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Natalie Malek

See more by Natalie Malek

Robots and AI are slowly making their way into our daily lives
Geopolitics

How Five Countries Are Integrating Robots Into Daily Life

People in Asia already trust robots enough to let them take care of their loved ones and deliver the evening news. Meanwhile, a hitchhiking robot's world tour successfully passed through Germany, the Netherlands and Canada, but the American leg of the journey was cut short when it was decapitated and beaten to death in Philadelphia.

Yes, we humans are an unpredictable and diverse lot. And inevitably, different regions of the world are bound to perceive artificial intelligence in different ways. Here is how five countries are incorporating robotics into their cultures... On their own terms.

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A Friendship Bench session in progress
Sources

In Zimbabwe, Where Grandma Steps In For Missing Shrinks

In the absence of qualified staff, grandmothers from the Friendship Benches program offer free listening and advice to patients suffering from depression.

HARARE — In Shona, there is no word for depression. So, to talk about it, "we say "kufungisisa," which means ‘thinking too much,"" says Esilida, 73, while waiting for her next patient on a wooden bench in the clinic of Glen Norah, an impoverished suburb in Zimbabwe"s capital Harare. "I explain to them how to take care of themselves," she says in a rocky and breathless voice, examining visitors that come and go.

All sorts of miseries are unloaded onto her bench: Domestic violence, lack of money, fear of being rejected because of AIDS, unemployment. "If my patient has several problems, we approach them together, one by one, until we've solved them all." Esilida is among the first grandmothers in her neighborhood to get involved in the Friendship Bench program. These old women, present in most of Harare's clinics, offer free listening and advice in a country with only 14 psychiatrists.

I didn't set up the project to look good. I did it because it was necessary

Dixon Chibanda is one of them. He is behind the project that has been present in most of the capital's suburbs since 2006. At that time, Zimbabwe's few psychiatrists left the country in the middle of an economic crisis. While he was carrying out his a masters degree in public health, Chibanda realized there was a high level of mental health disorders, such as depression and anxiety, in working-class neighborhoods. He decided to act and enlisted the help of Harare's public health department. Symbolic help, that is to say, because no funding, doctors, nurses or buildings were granted. "I was offered to work with 14 volunteer grandmothers who were already health advisers in the Mbare neighborhood. I didn't set up the project to look good. I did it because it was necessary."

Mental health guards

This morning, it is Jane's third appointment with Esilida. She discovered the Friendship Bench initiative when she was picking up her AIDS medication at the clinic. After the death of her husband, she found herself penniless and Esilida suggested they sit down. "I cried again and again. The counselor told me: ‘You will die, I will die too. You have to think about your children, take your medication every day, and eat the right food.""

Even if the language they use may be a bit too direct sometimes, the grandmothers know what they're doing. Themselves neighborhood's residents, the grannies know very well the living conditions of their patients — because they live in the same conditions. True guards for mental health, these social workers help ward off depression before it settles in and causes severe mental health problems.

In 2016, more than 85,000 people sat down on a friendship bench. This approach, more social than psychiatric, can be summarized in three concepts. "‘Kusimudzira," to lift your spirit, ‘kusimbisa," to strengthen your mind, and ‘kusimbisisa" to strengthen it even more," said Esilida, pointing to the words on the yellow loincloth that she has around her body.

Every Wednesday, former Friendship Bench patients gather in a speaking circle that combines moral support and financial help. As they sing and listen to each other, participants also learn to crochet bags they can later sell.

"Here, we hold hands rather than the mind," Esilida says with a smile. Jane uses the money to buy wholesale products at the market, and then resells them on the roadside. This way she can send her son to college.

Talking to someone who empathizes is very powerful.

Little by little, the project has spread across the country, all the way to the rural zones, where it has represented a wake-up call on the issue of mental health. In Ngomahuru, the second biggest psychiatric hospital in Zimbabwe does not have a single psychiatrist. This former leprosarium is not suitable for patients suffering from mental health disorders. "We have to improvise," says Parirenyatwa Maramba, the hospital director, pointing to the isolation cell, an empty room closed by bars: "The walls are supposed to be padded, the furniture fixed to the floor or to the wall, the room near the nurses' office ... Here, it is quite the opposite." A few days ago, a patient suffering from depression committed suicide.

Dr Maramba saw the Friendship Bench project as an opportunity to overcome the shortcomings of this place that can accommodate "180 patients instead of 300 because of a lack of staff." "Only 16 of us, out of 53 doctors, have been introduced to psychiatry, but none of us is a psychiatrist, psychologist, or occupational therapist," says the doctor, who dreams of being able to detect and treat mental diseases before they become more acute.

To optimize skills, the medical team has kept the essential parts of Chibanda's project: Caring and watching out for peers. Based on the domino effect, the psychiatrist trained the caregivers to detect mental disorders, so that in turn they transmit their new know-how to about 20 non-specialized nurses in remote clinics. "We administer these pills against headaches or to sleep without looking to understand the origins of the disorder," explains the chief nurse in the hospital. "If their disorders were detected earlier, some patients would not have to be hospitalized."

Once trained, the rural nurses will pass the baton to community workers dispersed in each village, so they can get closer to even to those who live in the most remote areas. This chain includes teachers who "deal with teenagers, whose suicides are increasing," says Dr. Maramba: "Young people have so many challenges, at school, at home, with undesired pregnancies, with strained relationships... It's a very fragile age group, that needs the help of the Friendship Bench."

In Ngomahuru, the Friendship Bench project is expanding and is gradually changing. Soon, wooden benches, a school room, the steps of a dispensary, or the shade of a mango tree will become places of listening. The idea remains the same. "They provide a space for the sick," explains Chibanda. Talking to someone who listens and empathizes with you is very powerful. Everyone needs it."

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Japanese newspaper headlines when Carlos Ghosn was first arrested in November 2018
Japan

What The Ghosn Affair Says About Japan And The West

The fate of disgraced auto chief Carlos Ghosn has revealed deep differences between the Japanese and Western systems of justice. And not only.

PARIS — When visiting the West this week, and starting with France on Tuesday, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe knows his country's image has been damaged by the extraordinary Ghosn affair. The allegations against Renault and Nissan's former CEO — indicted on further charges again in Tokyo on Monday — have stunned and shaken even his most fervent supporters. And yet the world has also discovered through this case the particularities of a judicial system that reveals a "double-layered" Japan: Western on the outside, Japanese on the inside.

Head of a nationalist government, Abe embodies this ambivalence with his contested vision of history, his controversial reinterpretation of the Constitution toward a deeper military commitment, and his iron fist against the critical media. Japan's history in the second half of the 20th century is one of a country that successfully opened itself to globalization, but on its own terms.

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Athlete wearing a hijab
Sources

Let's Go France! Veiled Women Have The Right To Run

The controversy over France's Decathlon athletic hijab is a symbol for misunderstood secularism. Let's leave the regulation of clothing to those who practice it so well, from Saudi Arabia to the Taliban.

PARIS — I have always loved strolling through the aisles of Decathlon, letting myself be tempted by all the sports I will never practice. I come home full of lycra clothing, which, I have to admit, generally ends up in my closet. Of course, I have a few reservations — I do not gravitate towards the outfits for shot put nor the athletic hijabs. But their presence on the shelves would not surprise me. To each their own. Hefty He-Men have the right to throw hammers and veiled women have the right to run, don't they? Apparently not, as decreed by the league of virtue of politics and media.

Since, in this case, the good sense of tolerance doesn't seem to be enough, let's review the two main arguments against this piece of cloth. First of all, secularism. When did secularism become synonymous with forbidden? We must read the work of historian Jean Bauberot to understand at which point the original concept of secularism became distorted. The law of 1905 is effectively more liberal than its current interpretation. Its author, Aristide Briand, opposed the "complete secularism" proposed by the Jacobins. He was not looking to promote an atheist state, but rather to allow the coexistence of many religions (the law explicitly targets the separation of church and state).

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The clock is ticking for Theresa May's Brexit?
EL PAIS

Europe On Brexit: Pick Your Metaphor

-Analysis-

"It's almost like Shakespeare: Brexit or no Brexit? That was the question." German state broadcaster Deutsche Welle resorted to a passing twist on Hamlet after the British Parliament delivered what may be the final defeat Tuesday night in Prime Minister Theresa May's attempt to lead the UK to an orderly divorce from the European Union.

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Anti-Bouteflika protests in Algiers on Feb. 26
LE POINT

Battle Of The Ages In Algeria

-Analysis-

It's a striking contrast in both age and public exposure. Defying a sometimes repressive police force, a bold youth-led Algerian street protest movement has risen up against the North African country's aging and largely invisible leader.

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