I had the immense priviledge (and pain) of meeting Sandy & Lonnie Phillips in Sundance at the #underthegun premiere. What do you say to someone who lost their daughter to senseless gun violence? There are no words. Only action counts now.
Won't you join their cause? Only takes a signature. Really.
"Just after midnight on June 20, 2012, our daughter Jessi sent us a text message.
“I can't wait for you to come next week. I need my mama,” she wrote. A few short minutes later, she was dead -- murdered along with 11 others in an Aurora, Colorado movie theater.
It’s a national disgrace that Congress has refused to take action to save lives.
Every day Congress refuses to act, 90 more families feel the pain and anguish we do. That's why we need you to sign your name next to ours to demand change.
Join us now and call on Congressional Republicans to stop their blockade against meaningful gun reform.
Americans want change. They are tired of losing 33,000 lives every year to guns. President Obama understands that. We were proud to watch as he announced new actions to ensure that web-based gun dealers carry out background checks. But this problem is larger than one action. We will only curb gun violence when we work together in a committed effort to end America’s gun violence epidemic. Every moment is a chance to save lives. Will you stand with us and families across the country and demand Congressional Republicans work with President Obama to curb gun violence?
Sandy and Lonnie Phillips
Gun Safety Advocates and Jessi’s Mom and Dad
blue lagoon, gustav vigeland, chai tea latte, wood, metal, bone, shell, dandelions, neutrals, 1000 shades of white, sable island horses, striped socks, lightning bugs, avocados, European made, godard, alice waters, old pickups, hwy 395, hot springs waters, django reinhardt, warm water, jerks with underwoods, fried okra, sand dunes, sand dollars, Lake Ouachita, baths, carla bruni, edward james, las pozas, marfa texas, dragonflies, austin, European bread, jim sheridan, Wyoming sky, espadrilles, sea, Victorian boho chic, banana pudding from magnolia bakery, francoise hardy, profiteroles drizzled with chocolate sauce, this american life, denim, trousers, amelia earhart, b&w, stripes, burlap, hard boiled eggs, mcclards bbq, skinny dipping, tx hill country, west mountain, foamy stuff, cassavettes, solar, whirling dervish, robert smithson, heath, driftwood, general stores, lavender, nyc, cinema, prada, proenza shouler, la luna, man ray, Sylvia earle, french ticking, fried halloumi cheese, harvest moon, blood oranges, mozart, twine, worn in jeans, worn in boots, walker evans, oysters with rose mignonette, succulents, cholula hot sauce, green habanero hot sauce, picasso, Charlotte Perriand, todos santos, istanbul, neil young, ashoka, frida kahlo, lifebytavin.com, anne lamott, gershwin, muhammad yunus, ipe, moss, leather, clay, matisse, canvas, humidity, rice & beans, the blues, rumi, savannah, black calla lilies, rural roads, NPR, blue doors, European cheese, pedro almodovar, meze, Treme, hearing adhan at daybreak, concrete floors with thread bare throw rugs, erica tanov, wangari maathai, pico de gallo, mackintosh, fellini, terrain, kudzu vines, la creme pinot noir, MIP rose vino, tobasco, donald judd, tube rose flowers, paris, monasteries, catacombs, charlie parker, tunisia, les indiennes, bolinas, stinson beach, mevlevi, rome, olive trees, car wheels on a gravel road, fellini, agnes varda, ballet, what's eating gilbert grape, rain, cowgirl creamery, hearing adhan at sunset, hayes, carll, pepper trees, chocolate cream pie, enchanted rock, shiner bock, bebel gilberto, wild icelandic ponies, sable island horses, shave ice, shelter island, julius shulman, chocolate pudding, raw diamonds, hemingway, whippoorwills, sustainable, cicadas, organic, Remodelista, the kitchen garden, ceviche, hamam, home. lurv and more lurv...
I'm reading the Tiebetan Book on Living & Dying as light fodder for my time in Vienna. Ha. As someone who's always been a little obsessed with death (I often imagine a multitude of terrible ways I might meet my demise), I thought it might be a good idea to read this book now given the close proximity I suddenly find myself to the subject matter. Cancer is a bitch. And that's a nice name for it. The Tibetan book challenges one to face death head on. To come to terms with the acceptance of death, to overcome fears about it and to realize the only real constant in life is impermanence. The book contends that if one will realize these things and shift one's perspective on death then there's more room in one's mind for important thoughts about things like spirituality. By giving up our hold on this world and letting go, realizing we're all dying daily, (some quicker than others), the possibility for real healing can begin.
As Julie teeters on the edge of life (as we know it), remarkably, she maintains a keen sense of humor given how bleak her situation really is. I think her positive perspective gives her a longer leash on life each day. She is a fighter, determined to beat this thing. That sounds like the way to be, right? But, by fighting so hard she's not willing to let go. And by not letting go, according to the Tibetan book, she's not allowing the acceptance of death in her mind; and therefore, not allowing real healing to begin. Last night, I read to her what I thought was a great passage from the book about this very thing. At the end I was almost in tears and she looked at me and said, "its too intense for me. I just want to escape." I can't say I blame her, yet I worry her tight grasp may actually be consricting her path to freedom. Understandably, she's clinging to the familiar and the conventions of her life back at home... making phone calls about credit card balances and fighting some fight with her homeowner's association over the use of a hillside on her property. Apparently, the assn is asking her to remove some plants or flowers or something that were planted there without permission. It was a ten to fifteen minute conversation in which she got all worked up and insisted, "I didn't plant the friggin' morning glories to begin with!". This statement seemed so surreal to me, sitting across from her in this moment, as cancer ravages her entire body. The disease lays over us like a heavy wet blanket threatening to completely smother her and take me with her if Im not careful to shore myself up. Her phone call gave me pause and made me think about the countless times I get swept up in the minutae of maintaining my own life, be it agonizing over my disorderly computer desktop or arguing with my health insurance carrier over the fact they refuse to pay a medical claim. In the moment these types of battles feel so important yet, how often do we allow them to rob us of perspective on the bigger picture...?
My goal here in Vienna started out as caretaker for Julie but has become somewhat about self-preservation. I can feel that Im taking on too much of her suffering. I need to shore myself up and make sure Im impenetrable yet accessible to this person who so desperately needs me. As each day passes I feel her needing me more and more. I'm straddling a fine line between wanting to remain open as she desperately needs (and deserves) love and care and shutting down completely, fearing shey may suck the life out of me if I allow it.
Maybe my big takeaway from all of this experience is this: not to allow the mundane details of life over power my time here on earth. Why should it take a near brush with death to make us wake up and realize we squander away time on too many unimportant things. The book contends most of us spend a great deal of our lives running from and escaping ourselves; only in the end to realize we all die alone as a complete stranger to ourselves.
So, in this moment, I want to know myself better and be hyper-aware of the present. Because the now is all we truly really have.
So, Lisa, meet Lisa. She's a lovely, quirky, confused son-of-a-gun you might just like to know.
Tonight, we had, what Julie desribes as a good night. That meant, we could actually venture into town for a meal. She's been here 4 weeks already and has not seen a smidgen of Vienna, Im sad to say. But, her focus has been on saving her life, not on sight seeing. After some much needed retail therapy for her, we made our way to a restaurant I found by googling "Gluten Frei". Turns out, this place is uber famous and has been frequented by all sorts of folks of notoriety the past few centuries...including Beethoven who used to hang out! SERIOUS. And, it lived up to its esteemed reputation for sure. I heard Julie describe our dinner as, 'the best meal of her life'. It was truly devine. The restaurant is called ZUM SCHWARZEN KAMEEL (the black camel) and it's been a food establishment since 1618. Seriously. That's a long friggin time to get it right. And have they. They serve mostly beautiful traditional Viennese dishes that they can also prepare gluten free if so desired. (A necessity for Julie). Anyway, I had, hands down, the best soup on the planet: a pureed, green lentil and spring pea, black truffel concoction. SO freaking good. And the local white wine was super smoothe. I topped it off with Tafelspitz, a local beef specialty.... yummeee.
After dinner, I look up and find Fantastic Mr. Fox sitting down at the table directly across from us. What the "cuss", right?? I wasn't 100% sure it was Wes Anderson until i got a gander of what he was wearing -- lightweight seer sucker blue & white pin striped suit with a bold striped tie. Then I had more than a good inkling. The outfit had Moonrise Tennenbaum all over it. His pretty date appeared to be a younger Helena Bonham Carter look alike. They seemed approachable so I put on my best Olympiad face and went over to say Hello. After the (cuss) of a day I had I figured why the (cuss) not. Plus, I'd had 3 glasses of wine at this point. I said some awkardly incorrect thing in German as my lead in, and then proceeded with, "Do you know you look a LOT like Wes Anderson? How odd...Random, I mean to find you here, in Vienna. If it is you...?" He just smiled demurely and said something like, "I do look like him, yes, because, uh, that's me". We shook hands then - very formal of us - and he was more than gracious to spend a few minutes with Julie & I even though it was his one and only night in Vienna. (kool kismet that the last film I saw in a theater was MOONRISE KINGDOM. And, on the plane ride here I finally got to see THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX & loved it!)
Tonight was the perfect night in many ways. It had to have been nearly 85 degrees at 10pm when we left the restaurant. Scores of folks were out and about when we caught a taxi home. I longed to be out amongst them all discovering this fine city but reminded myself of why I came here... to help Julie. So, back to the Park Hotel we went.
Julie eats like a mouse b/c she can't really digest any food anymore. She wears a bag and deals with all of that great C stuff. Stage IV ovarian cancer is gnarly to say the least. Her main staple seems to be 1/4 cup of plain beef broth. Any other food she orders she ends up bringing 3/4 of it home to later puree in a blender that turns it into soup she can easily eat. That part is pretty depressing. But, as a late night snack tonight I helped augment her soup with... ready for this? BREASTMILK. What the cuss, right?? I suggsted it, half jokingly, and she all but scolded me for almost tossing it down the sink . Next thing I knew it went into her blender. NO LIE. An experiment, perhaps. But, she's so determined to beat this C thing she'll try almost anything. I admire her tenacious spirit. I felt good to contribue in some small weird way. Who knows, maybe we'll end up curing cuss cuss cancer with the magical properties of Mother's Milk!
Guten Nacht. XO
The shade of green in the trees here is the best I've ever seen
the air's so thick it fills me up, makes my skin feel new
People waving from their cars and trucks
it ain't the middle finger they give you
kudzu vines strangle whatever's in the way
fireflies and cicadas perform a lullaby to the passing day
Ohio club give me another Shiner Bock as the short man with a tall dream takes back the mic spot
West Mountain surprises with a breath-taking drive in the dark
And the fading grand dame Arlington still stands proud in the park
Retired rodeo rider, Johnny W. Red, in his best scuffed boots takes his deep down home grown roots
and rides her revolving doors out into the unknown of the night
I'm like the deer caught in my headlights, i nearly run me off the road
Out of nowhere someone unplugs the clouds
And the rain rains down now in a heapin' load
Frogs poppin' out of ponds, end up camping under porch swings peeing when they're spooked
Steam rising off pavement after the fierce summer storm subsides
sometimes it takes the unexpected to remind us we're alive
Hey, Hayes Carll, fire up my jukebox on another 100 degree day
Gonna drink me some BBQ and eat a good year pinot
it only gets hotter here the longer you stay
Skinny Dip cove and a blood red sunset over the lake
Preacher on Sunday trying to set everybody straight
I've been warned about Mr. Old Sin Nature and how he likes to win
Nothing like coming home to make you question who 'ya are and where 'ya been
As my driver and I made our way through the crowded chaotic streets of downtown Nairobi today I felt one foot already outside of it all... I feel I'm slowly extracting myself... preparing to return home. But, at the same time, a big part of me - my heart part - is still really entrenched. These four girls have left an indelible impression on me. Life here is so immediate, so pressing, visceral, sharp. You have to stay really aware at all times. So much comes at you here at all times - from the motorbikes whizzing wildly down Koch raods, to children at every turn who strain to make eye contact and be noticed, to the exhaust plumes you try to avoid inhaling by rolling up your window in time... to the sewage rivers you negotiate without breaking stride, to the man who just misses being hit by a van - and then another as he side-steps his way expertly through the den of insane boundaryless traffic that seems to be moving mostly in synch to some expert omniscient choreographer.
But, the girls... They are moving, too, but they are also stuck. They will remain here when I go... But I will remember them.
I will miss many things but especially the nightly text messages from Ruth, the oldest in the group. Here is a sampling of the sweet messages I received from her while here:
1. Hello. Hw r u dng. I op dat ur fn. as 4 me i am also gd. it is my pleasure 2 take this superb opotunity 2 honestry thank u- 2gether wid your colligs Jeck and her wife - 4 dah support dat you've been giving 2 us. i.e, scul uniform and other basic needs. we really dont know how 2 thank y or even how 2express it but we believe dat God is going 2shower u wid his blessing. thank you very much 4 ur love and care. may dah most high bless u abundantly. may dah lord grant u a gift.
2. hello. may u have a gd nit and swt drms. by day way we really enjoyed 2 dpd da dei wid u coz it was fantastic and interesting. i wld also lk 2 inform u dat u 4gotened ur note bk but u need nt 2 worry couse i wl bring u 2morrow. we love u somch. say hey 2 jake and her wife. bye.
3. Hi. Tanks 4 evrtn dat u've dn 2 us. remember dat we will alwz love u and dat iz like a memory wrn inside our heart. we will alwz remember u cause ur one in a million. may dah most high God bless u abundantly cause u've given us hope 2 live again 4 dah love and care dat u've shown 2 us. may u have a gdnit and sweet drms. We also pray dat we will meet again - our big sister/mommy/teacher and gurdian. wow. And finally... the last one tonight.
4. Hey we love u so much lisa. i was wid de girls and they told me 2 send u their greetings which i op dat u've received dem wid both ur hands. we r so proud of u. may u live longer 2 see day grand-childrens of ur childrens. we pray dat God will open his wayz of blsngs 2 each and evry one of us. wishing u a gdnit ad swt drms and also a journey mercies as u will be travelling 2 ur home. greet us ur whole family especially ur baby boy.bye as will be looking 4ward 2 see you again.
Yesterday, after Nairobi National Park I took the girls to the Sheldrick Baby Elephant Orphanage. We got the chance to see two groups of young elephants, all orphaned from their parents in the wild. The young elephants came trotting down the path in a line, kicking up red dust as they hurried to the enormous bottles of milk their caregivers were holding for them. After they chugged down about 2 bottles a piece they rolled in the dirt and played with one another - it was really amazing to watch. Super adorable. And we all got to pet them. The lead caregiver explained how the elephants lost their families to poachers and how they would die if they did not have their orphanage caregivers to look after them. They need love and connection to survive so their keepers share a room with them for 2-3 years, sleeping near them at night. They need that security and love to survive. Don't we all...
Nite from Nairobi.
Spent the day with my four Koch girls today taking them to Nairobi National Park and the Sheldrick Baby Elephant Orphanage. What an incredible experience. We saw lions lazing in the grass, Zebras crossing, an Ostrich family, Water Buffalo who were very suspicious of us, Gazelle, monkeys, Giraffe (super close!) and ended the morning watching orphaned baby elephants drink milk from bottles. We got to pet them, which was amazing.
My girls - all Miss Koch... are so inspiring. Orphans themselves who've had to overcome so much and yet they retain such spirit of positivity. Christine was born HIV positive and wants to be a doctor. Ruth tried to kill herself after her parents died when she was six and now wants to be a lawyer. Sharon is so quiet but has so much to say... she also wants to be a lawyer... and Lohrna dreams of being a journalist. They're four friends who are 'secret keepers' as they share with one another the goings on in their young but complex and challenged lives. These girls live with daily threats that are really unfathomable. As if losing your parnents and then living through Kenyan post-election violence in 2007 wasn't enough they now also live in fear of being attacked. Walking home at night (and sometimes daytime) is so dangerous as too many young men are jobless and high on drugs or glue and often rape girls/women/grandmothers/babies. It's really out of control. And yet these girls find strength to go on... They stick to their dreams. They forge ahead.
I brought along snacks for us this morning so they'd have plenty of fuel for our day of filming and safari trekking. I brought cheese, not knowing it's something they've never eaten or seen before. I eat cheese nearly every day of my life and take for granted it will always be around. Later in the day, I bought them icecream bars and they told me they'd never had ice cream before. They'd never even been to the parts of downtown Nairobi we drove through on our way to Nairobi National Park. And, they'd never been to the park or seen the animals outside of images from TV and magazines.
When it came time to say goodbye today it was such a hard thing to do. All the girls started crying. They'd been singing a prayer song about Korogocho that we were filming and then, one by one, they started to break down and cry. I though it was because of the melancholy song but Prisca, their caregiver told me they were crying because I was saying goodbye to them today. We've only been together 9 days but in some ways it feels like months. They've really opened up their lives, dreams, hopes and fears and let me film it all. I hope they realize what an impact they've made upon me as well.
I put nearly all of my clothing in a big bag this morning and wrote out slips of paper naming each item. I then let the girls each pick 9 pieces of paper and gave them the corresponding items. I gave away 2 paris of shoes, 2 pairs of pants, t-shirts, blouses, toiletries, bracelets and some other miscelaneous items like sunscreen, tampons, socks and lemon scented towelettes. You would have tbought it was christmas morning by how joyful these young ladies were.
I went to the Norfolk hotel alone tonight for dinner. After eating rice/beans nearly every day for the past 9 days I was so happy to have a plate full of pasta primavera with the best tasting veggies of my life. I woofed it all down with 2 glasses of wine and cried through most of it as Ruth kept texting me saying goodbye. A very sweet woman working at the restaurant struck up a conversation with me about my time in Koch and she told me she'd keep these four young ladies in her prayers. I hope she does. As I looked around the large dining room at my fellow diners (all white of course) I couldn't help but think how the four Koch girls simply go unnoticed by most people in the world. And I wonder how many hundreds of thousands of young girls just like them are out there right now...?
Three more days til I fly home. Ken and I will get up super early to shoot time lapse of sunrise over downtown Nairobi. I think exhaustion is finally settling in. Nine days of intense filming, very little sleep and 14 tapes of Broll alone... I'm so glad to be this close to the finish line... I think I can leave here with the ingredients to a complete film so I'm over the moon. But, I have mixed emotions about leaving. I miss Max terribly but will also miss my Koch girls.
It might be easy as a Westerner to look at something like Koch and think it can be fixed. Throw money at it. Pray for it. Give em stuff. That oughta do it, right? I think the truth is too much for most to take in so we generalize and sterilze our ready-made concepts of how the world should be. But, reality is so much different than what we're prepared for.
Watched three women working in the Nairobi River sludge. Sewage. Laughing. Asking for lunch money. Digging into large yellow trashbags marked Kenyan Airways "The Pride of Africa" looking for plastic to recycle into shoes. Trying to make a few shillings to feed their babies. Muzungo taking their picture. They stood there all wet in the slimey thick grey water with open sewage floating by. Its amazing how resilient the human body really is. In a place like Koch its baffling how daily life brings thousands of encounters with unspeakable bacteria yet the locals seem largely impervious. I mean, I know they aren't and people get sick quite often. But, with so much stinking filth you'd expect they might be dropping dead left and right. I mean, the enormous dump of Nairobi is backed right up to the edge of Koch. It's LITERALLY in their back yard. So much filth and garbage. But, the birds eat it, the kids play in it, the women scavenge in it, the pigs wallow in it. And life goes on. I think I already mentioned this, but the prehistoric birds that circle the sky above the Koch dump are astounding. I think they're called Marabou Storks. They're supposedly one of the ugliest birds around, but they are super cool to see flying. Their storky legs are so long!
Earlier this week we were shooting on the second floor of a makeshift school that looked like the interior of an old dilapidated barn or shanty building from the 30s. A grade A fire hazzard and hot as hell. And this time of year is winter here. Chickens were stuffed into a room next to the classrooms and it was just stifling. I cant imagine how those children stand the heat in their school sweaters. But, they don't even seem to notice. Not one of them complained. If its this bloody hot there now, what must February be like during their summer??
Jake schooled me in an important African lesson yesterday. He and Lee have been coming here for over 9 years and have brought a lot of people here to visit with them. Time and time again they watch as their Western guests fall in love with a kid or two from Koch, shower them with giving then depart leaving the kid to live with the consequences of being singled out while so many others feel left out. Jake told me about a girl he heard of that was murdered because a Muzungo have her a Walk-man and some kids got jealous. Jake tried to put into perspective for me how complicated it is here: 200 years of Colonialism followed by 40 years of white man guilt that manifested in NGO handouts = HUGE FRIGGIN MESS. The issue came up because we were discussing whether I should take the 4 girls on a field trip and what that might do to the group dynamic of their NGO... how might the other orphaned kids in the program feel if they don't get to go...?
Got stuck in Koch last night after dark. Something you really dont want to do. Especially as a woman. Especially as a Muzungo. Our filming ran late and before we knew it our driver had to leave and we had to walk to find some motorbike/taxi guys. Three of us from the crew carrying all our gear piled on the back of two motorbikes and sped out of the slum. It was a ten minute ride I'll never forget. My driver was wearing a helmet and a puffy black down coat. Prisca sat behind me and we both held on tight to the driver who kept saying, "Obama, our brother!" That was his connection to me, the crazy foreigner riding on the back of his bike. I'll bet I was his first Muzungo passenger. As we sped through the dirt roads of the slum it grew very dark. But, the sea of people kept coming. Everyone walks in the road here so we had to bob and weave around them honking as we went. A few times I just buried my face in the back of the driver's coat and hung on. But, mostly I tried to take it all in. It was eerily quiet and chaotic all at once. Some honking, but very few vehicles. Some music, but very little electricity. Just a liquid sea of super black blackness and no streetlights. The only illumination came from the partial moon and the occasional kerosene lamp or single wick oil lamps used to light roadside stands. Outside the smell of burning garbage, which seems to be 24/7, I was surprised I didn't smell any food as it was dinner time. No street meat vendors barbecuing flesh on sticks. Im guessing they dont exist because most people can not afford to buy it.
The endless sea of bodies kept coming. We had to slow at one point because someone had been hit in the road by another passing motorbike. I'm surprised that doesn't happen every minute of the day as it's all so chaotic. And cool... The image of oil lamps along the roadside illuminating the otherwise totally black canvas is one of the most beautiful sights I've ever seen. Reminded me of a night in Lubumbashi Congo when we were in a taxi on our way to dinner and turned a corner and saw a man cutting hair by candlelight. His shop door was open and I could see inside to the candelabra on a table next to the woman whose hair he was cutting. It was at once completely eery and utterly gorgeous.
Been shooting Broll inside the girls' homes the past 3 afternoons/evenings. That's been quite the experience... Two of the four live in tiny one-bedroom places. Christine shares hers with her caregiver, Margaret, who is also HIV positive like she is and a little boy who was dumped by the roadside as an infant when his mother discovered he was HIV positive. Margaret had the heart to find this boy and make him her own. She took him to get treatments and now he is negative for AIDS. He is one of the cutest little boys I've ever met. Hearing his story was heartbreaking and made me think about it might be easy to believe we should all just 'pick ourselves up by our bootstraps" and get on with life. While the human spirit is resilient (maybe even more so in a place like this than at home) I think the lens of compassion requires a recognition of immense suffering. Imagine being discarded ON THE ROADSIDE by your BIRTH MOTHER because you were born with a disease SHE GAVE YOU. Imagine overcoming that while still living in abject poverty in the middle of the slum in a poor nation to begin with. Now, why can't you go just rise above and go to University and 'do something with your life'? Really? To overcome those conditions takes a HERCULEAN effort. And then some.
But, I digress... Christine and her 'family' all live together in a very tiny place that's, perhaps, six by twelve, maybe. There's one twin bed hidden behind a curtain and two small couches - where Christine and the boy sleep. Christine is quite tall and the small hard couch is way too short for her long lithe limbs. I wonder what that kind of sleeping arrangement will do to her body long-term. Her place is lit by one bare bulb and the light is so low it's nearly impossible to read yet she studies by it every night. I think I'd go blind. I got really claustrophobic being in there and we did the interviews outdoors.
By the way... Peter, the beautiful bright Ujamaa intern helping me out this week, told me this that he walked 4 hours ROUND TRIP every day for nearly two years to attend college. So, some can do it. Some can rise above. But, I doubt his mother cast him alongside the garbage piles when he was an infant. Peter dreams of going to University to obtain an actual degree, but can not afford it. SOMEONE, PLEASE, HELP THIS KID as he deserves it.
Ruth lives with her cousin, Angela, and Angela's whole family. I think there must be like six kids who sleep there. I got ancey being in there with so much chaos. Living like that you'd never have any real sense of privacy. Ever. Ruth shares a bunk bed with some of the kids (i have no idea how many). The beds are parked in the front room as you enter from the road. The bed is positioned across from the couch and there's a small coffee table wedged in there, too, along with an entertainment center of sorts.
Naomi, the healthcare worker we interviewed shares a small home with her own four children plus the seven she has rescued who were 'lost' from their parents. That woman has a heart the size of the Serenghetti.
Took some pics of an impressive kitchen garden sustained within feed bags and located in front of someone's shanty home. Ken, my cameraman, told me "the kitchen garden is the key to food security in Africa. The kitchen garden means no one goes hungry."
Im whooped. The 90 min ride home in unforgiving thick exhaust caused my lungs to burn. I felt queasy and light-headed for most of the ride. The honeymoon is over.
Past two days have been an intense blur. But, before I dive in, did I already mention prehistoric birds? They seem to circle the city, vulture-like but more graceful. Seems to be no shortage of roadkill for them to choose from. Saw a couple of passed out guys on garbage heaps roadside that might could find themselves carried off by prehistoric size talons if they don't watch out.
Nairobi, for all it's darkness, is full of much light. Not only is it bright and HOT for 'winter' but so many of the people here are bright beacons of light. No matter if they have garbage to dig through at the dump in hopes of finding something to sell or eat they still have time for a handshake and a chat if you will oblige them. But, first a bit about the darkness. And I have to warn you about the next part... It's not super fun.
Yesterday, I unexpectedly found myself in the back of a rescue truck called MSF - Medecines Sans Frontiers. My cameraman and I climbed in to accompany 3 rape victims to the hospital in hopes of talking to them about their stories. The first was a 26 y.o. male, who said her feared his friends laced his soda and he passed out. He fears he was sodomized so he wanted to go to the hospital to get some miracle drug incase infected by HIV. Apparently, this wonder drug can be effective w/in first 72 hours...(?). He wasn't fully sure he'd been raped, but suspected so. I asked him what he was going to do if he found out his friends had raped him. He said he would have to forgive them. The second victim was a 20 year old married woman, who was attacked the previous night by 4 men who raped her one by one. And the final victim was a 9 y.o. girl whose father had raped her - again. She and her mother were sitting in the van with us and her father - the rapist - was trying to climb in so that he could talk to his wife to try and convince her of his innocence. We tried to film as much as we could but got shut down by the police. After that we returned to Koch via the public transpo called Matutu (short buses filled to the brim w/people and loud African music. Its pretty awesome if you can stomach the heat, close quarters and pungent b.o.) I liked watching the guys who hang half way out the open doorway letting people on and off. Two bangs of their hand loudly on the metal signaled to the driver someone was getting on and three bangs signaled him to stop so people could get off. It was pretty chaotic and fun - a much welcomed distraction from the prior van incident.
This morning I went briefly to the Masai Market, which sets up shop each day of the week in a new location. Today it happened to be only a few blocks away from the apartment and I'm so glad I went. Picked up a few really old cow and camel bells as well as a beautiful old wooden bowl and ladle. Also a few small handmade animals for Max I know he's gonna really dig.
My first interview was this morning. We talked to a mother and her 12 y.o. daughter who was raped about 3 years ago by a neighbor man who happens to be a Pastor. Apparently, the man had also raped numerous other children including this mother's sister's 1 & 1/2 year old baby, who died as a result of the attack. The man was arrested but got out on bail. The beautiful young girl I interviewed told me she was so ashamed after what happened to her that she wanted to commit suicide. She ground up some old batteries and tried to drink the powder somehow. Thankfully, she did not die. Looking at her today you would never guess the horrible ordeals she's been through as she looks like any normal happy healthy 12 year old. But, then again, that's how most of the children look around here. All one has to do is dig a bit to find things aren't at all as they seem.
From there, my day involved more interviews (that weren't so depressing as the first, thank god) and some very visceral sight-seeing. We went to the home of a woman who received a loan from Jake's NGO Ujaama and she showed us the collection of birds she sells for eggs/meat in her 'backyard'. She had chickens, turkeys, gunnieas, geese and a rare cock from China. They're all living in very close quarters - the birds and the multiple family members. While there I spotted a 3 y.o. boy with a razor blade in his mouth. He'd picked it up off the ground and was playing with it. Ken, my cameraman, quickly took it away before the kid could accidentally hurt himself. That reminded me of the toddler I saw earlier in the day with an extra-large pair of sewing sheers. I'd stopped in a shop called Africa Looms and this woman opened the door for me, leaving her toddler on the table behind us who was playing with scissors pointy end up. Daily, almost hourly, I see so many things that make me cover my eyes. Life and death teeter on such a narrow prescipice together here. It's really nutty. After getting over the initial shock, you kindof learn to roll with it - taking one thing at a time and not dwelling too long on any one thing in particular. It's like, "Oh god, give me that razor blade. Okay. You okay? Good. Moving on..."
I have a new friend in our jovial driver Ben. He made us laugh on the drive home in spite of mind numbing stinky uber exhausty traffic. He's a large rotund guy who's been driving for Lee and Jake for years. A few years ago they bought him a large van so he could improve his business and in return he pays them back with transpo service when they need it. Before Ben met them he was making $15/day driving for the Kenyan middle-class, which is largely comprised of folks from India who own a lot of the businesses here. Including vans for public transpo. They hire them out for a pretty penny then pay the drivers diddly. So Jake thought Ben could make a lot more money owning his own van and paying himself. Now Ben makes much more renting out the whole van that he also owns. He also takes tourists on Safari excursions in this van. That's an example of the kind of people Lee and Jake are - really inspiring. I can truly say I've never met anyone like them before. When I came in the house this morning after the market they had the music blaring and were dancing in the dining room. They're fun and they have the means to help others and really do - time and time again. But, they are really smart about it and don't just go around giving hand-outs. Ken, the cameraman here has Jake's old laptop and a really nice digital camera & other film gear Jake gave him - in return for shooting hours (which Jake allotted to me for this project). Five years ago, when everyone told him he was crazy, Jake bought a big plot of land here and now he finances his NGO Ujaama with the profits. He plans to build some apartments on the part of the land he retains and have his NGO running self-sufficient in the near future.
On the way home it was pitch dark and we got stuck in terrible traffic and came upon one of those infamous round-abouts I'd been warned about by Lee and Jake. All our doors in the van were already locked and sure enough, (so predictable these thugs), two young men came out of the darkness working the space between stuck vehicles. If you pay attention, you can easily spot thieves from regular people if you watch their eyes and movements. They are moving fast, casing things quickly, searching for an opening of any kind. I caught the one guy looking in my window at my lap where I had my backpack resting. I quickly moved it to the floor and he kept moving as he realized my window was shut. But, they circled us a few times, working in tandem, a secret code between them. I was fascinated and found it kinda exhilarating to be in on their game. As they moved I'd announce from my seat near the back, "Here they come. Front left windown, ready?" All Ben had to do was move his hand slightly to reveal his ENORMOUS machete on the dash board and, suddenly, both thugs were gone. Ben is awesome.
If you haven't been to Nairobi, I highly recommend it. This city has a way of making you keenly aware you're very alive.
L o n g day. It's not the length of the day or how much we shoot that makes it long as much as the range of emotions I undergo. I feel spent so I'm having a Tusker beer in the apartment I share with Jake and Lee downtown Nairobi. Today, I followed 4 young girls from Jake's NGO Ujaama (Ooo-jah-ma) through their hometown slum Korogocho. My cabbie got totally lost this am and wasted a bunch of time. En route, my lungs started burning from the heavy exhaust and stench of burning garbage along the road. Saw a funny handmade sign along our way that read "We Whiten Brown Teeth". I've been noticing a lot of pp with stained brown teeth.
Feel fairly safe here but I make sure to lock all the cab doors each time I travel after hearing Lee and Jake's story of being attacked a couple of days ago. Guess their cab was stuck in traffic at a round-about downtown and 6 guys quickly approached. One guy banged on one side of the cab while the others threw open the opposite door. Lee knows self-defense so her fighting kicked in and helped but they still made off with Jake's watch. Lee had her bag entwined around one of her legs so she was able to hang onto it - a tactic I now employ. Thanks, Lee!
Once I arrived Koch I went w/the girls to a 3+ hour church service all in Swahili and had to get up and speak as a 'guest'. Later, as I was fighting the urge to doze I saw a tiny mouse run past my feet and another one at the front podium. No one but me seemed to pay any mind to the mice. That kept me awake for awhile longer. That and the women fainting on the floor. And the cute kids dressed in their Sunday best, who kept coming up to me and laying their heads in my lap. At one point I had to use the church toilet outside (3 hours!). So glad I carried my own TP and hand sani as there wasn't any tissue or soap. I thought twice about shaking hands after that but whatcha gonna do...?
The Nairobi River of sewage is a sight to be seen. So much garbage, such a funky thick grey liquid that, surprisingly, doesn't smell as one might assume... And all kinds of life diving into it all. Pigs rooting around in shoreline garbage and 'mud'... a man WASHING clothing in the stew... and a dog who pulled a dead chicken from the mess and trotted off to have a snack. Easy to lose your appetite around here. Or, the opposite happens and you want to eat a ton for comfort.
With so much coming at you at once in the slum it's hard to isolate images. Their is life and love and suffering everywhere at all times. But, being the animal lover I am my heart nearly broke when I saw this poor dog today. Some cruel person had tied the upper part of his snout in a way so that he looked like he was permanently snarling - smiling with a snarl. Guess they though it was funny, but I know that dog didn't. His eyes were so so sad. Its easy to give up on humanity in a place like this. I think that poor dog had.
But, watching the 4 beautiful girls (Lohrna, Ruth, Christine & Sharon) walk hand in hand across the river and thru the muck, gave me hope. They held hands, giggled, just like all young girls do. But, I also grew wary. Very wary for their safety. I felt suspect of any man casting a gaze in our direction. With such heinous statistics - 1 in 4 women are raped in Koch EVERY YEAR - I could not help but feel like every man I saw must be guilty. I mean, who are these men? Who does all this raping? How can there be so many??? Its mind boggling. 1 in 4. I couldn't get that out of my head as I watched my girls be girls. 1 in 4 means more than likely one of my four will be attacked. Maybe even before I leave here. And, 1 in 4 EVERY year means more like 3 out of the 4 will be attacked at some point. I just hope they are ready. I hope they can use their self-defense classes to ward off the attacker(s).
Came back to the apartment but was too restless to sit here. Went up the road to the old Norfolk Hotel and hired a cab to take me sight-seeing through the 'nice neighborhoods' of Nairobi. Saw a bunch of rooftops to enormous homes behind tall gates and fortresses. That's about it. A mall, a handful of fancy hotels, a few Mercedes. Noticed a funny moment with my driver that has happened a few times already in talking with people here... Even though most people who are educated speak English there's still a wide lost-in-translation gap when conversing. Goes something like this:
ME: It's almost summer, yes?
DRIVER: Yes, almost summer here.
ME: When does summer actually start? What month?
DRIVER: I have no idea.
Huh? You know summer is almost here but have no idea when it starts? How about comparing it to last year or the year before? With temp ranges similar to LA, its not like they dont have any markings of seasons. Come on! Uber frustrating as this doesn't just happen when trying to converse in small talk with your cab driver. It happens all day long. What English are you speaking as its not the English I know.
Said a little prayer this am... hoping for the best possible story to help shed light here.... and, hot water. Two pesky tiny mosquitos had me up at 2am. I swung my flip flop a few times to smash them but missed. Crawled back under the mosquito netting and discovered a hole in it by my head. Passed out til 7:45am. Feeling good this am and heading back into "Koch" (sound like kotch) as people call it here. It's short for Korogocho, the slum I'll be working in nearly every day for the two wks Im here. Planning to shoot footage there this am of two young girls (Best friends) attending church. Curious to find out what its like to grow up as a girl in Koch. Possibly found a young beautiful main subject in Lohrna. Pic attached. She is aware of the dangers lurking around her here but has herself never been attacked, thank God. And she's full of hope and promise for her life...
Arrived early this morning in bustling Nairobi, Kenya after 2+ long travel days - 9 hours (LA-Amsterdam), 9 hr layover in Amsterdam, where I spent the day with my dear old friend, Thaisa; then 9 hours more to Kenya. But, I'm here! And spent the day with Lee/Jake and the fighting grannies. What an inspiration these women are! Love em. 6000 ft elevation but I'm hanging in there, subsisting on fumes and pure adrenalin at the moment. I can't believe I'm back on the continent of Africa so soon again. Yikes, dive bomb mosquito. Must kill it.
Amsterdam was sunny, brisk, charming and quick. Such a great city. Fun to see Thaisa again and hope to catch up on my outbound trip as well. Ate a yummy lunch here in Kenya today of rice and beans but then discovered the small cafe's cutlery drawer was filled with mouse dropping. GAG. Will not eat there again. Spent most of the day on the edge of the 3rd largest slum in Kenya - Korogocho. Saw two camels, dogs a'plenty, kids galore, dangerously fast motorbikes, alleyways with open sewage, an umbrella repairman and tons of corn on the cob. This is where the grannies live, train and teach self-defense. It's hard to believe anyone would rape a grandmother in this world but because they are seen as HIV free or a way to cleanse oneself of the disease should one be infected, they are targeted. The grannies and the very young (some children as young as 6 months) are raped here and elsewhere. Its truly horrifying and unfathomable. But, the Sho Sho's (as they are called here), for all their hard knocks and years spent in a tough life of poverty maintain an infectious spirit and I love them.
July 4, 2010
Happy Independence Day America.
Going on four days of no running water here at the Catholic Mission where we’re staying. For now it’s bucket baths with brown water we scoop out of a big blue barrel. We share the bathroom with the fathers who live here. There’s two stalls and two showers. I wonder if it’s weird for the priests to share with some women.
Last night was another World Cup match on TV. I kept falling asleep so I decided to call it a night. On my way down the dark hallway to my room I heard Congolese music coming from around the corner. I went to check it out and found seven men and women – priests and their friends – dancing and drinking. A drunk woman pulled me inside the small Priest’s room. Next thing I knew, substantial Congolese booty was pressed up against me and I had no choice but to try and keep up.
Monday, July 5, 2010
Feels good to be shooting footage again towards the Gates project after a couple of days off. Its hard for me to chill out here until I know what I need is in the can. Hoping to be done with my work by end of the day tomorrow.
We left around 6:30am this morning to head down the long, bumpy, dusty road to Moba Port. It takes at least 30-45 minutes to make it down. I have no idea how that road is passable in the rainy season as there’s so many deep ravines and gulleys criss-crossing most of the way down. You have to be a skilled driver to maneuver without a four-wheel drive. Our driver, Pacific, has an old van so it takes a long time. The early morning light was amazing - crisp and silvery, almost blinding reflecting off the expansive lake. I’ve been down this road now at least 5 or 6 times but this morning was the busiest I’ve seen it. It was the super highway of Moba. Most people rise at the crack of dawn to get busy with survival. No rest for the weary. We passed mama after mama – (everyone refers to one another here as either mama or papa – it’s really pretty endearing to hear “Jambo mama” - hello mama - and you can say it to just about anyone even if you don’t know them well) – making their way back up the long steep road to Kirungu carrying unbelievable loads on their heads. Nine times out of ten mama also has a baby on her back or her front or her hip, and yet she makes this hike in sandals or flip flops or barefooted, walking for at least an hour up the hill. I saw mostly fish being carried this morning but also coal and wood. I am amazed by the daily fortitude of these people. The fact a tiny mosquito can take out such a hearty human seems improbable. Yet, malaria is the number one killer of women and children in the Congo. Over 180,000 die of it each year. If you took an ordinary Westerner, myself included, and had them trade places with a Moba native for a week I’m sure they’d perish in 48 hours. These people, who’ve suffered war, malnutrition and basically non-existent healthcare for years, could so easily whip our Westernized asses – even barefooted with baby, fish and firewood in tow.
Last night I went to get a Tembo beer from room #16 – the room with the fridge -and saw a large whole fish, nearly four feet long, splayed across a table in the room. Then I saw a live black chicken underneath the table. The fish was thawing so I knew what fate must also be in store for the bird. The chicken had a tiny piece of colored cloth tied around the base of one foot but he was not tethered to anything. I wondered why he didn’t try and take advantage of the large open window to make a run for it. We made eye contact, the chicken and I, and feeling badly that I couldn’t help him I left the room. I figured the father’s wouldn’t be too happy if someone released their bird.
Yes, chicken was served for our next meal. No more beer runs for me as I don’t want to open that door. After the pigs and now this, I’m pretty much off all flesh. I’m subsisting on starch and cooked mushy greens. I am, however, sneaking bites of protein from the table for the tiny kitten in room #15. A few days ago, I discovered this small kitty living there. I think the cook has captured this feral kitten as a pet – at least I hope it’s for a pet and not a meal. Late at night, I kept hearing a high-pitched Meow but could never locate the source. Then one evening I was walking by the door in the hallway and heard it again. I peaked inside and saw small grey kitten about eight weeks old. I didn’t get much glimpse of her as she immediately darted under some protective shelving. Someone had left a plate of starch and diced fruit there for her as well as a small bowl of water. I pulled down an old pillow off the shelf and set it on the floor for her and left some bites of fish.
My work is nearly done here and I’m ready to go home. As of tomorrow, five more days until I’m on an airplane bound for NYC.
Tuesday July 6, 2010
Shot the last broll for the Gates film shot this morning. We went to Katombe clinic where we filmed a group of 45 women lined up for prenatal exams. Many of them were six or more months pregnant and this is their first time to be seen but at least they are showing up. Was very exciting to see so many women eager to receive proper care for themselves and their unborn babies.
Will be great to weed through my email inbox tomorrow in Lubumbashi. The president of the mining company Tenke Fungurume that I met on the flight to Lub really came through for Amy’s program. I introduced Amy to Phil and he put her in touch with his Social Outreach guy. They had a meeting and Tenke donated three round trip flights for her program on their private plane. Tomorrow we’re set to depart Moba on their corporate jet. Thanks, Phil! I just hope I make weight with my bags. I think we get about 20 kilos each. I’ve given away the rest of my snacks, half of all my clothing and most of my toiletries but I’ve also added a few kilos with some material I bought and the wooden stool.
I opened the door to the fridge room today as I really wanted a bottle of Coke. Of course there was no chicken. Just a lone black feather and some chicken shit.
Checked on the kitten this evening. She’d eaten all the fish and was napping on the pillow I put down for her. This time she didn’t run and hide until I got about half way into the room. She retreated underneath the low shelves again. She wouldn’t come out but she kept meowing.
I have a couple mosquito bites that just appeared. But, knock on wood I’ll escape my virgin DRC experience without any illness.
Tonight, Amy’s headed over to the other mission to broadcast a semi-final soccer match game. Could be a good crowd as they’ve been advertising the event on the radio all day. She also plans to show a four minute animated video demonstrating how to have a safe birth at home in the village.
Interviewed Amy this afternoon for the Gates short film. Feels good to finally be done! I really dig being in Moba and meeting all the people, but it’s been a long two weeks.
Not really been able to talk to Max on the phone since being here. Can’t wait to skype with him tomorrow from the hotel in Lubumbashi so he can actually see me again! He’s had a cold this week so it’s been a little hard on Mark as he’s not been sleeping through the night. My poor boys! Cant wait to get home to take care of them both. I vow to be the best mommy/wife ever – at least for a week or two.
July 2, 2010 Wandered the mission grounds yesterday afternoon and ran across our cook’s large garden. I only recognized tomatoes. All the rest looked foreign. I do like the kasava (sp?) greens but not sure what they are. In my poking around I also found four pens full of pigs. I heard what sounded like distressed breathing and looked over a wall to find a mama nursing eight piglets. She looked exhausted, leaning against the wall for support as the piggies fought for position to suckle. She was skin and bones, which disturbed me a lot. Several of the pigs came up to me as if to ask me to free them from their dark pens so that they might feel sunshine again. I had to walk away.
We had goat the other night and I forced myself to try a bite. When in Africa… The meat was pretty tough and I can’t really even describe it so the bite was more or less a wasted effort. But, at least I can say I tried goat in Congo. No need to try it again. Matter of fact, after the pigs and the goat I’m pretty much swearing off all flesh for now.
Found out the promises I’ve made to send T-shirts to Congo from America for our driver and translator may be impossible. Joel told me it could cost as much as $100 to mail a $5 t-shirt and since there’s no post office or delivery system out here there’s a 99% chance it would never make it anyway. No postal service. No bank here in Moba. And no system of credit in the entire country. If you want to buy something you pay cash. There are no credit cards. How many suitcases of cash would it take to buy a house??
Women and kids here carry the most amazing things on their heads: Huge heavy containers of water; large aluminum bowls of corn, coal, wood, scrap metal; large plastic bowls of fruit & nuts. The two images that are the most memorable to me so far: the woman walking down the street with an old 1940s black Singer sewing machine balanced on her head and the woman with the giant fish. This fish stretched a good foot and a half off her head on either side. It was one of the biggest fish I’ve ever seen. I missed the photo opp of the Singer but took the fish photo. Fer sur. I got up close enough to smell it. Not so fresh.
I learned from Amy that you have to iron all your clothes here after washing or run the risk of contracting some weird skin infection from fly larvae that settles on wet stuff while drying on the line. I picked up my clothes today from our resident housekeeper guy and was relieved to see he ironed everything including my 11 pairs of undies and 1 bra.
As we were driving around the other day we passed a large group of people sitting on the ground around the base of a tree in someone’s front yard. The people were singing and playing drums and some other small instruments. Our translator explained that someone has died and they were having a ceremony. I feel like there is so much culture flying by me that I’m unable to even begin to scratch the surface of. I wish I could have stopped the van to get out and go sit with those people for an hour or two.
This evening on our way back from the other mission we witnessed a large group of people – mainly kids – hurrying down the street towards our van. The group was so large it stretched all the way across the road and went fairly deep. We decided to drive through and as we slowed down to avoid hitting people I looked out the window and saw a man being pulled along by ropes. Four or five people were escorting him at the front of the group. They were carrying sticks. The four Congolese soccer players with us started talking to our driver and translator. They explained to me that it was a ‘defilement case’, meaning that man who was being escorted had raped someone in the community and they were taking him to the police. I can’t imagine what might happen to him tonight.
The past two days have been a little frustrating as there’s not so much for me to do at the moment and we’re limited as we only have one vehicle that’s shuttling people in all kinds of directions. We’re a group of eight with several different agendas so it’s tricky logistically. Having some time to kill this morning I snagged our translator Augustine and we walked into town to the small market. I went in search of more minutes for my cell phone, some traditional material (probably made in China) and a small stool I’ve had my eye on since arriving. Augustine helped me buy the stool from the kids at the Vodacom cell phone booth in the street. At first I didn’t’ see it and my heart sank as it’s really the only purchase I hoped to make in Congo… But then we peeked inside the small structure and found a seven y.o. kid standing on it. Augustine talked to the kid but announced to me it was much too expensive… the kid was asking way too much. I said, How much? 5000 FC. That’s five dollars and sixty-two cents in USD. I told him the price was just fine and that I wanted to offer him 10,000 because I also found out it was made 15km away and that meant someone had to go to some effort to bring it here. I’ve only seen a total of two stools like it since arriving so they are not so common. But, Augustine would not let me pay double. I’m not sure what that stool must have cost originally, but the kid looked truly stunned and proud that the silly Muzungo paid him 5000 on the spot. I felt bad knowing what a steal I’d just made on a hand carved bench from Africa but am really glad to have it. How to get it home is another issue. After that I tried to buy Mukobe and Christine a scrub brush so they could use something other than their hands for washing pots. But, I don’t think that household luxury exists in Moba. We finally gave up and I bought two cokes for Augustine and I. That cost 2000 fc – half what my stool cost. Augustine told me he pays 4000 fc a month for his rent. How can 4 cokes costs the same as a family’s rent?? Sandals cost about 6500 (about $7 USD) also more than his rent. I know because I gave him the money to buy a pair. He’d been walking around in the dirt for days in his nice dress shoes. I asked him how much a kilo of meat – or enough to feed his family for a meal – costs. He said about 5000 fc. Who the hell can afford that as it’s more than rent?! Before we left I also bought some new underwear for Mukobe and Chrstine. Two pairs for both of them. As I was digging through the panty options I found a red pair with flowers and the words: Beautiful Flower. Comfortable Current. Elegant and big square. Made me laugh.
July 3, 2010
Saw the Southern Cross in the sky last night, the Milky Way, Mars and Venus. Now that the moon is waning the night sky is bursting bright. Even saw a shooting star.
Had a heart-to-heart with my new friend, Anderson. Thanks for listening!
Thursday, July 1, 2010 The parade yesterday for the 50th anniversary was nuts. People were dressed in full glory ready to strut their stuff. Various groups wore colorful matching African outfits. They lined up but had nowhere to go for hours. We waited in that line with our soccer players for a couple of hours. No one had any water and no one complained. A group of women who were dancing nearby dragged me into their circle for a spin. This older woman singled me out and made me shimmy to the ground with her. I tried to copy her moves, sinking slowly to the ground in a crouched position while trying to keep my hips moving side to side. LOL. I got down there alright but couldn’t get back up. The women busted up with laughter loving the fact this 60 y.o. woman whooped my Muzungo butt.
Damien and Jesse went deep into the parade crowd to film so I hung back with the van and our driver, Pacific. That’s his real name so I told him I’d try to buy him a t-shirt when I get back home that says Pacific Ocean. Mailing it will be the big issue I’ve since found out as there’s no postal delivery service in Moba. I took about 40 instant Polaroid photos of kids hanging around the van but after awhile it got daunting as the number of kids just kept growing. It wasn’t fun deciding who would get a photo and who would not so I called it quits and retreated inside the van. That’s when I saw a guy in fatigues walk by with an automatic weapon slung loosely on his waist. There were also guys roaming around with machetes. As the sun got higher and hotter in the sky more and more people began to crowd into the streets. Amy and group came back about then. She and Damien had been up at the front of the parade but some police types had hassled Damien so they decided to pull the plug on our participation in the parade. It was good to get back to our refuge at the quiet mission.
The longer we spend here the more I fall in love with the local people. We filmed Christine day before yesterday – a 32 y.o mother with three young boys, who lives at the top of the hill in Moba Port. We walked up the hill with her to her two room hut – a walk that took about 10 minutes as it was steep. It was hard for me to imagine doing that walk as she does at least two times a day just to fetch water. She carries two heavy containers one at a time all the way up by herself. We filmed her at the well and dropped her off at the base of her hill but didn’t have time to help her carry the water. I think it pissed her off slightly but we were running late and needed to get back up the hill to Kirungu. She had two large yellow containers that were used for fuel in a former life. I tried moving one of them out of the road for her and couldn’t believe how friggin’ heavy it was. To think she puts this on TOP OF HER HEAD and carries it. Good gawd. I hear the women have terrible back and neck issues by the time they reach their 30s and its no wonder. These women are so strong in every sense of the word. I know it’s cliché, but I’m feeling so fortunate for my life at home. Most people I know have NO IDEA how hard a life so many other people in the world truly have. Most of the people here survive with no electricity, no running water, they make dinner in the dark of their huts with dirt floors and no doors except for a piece of material hung up. They live amongst bugs, animals, dirt, sickness, no TP, and often no food. There’s no fresh water that’s safe to drink. They have to add chlorine to the well water, a process that takes at least thirty minutes. Fetching water, chlorinating it, harvesting or buying food, preparing the food, stoking the fire, feeding the family - is an all day affair. Mukobe, the other woman we filmed for the Gates short, let us film her washing cooking pots. She brought several outside her hut, set them down in the dirt and used brown water and dirt scooped with her hands as a scouring agent. She washed with mud then rinsed with dirty water. Then she prepared dinner in that pot. But first she had to fetch coal, light it, stoke it, then placed the pot on the makeshift brick ‘stove’ on the ground in the corner of her hut. Shit. I was tired just watching her. Amy has a theory that because these daily routines have been so streamlined in the Western world the affluent mind has time to seek trouble. She believes Westerners go looking for drama in their search for meaning and have the time to obsess over things like whether playground sand might contain carcenogenics that are bad for children’s lungs, etc. The women of Moba are so busy surviving they don’t have time to worry about much else. No playground sand here, anyway.
I wonder if all people – even those too poor to have time for pursuits outside of daily life rituals – still have dreams for their lives…. I’m sure they must. I know our driver, Pacific, wants to be a pilot. He lives here in Moba, is married and has two girls – Muriel who is 4 and Tina who is 4 months. He works full-time as a truck driver. I went with him to his home one afternoon to meet his family. He has a house similar to everyone else’s only his is larger, has a tin roof and concrete floor. They also had a wood dining table and chairs and a wooden buffet. Pacific does not make enough money to pursue his dreams of becoming a pilot but he hopes, nonetheless. He asked me what I knew about the cost and how to go about it but, sadly, I don’t have answers for him. Our translator, Anderson, who lives in the big city of Lubumbashi, normally works as a customs agent or for mining companies. Sometimes he’s gone from his family for 2-3 months on a job like happened when his son was only 4 days old. He speaks about 17 languages including French, English, Portugese and many African dialects. He is a joyful person despite the two plus years he spent as a child solder at age 12. As we filmed around Moba Anderson pointed out beautiful Guava trees then told me how he’d been whipped by soldiers with the branches from those trees because they can bend but don’t break. I’m sure I will never look at a guava in the same way now. He’s 25 now, married, has as beautiful baby boy and dreams of bringing his family to New York. He told me he’s not afraid of dying and that his favorite color is khaki, a hue he believes should dominate a home. I love his smile. He was a good friend to me during our two weeks together. Augustine, our other translator, is 32, has a wife and two small daughters (Catherine, 3 and Odette 18 months) here in Moba. He spent about 10 yrs in the Zambian refugee camp “Kala” and this is where he took up English studies. He met his wife in the camp, got married and they had both of their babies while there. He’s been back in Moba for about a year and a half but has not found a job. He helps teach people about computers and is also a skilled electrician. He hopes to work for an NGO but most of them seem to be pulling out of Moba now that their contracts are up. Many of them began their work in Moba as a result of the repatriation of refugees. He took me to his home, which is a brick/mud 3 room hut – one living area, one bedroom and one small kitchen area. Augustine is a skilled person and also very nice. I hope he can find gainful employment soon. Our third translator, Vincent, is also a Moba native. He’s 42, has 6 children and also spent 10 years (1998-2008) away in a Zambian refugee camp. He applied to study law and was able to become a lawyer while there because of Unicef. Like Augustine, he’s not been able to find a job in Moba but he does not want to leave as this is his home. It does not seem to matter about the violent atrocities that plagued Moba in the past. Home is home.
While many people here – including children – ask us for money and/or food, most of them don’t seem to complain about their lives. There is just a different way of being here. When I asked a few of my interview subjects, “What is the one thing you hope to teach your children in this world?” the answer was either “To work hard” or “To get an education”. They strive for basic things that we take for granted.
The people here are inspiring for their tenacity and hardy nature. They make me feel like a total whimp. I’ve become acutely aware of my tendency to complain and feel sorry for myself. How can I complain about anything when so many suffer every day? Of course I miss Max and Mark and Mel and my friends, but I’ve not had time to miss the comforts of home that I thought I might miss. It’s amazing how easily you acclimate to cold showers or no showers as there is no water (like happened to us the past 24 hrs), no water all day, eating the same things over and over… but it’s food so we eat. And it tastes pretty good. Never even thought about missing a chai latte while here. Seems ludicrous to even consider when you’re somewhere where people don’t even have shoes.
The children and their smiles give me energy every day. They keep me going and make me want to work as hard as I can. They smile and wave and reach out and play just like kids anywhere. They seem hopeful and innocent – not all of them, but most of them – especially the very young. The older they are the more you see some sadness and signs of hard knocks. Just yesterday, a young boy – maybe 7 (hard to tell here as all the kids usually look smaller than they are in age compared to kids at home) – showed up at the mission with a sizable gash in his forehead. He’d been walking to the market and a motocyclist went flying by and reached out with his foot and kicked the kid. Knocked him to the ground and he hit his head on a rock. Thankfully Amy was here and stitched it up but that poor child was not even going to say a word about it until we asked him. And his mother, who was also with him, was not going to mention in either. And none of the other adults who work for us (the men) seemed to pay it any attention at all. Amy and I just happened to notice the gash and started asking questions until we got answers. There is a blatant disregard for suffering here that is supremely hard to understand. No one complains and no one else seems to care. That part of the culture is really disturbing to me. I’ve seen grown women walk by and shove small children out of their way. I was in the van with one of our drivers who was trying to clear the dirt runway for an incoming plane and watched as he swerved towards to teenage boys pushing a bicycle. The boys immediately dropped the bike and ran for their lives. They had real fear in their eyes and although the bike was probably their prized possession as most people do not have one, they left it in an instant and ran off the tarmac into the tall reeds to escape the man behind the wheel of the van. Sometimes people are cruel to one another. I’ve seen the same kind of thing happen when our security guards try and clear the village children who come up too close en masse when we’re trying to film. They look mean when dealing with the kids – shoving them, speaking in Swahili in a gruff way and they scare the children who step back in fear. They don’t usually run away but they do step back quickly. I think if you’re a child in Africa you lose your childhood very early. You must learn survival skills as the 18 month old crossing the road or fetching water. The 3 and 4 year olds are entrusted with their younger siblings sometimes all day long. They usually carry the babies on their hips or backs in colorful slings. Kids sometimes have to fetch water and carry it for long distances. They scrounge for food and sometimes beg for whatever they can from the few foreigners they encounter. Our kids at home have no idea what life like this means. And yet, Africa somehow gets in your blood. For all the suffering and chaos there is also so much raw beauty. I really wish there was more time to infiltrate the culture, to learn traditions and rituals. I want to come back. I’ve had a taste and I want more.
Augustine wrote a note on my computer, which I just found:
"We are doing fine although we are living in this crazy world whereby people die like flies. It is not every black man is my brother and it is not every white man is my enemy."
Tues June 29
Going on 6 days in the same pants. Gnarly.
Wed June 30, 2010
50th Independence Anniversary – Congo celebrates independence from Belgium today. Here at the mission we have an electrical outage and the water ran out in the sinks, toilets and showers. So much for progress. Celebratory drumming, chanting, singing from nearby huts started at dusk last night and continued until about 8am this morning. I think it was the same song/chant the entire time. I would have loved to have gone and seen what was going on but it wasn’t really possible.
The anniversary was marked by boring TV coverage all day/night. Someone filmed overweight/affluent Congolese people dancing and eating in real time at a private party and aired it. Hardly any households in Moba have a TV but for those who do see it it feels kinda cruel to show images of people feasting themselves while the poor only have Ugali and sugarcane to eat. Amy and Joel arrived here 2 days ago after 2 long days on the road. They took 3 different vehicles and a boat or two lugging all our extra gear, supplies and medicine. Amy learned about a cholera epidemic 250 km south of Moba along the lake and loaded up on supplies (chlorine tablets, IVs and fluids, etc) in Lub. She leaves this afternoon with Damien to go and administer these supplies in the hardest hit areas where there is a high risk of wide epidemic. People are literally shitting and puking to death and it can get into the water supply which transmits the disease to others. It can happen fast and they have to be careful not to contract it themselves.
We’re staying at one of two Catholic missions in the area. I’ve been told these missions provided safe shelter for some families during the conflict. One of my interview subjects ‘papa Vincent’ and his family were one of these families and they lived at the mission for TWO YEARS.
There’s an older blind priest who lives here at the Mission where we’re staying. We call him Papa but his name is Barnaby. He has asthma and Amy discovered he has been taking the wrong kind of meds for years. When we first arrived he told Marie, our logistics person, that he started going blind 30 yrs ago and hoped we might be able to help him with this. He is such a sweet man who is also learning to play the organ. The small children around here seem to help guide him about but this morning he was eating b’fast alone and poured coffee all over the table instead of into his cup. He lives such a humble modest life… has been wearing the same two shirts and pant sets since we arrived and always says hello with a smile every time I pass him. His world seems to revolve around routine – three meals a day all eaten at the same time of day, his morning walk across the yard, his afternoon walk with rosary in hand and his night-time washing of a shirt right before he retires. He’s very proud of the few phrases in English he knows like “Good Morning” and “How are you”. His smile makes me smile.
We visited Dr. Rigobert the other day at Moba General Hospital. He is the chief of the zone of Health for all of Moba territory. There are 22 health clinics that report to him at the main hospital, which is here in Kirungu. We met in his office/board room where the walls are covered with hand-written charts & graphs tracking leprosy, cholera, vaccinations, etc on large pieces of white poster paper. He told us leprosy is alive and well here as is Cholera as we know… Amy is making that voyage now as the hospitals here simply do not have the supplies to help. Damien went along to film it.
Friday, June 25, 2010 My day started off by meeting with the U.N.H.C.R. Assistant of Security. I was told to meet with him to go over security measures incase of an emergency evacuation. His name is Simple and he seemed to have a fairly routine agenda to cover. First, he welcomed me to Moba and had me sign a register with only 10 other signatures since May - all African - no American or UK folks. Then he began his spiel about Moba: High level of poverty... people survive by cultivating the land and fishing... people ready to revolt easily and I must be careful what I say and how i say it so as not to stir things up…. Incase of trouble, there are two possible evacuation routes - by lake on their speed boat (not sure how many it holds - 5 hr trip to Tanzania or few hours south or four hours north). the other possibility is by road going north or south but there might be rebels on the road. Sounds like lake best option for sure. Then he said xenophobia alive and well in moba. He tried to explain about magical mai-mai soldiers but i really didn’t understand…. something about bullets not able to touch them...? Vincent, one of our local translators, later told me Mai Mai (spelling?) are ‘negative forces’ who live in the bush but are not organized at this time. Simple went on to say there is another group here in the population who are dissatisfied former soldiers ready to assemble quickly if there is a revolt. They are not a particularly happy bunch as they’re dissatisfied with the gov’t over how they were discharged from army. Simple tried to reassure by adding that during his time here - not sure how long that is - he's not seen an NGO get attacked. Okay, that’s good. But then he said there are zero commercial flights into Moba - only humanitarian. And, as of today there are no flights at all until after June 30th. Wha? June 30th marks 50 years of Congolese independence from Belgium. In anticipation of that event, apparently, the government has closed all DRC borders and is not allowing any flights to happen. I’m hoping this information is incorrect as our camera man and sound man are supposed to arrive here tomorrow by plane. Also, Amy and Joel (our fearless leaders) are supposed to come via roads through Zambia loaded with all our additional gear. And my bottle of Tobasco!
Simple also told me about the Banyamulenge people, who are partly Rwandan people who were very violent against the Moba people... The Banyan’s now live in Kivu in eastern Congo. Amy said its much more complex than that and proceeded to explain but I was confused after first two minutes. The history is very complex. The one-sided ‘Simple’ explanation is some Banyamulenge murdered the village chief of Moba by burying him alive in front of his family and people. And now, the UNHCR is trying to repatriate some of these folks into Moba but the locals aeren’t having it. Can’t say I blame them. They have revolted and forced the Banyan’s south into Kivu. Simple expounded upon just how much these folks are hated by Moba locals. He said if someone finds a Banyan here they will rip him apart in ten minutes or less. So, let’s recap what we’ve learned day two in a failed state: People ready to revolt. People don’t like UNHCR. If people revolt we should flee with UNCHR. But, seems to me the people might come after UNHCR, right? So, people come after us….? Hmmm… Simple smiled during most of our conversation, which seemed a little weird to me as I was trying to assess safety in this hypothetical yet complicated scenario. At the end of our meeting he extended his hand again and said, "You are welcome here. Thank you for coming. Be courageous."
Fair to say, one might be feeling a tad out of one’s comfort zone at the moment. Anderson, our translator extraordinaire, who sat in on the meeting with me, must have sensed I needed a moment to regroup. He told me not to worry. He’d shared with me how he’d been a child soldier in the Congolese army from age 12-14, how he’d lost 80% of his family in the violence and knows in his bones when war is coming. He assured me it’s not coming here. Not now.
Not to worry, I know we’re in good hands with this team. Additionally, Joel’s assistant, Marie in charge of logistics, told me her father, who lives in Kinshasa and used to be in charge of security for the former President (Kabila senior) until he was stripped of all his honor and imprisoned for five years due to Kabila’s paranoia - would be sure to let her know if there is anything we should be concerned about. She explained that each year around the June 30th anniversary many people become nervous that something might happen. She said it’s not uncommon to close the borders and this year’s 50th anniversary is no different.
BTW, I found Nutella on the breakfast table this morning – the chocolate hazlenut spread I remember having for breakfast many moons ago when on tour with Up with People in Belgium. Ah, the remnants of Colonialism…
It’s dry season here – temps are 70s – very mild for winter. Warm enough to go swimming, which we plan to do later. I mean, I have to take a dip in Lake Tanganyika, afterall! Not much fauna here and the flora is mostly all green. We’re surrounded by hills including one that looks like a plateau. We’re staying in Kirungu aka Moba Plateau and the lake and Moba Port are located down the hill thirty+ minutes below us. There’s a smattering of palm trees around but I don’t think they’re native to the region. On the mission grounds there’s cactus, poinsettia bushes, a tall sisal plant. Amy believes sisal could become a viable economy here if someone could figure out a business to grow and harvest it into rugs. It could be quite profitable as there’s a big demand for this material in the US and Europe. But, it means moving to the Congo – easier said then done. You’d have to have the stomach, patience and substantial start-up to see it through. Again, easier said than done. In the back yard of the mission there’s a lone plumeria (or possibly frangipani) tree. The blooms smell amazing and sweet – sortof out of place here in dusty pungent Moba. When we were first driving around I thought I smelled marijuana but it’s actually burning trash. Kinda grows on you after awhile.
As for the Gates short film... I covered a lot of ground today. Went to the main hospital “Moba General Hospital” and met with Dr. Rigobert's colleague Dr. Donat. He put me in touch with a male nurse named Urbain and also the Director of Nursing. Urbain is very animated and will be great on camera. He also has a lot of knowledge. He let me tour the maternity ward and I took lots of still pics of the women there who'd just given birth. Urbain also let me see a woman named, Mimi, (she looked maybe 18 years of age?), who was still on the metal table, having just given birth 30 min prior to a still born baby boy. Very sad. The stillborn rate is quite high in Moba - approx 90% for women who do not get prenatal care and try and deliver at home vs hosptal. The rate is substantial enough to warrant a stillborn cemetary located in the back yard of the hospital. They pointed it out to us and we were allowed to walk back there. There was no sign or fence, only a dirt path that lead immediately to tiny unmarked graves that are really just fresh mounds of dirt. I only walked down the path about 10 feet as I felt like I might step all over them – there were so many. It made me sick to my stomach and I cried. To maintain some sanity I noticed the handwoven bag doctor Donat was carrying and started up a conversation with him about them. He offered to order one for me from the local villager he knows who makes them. Of course I took him up on the offer!
A few minutes later, we met the mother of Mimi, the young girl who’d given birth to the stillborn. I’m sure Mimi was in shock but her mother seemed to accept the death as a normal part of life. A nurse misunderstood us when we said we’d like to interview Mimi and went and asked her on the spot. Of course she refused – she was still laying on the cold metal table with her bloody birth rags on the floor beneath her. I was kindof mortified and told the nurse that, perhaps, next week would be better. Mimi’s mother offered to talk to her daughter for us and said we could come back to interview her on Monday as they would still be at the hospital. Later, Anderson tried to put the harsh experience into a bit of perspective commenting, 'when a baby is born like that here in Africa its not given much importance because you don’t have much time to love it." But, it’s still hard to stomach. Mimi spent nine+ months carrying this child in her womb and three days of labor in her village before coming to hosp with an emergency. The nurse told us her baby boy was more than likely already dead before the trip. I feel very sad for this young mother’s loss.
I’m learning the main issue of maternal health from the hospital’s standpoint is the lack of prenatal care and the fact many women still prefer to give birth at home with 'traditional medicine' (some kind of flowers the 'trad'l doctors or midwives' use but wont divulge the name of. I’ve since found out they’re from the Mooshi tree). Apparently, these herbs/flowers cause contractions to go faster and harder and sometimes kill the mother and/or baby. According to Urbain the women who attempt to give birth this way won’t often divulge that they have taken the trad'l meds for fear of the police arresting the midwife. The only way the staff knows the mother has taken these meds is when the women start vomiting. Many women are scared to give birth in the hosp b/c they believe if they go there they will get surgery so they prefer to stay home. Surgery is not only a scary prospect for them but a procedure they could never begin to afford. A normal delivery costs about 5000 FC, or six US dollars. But a Cesarian costs anywhere from $75-135 USD. The day we visited the maternity ward there were at least 29 cases of women who’d given birth by C-section. These women and their babies (many at least a month old now) cannot pay so they are stuck at the hospital until they are able to settle their bill. When/how will that ever happen??
Of the women who have come to hosp in time to deliver, Urbain says there are only 2-3 still births in past few months. But out of the women who stay in their village and take trad'l meds and only come to the hospital when complications arise – 90% of them lose their babies.
Saw a dead woman’s body this afternoon while we were driving down the road. We were in the van and the woman was laid out on a handmade tarp/stretcher that was being carried by 4 or 5 men. Our driver said the men were on their way to bury the body in the ground. No coffin.
I’m feeling strong and ‘courageous’ but two more weeks here seems like a really long time.
I miss my boys.
Kirungu/Moba Port in Moba Territory and Katanga Province, DRC
Thurs, June 24, 2010 (second half of day)
We took a humanitarian flight run by MAF – Mission Aviation Flight from Lub to Moba. The plane has seating for five including the pilot. Dan was our pilot – an American from Colorado who has lived and worked in Africa most of his life. When I saw the plane and how small it was I got a bit panicky. It’s REALLY TINY – as small as float plane I forced myself to board in Tofino Canada as a way to conquer my fear of flying on my 40th birthday. But that was only a twenty-minute trip and this flight to Moba was supposed to be 2 hrs and 45 min. In order for the plane to take off we had to make a strict weight allowance of 41kg of luggage for all four of us. The gear we needed to transport for the malaria program weighed 35 kg alone so we had to empty most of our personal stuff into a plastic bin to leae behind. Something tells me luggage won’t be the only thing I start shedding in Africa. I pared all my crap down to my sleeping bag, mosquito net, tent, toothbrush, computer, 1 book, cell phone, 2 T-shirts and a pair of p’js. I got to sit in the co-pilot seat next to Dan. Having that vantage point calmed my nerves a lot and once we were airborne I settled in taking in the expanse of scrub brush, trees and occasional huts. I kept it all in check until Dan told me to look for elephants about two hours in. I think my focus on the ground and the fact that the sun was beating in through the windshield did me in. I suddenly got really clamly and nearly threw up. Dan noticed how white I was and asked if I wanted to fly the plane but I couldn’t even answer. Took me a good 10 min to reign it in but I recovered and then flew the plane! OMG. As we crested a ridge there was beautiful blue Lake Tanganyika… Down below us was Moba – scattered huts and a few dirt roads – our home to be for the next two weeks. No airport, only a crashed deserted plane and a small crumbling building no longer in use. We landed on the dirt tarmac and were greeted by a swarm of 100 or more barefooted dusty children in ratty clothing smiling big and wanting to pose for our cameras.
All my life I’ve seen images of Africa similar to what was before me. But now that I was transported inside one of these images nothing about it felt remotely familiar. It is mind-blowing and surreal. Everything is at once incredibly beautiful and insanely tragic. The people here are so impoverished yet most of them smile and wave with gusto. The kids have lice and all kinds of diseases but they play and fight like all children do. It’s only their eyes that reveal they are not quite the same as I’m used to. So many of them seem like very old souls and sometimes their piercing stare is really haunting. The really small children seem a bit in shock at first to see a “Muzungo” - white person – and then they usually smile and chase our vn. The older children often seem wary. They have seen white people before – mostly NGO workers. Im guessing their experiences have not all been positive. Or, maybe, they’ve already seen too much in their young lives. From a distance the mission where we’re staying is quite beautiful. The architecture is very Flemish inspired. Up close, it’s decaying pretty rapidly. Windows are broken and it’s not the cleanest place you’ve ever been but its definitely four stars for Moba.
We had the same meal for lunch as dinner – rice, ugali (traditional maise that’s thick and incredibly bland that you roll into a ball and use to sop up sauce), some kind of cooked greens and chicken and fish. Im dying for some of the Tobasco I packed but had to leave behind in Lub. I really liked the local Pilli pilli hot sauce in Lub but so far we’ve not been able to find any here. There was a full moon tonight and I saw a majestic owl perched on the roof of the mission. At first I thought he was a statue but then I saw his head turn and he flew away. It’s very dark here at night. The long hallway is kindof spooky at first as its so dark you cant easily read the door numbers. I know which one is the bathroom and I just count down from there until I reach my room. I usually have to pee in the middle of the night won’t want to go down that hallway at 3am so I’m planning to pee in my trash can should I get the urge. That won’t be as easy as it sounds as it entails crawling out from under the tight mosquito nets – I doubled up w/two to make sure no malaria insects could bore through! I turned off the gnarly flourescent light in my room to go to bed and it was pitch dark. And really q u i e t. Occasionally a door slams somewhere down the hallway which echoes incredibly loud. I watched all the vids I have of Max on my cell phone before falling asleep.
Making plans in Africa is no small feat. Getting from point A to point B is usually fraught with challenge. As Amy said in her interview with me yesterday, “you don’t prepare for Plan B. You prepare for Plan A-K at the very least”. But the notion of planning anything is pretty much a joke. Although someone confirms with you it in no way shape or form constitutes a done deal. As a general rule, you can usually expect the opposite or expect to expect some bizarre twist you’d never even considered. That’s why we're still here in Lubumbashi - day #3 after arriving in Congo. We’re hoping to leave tomorrow but it all depends on the flight arrangements. We’re traveling with 8 or 9 people (nine if our security guard ever arrives) and there are serious weight restrictions on the humanitarian flights we hope to take. Not to mention their plans change daily as they don’t run on set schedules.
Yesterday I wanted to change some Rand and dollars to Francs so I went into town with Marie, our local Congolese fixer. Marie, btw, has an amazing life story, which I should write about later. Anyway, Marie told our taxi driver I needed currency exchange and three seconds later he pulled the car over to the side of the road. Two seconds later some dude with a black bag appeared at my window. Marie told me to hand him the money so I gave him two twenty-dollar bills. He reached into his bag, discretely pulled out a stack of dirty Congolese bills about three inches thick and handed the wad to me. It was so big it didn’t fit into my travel wallet so I had to get a large envelope back at the hotel. Later, I changed even more money at the bank for a total of about $120 USD and now I have to carry the load in my backpack. I’ve never seen so much cash at once. It’s deceiving because you feel like you’ve got loads of moolah but the rate of exchange is something like 800 to 1. Commerce in a failed state.
It was Amy’s birthday yesterday, which she celebrated by pulling her hair out over the ever-changing scheduling details. Our 20,000 malaria nets are still at the border of Zambia and they’re now demanding $5,000 USD for their release. Happy birthday, Amy. Crisis aside, we went to a yummy Chinese restaurant in town for dinner (something I’d never expected to find here). We were the only people at the joint, which was a good thing because we tend to take over and we’re a rowdy bunch once the Tembo’s start flowing. That beer is really really good. Later I shared a cigarette with Amy. My first in over two years. Mommy freedom. ;-)
I missed two really great photo opps yesterday that I’m kicking myself over. First was a shot of two beautiful tall women standing on a curb in traditional konga dress both with swaddled babies on their hips (also gorgeous) and balancing metal bowls on their heads full of fruit and bananas. We’ve all seen photos like these before but once its in context its outstanding. I saw the second photo on the way to the Chinese joint. It was really dark but as we rounded a corner I saw a hair salon lit only by a candelabra. Inside, it looked like a man was cutting a woman’s hair in silhouette. It was amazing. These images will have to live etched in my mind for now – unless I can find them again today.
I wasn’t able to get online at all yesterday so hoping I can fire this off today and check some emails. Still unable to upload any photos but I'll keep trying.
Ciao for now. xo lisa
Lumbumbashi, Congo DRC 6/21/10
“Planet Hollybum”
The buzz of vuvuzela’s from the soccer game last night was still reverberating in my brain early this morning. Upon leaving the hotel I picked up a copy of Time magazine and read a report stating the maximum decibels of these noise-makers is 144 – the equivalent of a jet plane take off. A stadium of eighty-four thousand soccer fans drinking beer is loud to begin with but then you add several thousand African vuvuzela’s and it’s a head splitting cacophony for two+ hours.
After our cameraman paid $700 in luggage fees at the South African counter this am for over weight bags and we met up with Dr. Amy Lehman we said goodbye to a whirlwind 24 hours in Jo’burg… My seatmate on our three-hour flight from Jo’burg to the Congo was a large kind American man named Phil. Originally from the Georgia sea-board Phil has lived and worked in the DRC the past two years in charge of African operations for the copper/cobalt/gold mining company FreePort-McMoran/Tenke Fungurume. Phil wanted to know if during my time at film school if I ever imagined my training might take me to the Democratic Republic of the Congo one day. Uh, nope.
Besides two flight attendants there were only three women on the flight (Amy, myself and a French-ish woman traveling with her husband and toddler daughter). The men onboard all appeared to be associated with mining in some way or another. A quick search on Wikipedia the other night taught me that while the DRC is one of the poorest nations on earth it also has enormous mineral wealth. 30% of the world’s reserves are here including copper, cobalt, diamonds, gold, silver, and coal. When Phil fell asleep I played with Amelie, the Frenchie’s two year old who has a birthday only four days before Max’s. We became fast friends trading songs and opening packages of hand wipes so she could clean the plane. An adorable spunky kid, she had me missing Max. A lot.
The ‘international’ airport of Lumbumashi is a trip. There’s a lot of people who seem to be just hanging around. And they don’t step aside when you need to get by. I don’t think they’re waiting on anyone in particular; rather just waiting… like they’re hoping the plane might bring them some form of opportunity – like carrying a foreigner’s bags for fifty cents. The first few Congolese faces I encountered weren’t particularly friendly. I think I got one ‘Bon Jour’ but that was it. The men’s eyes were bloodshot, steady and piercing but disturbingly distant. Juxtaposed against their coal black skin color the effect was haunting. We retrieved all eleven of our bags and loaded into an old van. Four of us piled into the back with the luggage while the sound guy and I crammed in the front with Rennie our driver. The currency here is the Congolese franc. The bills are beyond dirty – I mean, they’re nearly black. As the van maneuvered around bodies and potholes Renni peeled sweaty dark bills from his pocket, palming them in the hands of several men along our way. Rounding a corner towards the airport exit, a couple of smartly dressed African women stood on the curb. They appeared to be waiting. For what, I have no earthly idea. It’s not like there are any taxi-cabs. They could have easily been flight attendants in another city but not here - no plane from which they would have disembarked. Renni motioned one of them over and mumbled something in French. He peeled off a 500 franc and handed it to the smiling woman who thanked him. 500 francs is the equivalent of fifty cents.
The drive to the hotel was a little surreal and colorful. It’s a bustling Monday – commerce happening out in the open along the streets but the city is plagued by shoddy infrastructure at best. There are loads of people milling around by the side of the road and lingering under the eves of crumbling buildings. Women dressed in beautiful patterned long African kongas balance unimaginably large loads on their heads. The earth is so red here. There’s red dirt everywhere. Everything, including the children, seems awash in that color. As pretty as it is, it’s also a little unnerving –it’s like a constant reminder of the DRC’s violent bloody history.
During lunch at our hotel called Hollybum – pronounced Hollyboom (a play on Hollywood??) Amy discussed some of the logistics to our ever changing African schedule – (ie, our 20,000 malaria nets are held up at the border of Tanzania/Zambia and the 1500 soccer balls en route from South Africa are running behind). Playing in the background of our informal meeting was the Portugal/North Korea soccer (7-0). I kept feeling little insect bites. I was probably overly tired and hallucinating. I’m trying hard not to become paranoid about Malaria but it’s tough when you hear so many stories of local people contracting it. You’d think if you live here your body would build up resistance. Today is day three of taking the Malarone meds. I learned it’s only 80% effective. There’s still 20% of mosquitos who drink that nectar for breakfast.
Our security guard, Ismael, is stuck in Kinshasha - his plane had issues, turned around mid-flight then ran off the runway on landing. Then he had to leave his gun on the plane, which caused more delays. I’ve heard so much music since leaving Los Angeles. Everywhere I went in NY and Brooklyn music was playing. And singing in Africa seems to be a common occurrence. Even now I can hear a group of male voices joined in a harmonious uplifting song in a language I can’t understand. I’d like to find out where the voices are coming from but Lubumbashi is not the kind of place you just venture out into. Especially now that it’s starting to get dark. It’s sunset and I’ve read that dusk marks the cue for the mosquito show to begin. Time to go inside.
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