getting them to have the courage to ask questions, getting them to have the bravery to explore things on their own,” he said. “Those are the most essential things that a teacher of any art form, or discipline or medium, needs to inspire in their students.”

Choung Veasna, 19, of Phnom Penh, says Ok gave him confidence: “I’ve learned from my teacher that no matter what people say about you, it doesn’t matter.”

Tes Sokhon, 24, from Pailin province, the oldest dancer in the group, says his teacher is inspiring. 

“He’s more than my idol,” Sokhon said. “He’s the first teacher to train me in classical dance. He provides us with income and makes our lives better.”

​‘Combination of beauty and tradition’

The troupe’s passion for classical Khmer dance has not gone unnoticed.

Craig Dodge, director of sales and marketing at Phare, the Cambodian Circus performance troupe in Siem Reap, said: “When I watched the video on their homepage and heard the young men talk about what performing has meant to them, their identity and their self-esteem, it made me cry.”

Courtesy Prumsodun Ok and NATYARSA 

 

Dodge worked with Ok to make the troupe’s Siem Reap debut in Cambodia’s artistic center a reality, by tapping into the city’s strong sense of community, which he describes as “the perfect place for nurturing and presenting traditional and new Cambodian creative expression.”

Resident Darryl Collins, an art historian, is providing the venue without charge because “the combination of beautiful and traditional 100-year-old Khmer houses with an elegant contemporary form of classical dance seemed an exciting collaboration.”

Other Siem Reap businesses are pitching in with free accommodations, transportation, security and are helping stage the performances July 14 and 15.

Prumsodun Ok & NATYARASA is scheduled to perform three dances: PRUM x POP, ranging from Khmer classical dance to pop music; Beloved, which explores a 13th century Khmer king’s love for his land; and Robam Santhyea Vehea, a tale of love and marriage of two men.

Ok hopes an open-minded audience will see the performance as a measure of how LGBTQ people can create art in their communities.

“I want the company to be a model for compassion, for bravery, for beauty,” he said.

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Kenya’s Nomads Work Together to Reduce Conflicts and Poverty

It looked like a hostage swap, only the currency was livestock and the mission was to end decades of deadly clashes.

More than 50 sheep, goats and cows stood in the scorching heat of a desolate no-man’s land in arid northern Kenya, as Maasai and Samburu herders negotiated their handover.

Lipan Kitonga cast a critical eye over his emaciated herd, which 10 gun-toting Samburu had stolen from his home in Isiolo County, 300 kilometres (186 miles) north of Kenya’s capital.

“I was not around at the time,” said Kitonga, a community-based police officer, known as a police reservist, dressed in camouflage fatigues with a G3 rifle in hand. “Otherwise it would have been a different matter,” he said, his voice still tight with anger nine days after the animal theft.

Drought and violence

Nomadic herders in remote northern Kenya, which is awash with illegal arms, frequently raid cattle from each other and fight over scarce pasture and water, especially during droughts.

A wave of violence has hit Isiolo’s neighboring Laikipia region in recent months as armed herders searching for grazing have driven tens of thousands of cattle onto private farms and ranches from denuded communal land.

The livestock exchange was organized by the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT), a charity set up in 2004 with support from donors and conservationists to reduce conflict and poverty among nomads by helping them better manage their land.

Almost 300,000 people are members of NRT’s 33 conservancies, which are community organizations focused on conservation, owning nearly 6 million acres (2.4 million hectares) of land across Kenya’s north and coast.

Nomads no more

Drought has hit millions this year in northern Kenya, where most people live off their livestock. As Kenya’s population has doubled in 25 years, nomads can no longer freely follow the rains, turning some overgrazed common lands to dust.

“You have got more people, with more livestock, on less and less productive rangeland and it’s a really explosive situation,” said Mike Harrison, chief executive of NRT, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). “The only answer to this is that everybody has to invest in improving their land.”

NRT promotes rotational grazing with a sustainable number of livestock, which allows land to rest, and the reseeding of degraded areas. Zones are set aside for wildlife, people and livestock, with limited access during drought for nomadic animals from other communities.

It also helps develop new businesses — tourism, bead-making and livestock markets — so nomads are less dependent on herding.

Tourism is the real money-spinner.

The most successful conservancies earn about $500,000 a year from visitors paying daily entry fees of $50-$80, Harrison said.

These earnings go into a community fund with 40 percent spent on operations, such as rangers’ salaries, and 60 percent on community projects, such as education and health, NRT says.

Shootouts

One of NRT’s main achievements has been to reduce conflict, cattle rustling and poaching by funding more than 500 rangers, trained by Kenya Wildlife Service, to patrol members’ land.

Many are police reservists, like Kitonga, issued rifles by the government to back up the overstretched police.

In Nasuulu, just north of Isiolo town, the Samburu, Turkana, Somali and Borana — who have traditionally fought each other — have come together to form one conservancy, an NRT member.

“They never used to talk to each other before, but they are now working together,” said Omar Godana, Nasuulu’s chairman.

 

Wildlife protected, too

Elephant poaching has stopped on 35,000 hectare (86,487 acre) Nasuulu since 12 NRT-funded scouts were deployed, he said.

NRT’s mobile security teams work with the police and wildlife service and receive aircraft and tracker-dog backup from a nearby wildlife conservancy, Lewa.

With increased security and strict controls on grazing, shootouts between armed herders and rangers are inevitable.

“It’s a killer squad,” said John Leparsanti, a Samburu herder in Laikipia who sees the crackdown on illegal grazing on NRT conservancies as a threat to his traditional way of life. “When there is a biting drought we cannot graze.”

Herding is key to the identity and culture of Kenya’s nomads, whose young men are initiated as warriors in colorful ceremonies where each kills a cow and drinks its blood. Their role as ‘morans’ is to guard the community and its animals.

Livestock provide nomads with a ready income because they can be sold quickly for cash. Pastoralists often do not have bank accounts and have high illiteracy rates because they roam over vast terrains with their cattle from a young age.

“We are not ready to do business like other tribes because we believe in cows,” said Samburu politician Mathew Lempurkel. “What are we going to replace them with?”

Harrison says less than 1 percent of NRT members’ land is set aside exclusively for wildlife.

Livestock is life

In remote, insecure lands, with poor roads and patchy mobile phone networks, there are no obvious alternative ways of life.

“If we went to say: ‘Look, you’ve all got to cut your livestock numbers in half, we would be laughed out the door,” Harrison said. “It’s a long slow process of rethinking what the incentives might be, trying different options.”

The authority of elders who used to control shared grazing land has been eroded by centralized government rule and modern education, experts say.

As climate change has brought increasingly frequent and prolonged drought and less grass, herders are keeping more goats as they can browse on shrubs and young shoots, unlike cattle.

The goats rip out the grass roots, further degrading the rangeland and reinforcing the vicious downwards cycle.

Some northern counties have formalized traditional land management customs in local bylaws, with the aim of giving power back to elders, in contrast to NRT’s approach of supporting decision-making by conservancy boards of directors.

“When you have the elders managing, there is enhanced ownership and the feeling of exclusion is not there,” said George Wamwere-Njoroge, an expert with the International Livestock Research Institute, which supports such initiatives.

ILRI is also encouraging herders to keep fewer, healthier animals, which fetch a better price at local markets, instead of trucking their cattle for 24 hours to the capital, Nairobi, where cartels control sales, he said.

Status cows

One solution, rarely discussed by politicians, would be to reduce the number of livestock owned by wealthy, urban elites, who keep vast herds on northern lands as a status symbol.

Unlike in the past, when droughts would naturally have reduced livestock numbers, the elites ship in hay and water to keep their animals alive.

“A lot of destitute pastoralists have dropped out and moved to the small trading centers and depend on relief and petty trade,” said Wamwere-Njoroge. “But the elite pastoralist animals keep on going.”

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