Monday, 21 September 2009

Night Plane from Addis Ababa 14th September 2009

Night Plane from Addis Ababa 14th September 2009

It's not the new languages, culture or people that makes travel difficult they're the exciting parts, it’s the flights - the queues or lack of, the security checks and the waiting. Flying from Addis Ababa to Accra was an endurance test which left me battered; queue for baggage scan to get into airport, queue to check in, queue for immigration, queue and scan of hand luggage before entry into departures and a final queue and scan before boarding. To make the whole process additionally tiresome the flight was at 1:40 am. I had been dreading this leg of my journey and it was not unfounded.

If you are one of the last to board there is the opportunity to check your seat and possibly change it with the gate staff, but being last on also runs the risk of not finding any baggage storage. I always run the risk in the hope that I can get a seat on an empty row at the back. This time I'm told there are loads of empty seats at the back but when I board I am confronted by a phalanx of sour faced stewardess who tell me that all the back rows are being used for storing bags of crisps. Please surely we can put them all on one area? I suggest as they are taking up about five rows but just scattered not stacked. No luck and I am forced to go to my ticketed seat leaving my baggage in with the crisps. Four hours later I go back to get a book from my bag as sleep hadn't caught the same flight as me and all the back rows had people stretched out asleep on them some of them the stewardesses. I am upset but a stewardess tells me to sit down - they need to sleep. As I have nothing else to do I go and find the burly chief steward named Darge and explain that I am not happy with the situation, the stewardess who told me to sit down comes up and talks in Amareic to him. He then gets nasty and starts shouting and goes to get my bags from the back of the plane, I appeal to him not to be so foolish and that I had come to him for assistance not grief. My new Ghandi approach to conflict was stretched to breaking point, violence did look like the only solution I was seeing red clouds at 33000ft but I managed to sit back down and simmer for the rest of the flight.

An hour later we land at Lagos and wait for an hour before flying on to Abidjan where I had to change flights. I hoped that I would simply go to transit and wait but no, I had to claim my baggage go out and re check in at the desks out front it's 6am but 8 am my time. Then of course it's another queue to check in, a rescan of my hand luggage where they remove my gaffer tape in case I decide to use it to take anyone hostage, one final bag and body search before boarding and there I am back on the same aircraft same seat I had just come from .We pay to do this!

An hour later and I'm in Accra with the journey from hell behind me but still have to deal with immigration and customs who are very excited about my camera and was I a journalist was I here to work? On mentioning I was visiting Bolgatonga in the north a customs lady said that was her town, when she learned I was going to see Afrikids she knew of them was pleased to let me know that and waived me through.

The final hurdle was emerging from arrivals and withstanding the onslaught of hustlers, taxi drivers, moneychangers and scallies that are always at airport arrivals anywhere in the world. They are like beachcombers scouring the shore for anything that may get washed up in their country, today that is I, as the hotel hasn’t sent anyone to meet me. I wait fending them refusing arguments of international reasoning until finally the bus arrives and takes me to the aptly named Hotel Shangri-La where I finally sink into bed 12 hours after departure for a two hour sleep.

Mind you I guess it's still quicker than walking

Old Friends and Witches 16th September Accra, Ghana

The waves are enormous and dumping violently, the ocean looks reckless and dangerous the beach is dirty and the spray from  the surf prohibits the horizon. Welcome to Labala beach resort Accra. I am never keen to swim near a city but with an afternoon spare and a desire to wash off the previous night's journey I decide to risk it. Just half an hours taxi ride and here I am the only bloke on the beach about to go for a swim, a guy comes up saying he is going to lifeguard me I think I'm being hussled and say not to worry, he says it's his job and that he would anyway. I am actualy  a little relieved because it does look pretty merciless out there, he showed me where it was safe to go in up to my chest and where not to go because of whirlpools.

No shock of cold in this sea no numbing and loss of sensation, I ignore the black bags that float like jellyfish all around, put the pollution prospect out of my mind and just enjoy the waves.In the same way that an ice cream cone can turn the most threatening of characters into a child,playing in the waves makes me ageless, I have the same sensations and fun as I did when I was twenty. Diving through the breakers for the jacuzzi effect, over for the dolphin feeling, under for escape and riding the wave in  for  the joy.  I emerge from the surf feeling baptised and forgiven and walk back to drink a beer with Isaac the taxi driver at a beach bar.

It's not sunny but it is warm and there are a few locals on the beach eating and drinking, some with small children with suicidal tendencies driving them towards the danger of the surf. There is of course the standard beautiful rasta boy and the besoted European girl, him red eyed and bored listening to her iPod that she will no doubt leave behind for him and her living a fantasy that will end with  a boarding card. There is also the solitary slightly overweight  german youth enjoying a plateful of food and the company of some girls and the pair of American business men with gorgeous top end prostitutes who gaze blankly out to sea.

Moving between the assortment of worn chairs , tatty sunshades and sunloungers are guys weighed down with the paraphanalia of beach side trade; trinkets, CDs, carvings, rolled up paintings and gaudy African print clothing that will only look good here.

A young dread comes up to our table and gives the line of I know you, you were here before? I reply that I have been before but how would we have met.There is something familiar about him, it could simply be the beach bum chic of salt faded shorts, vest and little dreads but four years ago Jo Duchense and I came here to film and met a young aspiring rapper who we took out for a couple of nights he was talented and desperate like so many youth. I ask if he is a rapper and If I was with a woman and he remembers Jo's name and where we went, amazing this is Isaac four years on, still rapping still moving up and down the beach strip. It's a good moment and even Isaac the taxi is excited by the coincidence.Sadly things have not gone well for young Isaac his mother died this year, he has no money for rent and  is sleeping on the beach in just the clothes he stands in, he says he recorded a cd but has to find a way of releasing it. The poor boy is looking tired his eyes are dulled though stoned red and his dreads are not looking well kept and understandably  he seem low energy the verve and burning ambition has been extinquished. We sit and chat for a while , he seems genuinely glad with the news of jo having two pickney and sent her love. Walking back to the taxi I slip him some cash, swap emails and say our goodbyes we may meet next week if I can get to the beach as  I fly in and fly out on the same day.

As our car joins the stodge that is the traffic flow of this city to crawl it's way back to my hotel I am forced to think once again of the luck of the draw that is this life, why is my life so blessed and Isaac's so tough ? I fear for the poets and philosohers in this world as there is no rhyme or reason.

The world makes it's daily revolution and I find myself 880 km north from Isaac on the beach, in Bolgatonga, north east Ghana. It's very different up here much less tropical and much poorer than the south. In the dry season it's almost desert but now towards the end of the short four month rain season it is absurdly green and densely humid.

I have met up with Afrikids and despite a 4:30am start from Accra have managed a long days filming. Director Nick Kumai and his team help street kids and orphans by offering schooling, training, clothing,love and care, to those the most vunerable and least likely to make it over the cattle grid of success. They bring kids back north who have fallen into the trap of going to bigger towns in the south to make money. They give them training, offer micro finance to their families and even give them a goat so they can generate a little cash rearing and selling more. Again I am confronted with both the saddest and most heart warming of stories and am amazed by these kids' strength , perseverence and ability to cope.

Last stop of the day is an orphanage Set up by Mama Laada who  was an orphan herself and has given her life to childen that are in the same position as her. I am totally shattered and just want to go back to my guesthouse to sleep but get lifted when  20 or 30 kids are  singing a greeting to me at the Orphanage gates. Ranging between 2 and 14 they are singing in perfect harmony being led by Mama Laada herself. She is younger than she looks with eyes behind glasses that magnify their compassion, she exudes peace and love yet commands respect,she appears  frail but I know she is strong.  Her headscarf and clothes make her look like a nun but she has a freedom of spirit about her that can't be contained in a convent,her humility is attractive.

 Nick and David from Afrikids know all the kids here by name and they play with them and chat as If they were their own. The children are a delight and it is hard to think that they have come from some terrible situations. I am introduced to a few and they talk bravely to me and the camera, orphans, runaways from remarried mothers,child labourers rescued from mining communities all manner of tragic backgrounds. Then I am called to film a little 2 year old, Mercy who is sitting on Nick's lap, she is singing softly but perfectly the greeting song ... "Afrikids we thank you, afrikids we will never forget you" - it is intensely sweet and  leaves everyone wet eyed.  I switch the camera off knowing I have the end of my film. Mercy is extraordinarily aware and articulate she speaks really good English and knows my name already, yet she is so young I can't but help thinking she will do well in life.   We all go inside for a  glass of perfect water while the kids eat their supper. I ask about little Mercy's circumstances. Mercy was found by Mama Laadi when she was just 2 months old.  Her mother has been accused  of being a witch and had been beaten to death by a mob and lynched on a tree outside her house.Her grandmother suffered the same sickening fate.    Mercy had been locked in her  house and left to perish so as to extinguish the blood line of witches.She has been brought up in the orphanage since then and has grown into this bright  and exceptional little girl.

I am left cold and shocked and even scared, to think that below the surface of this benign simple society such horrific possibilities lurked. I knew that children were blamed for mothers dying in child birth or rejected for having deformities but a mob lynching of two women who are accused of turning people into lizards and consuming their souls is beyond imagination. It is like the witch hunts in medieval Europe except here people use mobiles and  cars. The local juju men even make up potions that suspected spirit children are forced to drink, if it kills them they are indeed possessed and if it just leaves them with severe poisoning they are innocent.Later at an afrikids centre devoted to spirit children I am shown photographs of kids they have saved with all manner of conditions from encepholitis to simply being dumb or slow to learn, all of them persecuted for being spirit children. As if life isn't hard enough here with the lack of work, food and money the most unfortunate of the disadvantaged get persecuted as well. As well as witch doctors it is also  quack christian pastors that spread rumours of bewitching they prey on ignorant minds and it is little more than institutionalised evil.

We leave Mama Ladi's orphanage and step out into the thick night air, an  electric storm is approaching and the world is sporadically  revealed by flashes that leave an image burnt in the retina. The power behind the storm is unfathomable and the thunder lingers long after the initial clap as a low sub bass rumble that rolls around the heavens. So much bigger than us it puts our human existence in perspective and just as lightning strikes   so randomly so does our luck sometimes with equally devastating results. The  amazing gift of being human though is that we can react to our luck or to other people's luck. We can care and show mercy. I wonder if little Mercy will ever be told what happenned to her mother and why she grew up where she did and I wonder If she will be able to forgrgive and will be moved to help others like Mama Laada is.We move off into the paparazzi flashes of the storm I undestand that there is not  soul in Hollywood that can claim to be as big a star as Mama Laadi and her team and the hype and pomp of international celebrity worship is just thunder without lightning whilst the real strikes happen silently elsewhere where as unknown people are giving of themselves to help others. These are the conductors  of humanity and the lubricants of change that I have been lucky enough to have been close to in the last few weeks and I am thankful for that because I am sure caring is contagious .

Sent on the move

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Sheikh yer body but keep a hold of your soul

One of my favourite moments when visiting a new country (after the initial inhalation of its air when stepping off the plane) is the first dance. Every music has its dance and every country its dance style and even politic. So new year's eve in Ethiopia found me on a crowded dance floor before a   band with keyboard/drum sequencer two lyre/ harp players, bass, sax and vocals  Of course they were excellent, thouroughbred exponents of their form and I didn't even mind the sequenced drums.The venue was a cultural centre decorated traditionally in wood and raffia ceilings, the floor was scattered with a kind of marsh grass specially for new year.  It was a welcoming dance floor and I didn't feel conspicuous as the only "feringe" or foreigner, I could not dance alone for long though and was beckoned to join different circles usually groups of men who enjoyed demonstrating various moves. In the UK we would not dance with such expression and openness with strangers and only gay men would attatch themselves to each other so quickly. Here of course it's different and it feels like a genuine bonding and connection. It helps that this is not a sexy dance no gyrating or hip thrusts this is all about the shoulder shake and head move - very Arabic. The music usually involved  double beats on- and one and on- and three, one beat a closing high hat the other a bass drum a kind of kahzunk kahzah sound. Hand claps on second beat and to lift the energy later in the song a hand clap before the high hat making a groovy triplet tahkahzunk tahkahzah. Simple and effective there are so many moves you can do, feet can move in a skip to the triplet or simply on the down beat the shoulders and head can be used to express any thing else going on but the basic is a double loose shouldered shrug.

This is the tricky bit making sure your shoulders are relaxed but by concentrating making them relaxed you end up tensing them.   Much knee bending is done to accentuate the shoulder moves and often a group would lower to a crouch still shaking.But of course I didn't think about this that much at the time it was simply a game of copying almost a conversation fortunately I resisted the urge to show them my own interpretation. As in so many other countries peope were suprised to see a white man who could dance acceptably, it always suprises me too,why do so many Africans think white folk can't dance ? Have they never seen Fred Astaire or latter day Michael Jackson ?  Is it simply  those types  that go on holiday to Africa generally dance differently ? Whatever I suppose we are all guilty of making stereotypes and it's fun defying them.

Between songs everybody sat down and a new dance was always started by a little girl of maybe fours years dressed like a bridesmaid who skipped in perfect step around in a large circle to be joined by adults and children until the circle split into a full dance floor which then in turn formed little dance circles. It was a joy being a visitor to this event    and strange just dropping in on it not knowing anything about the culture. Fires are lit and people jump over signifying old into new and people go from door to door with burning torches showing the new light to those in darkness. This is the waning of summer and the coming of winter and in true Ethiopian style winter is our equivalent of summer, hotter warmer and more sun. Nothing is as we would assume here.

I left the club and walked around Mekele for a while enjoying other people's party atmosphere but generally everywhere was calm and even the few obviously drunk people were quiet about it. I  wandered home unbothered to my hotel two hours into Ethiopian  2002.

New year's day and the town is quiet I am picked up by Hagas (meaning happy all Ethiopian names have a meaning) on his motorbike and we head off to some waterfalls I have read about. They took a bit of finding but it was a pleasure to drive across the green swaying fields around Mekele, miles of gentle rolling plains with occasional settlements,houses made of limestone blocks but no cement all  with turf roofs brilliantly made and really beautiful.  There is no road as such just paths linking smaller paths to bigger paths. Riding along on the bike in this giant vista bordered by distant limestone cliffs passing herds of cattle the whole thing had a touch of the wild west about it. We find the village of Debre which is on the edge of a three hundred foot cliff looking out over miles of scrub and bare rock, a true wilderness with just paths leading off into the horizon through a tough arid land.  The waterfall is called Chenoqua and is actually two cascades plummeting off the edge of the cliff they can't contain themselves for the extent of the drop and begin to turn to vapour as they reach the bottom where they regroup as one river and flow off happily together  down a gorge. I am spellbound it is the most amazing sight looking down from above and i cant understand why all the world doesnt know about it, I  can't wait to get to the foot of the cliff. We are joined by three young boys who lead us down past an ancient orthodox church that sits above the gorge and down a  vertigous but fun dry river bed to the base of the cliff.

The water is dissappointly dirty looking and I don't risk swimming in it but we lounge around by the pools of water eating fruit and enjoying the peace and cool. The boys are aged between 11 and 15 and really good fun - they are intriged by my skin because I  have taken my shirt off I am catching the sun so when it is pressed it leaves a white mark when I press their's it stays black. They are  shocked to find out how old I am and are impressed by my muscles I squeeze their arms and they are thin and not powerful.    Amusingly they are very excited that their shoulder blades are more pronounced than mine maybe it's something to do with thar dance. But these boys are bright and quick to pick up language one in particular with a mouthful of teeth that are to large for his head but the most amazing tight ringletted hair speaks  enough English for us to joke and find out about each other. He is studying and wants to continue but his family are poor he is growing his hair for a school play about HIV awareness , he is great and I feel the kinship between mates that I used to feel when I was his age It is a memorable way to mark the new year and Hagus and I are really happy to be in the here and now with these young kids in their world, climbing rocks and throwing stones. It strikes me how tactile he is with these  lads and it is with such ease that he boys holding their hands or rubbing their heads it is warm and brotherly. Without asking he gives them things to carry and they just do it accepting the natural order of things, it is the same wherever we  go no fear, people touch just as readily as they help . On the way back up on a more gentle route we come across 4 camels that are untethered and eating cactus that a toung boy is cutting for them. One of the lads climb up on to the back of one of them and I take photographs, even the camels are laid back here I can't resist the temptation to feed it and stroke it like a horse.  We say bye to the lads give them a little money for guiding us and ride back in  in a cliche manner into the setting sun.

I am in Mekele making a film about an organisation called Mums 4 Mums which is run by Tebere Gabriel a  fantastic woman who was exiled during the military dictatorship in Ethiopia to Cambridge. She returned with her husband Solomon Inquai when Tigrai was  liberated. The story of this brave couple is too long for me to relate but suffice to say Doctor Solomon was a major player in the freedom movement and later became speaker in the Tigrai parliament and has a large library of which he has read. I could not stop feeding from his knowledge when we met.I felt like I used to feel with Lester it's so exciting when you get four walls of books all condensed in to one mans mind - I want to mine it and exploit all that information that is so readily available. However ...  On their return they settledon Mekele but Tebere was moved to set up work helping the many destitute  mothers that were left in the area post war and famine. She has now been working for six years offering mothers training in skills that can generate them income and offering them a small amount of money to compensate for their losses from not beggingThey learn to bake , sew and knit.Tebere is very active on introducing the cactus into the local diet. The prickly pear is eaten in Summer but in winter only the leaves grow, in Mexico they are eaten so why not here. I ate loads and even introduced a recipe of my own which was loved by the cooking class and is going to be copies.    In recent years mums 4 mums even offers a creche for mother's young children so they can work without worrying. Orphans are also looked after through supply of uniforms(made by mums) food aid and care. Mums also works with street kids in a hostel they help run. Mums 4 mums have a broad and holistic approach and again I was frequently moved when filming the people they work with. Working with Mums are a dedicated and loving team including Hagas and Asheafi (meaning successful)

It is with these two that I set off next morning to visit a third century church called Abraha Atshbaha.  On a good road wye wind our way up one of the steep hillsides outside Mekele and drive for an hour over a scrub limestone landscape not that different to the land you find in Southern Europe. We turn off onto a dust track and after another half hour arrive at the foot of a steep cliff at the base of which and seemingly growing out of it is the church and its attendant buildings it is basically a monestry. We walk up steps and pass through a gatehouse I copy out of respect rather than faith the boys action of kissing the wall and touching forheads on it. A young boy comes down from an upstairs room and leads us to the double arched entrance of the church. It is an ancient orthodox church so has a touch of Greek or even Turkish in its apperance but it feels old. The boy lets us in through a giant doorway made of single uncarved sheets of wood 6ft by 2ft wide.  As daylight illuminates the interior I see that it is almost entirely covered with paintings and patterns on every surface. Dozens of biblical scenes painted in a style unlike secular art In Europe it's distinctly African, simple, lacking perspective but naive and colorful .

There's George killing the dragon, faces with wings that are angels, the maggi bringing gifts and the most scary devil I've ever seen all decorated with patterns that are not unlike a Celtic knot. On the floor by the entrance a set of large double skinned drums , my kinda church. Kissing and touching foreheads again we move inside there are large solid rock pillars that seperate the inside into different chapels. It is not large but because of the ages it has been a holy place I feel small. It is dark and partly a cave  but as my eyes adjust I can make out more paintings and a large red curtain behind which we cannot pass.  Here is the holy of holies, every monastery in ethiopia has a replica of the ark of the covenant in it and this is where it is kept but I will not see it. It is generally believed that the ark of the covenant is held somewhere in Ethiopia and that it is moved every five years from monastry to monastry and I can believe it, this church predates any found in the uk and has a form of worship unchanged since it's construction.

I could stay for hours I want to go into retreat here, the prayers and devotions of thousands of souls linger and cast me into a state I like. I feel spiritual, holy , peaceful, things have meaning and I feel a moment of communion with a power I'm unable to name.I give myself up to it knowing that nothing is wrong with that.Maybe it is just surrender we need , to a belief or to something we don't need to question. A means to stop reasoning and trying to make sense of things and just be. I find it  frequently in nature but it is especially potent in a plac like this  that has been devoted to prayer,  it can happen whatever doesn't need a name just respect. Reluctantly I pull myself away as the others need to go and we emerge into the landscape that is even older than the church and the feeling is still there a wonderful world.

My life is blessed , I can't pay anyone  for that, but I am thankful, I try and live a true honest life in honour of my luck. There is little else I can do other than help those I can help and set a good example. I'm not setting up any new religion but I think I just felt an old one.

Peace and love to all.

Sent on the move

Monday, 14 September 2009

Kenyan Film Club MOMBASSA 4th September

It's seems the only time I stop is when I am either waiting for a flight or on one I am like a shark that has to keep moving to stay alive. The last four days have been packed and hectic and I seemed to have hardly paused. If I look back I see a film being played in fast forward...

Flying to Mombasa and emerging to a warmer greener world than Nairobi.

A white stuccoed hotel built in the early 1900s English colonial style. open corridored airy with a terrace facing onto the main street that runs up from the old port. Driving out to meet the SAFE theatre bus along the costal strip north of the city, glimpses of an absurdly blue Indian ocean winking at me between hotels and houses. Turning away from the ocean onto earth tracks than lead through settlements of mud brick huts scatterred amongst the palm and mango trees.

Following a band of drummers and trumpet players as they call people from their houses. They come running kids and adults all following the music back to a clearing where the bus is. Warm sunshine illuminating verdunt green foliage. Bright eyed faces gazing at the performance, beguiled by the spectacle.

The thud of a mango falling at my feet from a tree and the scramble of children and adults to claim it after staring at me wondering why I didn't pick it up.

A big slow full moon pulling the trees down from its face so it could also see. A flash of my own skin in the dark as I run naked into the Indian ocean snatching an opportunity. A moment, too much to savour, enough just to be part of, as the moon, the sea and me commune like we so often do giving thanks for our friendship and luck in the world.

Leaving a band playing on the teracce outside the hotel I walk away with Nick from SAFE to walk around the old town of Mombasa. We turn a corner on the main street where a security guard is curled up asleep in a shop front and ...lets press play, real time for this bit because I crossed a portal at this point into a time eternal. This area is mainly inhabited by Muslims, it is Ramadan and post Iftah everyone is out on the streets eating chatting and relaxing. It is a holiday atmosphere little children are clutching ice creams as big as their faces , women lifting their veils to eat afford a provocative glimpse of an open mouth closing on firm fleshed fruits. Men sat around smoking by makeshift stalls selling grilled meat or fresh juices. Everyone is dressed up, many of the women in black full length clothing with their daughters by their sides dressed identically.I am relieved that I have at least changed into my jeans though they are far from clean i feel a little respectable we move like a pair of ghosts through the crowded narrow streets seemingly unnoticed and certainly irrelevant . This is where Nick first moved when he came to kenya. Turning his back on a successful career in hollywood he decided to bring his acting skills here and has made a new life for himself whilst helping improve the lives of many others. He points out his favourite buildings and points of perspective introduces his friends and shows me his favourite places to eat. It's a treat to wander round immersed in his memories. Nick born by Hamersmith flyover- flew over and stayed.

The architecture is mesmerizing Yemeni with Portuguese next to Indian and of course English.Wood with stone, carved next to engraved, but everything is antique only the neon is from my era. Large ornate wooden balconies hang over the streets i can imagine the precious breeze they catch in mid summer here. Verandas garlended with bougainvilla sit on top of the buildings the view from them must be astounding out across the indian ocean. Some of these houses have been in the same family for generations there is history both in these walls and behind them, families are the trees that line these streets.

There is a holiday atmosphere a bit like christmas mixed with august bank holiday it is both secular and comercial and everywhere people are eating and celebrating I wonder if the old people complain that Ramadan is not what it used to be it's become so commercialised it's lost it's meaning. These young people just binge eating.

We wander down to the old Fort Jesus. A simple but inpenetrable structure that has been held by many nations but shows an allegiance to none in its style .Most of the seaward wall is a rock face that has been plastered it is smooth and contoured like a female form. Nick tells me that the strip of rocky beach that lays below and beyond the fort is feared by all as it is heavily haunted by the spirits of the many thousands of slave bodies that were thrown out of a chute in the wall there. It is rarely talked about the Arabic slave trade that was the scourge of east Africa as far inland as Lake Malawi and continued until as late as the 1870s maybe later.

There is a cafe at the foot of Fort Jesus where dozens of men sit and drink coffee and juice on the pavement A group of children play football nearby relishing the opportunity to stay up so late unhindered. One kicks the ball wildly and we follow it as rolls off down a slipway through a hole in the sea wall and down onto the beach.A slow tick tock of the earth's eternal clock and we stop for a moment to pee as we look to sea.

Again as I so often do in old ports I think of my father in this place. He used to dock here and probably walk these streets. Was he as excited as I am ? Who could he talk to about all he saw and did? From another era without mobiles emails texts or fax he must have carried so much with him, I think he must have put his messages in a bottle, the same one that killed him.

We dreamweave our way back through the streets passing a juice seller at a crossroads who beckons us to try his Ramadan fruit salad special with avocado and rose syrup topping. I am tempted, his display of fruits is enticing but I fear any stomach upsets I cannot afford to be ill. We walk on and I quiz Nick about the likelyhood of getting Ill from the juice? He wasn't sure but since the juice seller was doing big business on a busy crossroads it must be fairly safe. So in a u turn that for me defines the secret of evolution we turned back and enjoyed the best fruit salad of our lives served in a half pint beer glass - with a handle. For a short while we become a part of our surroundings and the world passes through us, borrowed time in an abiding life. We head back towards our hotel passing the sleeping security guard and step back into black Africa and my memories are fast forward once more.

Back in the Coastal village area with a follow up day with STARS where they further enforce their messages. Watching the face of a young girl as she hears the result of her blood test. I seem to be more relieved than she is that it is negative , the councilling they receive is obviously effective but it is shocking to see one so young being tested and worse to wonder why. Wondering despite there being no need, what is the polite amount of time to leave before wiping the drop of spit that has landed by your mouth from an HIV positive person.

The endless resoursefulness of children to play, I watch a child push her hands in the dust across the clearing and relish in the track it makes following it back with a stick. Improvised footballs out of tightly wrapped and tied rags and bags are kicked around by young boys, while others make toy cars out of scrap wood with wheels from carton tops complete with axils and pushing rod. The ubiquitous hoop and stick which is seen all over the world except Europe. How long can you play with a piece of string ?

Packing up with military precision the workshop tents and the stage. The moon distracting me as it is full and constantly commands my attention. The PA is last to be packed as it is providing our soundtrack. The fun and unity that the SAFE team have, they care for each other and never stop playing, there seems to be no clash of egos.

A nightclub called Lambada advertises dine dance party and swim. Inside the smart and trendy of mombassa dance to a cocktail of music whilst bikini clad girls lapdance to an enthusiastic crowd. A floor show with pairs of dancers simulating sex in and out the pool with a bit of syncopated arm waving to go with it. What made this exceptional is that the tracks they used were "greased lighting" and "summer nights"

Getting back to my hotel at 5 am to be up at 10.39. Revisiting the old town. Being seen off at airport by two of the actors. Hassling to get on a flight because I have been told there is a six hour delay and standing back in awe as an American shouted demanded and threatened his way on even ringing his embassy.

Trying out a more passive approach and getting a result.

Sitting with the Mozambique ambassador for Kenya and talking politics. Bring offered his card without asking. Him saying that the Reading the last government would not let the new government take power last year was because the new president was not circumcised and they would not be ruled by a child.

Being met by Kumai and taken for a late night fish and beer in a club in eastlands. The club, like a giant barn was just made out of coorugated iron, was giant and had an amazing band I couldn't see. Packed it was all I wanted in a club.

Next morning visisting Nicks house in Karen in Nairobi a beautiful cottage style building in 5 acres of land and exotic trees and birds a true oasis.

Nairobi airport again...

But this film is a serial and not yet finished I have to leave for Ethiopia and I have inle been away 6 days. Condensed experience that cannot be diluted nor do I want it to be. The Kenyan film club open all day every day.

Sent on the move

The Year Of The Sheep 11th September 2009

It seems that everyone is carrying a chicken or a sheep with them today. Men with poles over their shoulders with dozens of birds hung upside down like a living boa, walk the streets selling to passers by. Almost everyone has a foul, carrying it round like a plastic bag, strapped to the back of a bike or slung over a shoulder. Others are pushing sheep home like a wheelbarrow holding their back legs whilst the overworked front legs scrabble to keep up the pace in an unnatural manner. I see one sheep that is on the back of a truck make a bid for freedom whilst stationary at a red light, with a single bleat it leapt off the truck and stood confused for a second unsure what to do with it's choices. Before thinking what i was doing I jumped out the car I was in and grabbed the sheep whilst Ashu drove after the owner who had pulled away unaware of his loss. It felt a touch incongruous being stood holding this animal more used to mountains and open spaces at a busy set of traffic lights in the middle of a small town in ethiopia but harder to accept was that i was assurring it's imminent slaughter. As a man that doesn't eat mammals it crossed my mind that I should let it go but I didn't want to spoil some families New Year Feast and when a sheep costs 500 birr (£25) I was doing the whole family a good turn rather than the sheep.

The eleventh of September is new years day in Ethiopia, and I am in Mekele a small town in the Tigret region in the north of the country. I am now accustomed to the complete uniqueness of this country it is unlike any other in Africa I have visited but I don't think I am alone in my ignorance of its range of culture, peaceful nature and its long history.

Sir Bob was here, Bono and Princess Di were here millions of pounds of aid were here when Tigray's own government refused to help feed what it considered rebels. In brief a Russian backed communist coup by the military overthrew Haile Sellassie in the early 80's, rebel groups sprang up throughout the land that were brutally supressed. The first area to be liberated was the Tigray, sadly this coincided with a terrible drought. The Ethiopian government did nothing but Sir Bob some pop stars and our conciences did. Ironically they probably did know it was Christmas it's just that Ethiopian orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas on the 7th January. As a result most of us think of Ethiopia as being barren, starving, poor and helpless. We are so wrong.

Today is the 11th September 2009 by our gregorian calender but here by the Julian calender it is new years day 2002. I have been here a month tho it is the 13 th month and is only 5 days long. This whole area is green with thick knee length grass or crops of sorghum. There are steep hills immediately to the south of the town and hills all around in the distanceIit has been raining most days and the temperature is like an English summer.

It is hard to understand that this is the same place we saw horrific pictures of skeletal starving humans dying by their thousands in sun baked fly infested camps in the early 80's.This place is lovely. But we are all subject to the weather some more critically than others, whereas our bank holidays get washed out,here and in other places millions die.

Mekele is a pleasure, calm, clean and busy it Is growing incredibly fast around its old centre which has a good paved road network spreading out from it.

It is the first African city I have been to where no one is interested in me , it is such a relief not to be constantly hit upon because of my colour. To be able to look in a shop window without being called inside, to go in a bar and have a drink on my own and be left that way, to be given a price for something and not have to barter it down 60%. To not be a novelty There is a true pride here and sense of worth, a sense of identity that seems ancient and a lack of dependency. Everything about this area and I think country seems to be unique even down to the fact that not only do they have their own calendar but they have their own clock ; 7 am is 1 in the morning for them. 4 pm is ten in the afternoon 6 hours added basicaly and they live by it. Addmitedly it causes problems at airports but local people manage and I now work by it fine. I havent heard anything but ethiopian music in any bar or restaurant and no evidence of American rap culture apart from the odd bit of clothing. Apparenly very low paedophilia rates few muggings and in this area of tigray no female circumcision. It is noteable that it is a desert culture that is not Islamic and christianity here predates European christianity. The Prophet Mohammed sent some of his people here when they were being persecuted early in Islam's history saying go to ethiopia you will be safe. They were and the ruling emporer refused to send them back when Arabic aurhorities requested they be deported. As a result it is written in the Koran that there should never be a jihad against Ethiopia. Of course by the 10th century there had been repeated muslim invasions but none was successful , religions are sadly susceptible to selective interpretation.

Earlier than that Ethiopia was a much larger state and the early Pharoes of Egypt were from here, all Semitic languages trace their routes here and if you look at a map the route through modern day Eretricia and the Red sea is not that far to the Mediterranean.

Overall I get the impression of Ethiopia being a very old country which has an identity that stretches back over time. I am sure that this is because it was never successfuly colonised , the Italians tried briefly but got nowhere. This to me explains everything about what is suprising about Ethiopia the sad fact that it wasn't ruled by a European power, it grew up in parallel to Europe and developed at it's own pace which is as I see when wandering the streets- is slow.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Slum Dust Millionaire

For once I have woken up and been pleased to see that it is raining. Not rain like we know it in Wales, more like being caught by a sprinkler that is watering someone's lawn or the splash from an overflow pipe from an upstairs bathroom. Whatever I welcome the fact that the dust that contaminates every breath I take in Nairobi will meet its fate and become mud. Eventually the mud will become dust again then return to mud in an eternal cycle until it reaches a mud moksha or gets blown away to become part of a desert somewhere.
Last night I spent half an hour cleaning my camera, it had become coated in slum dust becoming a vehicle for just about every disease known to man. The dirtied white hotel towel I used should really have been incinerated, I kept glancing at it laying in the corner like a convicted child killer.Malignent linen.
I had spent a fantastic afternoon with SAFE a small charity that educates through theatre, they work in ghettos in Nairobi and Mombassa and also in extreme rural areas. They always work with youth from those areas addressing issues the young people feel need attention.They also encourage local talent to get up on stage and this further engages the local folks and it is also how they find their performers.

The performance I filmed was about bad parenting, it's astonishing because that is a taboo subject almost everywhere in the world, you don't tell people how to bring their kids up, but we should.
The group work from a bus that has a retractable stage. In minutes an empty space between buildings with a couple of streams of liquid runnin across it that were maybe 10% water, was turned into an arena. The group then went out with drums and a bugle and marched around the district and pied piper style returned leading a throng of dancing laughing people and a cloud of dust and airborne diseases.

I have been here before, a labrinth of low single storey wood or corrugated iron, buildings that seem to have replicated themselves thousands of times but each one slightly different to another. The scene reminds me of an almost completed game of boxes where children have to complete squares on a dotted grid.There are no roads. lights or pavements just the buildings and small paths inbetween the place wasn't planned it happened.
Slums, ghettos , highly populated temporary housing however you want to label them, they all suffer the same problems and there are many, one of the biggest is is disposing of waste both human and domestic. Any surface water just becomes contaminated, it stinks,it is fetid, almost frightening and certainly lethal. At one point I heard one child's cry that cut through the noise as being distressed not just upset or angry. It is as if a parent's ears are atuned to the SOS of an infant. A small child of maybe two had fallen face down into one of the putrid pools and was covered in the foul mud. It was a pathetic sight other children stood around watching not knowing what to do and the child stood there distressed and dripping finally he toddled off into the maze of housing.

Recently an NGO hit upon the great idea of turning the acres of corrugated iron roofing into a giant catchment bowl for rainwater thus supplying fresh clean water to everyhousehold in the slum. However they did not account for flying toilets. In a supreme example of Not in my back yardism it is common practice for people to defaecate into a plastic bag and then dispose of it by throwing it as far away as possible. Mostly they end up on the roofs nearby but frequently hit people who may be walking past. I think this maybe what stopped the water catchment plan.

50 years ago the site of this slum was a wooded valley with a cool river running through it. Over the years migrants set up here and now it is this vast estate without sanitation lighting or law It strikes me that this could be Glastonbury If left to run for 50 years when the stage had collapsed. Alot of people make a lot of filth and we in the north produce just as much sewage as anyone else. If you look at the mess left behind after any festival you can see it that in time it would reach slum conditions.

The rain has come and will damp the dust it will gloss the surfaces of the city and lightly clean the streets. This morning the hundreds of people who daily treck up to 6 miles each way to work from the slums are carrying umberellas or bags over their heads. The rain seems to have out a spring in their step but their faces are largely expressionless, like commuters on the tube each individual absorbed in their journey their thoughts, still nearer sleep than wakefulness They pass the endless queues of stationary traffic each badly tuned car coughing up exhaust,both air and land are congested. Nairobi city council could save thousands by switching the traffic lights off, sell them for scrap nobody uses them.Traffic police do a perfectly good job of keeping this city at a virtual standstill,syphoning off vehicles from one line of traffic to wait at the end of another. The red lights don't mean a thing ultimately all things turn to dust and when it rains that becomes mud.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

1st September 2009

An upgrade they do exist, I didn't even ask. I'm pulled out the queue at the boarding gate and told to wait at one side with a group of similarily confused people.when asked why I'm told it's a seat change. Cursing that I still wanted an aisle seat I'm given a club class boarding pass. On we go not even bothering  to conceal my joy I'm virtually skipping. My seat can recline at every angle between vertical and horizontal .I have more blankets and face products than an OAP's coach trip and I am delighted. Sadly I am so excited I still can't sleep. The co codamol and alcohol mix doesn't touch me and I end up feeling cheated because I know I don't belong to this club and never will. Every so often I look back to my future in the economy class  and feel like I may as well be there.I feel like a caged canary with cling film put over its open cage door.

It was good until I realised

Mad getting back from the full time festival atmosphere of India to the greeman festival in Monmouthshire. Madder still arriving back to Cardiff on a Saturday night when Oasis were playing and the whole place seemed godless lawless and helpess. My first sight on leaving the station was a screaming child over her mother's drunken horizontal body. Is there not some sort of charity that tries to prevent this sort of thing happening ? I turned to the policeman next to me and asked what was he was  going to do  "what about ?"

I nodded to the prostrate woman and he finally got out of his van and went over to see who he could arrest I was worried it would be me.

The green man quickly restored my faith in what is great about Britain. The willingness to throw off the last bonds of our victorian straight jackets and let loose. The seemingly limitless resorcefulness of finding ways to show each other that we are free minded spirits and probably just as interesting as anyone found on stage. Through hats, clothes,face paints,hair dye, drugs and dances  thousands of people live a temporal alternative existence, fulfilling  a base desire to sometimes just not care. For me it was a welcome and gentle rehabilitation back into British life. Bless the freaks and the wannabees, the poets and the  drugees the philosophers and the clowns the drummers and the jugglers everyone who is brave enough to once in a while just let go ...

Sent on the move

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

14th August 2009 - From Nepal to Mumbai

Waiting at the beginning of a long day of waiting. My fresh clothes are already damp and my shower fresh scent washed away by the excertions of airport check is and searches. Clouds have descended and the airport is closed, time to write I guess.

My work in pokhara is finished and I am making a 3 flight hopscotch journey to Mumbai where I start filming for a charity that works with trafficed sex workers in the city's red light district. That's tomorrow though I have to make a big effort to squeeze some enjoyment out of today it must be possible.
Yesterday I was filming a mobile health clinic that had set up under a solitary tree halfway up the the side of a deep valley. Women and children gathered to be examined and treated by a pair of doctors who administered drugs from a large medicine chest lying open on the grass. It was a calm and peaceful affair and there was almost a sense of communion between patient and care giver. Wide eyed babies well equipped to take in their surroundings. Glaciers squeezed themselves out of the mountains that gave the scene a theatrical backdrop they may have been more believable if they were paintings. There was the giant valley I was in with its ferocious river cutting through its wide green floor and beyond it mountains that really should have been clouds. It was hard knowing what was snow and what was cloud.
Clouds how do they manage to float? Two nights ago it rained for three or four hours but it was not rain like I had experienced before, this was like a waterfall so intense that if you swept your arm through it you were as wet as if you dipped it in a lake. Gallons of water, tonnes of wet, all coming from a cloud above - the thought of being crushed by a cloud.

Later ...

Just had a 5 hourstop over in Kathmandu so I hired a 20 dollar taxi hire to meet up with a friend Kassie who is an assistant professor of english here. The world is as small as ever, it turns out he knows thedriver since they were kids, the driver used to sell flags at the airport and kassie usedto buy them when he was flying out, kassie was so pleased to find out this guy had made it from street kid to taxi driver: progress he called it. We went to pashupati a very holy temple for shiva a bit like varanasi. extraodinary the mixing of death and life, people coming to cremate their relatives alongside stalls selling food, souvenirs and holy artefacts, monks, monkeys and tourists. Along the banks of the river stone plinths where the bodies are burnt and then swept into the dishwater coloured river where young kids swim and play. I sat for a while staring into the flames of a pyre slowly consuming a body pair its feet sticking out morphed from something certainly human to a joint of charred meat the leg attached to it moved up as the skin shrivelled . But what shocked me was seeing an iv drip bag and tube fall out and float off downstream. The smoke was impossible to avoid and of course it smelt like a barbeque the fats vapourised and seem to congeal and stuck in my throat. As I sit here I in the airport lounge I occasionally clear my throat and am uncomfortably aware of what the phlegm must contain. Is that cannibalism ?
I am now in Delhi airport waiting for the final jump to Mumbai we arrived at 5:30 and a temp of 38. I am going to sweat here.

I met an old hippy American at pashupati who was friendly enough and had been travelling in India for 2 years.Oddly Kassie was convinced he was FBI I was not convinced. I pushed him for health hints and he gave me a list of anti biotics and pills to kill all stomach bugs that he has been given. I have just been to a pharmacist at the airport. The young pharmacist took the list said it would be about 500 rupees (74 to the pound) the first box he pulled out was called I pill and I picked up the box thinking that maybe apple mac has gone into the medicine market. On closer examination it was a female contraceptive pill, FBI my arse.