Washington’s Famous Cherry Trees Blossoming Soon

Every year, hundreds of thousands of people flock to Washington in the spring to see the cherry blossoms bloom. The buds on the trees can survive chilly temperatures but need warm days to burst open with their white or pink flowers. But because of fluctuating spring temperatures, it is not always easy to predict when the trees will bloom. As we hear from VOA’s Deborah Block, it appears this year’s flowers may come out a bit earlier than usual.

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Ed Sheeran, Gaga, More to Cover Elton John Across 2 Albums

John’s songs will be re-worked by top artists including Ed Sheeran, Lady Gaga, Willie Nelson and Chris Stapleton.

John announced on Thursday the April 6 release of two albums. “Revamp” will include covers by pop and rock stars from Mary J. Blige to Miley Cyrus. Miranda Lambert and Dolly Parton will appear on the country album, “Restoration.”

Pink and Logic will team up for “Bennie and the Jets” and Florence + the Machine take on “Tiny Dancer.” Other acts on “Revamp” include Sam Smith, Coldplay, The Killers, Mumford and Sons, Q-Tip, Demi Lovato, Queens of the Stone Age and Alessia Cara.

“Restoration” will feature Rosanne Cash, Emmylou Harris, Vince Gill, Don Henley, Little Big Town, Maren Morris, Kacey Musgraves, Brothers Osborne, Dierks Bentley, Rhonda Vincent and Lee Ann Womack.

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Queen Elizabeth Gives Consent for Harry-Meghan Wedding

Queen Elizabeth II has given her formal consent to the marriage of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.


 The British monarch has issued a declaration consenting “to a Contract of Matrimony between My Most Dearly Beloved Grandson Prince Henry Charles Albert David of Wales and Rachel Meghan Markle.”


The prince, fifth in line to the British throne, and the American actress are to marry May 19 at Windsor Castle.


Alongside the declaration that was made public Thursday, the queen signed an Instrument of Consent, a formal notice of approval, transcribed in calligraphy and issued under the Great Seal of the Realm.


Harry is among a handful of senior royals who must seek the monarch’s permission to marry or have their descendants disqualified from succession to the crown.


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Versace, Furla Join Designer Labels Ditching Fur

Italian fashion house Versace and handbag and accessories maker Furla said they would stop using real fur in their creations, joining a growing list of luxury labels turning their backs on the fur industry.

Fashion houses around the world are bowing to pressure and using alternatives to real fur amid pressure from animal rights groups and changing tastes of younger customers, who are increasingly aware of the environmental issues linked with the clothes they buy.

Donatella Versace, the artistic director and vice-president of Versace, said that she did not want to kill animals to make fashion and that it “it doesn’t feel right”, speaking in an interview with The Economist’s 1843 magazine on Wednesday.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals’ (PETA) Senior Vice President Dan Mathews said in an emailed statement that it was “a major turning point in the campaign for compassionate fashion”, adding that he looked forward to seeing a “leather-free Versace next.”

The animal rights group recently campaigned at the Pyeongchang Winter games for an end to the fur trade.

Furla on Thursday committed to replacing all fur with faux-fur for both menswear and womenswear starting from its Cruise 2019 collection.

Italian fashion group Gucci, part of Paris-based luxury conglomerate Kering, said in October it would stop using fur in its designs from its spring and summer 2018 collection joining Armani, Hugo Boss, Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein and multi-brand online luxury retailer Yoox Net-A-Porter


British designer Stella McCartney has long followed a so-called “vegetarian” philosophy, shunning not only fur, but also leather and feathers.

Reporting by Giulia Segreti; Additional reporting by Sarah White in Paris.

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Report: Claire Foy Paid Less Than Co-Star on ‘The Crown’

A producer of hit royal drama The Crown says Claire Foy, who played the central role of Queen Elizabeth II, was paid less than her on-screen husband.

The Netflix series traces Elizabeth’s journey from princess to queen, beginning in the 1950s.

Trade publication Variety quoted producer Suzanne Mackie as confirming Foy was paid less than Matt Smith, who played Prince Philip in two seasons of the series. She made the reported comment at an industry event in Jerusalem.

She said this was because Smith was better-known after starring in the sci-fi series Doctor Who. Mackie said the gap would be closed with the forthcoming third series, saying “going forward, no one gets paid more than the queen.”

Foy’s agent did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

Neither Foy nor Smith will appear in the third series, which will star Olivia Colman as the middle-aged monarch.

The gender pay gap has become a big issue in Hollywood after revelations that many female stars were paid less than their male counterparts.

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Egypt Coach Facing Obstacle of Ramadan Ahead of World Cup

Well-traveled and much experienced as a soccer coach, Hector Cuper is facing a new obstacle when it comes to preparing Egypt for this year’s World Cup.

The tournament in Russia starts on the final day of Ramadan, the holy month that requires Muslims to fast from dawn to sunset. Egypt is scheduled to play its opening match a day later, on June 15, against Uruguay.

That means much of Egypt’s preparations for the World Cup – the country’s first in 28 years – will be done while the all-Muslim team is supposed to be fasting during daylight hours.

“If I deal with that pragmatically, I should turn the day upside down. Maybe Egyptian players are accustomed to doing this, but I as a Western person am not,” Cuper said late Tuesday on a TV talk show. “How can I train them at night around 11 or 12 after iftar (the meal Muslims eat at sunset to break their fast)? And how can I train them during the day without water and when they had nothing to eat?

“We are working on this and seeking to find the best way to overcome fasting fatigue and prevent it from hurting the players.”

Egypt, a record seven-time African champion, will also face host Russia and Saudi Arabia in Group A at the World Cup. Cuper, an Argentine who has coached extensively around his native country and in Europe, took over as national team coach in 2015.

There has been widespread speculation on whether soccer authorities in Egypt will request a fatwa, or a religious edict, from the country’s top theologian exempting the squad from fasting during the crucial month of preparation before the tournament begins.

In comments published Wednesday, Cuper said it would be up to the individual players to decide.

“Players of the national squad are absolutely free to fast and we cannot interfere in this because of my full respect for all faiths,” Cuper said, adding nutrition experts have been retained to advise the players on how to cope with fasting and sleeping during Ramadan.

In Russia, the Egyptian team will be based in Chechnya. Team officials have said they are happy to be in Grozny because it is a Muslim city where the players would be comfortable.

Devout Muslims refrain from food, water and sex while the sun is out during Ramadan. The lunar month is in May and June this year, with the long days making the fast a grueling 15- or 16-hour test of stamina. During Ramadan, Muslims break their fast at iftar, the traditionally large meal after sunset. Just before dawn, they eat another meal, sohour.

“I endure a great deal of hardship when I am fasting, but I prefer to honor my religious duty as long as I am able to cope,’ said Egypt defender Saad Sameer, who plays for Cairo club Al-Ahly. “I will fast the month of Ramadan, regardless of what the team decides.”

Another Egypt player, Zamalek midfielder Tareq Hamed, said he would abide by any decision reached by the team’s management on whether to fast.

“I hope we do well in the World Cup and not be distracted by issues like fasting,” said Hamed, adding he and many other players have in the past played matches while fasting.

Edicts exempting soccer players from fasting are not without precedence.

A 2008 edict by Egypt’s mufti, the country’s top theologian, exempted players from fasting during match days, arguing that if playing is what they do for a living then they should break their fast, provided that they compensate for those days after the end of Ramadan. Training, he said, did not provide grounds for breaking the fast.

The issue of Ramadan has showcased the religious dimension of sports, especially soccer, in Egypt, a majority Muslim country of about 100 million people, of whom about 10 million are Christians.

Egyptian match commentators routinely pray to God to come to the aid of the national team and they offer a prayer of thanks when they score. Beside the “Pharaohs,” the Egyptian national team has another nickname: “The Squad of al-Sajedeen,” or the team that kneels down and offers prayers, which they do after scoring.

It is also traditional for the team to collectively read the opening verse of the Quran before kickoff.

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Tuaregs Celebrate Culture in Niger Sahara Festival

Tuaregs in northern Niger are hoping to draw tourists back to the region by putting their traditional dances, music poetry and camel races on display.


Despite concerns about Islamic extremism throughout the Sahel region in West Africa, organizers recently hosted more than 1,000 visitors to a cultural festival in Iferouane, a village in Niger’s far north.


“Without tourism, our youth risks falling into idleness and misery, and will join the wave of migration to Europe,” said Mohamed Houma, the mayor of the town located about 250 kilometers (155 miles) north of the central city of Agadez.


The Air festival, considered one of the most important gatherings to celebrate the culture of the Tuareg people, has been held since 2001.


It was marked last month by the sound of tende, the Tuareg style of music and drumming, as the women and men, on foot and on their camels, participated in song and dance competitions.

Since 2001, the gatherings have been held to celebrate the culture of the semi-nomadic Tuareg people. More than 2 million Tuaregs live in the Sahara Desert area, stretching across Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, Algeria and Tunisia.


Niger’s Air region, with oases, mountains and sand dunes, has been a destination for adventurous Western tourists since the 1980s and the visitors have been a financial boon for the region. But the tourism has dwindled since the Tuareg rebellion, which lasted from 2007 to 2009, and from the proliferation of armed and extremist groups in the Sahel region.

Security guards watched over the dozen French and Belgian tourists who participated this year’s in Air Festival.


“We are very happy because this festival shows the rest of the world that despite the international geopolitical and security context, we live here in peace, sheltered from the upheavals of some of our neighboring countries,” Houma said.

French tourists to the festival this year included Jacques Maire, a French legislator who heads a France-Niger Friendship group in the French National Assembly.


While the situation in Niger is tense, he said it is not the worst in the region.


“There has always been a strong French appetite for the Sahara,” said Maire. “We must seize every opportunity to recreate tourist flows.”‘



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Theoretical Physicist Stephen Hawking Dies at 76

World-renowned British physicist Stephen Hawking, who sought to understand a range of cosmic topics from the beginning of the universe to the intricacies of black holes, died Wednesday at the age of 76.

A family spokesman said he died peacefully at his home in the city of Cambridge where he worked for decades as the Lucasian Professorship of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge.

“He was a great scientist and an extraordinary man whose work and legacy will live on for many years,” Hawking’s children, Lucy, Robert and Tim, said in a statement.

He was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis at the age of 21, a disease that eventually confined him to a wheelchair and took away this ability to speak, leaving Hawking to communicate through a voice synthesizer.

Doctors predicted he would only live a few years, but he instead thrived, focusing on his work that included seeking to bridge the gap between Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity that describes the motion of large objects and the Theory of Quantum Mechanics dealing with subatomic particles.

“My goal is simple. It is a complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all,” Hawking said.

His 1988 book “A Brief History of Time” became an international bestseller and brought him widespread fame.

One of his most famous accomplishments came in his research on black holes, showing that small amounts of radiation could escape their gravitational pull. The phenomenon is now commonly known as Hawking radiation.

A sign of his popularity came in October when Cambridge put Hawking’s 1966 thesis online for the first time, and demand for the document was so high the university’s website crashed.

Hawking was also a proponent of human space travel to the Moon and Mars, an endeavor he said would help unite humanity in the shared purpose of spreading beyond Earth.

Hawking said making the first moves into space would “elevate humanity” because it would have to involve many countries.

“We are running out of space and the only places to go to are other worlds. It is time to explore other solar systems. Spreading out may be the only thing that saves us from ourselves. I am convinced that humans need to leave Earth,” he said last year. “If humanity is to continue for another million years, our future lies in boldly going where no one else has gone before.”

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Ai Weiwei Highlights Global Refugee Plight With His Art

Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei has unveiled a 60-meter inflatable rubber raft carrying more than 300 anonymous oversized figures in Sydney, Australia, to represent the plight of refugees around the world. His work of art comes as more than 11-thousand migrants have arrived by sea in Europe so far this year, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Nearly 430 have died or gone missing in the attempt. VOA’s Mariama Diallo reports.

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Young Zimbabweans Ditch Drugs for Performing Arts

Jimmy Gata, 19, recites an anti-drugs poem at “Theatre in the Park” in Zimbabwe’s capital Harare, jumping and gesturing on the stage, as spectators clap and cheer on the former addict.

Before finding his passion for the spoken word, Gata regularly took BronCleer, a cough syrup often smuggled in from South Africa that contains codeine, a painkiller similar to morphine. If enough is drunk, it also intoxicates like alcohol.

“Since Ngoma Yorira Theatre Association took me in to learn about film-making and acting and poetry, I have had no time for (BronCleer),” said Gata, a trained motor mechanic.

There are no accurate figures on the number of drug users in Zimbabwe. The Ministry of Health and Child Care says about 3,000 people nationwide are suffering mental illness directly related to drug abuse.

For 19-year-old Innocent Ndaramashe, an emerging R&B and hip-hop music star who was addicted to substances like BronCleer, the performing arts came to his rescue just in time.

“My music encourages my peers not to consume drugs because they damage our health,” Ndaramashe told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “As a young man who has been taking drugs, I decided to preach against the abuse of drugs through my music career.”

In a country where many people struggle to earn a living in the informal economy, the theater association has also helped out the poor and hungry.

“(It) gives food parcels, groceries to the needy in my community of which I am also a beneficiary because I am very old,” said 73-year-old Tambudzai Mlambo, a resident of Mbare township in Harare.

State Support

As Zimbabwe battles drug abuse made worse by a shortage of jobs for young people, the government acknowledges the contribution of the community arts scene.

“Groups that have of late emerged have helped to keep former drug addicts focused on theater or art. This diverts their attention from drugs to concentrate on something new and positive for their well being,” said Dorcas Sithole, deputy director of the Ministry of Health’s mental health department.

The state is doing what it can to fight drug abuse in tough circumstances, she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“We are trying to prevent drug users from turning into addicts,” she said, explaining how the government puts them on withdrawal programs in hospital and is also planning to open rehabilitation centers.

In addition, anti-drugs activists say there is a need for occupational therapy such as theater, which also helps young people build their self-esteem.

“Nurturing talent provides an avenue for accomplishment as opposed to helplessness which is associated with the onset of drug use,” said Hilton Nyamukapa, program coordinator for the Zimbabwe Civil Liberties and Drug Network.

Established seven years ago, the national network advocates for strategies to address problems linked to drug use in Zimbabwe and across Southern Africa.

Community Care

A pioneer of the idea of using theater to tackle drug problems, Ernest Nyatanga, founder and president of the Ngoma Yorira Theatre Association, said his organization pays former addicts for their acting.

“Rewarding former drug users for their performances in theater helps to motivate them and cultivate in them a desire to work for themselves,” he told Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Recently the association shot films highlighting social and economic issues facing the country, such as “The Delinquent” which depicts a misled young man who takes drugs while in school. The films are shown at Harare’s “Theatre in The Park.”

Nyatanga said the association donates some of the proceeds from its performances — which it stages in townships in remote areas too — to local orphanages and poor widows.

And it has helped feed people going hungry when drought hit food supplies in rural and urban areas.

It also recruits community members to sell recordings of theater productions on a commission basis by the roadside.

“We are an association that lives amongst ordinary people, and we care for their needs,” Nyatanga said.

So far, the theater association has helped more than 340 individuals change their lives for the better, 30 percent of whom were hooked on drugs, he said.

Parents like Linda Masarira, 36, whose 18-year-old son was an addict but has now resumed his secondary-school studies, are grateful for its work.

“It is a miracle – my son is reforming; he is now an upcoming hip-hop star while he is also into theater and as a result he has… stopped using drugs,” Masarira said.

Faith and Football

Community religious groups like the Christian Youths Fellowship Association (CYFA) based in Chegutu, a farming town 100 km (62 miles) west of Harare in Mashonaland West Province, have also joined the fight against drugs.

Patrick Imbayago, founder and director of the CYFA, said his group has shown anti-drugs films in urban and rural townships.

“After seeing these kinds of films, few would return to drug abuse because… drug abusers are shown as eventually losing their marbles, going mad,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The CYFA also funds football training for young people.

“The more we occupy them with social activities like soccer, the less our youths turn to drug abuse,” said Imbayago.

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