Wednesday, November 22, 2006

"Today, I danced with Pygmies." Journal entry, 31 Oct 06. Last New Year's Eve, Dave and I talked about what we thought the coming year might hold. That was one experience I definitely did not see coming.

If the people of Rakai are poor, then the pygmy villages I visited are utterly destitute. I have never seen such squalor up close. Alone in one of their huts, I could hear the rats. Large ones closing ranks on me. It was all I could do to stand and hold the camera still for the long exposures in the lightless dwelling. As a rule, rodents don't freak me out, but I was becoming unnerved. I scanned quickly for light, color and composition — trying to remain calm to protect the long exposures — and I definitely did not linger.

A few pieces of soiled, tattered clothing hanging on a crude clothesline strung across the room. Deep, heady smells of earth, smoke and charcoal. A chicken enters the doorway, pecks around freely then absently wanders out. A charred pot sits alone. A sicle stands against a wall. A solitary shoe. An indiscernible mound of cloth lies in one of the darkest corners.

These pygmies are part of the Batwa tribe, forest dwellers whom the government has driven out of the Bwindi Forest (also known as the Impenetrable Forest) to make it marketable for eco-tourism. Specifically, gorilla trekking. They were unceremoniously escorted out, without being given places to live, ways to earn a living, or any guidance in matriculating into the mainstream society in which they suddenly found themselves. They are part of a tribal group with scattered remnants throughout the forest crossing into Rwanda and the DR Congo.

Brian Henderson, an American videographer, and I visited two of the Batwa settlements at the invitation of Hurinet (Human Rights Network) and AICM (African International Christian Ministry). AICM has been actively involved in helping the Batwa find their way into modern society. (Visit for more information). We were accompanied by Rangu from Hurinet, Doreen from AICM, and Guma, our driver.

Just getting to the villages was an amazing adventure. It took two to three hours in a 4-wheel drive on dirt roads that were often no more than gullies just to get to the footpaths that led up, straight up, severely straight up, to their settlements near the forest edge. The roads wound up into steeply terraced mountains that reach up out of Lake Bunyonyi. These routes are highly trafficked, not by cars but by people. People with farming implements. People driving cattle. People herding goats. People carrying things on their heads: laundry, produce, bundles of branches, furniture. People speeding downhill on bicycles. People walking bicycles uphill. And the bicycles would have all manner of things strapped to them: other people, produce, a goat, a bed.

And, despite sitting in the way back of the four-wheel drive, with four other Africans in the car, the passersby would invariably shout out "Mzungu!" and run towards us for a look. I felt like my name was Elizabeth and I was paying a state visit.

The first day we visited a settlement of about 40 Batwa in an area just on the forest edge. AICM has built a school up in the village as the closest goverment school is too far to be accessible. The children crowd the school building and seem eager to learn: dutifully copying their work onto slate boards, repeating the English phrases spoken by their teacher, and singing songs. Later, when Brian was interviewing village leaders, the children would edge up to me asking for books, for money, for pens. Anxious to keep them quiet, I led them off a bit and got them to sing some songs (quietly) for me. They loved singing "head and shoulder, knee and toe" while I would always point to the wrong body part. I'm anxious to hear Brian's sound bytes from his interviews as I wonder how successful I really was at keeping them quiet.
At first, they did not want me to take their pictures. They would shy away whenever they would see my camera raised. After our impromptu singalong, however, even the women seemed to warm up. They slowly wandered over to the group of children around me, anxious to see what was going on with the crazy white woman. After Brian's interviews ended, it seemed a celebration was in order as the adults gathered together and broke out in their traditional dance: replete with singing, drums, and the high jumps their dance is known for. I couldn't shoot fast enough. Their joy was totally infectious. I shot from a small hill above. I shot at their level. I laid on the ground and shot their feet. It was exhilarating!

The second day, we visited a different settlement of Batwa, equally difficult to get to. This was the group that allowed us inside one of their homes. Doreen is truly dedicated to these villagers. And you can see the utmost trust and respect that they have for her. Upon our arrival, she would explain the nature of our visit and how we wanted to share their plight with those who could help them. Still a bit mistrustful of us, they would slowly relax and open up. This second group lived up a particularly steep path that wound back and forth like a switchback to make the height a bit more manageable. Once into the village (this one had about 20 - 25 adults), we were shown how they make baskets. Beautiful, large baskets. But they sell them to the local villagers for about 50 cents, and those villagers turn them around for about $10. The Batwa see none of this profit. The health concerns here are worrisome as well. As they all sat listening to the speeches made by their leader and the visitors, I noticed a girl whose nose was bleeding, without any thought by her or those around her. At the end of our visit, I was nurse to Guma who used my first aid supplies to clean out a deep, ugly wound in an older lady's hand which was badly infected. Just the previous day, Doreen was quite upset to discover a woman who's leg had become so badly infected the gaping wound was now about 8 inches in diameter. There was much discussion as to whether the woman refused treatment or her husband had, and what was now going to be done about it.

The second day ended in the memory of my lifetime... after dressing the woman's wound, Guma and I headed down the steep path to catch up with the others in our party. As on the previous day, these people had danced and sang for us as well. Only now, the singing and dancing continued as we made our descent. The children ran ahead of me, skipping and jumping down the path. I followed, imitating them as best I could, camera in each hand held high in case I took a dive. The womem followed behind, singing in their exhuberant voices, some beating jerry cans, all of them swaying down the path behind me smiling broadly.

We danced all the way down to the car, then continued to dance for another 15 minutes. They would laugh when I got the clapping wrong, and they cheered when I jumped high, tucking my legs tightly under as I had seen them do. The most animated woman danced with me, around me, dodging under my upraised arms. Totally mesmerizing.

Finally herded back into the car, I had a short break before we reach our next stop: a local government school to which AICM sends two Batwa boys showing promise as future leaders. As before, while Brian conducted interviews, I wandered around capturing glimpses into a totally foreign society. These government schools are crude at best. Very basic buildings, no doors or windows, furnished with benchs, desks, and chalkboards. I think of how our schools feel the pinch of budget cutbacks. And I am in disbelief at how well these kids listen, learn, thrive and grow with the sparse resources available to them.

Many Batwa children came onto the campus when the saw the Mzungus arrive. There is a stark disparity between the cleanliness of the school children in their brightly colored uniforms and the Batwa children in their brown, tattered rags. I easily capture images of the two groups together. I also see the irony in a group of the Batwa playing under the Ugandan flag. If only their government were truly looking over them instead of overlooking.

Once again, children provide the highlight of the visit. While sitting on the ground with a small group of the Batwa, a large contingent of schoolchildren suddenly converges on us and I am engulfed by seated, kneeling, standing kids. At least forty in all. The back of my arms are gingerly touched. Fingers stroke my hair. The heady smell of poverty threatens to overwhelm me. Once all of the children had closed in, I tried to get them to sing as the kids did the previous day. However, everything I said was promptly parroted about. "Can you sing me a song?" I asked. "Can you sing me a song?" they replied. "No, you sing!" I demanded. "No, you sing!" came the response. "Okay" I said. "Okay" said they. "How are you?" (How are you?). I am fine. (I am fine). I have to sneeze. (I have to sneeze). Aaahh-choooo! (Aaahh-choooo! followed by peals of laughter). "Hyperbole." (Hyperbole). "Oxymoron." (Oxymoron). "Onomatopaeia." (Onomonooa...... trailing off to barely heard mumbling). How much fun!! I loved to see them laughing and so carefree.

Really, after the images of stark poverty, I remember the sounds of joy and laughter. Now, I need to somehow reconcile the two.

By the time we returned to our base in Kabale on this second day, it was too late to head back to Kampala. Brian was really crunched for editing time as the end of the workshop loomed nearer. However, final translations needed to be done with Doreen and Ugandans are loathe to drive at night for several reasons. Two of them are compelling enough: many people drive without lights, and up until a few years ago this area of Uganda had been subject to marauding groups of ex-soldiers comandeering vehicles as they struggle up the hills at night: robbing everyone inside and occasionally killing the occupants. So, we were more than content to wait until morning to make the 6-hour trip back to Kampala.

Space (and attention spans) prohibit me from detailing all of the remarkable experiences I had just in the area of day to day living. One day in Kabale, I asked the lady at the front desk if I could have some laundry done. She leaned over the desk to look outside and said "Yes. It's sunny today."

The first night we arrived in Kabale, Brian and I looked skeptical at the hotel chosen for our stay. I told Brian that after Rakai, all I required was a room with a working outlet (for recharging batteries), hot water (and I didn't care whether it was above the toilet or not), and a bed without bugs. The floor no longer mattered. As it was, this hotel ended up having excellent fish (although the first night the English Fish, the Classic Fish and the Grilled Fish all came out looking the same) and a nightly showing of Nigerian movies in the restaurant. That first night we (Brian, myself, Rangu and Guma) all stayed up way too late totally immersed in the high family drama of whether the fathers would allow their children to be together or if their feuding would end in the brother's death. And could the dying brother (hit by a car driven by the other father's driver) reconcile them before he drew his last breath? Yes, it seemed he could.

It is my fervent hope that the people I've met will result in relationships that will last my lifetime. Rangu is returning to Zimbabwe where human rights are precarious indeed with the current government. Guma is working his way through school while supporting his mother, sister and two brothers. He is studying business and writes business proposals as a way to supplement his income. The Batwa have touched his heart as well, and he's working on a plan we've discussed at length to form a visitor center at the entrance to the Bwindi forest which would educate tourists about the Batwa and provide an outlet for the Batwa to sell their crafts profitably. Doreen has recently married, and only sees her husband on weekends so she can continue to work with the Batwa through AICM. I have a lot of photos for Brian, and I understand he has some video clips for me. Both of us have been encouraged by this experience to continue to pursue projects highlighting overlooked people and issues.

One more entry to this blog should complete my Uganda experience. The workshop ends, and I have Guma take me to Murchison Falls to spend my last few days in Uganda before heading to Dubai. Rest? Relaxation? Stay tuned.

Friday, November 10, 2006

The silence was deafening that first morning in Kyotera. Sitting in one long row on the stoop, my family and I sized-up each other with covert glances. Grateful for my camera, I hid behind it waiting for them to do something, anything.

Kyotera is one of many small villages in Rakai. Mud huts nestled in a lush setting. Vibrant greens, the heady scent of rich soil, relative quiet pierced every so often by the calls of exotic birds, the sound of feet pattering along a path, and the tap, tap of a shepherd's cane herding his cattle to the next feeding spot.

The landscape is dotted with mud and thatch huts surrounded by dirt lots swept often with reed switches. Every patch of green is cultivated in densely planted gardens. My family seems wealthy in comparison, with their multi-room house built by World Vision complete with concrete floor, cushionless chairs and sofa, and tin roof dotted with nail-sized holes.

As bored with our stand-off as they must have been, I stood up and began taking pictures of random things like chickens and laundry on the line. Slowly life resumed. Alice (age 20, head of the family) began checking the laundry. Rebecca (16) started splitting wood for the cooking fire. Matilda (20?) wielded a very long knife and peeled potatoes. The two 1-year-old babies hid behind trees, doorways, and mothers, crying every time we made eye contact.

When the school across the road came out for break, Bosco (11) strutted about, enjoying the attention his mzungu commanded. Every student had lined the road in front of the house and just stood there staring at me, edging a bit closer every minute or so until Alice would chase them back to the road. Slowly they would inch forward again. This went on for 20 minutes until the whistle was blown and they all ran back to the school.

The education mandate passed by the government in the '90s has been implemented in full. Schools are positively everywhere, each represented by one particular uniform color creating waves of brilliant hues ebbing in and out of the classrooms, billowing out onto the roads. Driving across the country, I would think to myself, this is the purple district. Ah, now we're in the blue district. Hmm. Pink. Wow! Yellow!

Mzungu is my name now (white person). Once baby Lilian reached out and touched my arm, withdrew sharply, and resumed crying. Later in the afternoon, I returned armed with biscuits. She and I made peace over that, though Marss, her same-aged cousin remained skeptical.

The family became much more relaxed. The following morning, before the throngs of neighbors and kids began stopping by, I allowed each of the family members to take a few photos of each other with my camera. This really seemed to break the ice and I finally began to capture the joy they had in their everyday lives.

Our last morning, I went to say goodbye. Each of the workshop participants gave the host family a plastic bin filled with basics like flour, meal, sugar, soap and some extras like pens, paper, crayons. Many of us found gifts waiting for us, as well. Astonishing to me in that we really had been nothing but an intrusion on them: perhaps only briefly elevating their village status by having mzungus hanging about. Alice, Rebecca and Matilda presented me with a large basket filled with a paw-paw and a large bunch of bananas. Both wrapped in banana leaves, tied with reeds, and decorated wtih bouganvillea.
Robert, (17), walked to the meeting point with me to say goodbye. I gave him a picture of the girls I had left in my bag on the bus so he could show his sisters my daughters. (Just think, girls, your photo is floating about Uganda now!). Bosco and several of his friends held my hands, my shirttail, my pants... and waited with me while the other mzungus came out of various paths converging on the central meeting place.

Comparing my experiences with others in the group, I question whether the households whose elders have died from AIDS are slowly losing their culture. My family was so different. Throughout the places I've been, men typically wear western-style clothes. Women wear dresses or long drapes of fabric mysteriously wrapped around them. The girls in my family wore western-style dresses and often pants. Never the traditional dress.

Others in my group observed many meals with the families, both in preparing and eating. Perhaps mine was too shy, too polite, or too afraid I would eat everything, but aside from the first morning when they were preparing lunch, I would not know if they ate at all.

The stories of families singing, dancing and playing drums made me envious. My family's entertainment was sitting outside their home talking with the steady stream of visitors stopping by.

They would bring out the radio. Listening, dancing and singing along. I did capture them doing various chores: sweeping the dirt yard with reed brooms, washing down the porch and step, laundry. Rebecca would help Bosco with his schoolwork.

I believe Alice must have been only 12 or 13 when they lost their parents to AIDS. Grandparents had also passed away. I can't help but wonder if the lack of elders parallels the absence of cultural tradition.

But, what I missed in culture in Rakai, I definitely found in my next stop: Kisoro!

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Remote locations, power outages, and a frenzy of final editing has kept me from posting updates on my Uganda experience. I'm now in Dubai, art directing again, until I leave for the US on the 13th.

During my internet-less times, however, I have been writing down events, thoughts, impressions. So now, I will continue telling about my experience from where I left off. Because it would make this one long blog (I'm still not used to that word), entries will be broken up and posted over the next several days. So....

On 24 October, two days before leaving for Rakai, I wrote the following: "How do I feel right at this moment? • ambivalent • unsure of myself • direction-less • lousy photographer • inadequate • who am I to think I could help these people • what am I doing here • I wish Hurinet would call back (Human Rights Network) • I wish I could go running • I wish Dan were back (because he would listen to me whine!) • I wish my client work was caught up • I wish I could give every kid I see 500 Ushgs."

Definitely a low. Up to that point, I had spent a day shooting with Connect Africa... which I thoroughly enjoyed, but it was a bit confining shooting with two others. I held back quite a bit from shooting what I thought would be compelling because of shyness and worrying about our subjects being tired of us with all of our cameras going off from different directions.

Then, the next afternoon I shot images for Right to Play. I went with photo-Brian (whom we began calling "Brain" to differentiate him from video-Brian). And that was a great opportunity to get to know and appreciate his enthusiasm and tireless wit. We were pretty much ignored by the children who were kept quite focused on the frenetic activity. At day's end, however, I was less than enthusiastic about my work there.

Hence the self-abasing thoughts of the 24th. There was a bright spot that day. I discovered "African Tea," similar to India's chai: black tea with ginger, bay leaf, sometimes cinnamon, and always milk.

The 26th, we started off bright and early for Rakai. It was in this province that AIDS was first diagnosed. The families we would be spending time with were either grandparents or widows taking care of large numbers of children whose own parents had died from the disease, or households headed by young people whose elders had all died. My family was the latter.

On our way, we received word of a Cholera outbreak in the area we were going. We continued on, with the admonition of eating only cooked food.

After a stop at the Equator (and a fascinating demonstration on the direction of swirling water North, South and directly On the Equator), we arrived at our destination "Highway Motel" late in the afternoon. After getting our rooms and schlepping our bags up fligts of stairs, we set off to meet the families.

We wouldn't have stood out anymore than we did if we had all worn large "Mzungu" signs on our heads. 15 of us walked throughout the village, hut to hut, shaking hands, smiling politely, looking as warm and inviting as we could, being ensconced in a giant group of white skin.

Our welcome was warm, much more so than the market of our first workshop day. The poverty was real. And daunting. One woman had seventeen children in a two-room hut. Crude furniture, dirt floor, mud walls. Tattered clothes... but mostly clean. Worn faces lined by tales of sadness... but with smiles of joy. The ride back to the motel was a quiet one, most of us lost in thoughts about our "families", poverty, and trying to make sense of why we have so much at home.

The morning of the 27th I awoke early. My second sentance of the day was written at 6:45am: "I feel I'm on the verge of something profound." Desperately I wanted to find meaning in my being there. What right did I have to play voyeur to these people and their ways of living. Who was I to make them a "learning experience" for my personal growth?

I looked to the bible for some spiritual significance or validation for all of this. Thinking of verses on poverty, "The poor you will always have with you..." I was unprepared for what I found. I have a small bible that stays in my travel bag. Inside is a slip of paper with a note Melanie had written to me when she was about 5 or 6. Opening to the place where the paper was, I thought to myself I would let that guide me where to read. " 'But now take courage.... And work, for I am with you' says the Lord of Hosts. 'As for the promise which I made you when you came out of Egypt, my Spirit is abiding in your midst, do not fear.' " (Haggai 2:4,5)

Okay, so I'm not always the most outwardly spiritual person. But I've always believed God puts us where we're supposed to be. I was really questioning that here in Uganda, and here was my answer. Work. WORK. This was my work I had chosen to do. I wasn't here because I like to take pictures. There was a job to be done, and I was here to do my part. I didn't need to feel self-concious for having expensive equipment when I was shooting people with literally nothing. This was my work, and if I did it well, it could bring relief to them. People in the right positions (NGOs) would use these images to tell their stories. And if these NGO people WORKED, funding for housing, education, sanitation, farming would come in and help these families get a foothold out of poverty.

The confidence this brought me was staggering. I had been somewhat stoic all week, a bit of an out-of-body experience unable to process the standards of living surrounding me. Reading this, the veil lifted so to speak, I cried. For the first time there, I cried. My outlook on the days ahead was totally transformed.