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Hunger in the Heart of Empire: Pellagra in the United States

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Institutionalized poverty led to an outbreak of pellagra that Americans would rather forget. But grain farmers remember; they know that hunger is good business.

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“We are still surprised by the prevalence of . . . food shortages . . . 3,500 years after the Pharaohs worked out how to store grain.” The Dictator’s Handbook

The United States might be the last place you’d expect to hear about malnutrition that killed hundreds of thousands of people in the last century. Most Americans have already forgotten it, but a disease called pellagra—a niacin deficiency that causes dementia, diarrhea, and victims’ skin to roughen, crack, and eventually peel off—ran rampant in the United States for forty years.

Like most hunger, America’s pellagra nightmare didn’t just happen. It was allowed to fester for four decades because hunger suited the men in power. It disappeared once mass hunger became an inconvenience for America’s elite: when the US needed millions of soldiers in top physical shape for World War II. The United States’ long experiment with pellagra holds lessons for how its own internal hunger politics still work today; how it extends those hunger politics outward into “famine relief” efforts; and how food reform efforts in today’s America are still trapped in politics of denial about our own past.

America’s pellagra outbreak was a departure from earlier ones in Spain and Italy. In Europe, pellagra came from peasants trying to use the newly introduced crop of maize the same way they used wheat: by grinding dry grain into flour and using it to make breads and porridges. By contrast, European newcomers in what became the United States learned how to process maize from indigenous communities like the Chickahominy because for the first decades they were economically dependent on these communities. They ground it wet after a long soak in water and hardwood ashes. This process is today called nixtamalization, from the Aztec language (Nahuatl) nixtamalli for “ash dough”. It makes the kernels swell, shed their tough coats, and become soft and easy to grind into a dough by hand. The process also renders the niacin in maize digestible for the human body. Wherever maize becomes a staple crop, without the soaking process, pellagra often follows.

That is why America’s pellagra outbreak was unusual. Americans knew what nixtamalization was. Even today, traditional American dishes like hominy and succotash are often made with nixtamalized corn.

So how did America’s pellagra outbreak happen?

The easy answer is technology. In 1901, a device called Beall’s corn degerminator was invented. The “germ” is the tiny plant embryo inside the seed. It contains most of the seed’s perishable oils. With the “germ” removed, grain can be pre-ground in large central facilities, shipped long distances and stored for long periods without going rancid. Unfortunately, the germ is also where most of the niacin in maize is found. Even if nixtamalized, this degerminated and pre-ground grain would still provide very little niacin to the diet.

So that’s the easy version of America’s pellagra story. Industrial technology and railroads created the long-distance trade of pre-prepared foods. While convenient, these foods were not nutritious. Even though Americans have mostly forgotten the pellagra outbreak, the “technology” interpretation of its cause still survives in America’s food reform movements today: Pre-prepared foods cause disease. The cure is to eat fresh foods made from scratch. Using pre-made and “convenience” foods is still seen in the US as a sign of poverty, laziness, and indifference: inviting sickness through your own lack of diligence.

The United States’ long experiment with pellagra holds lessons for how its own internal hunger politics still work today.

But that is not the whole story. Niacin is not found in corn only. It comes from poultry, fish, beef, beans, and nuts. The problem wasn’t that people were eating pre-ground corn. It was that they weren’t eating much else. Poor people’s diet in 19th and early 20th century America was almost exclusively pre-ground corn, salt pork, and molasses: three things that are all low in niacin. The problem wasn’t pre-ground corn; it was poverty. And not even just poverty but a specific type of institutionalized poverty where wealthier Americans bought the food of the poor for them, and spent the least money possible on rations.

Pellagra was most widespread in the southeastern US. Even after the abolition of slavery, this part of the country specialized in farming cotton, not food. Cotton was grown in a sharecropping regime where farmworkers lived on the estate, and paid the owner for housing, tools, seed, and even food. They had to take out “loans” and pay them back at cotton harvest. The many sharecroppers who were Black were targeted for even worse. Estate owners used their wealth to build a system Americans called Jim Crow: no schools that would teach the children of poor black families’ to read and write. They went on frequent “night riding” campaigns, shooting up black homes and setting them on fire simply to terrorize them. Jim Crow laws kept Blacks from voting to stop these raids. Thus while America was “promoting freedom” abroad, it was itself torn by ethnic persecution and a labour system often indistinguishable from slavery.

Jim Crow also explains one of the most bizarre moments in US history: why American estate owners kept growing more and more cotton even as its global prices plummeted. It didn’t matter if estates lost money selling cotton. They made it up by loan-sharking their workers—using the loan system to soak up every additional penny workers made doing odd jobs like tinkering, domestic work, and making clothes. Their estates were less a cotton production system and more a system for mining the other inhabitants of their region for everything they were worth. What mattered was filling up the land with cotton. That way, there was simply nowhere for anyone to grow food. In this economically stunted region with few stores, poor people had to go through estate owners to buy food. And once they did, they were trapped in debt.

Cotton wasn’t about selling an agricultural commodity. It was about keeping whole regions poor and under the personal control of local landlords. Given how often they conducted raids and lynchings, one could even call America’s cotton estate men warlords.

But even that isn’t the whole story. Where did the corn come from?

It came from further north in the United States: a broad, fertile zone between the Ohio River and the 100th parallel. This region is known variously as the Midwest, the Corn Belt, and America’s breadbasket. The Midwest got started early as an export centre, sending corn and salt pork down the Mississippi to feed the enslaved. Their captors bought rations mostly as a supplement to the food grown on estates to minimize operating costs. But after the end of slavery, these estates switched to the Jim Crow model: excluding food crops from the region. Without the formal tools of slavery, the wealthy white landed elite found the next best way to control people was hunger.

This is how “US agribusiness” got started. It wasn’t because of mechanization after World War II. It was long before that, with mass exports to supply America’s own slave regime. A long-distance food trade already existed. That is why the Beall’s corn degerminator was invented in the first place. This isn’t an instance of technology popping out of nowhere to ruin lives. It was created to help along an extractive regime that was already happening. As long as we’re busy bickering over whether technology is good or bad, we’re not focused on who is using it and what goals of theirs it promotes. And if I had to guess, that’s exactly how powerful people like it. They like when we think the problem is machines existing, rather than the people putting them to work.

Their estates were less a cotton production system and more a system for mining the other inhabitants of their region for everything they were worth.

This longstanding trade wasn’t just good for the southern aristocracy. Midwestern landowners got fabulously wealthy because their fellow Americans struggled with forced scarcity. Just one state, South Carolina, imported US$70-100 million worth of food per year at the peak of this period in 1917—the equivalent of US$1.4-2 billion today. 1900 to 1920 became known as the “Golden Age of Midwestern Agriculture”. These two decades made a huge impression on American pop culture. When Americans today say “farming used to be profitable,” they’re referring to this specific period. Farming was famously precarious both before and after this time. Midwestern grain farmers have spent the last century chasing this high. And on some level, they know exactly how it happened: a war-torn Europe and a South plunged into artificial scarcity. Both unable to feed themselves and forced to either shell out their scarce cash or starve.

America might have forgotten the specifics of what happened. Pellagra is embarrassing, and World War I is a calamity few wish to remember. But if you look at US foreign policy, it’s clear that its grain farmers still remember enough. They know hunger is good business.

Thanks to the failings of basic democratic institutions in the US, Midwestern grain estates have incredibly disproportionate influence in US politics. This has consequences for our foreign policy that can be seen in “food aid” programmes that mostly serve as crop dumping that serves three purposes. It alleviates food gluts at home, propping up crop prices in the United States. Crop dumping also undercuts farmers elsewhere in the world. This can start a vicious cycle of dependency on imports: the American grain farmer’s ultimate gold mine. And finally, it makes America’s farmers look important. It makes their wealth and political prestige look like it is earned through the hard work of farming, instead of what it is: thieved away from other farmers all around the world through back-room geopolitical dealings.

Cash crops and technology aren’t bad in and of themselves. In democratic environments, they can build wealth and well-being in farming areas. But in economies dominated by warlords and other malignant hustlers, everything is turned to the detriment of ordinary people. Cash crops, technology, even access to food and water become struggles used to keep people bound to power players. The United States is no exception. Our history of mass hunger at home, forgotten though it may be, is witness to that.

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Dr. Sarah Taber is the founder of the crop consulting shop Boto Waterworks.

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Twitter: Let It Burn!

Whether or not Twitter survives should be irrelevant to those committed to building a democratic public sphere.

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Elon Musk finally bought Twitter. Although everyone expected the move to quickly prove foolhardy, the speed of the implosion has been impressive. The latest gaffe is a failed attempt to monetize verification by requiring paid subscriptions for them, which has led to all manner of comical impersonations (one macabre highlight was a “verified” George W. Bush account tweeting “I miss killing Iraqis. “Tony Blair” responded with “Same tbh”). Some are watching with shock and horror and wondering if Twitter can be saved. But, when sulfur and fire rains, it is best not to look back.

Africa Is a Country managing editor, Boima Tucker, put it best some years ago: “Contrary to the utopian dreams of the early internet, the idea of a more democratic communications space has given way to a system of capitalist exploitation.” The thing to reckon with is the extent to which we have exaggerated the emancipatory potential of networked communication and social media, partly owing to our own psychic overinvestments in it. Which is not to deny that it has never shown democratic and egalitarian potential, but that’s never been what Twitter is forThere can be no right platform in the wrong world.

What was Twitter for then? In the New York Review of Books, Ben Tarnoff describes it as a “network of influence.” In a world characterized by the economization of everything, social media is the place to commodify the self, to transform one’s unique traits and personality into a product for public display. The main imperative online is to “stay on brand,” to cultivate an appealing enough persona in the endless “production of new genres of being human.”

The key contradiction of social media use, of course, is that even though these platforms appear to us as complete products that we participate in and consume, we are the ones responsible for ensuring their possibility in the first place. As the media scholar Christian Fuchs notes, “Digital work is the organization of human experiences with the help of the human brain, digital media and speech in such a way that new products are created. These products can be online information, meanings, social relations, artifacts or social systems.” Thus, it is us who create the value of these platforms.

In a better world, these digital communications platforms would be democratically owned and operated. But one also wonders if in a better world they would be as necessary. Perhaps, when we are less socially disaffected, living in societies with social provision, an abundance of recreational public goods and less exploitative, dignifying work, then we would all have less reason to be online. For now, the question is: in a time when this ideal is nowhere close to being within view, how best can we use platforms like Twitter as tools to get us to that world?

The possible answers here are murky. Twitter seems like a critical piece of infrastructure for modern political life. Musk is not alone in thinking of it as a marketplace of ideas, as something like a digital town square. Yet, and especially in Africa, Twitter is not as popular a platform, and even on it, a minority of Twiteratti exert an outsized influence in terms of setting the discursive agenda. But setting aside the question of who is excluded from the digitalized public sphere of which Twitter is a cornerstone, the important question is whether the quality of political debate that takes place is healthy or desirable at all. Granted, it can be fun and cathartic, but at the best of times, amounts to hyper-politics. In Anton Jager’s explanation, this:

can only occur at a discursive level or within the prism of mediatic politics: every major event is scrutinized for its ideological character, this produces controversies which play out among increasingly clearly delineated camps on social media platforms and are then rebounded through each side’s preferred media outlets. Through this process much is politicized, but little is achieved.

We would lack critical self-awareness if we did not admit that Africa Is A Country is a venue whose existence greatly benefits from an online presence—so it goes for every media outlet. Tarnoff points out that “… if Twitter is not all that populous in absolute terms, it does exert considerable power over popular and elite discourses.” To lack an online presence is to reconcile oneself to irrelevance. Although, the news cycle itself is a disorienting vortex of one topic du jour to the next. It makes difficult the kind of long, slow, and sustained discourse-over-time that is the lifeblood of politics, and instead reduces everything into fleeting soundbites.

Nowhere is the modern phenomenon of what Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman called “pointillist time” more apparent than on Twitter. For Bauman, pointillist time is the experience of temporality as a series of eternal instants, and the present moment’s connection to the past and future “turns into gaps—with no bridges, and hopefully unbridgeable.” The consequence of this, is that “there is no room for the idea of ‘progress.’” Living through a mode where everything seems to be happening all at once, is both to experience time as what Walter Benjamin called “a “time of possibilities, a random time, open at any moment to the unforeseeable irruption of the new,” but curiously, at the same time, for everything to feel inert, and for nothing to seem genuinely possible.

For a while, notions of historical progress have been passé on the left, associated with Eurocentric theories of modernity. Now, more than ever, the idea is worth reclaiming. The Right today is no longer straightforwardly conservative, but nihilistic and anti-social, thriving on sowing deeper communal mistrust and paranoia. These are pathologies that flourish on Twitter. The alternative to media-fuelled hyper-politics and anti-politics is not real politics per some ideal type. Politics, in the first instance, is not defined by content, but by form. The reason our politics are empty and shallow is not because today’s political subject lacks virtues possessed by the subjects of yore. It’s because today’s political subject is barely one in the first place, lacking rootedness in those institutions that would have ordinarily shaped an individual’s clear sense of values and commitments. The alternative to digitized human association, as noted by many, is mass politics: only when the majority of citizens are meaningfully mobilized through civic and political organizations can we create a vibrant and substantive public sphere.

AIAC editor Sean Jacobs observed in his book, Media In Post-apartheid South Africa: “the larger context for the growing role of media in political processes is the decline of mass political parties and social movements.” Whether Twitter dies or not, and if it does, whether we should mourn it or not, should be beside the point for those committed to building a world of three-dimensional solidarity and justice.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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COP 27: Climate Negotiations Repeatedly Flounder

The distribution of global pandemic deaths ignored existing country vulnerability assessments and dealt some of the heaviest blows to the best prepared countries in the world

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As COP 27 in Egypt nears its end, I find it difficult, almost impossible, to talk to my children about climate change. The shame of our monumental failings as a global community to address the greatest crisis our planet has consciously faced weighs too heavy. The stakes have never been higher, the moral quivering of political leaders has never been more distressing.

“All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others,” goes the famous commandment from George Orwell’s political allegory Animal Farm. It applies with particular acuity to international negotiations, where each country has a seat, but seats hold very different weights. The outcome of the Sharm-El-Sheik conference will in large part depend on what Western governments are willing to commit to and follow up on. Rich European and other Western countries are historically responsible for the bulk of carbon emissions. The moral case for them being the first-movers and the biggest movers on cutting emissions is crystal clear, and genuine commitments on their part may hold the key to opening up the floodgate of policy innovation towards decarbonization in other countries.

In this context, viewed from the Global South, recent events in the country that still held the COP presidency until it was handed over to Egypt appear as signs of the madness that grips societies before a fall. In her short time as head of government in the UK, Liz Truss spoke as if she lived on another planet that did not show signs of collapsing under the battering of models of economic growth birthed under the British Empire, gleefully pronouncing that her three priorities for Britain were “growth, growth and growth.” Her successor, Rishi Sunak, announced that he would not attend the COP 27 climate summit because he had to focus on the UK economy. The silver lining is that Truss did not last long and Sunak was shamed into reversing his decision. In a scathing rebuke, the Spanish environment minister called the shenanigans of British political leaders “absurd” and pointed out that elections in Brazil and Australia show that voters are starting to punish leaders who ignore climate change.

I see another silver lining. Last week, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) announced that Europe was warming twice as fast as other parts of the world. A similar report was not issued for North America, but other studies indicate faster than average temperature increases across the continent’s northeastern coast, and its west coast was home to one of the most striking heat waves last year, with a memorable summer temperature peak of 49.6°C recorded in British Columbia, Canada.

Professor Petteri Taalas, the WMO secretary-general, emphasized that the findings highlighted that “even well-prepared societies are not safe from impacts of extreme weather events.” In other words, the report should make Europeans think it could happen to us, with “it” being devastating floods on the scale of what Pakistan and Bangladesh recently experienced, or the hunger-inducing droughts afflicting Madagascar and the Horn of Africa. While some may find it dismal that human beings remain relatively unmoved by the plight of other human beings considered too distant or too different, this is a part of human nature to reckon with. And reckoning with it can turn a sentiment of shared vulnerability into an opportunity for the planet.

Climate negotiations have repeatedly floundered on the unwillingness of rich countries to pay developing countries loss and damages to fund their transitions to greener energies and build crucially needed climate adaptability to limit deaths. Underlying such a position is a centuries-old smug belief that Europe and North America will never need to depend on solidarity from other parts of the world. The WMO report calls into question such hubris, as did the Covid 19 pandemic before that.

The distribution of global pandemic deaths ignored existing country vulnerability assessments and dealt some of the heaviest blows to the best prepared countries in the world. Europe and North America, where barely 15% of the world population resides, accounted for more than half of COVID deaths. Turning the normal direction of disaster statistics upside down, high- and upper-middle-income countries accounted for four out of five Covid deaths globally. While some scientists still pose questions over the real death toll in low-income countries, I was grateful to not live in the West during the pandemic. In Burkina Faso, Kenya and Senegal where I spent most of my pandemic months, I often encountered “COVID refugees,” young Europeans who had temporarily relocated to work remotely from Africa to escape pandemic despair at home.

We are at a point in our failures to fight climate change where fiction writers and other experts of human nature are often more useful than scientists in indicating what our priorities should be. Many fiction writers have turned their focus on what will be necessary for humans to remain humane as societies crumble. Before we get to that stage, let us hope that political leaders and delegates keep remembering that climate disaster could very concretely befall them personally at any time. Let us hope that the sense of equal—or more cynically, unpredictable—vulnerability instills a sense of global solidarity and a platform to negotiate in true good faith. Let us hope that we can start talking to our children again about what we adults are doing to avert the disaster that looms over their futures.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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The Specter of Foreign Forces in Haiti

The so-called ‘Haitian crisis’ is primarily about outsiders’ attempts force Haitians to live under an imposed order and the latter’s resistance to that order.

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What actually happened on the nights of October 6th and 7th, 2022, remains unclear. What reverberated was the rather loud rumor of the resignation of Haiti’s acting prime minister  Ariel Henry. He was a member of President Jovenel Moïse’s pro-US Pati Ayisien Tèt Kale (PHTK) party. (Moïse was assassinated in July 2021.) Had Henry truly resigned? Or was it just a well-propagated rumor? Could it have perhaps been both at the same time: that Henry might have indeed resigned but had been coerced to stay, thus making the news of his resignation spread like gossip that the governmental communication machine had fabricated for public consumption?

Nevertheless, we witnessed the following the next day: in Henry’s address to the nation, he first requested the intervention of foreign military forces in Haiti. He then made a formal request to the United Nations. This call was picked up by international organizations, particularly the Secretary General of the United Nations, António Guterres. In the media coverage of the events, no relationship was established between the (rumored) resignation of the de facto Prime Minister and his request for military intervention. Was it a way to keep our minds occupied while waiting on a response from the international community? Or was the military intervention a promise made by the international community to Henry for the withdrawal of his letter of resignation?

Media coverage has seemingly obscured what happened on October 6th and 7th by choosing to focus solely on the request for military intervention, obscuring a chain of events in the process. Was the same request addressed to the UN and the US administration? Or were these two distinct approaches: one within a multilateral framework and the other within a bilateral framework? Supposing it was the latter, what does this tell us about the Haitian government’s domestic policy, about US foreign policy toward (or against) Haiti, or even about geopolitics (as part of a white-hot world order)—especially in light of US Assistant Secretary of State Brian Nichols’ visit to Haiti, his ensuing meetings, and the presence of US Coast Guard ships in Haitian waters?

At least one thing’s for sure. Since the request for formal intervention and the presence of the US in the form of its warships and its emissary, the question of military intervention has been swiftly framed as a discourse on the supposed “consensus between Haitians.” In reality, it refers to the convergence of interests between the representatives of the de facto Haitian government; the representatives of the Montana Accord (agreed on between civic and political groups in the wake of Moise’s assassination); and the president, Fritz Jean, and prime minister, Steven Benoit, agreed on as part of that accord. The message is clear: If you do not want a military intervention, side with Ariel Henry, who initiated the request himself. Any posture of self-determination must undergo review by Ariel Henry and his crew.

In these circumstances, there can be no self-determination. It is as though those truly responsible for the military intervention (which was already underway) aren’t those who asked for it, but rather those who were unable to thwart it by finding an agreement with the former group. In this sense, the “nationalist” label (the current catchall term which, among other things, is being made to include any praxis refuting the colonial apparatus) refers to doing everything possible to avoid military intervention—and that means doing exactly what the representatives of the “Colonial Capitalist Internationale” want.

American presence in Haiti—in the form of warships and a high-ranking emissary—takes after historical colonial endeavors such as the Napoleonic expedition for the reestablishment of slavery (1802) and King Charles X’s fleet, sent to demand ransom for Haiti’s independence (1825). Yet, in this case, the point is not to put pressure on those who hold the keys to institutions, but rather to avoid losing control in a context where those in government are not only misguided, but also display the greatest shortcomings in managing the lives of the population for the better. The US’s current presence thus more closely echoes the language of the English warship HMS Bulldog, sent to shell the city of Cap Haitien to support President Geffrard against the anti-government insurrection of Salnave.

The Henry government uses the same grammar as its tutelar powers to discuss the current situation. Much has been made of “efforts deployed by the United States and Canada”: they have consisted in flying police equipment into Haiti on Canadian and US military cargo aircraft. Henry and the Haitian National Police offered warm, public thanks for material paid for with Haitian funds some time ago; indeed, these deliveries have come very late, and only thanks to pressure from Haitian civil society actors. More problematic still, the presence of foreign military planes at the Toussaint Louverture Airport in Port-au-Prince has served both as evidence of an ongoing military intervention and as a subterfuge to obtain such an intervention.

This request for intervention, while it seeks to obfuscate this fact, nevertheless exposes the political illegitimacy of the Henry government—made up of members of Henry’s PHTK and former members of the opposition. Its illegitimacy doesn’t rest on the usual discussion (or lack thereof) and confrontation between the governors and the governed, nor on the classic power play between the political opposition and the authorities in place; rather, it is the result of the absolute rejection on the part of Haitians of an order controlled and engineered by the PHTK machine in Haiti for over 10 years with one purpose in mind: defending the neoliberal interests and projects of the Colonial Capitalist Internationale. The request for intervention reveals the fact that the rejection of the PHTK machine is but one part of a broader rejection of the neoliberal colonial order as it has manifested itself in various anti-popular economic projects, which themselves were made possible by many attempts at reconfiguring Haiti socially and constitutionally: consider, to name but a few, the financial project of privatization of the island of Gonâve, the referendum to replace the 1987 Constitution, and others.

For the first time since the US military intervention of 1915 (the centenary of which was silenced by the PHTK machine), we are witnessing a direct confrontation between the Colonial Capitalist Internationale and the Haitian people, as local political go-betweens aren’t in a position to mediate and local armed forces (whether the military, the militias, or the armed gangs) aren’t able to fully and totally repress unrest. In this colonial scenario—drafted in the past five years, maintained and fueled by the geopolitics of “natural disasters,” epidemics, pandemics, and the presence of gangs (simultaneously functioning as the armed extensions of political parties and materializing “disorder”)—the only possible solution to chaos is military intervention by foreign forces.

Yet one cannot pretend that such an intervention will help the Haitian people, and no agreement crafted in the language of the colonial system can stifle popular demands and aspirations which, in the past twelve years, have built what Haitian academic and activist Camille Chalmers calls a real “anti-imperialist conscience.”

What of late has breathlessly been labeled the “Haitian crisis” must instead be identified as the highest point of the contradiction which has brewed throughout the PHTK regime: between the International Colonial Capitalists’ will to force us to live under an imposed order and our resistance to that order.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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