Friday, 21 October 2011


A barefooted beggar in a mismatched suit drops a piece of paper and it floats away on a stream of rainwater. I watch as it sails freely under the customs gate between Uganda and Rwanda avoiding all paperwork oblivious of the one-hour time shift or having to change sides of the road. The rain is quite gentle but the clouds are heavy, obscuring the tea bush carpeted hills and horizon around Kalone the Rwandan border town 2 hours north of Kigali.

I am waiting for Kirenga to sort out the paperwork for his car before continuing with our journey to Buhoma on the edge of the Bwindi impenetrable forest in SW Uganda This border is very relaxed and it is a pleasant moment stood under the dripping eve of a custom post watching the world go by. The barefoot suited guy is iconic it looks amazing - a banker post crash, an urban guru or a liberated wage slave. Sadly though he is none of these and is just impoverished and inhabiting the borderline of life and land. Two guys emerge hand in hand from an office deep in conversation and walk across the border still clasping hands neither leading the other just linked in friendship. Coming the other way tiptoeing through the puddles and streams is a pair of pointed patent leather shoes that in turn passes some worn out green flip flops followed by the paws of a dog, double timing against some backless stilettos that jump effortlessly over the red brown rivulets. Borders like airports and cross channel ferries put everyone in the same boat we are all reduced to paperwork and documents Twenty four hours earlier I had been in a hot and dry Johannesburg filming with AREP a theatre group that through performance and discussion seeks to enable young people to take control of their lives and understand that they can make a change. It is a brilliant model opening young peoples minds to the idea that things can be different and they can do it by thinking of solutions for themselves and through talking. Aspirational poverty and defeatist dogma can be combated through action and a refining of mind-set not by waiting around for the world and luck to sort it out. After the heat and ardour of Dhaka city, South Africa offered relief, no gridlocked roads, noise and in your face pollution, here was an order and road system that paralleled Europe, tap water you could drink, fine wines and cuisine, a language that I could understand. I stayed in bohemian Melville with its bookshops and bars, cosmopolitan vibe and art Deco architecture It all seemed very progressive and also very expensive 
But South Africa is a complex society and under its sugar dusted coating it is still a very troubled and difficult place. You are never far from somewhere described as "dangerous" and throughout the city are townships I can't begin to offer a commentary on South African society but I do know that there is fear amongst a lot of white people, an inability to let go amongst others whilst many are working towards a common goal of a new fair and equal country. But things can never be put right instantly by a pen's decree, historically sudden change is disastrous and it will take several generations and a lot of money before South Africa can move on. I filmed some performances in Soweto primary schools. Two storey block buildings with glassless windows looking in on unlit rooms, blackboards and shabby desks, teachers and children doing their best with the resources they have. Like many schools in developing countries.

But this is South Africa-World cup, paved roads, fine wines and well-developed infrastructure. The children were so well behaved and entranced by the first performance that many had ever seen and the plays were about dealing with bullying, being an orphan and living with HIV none of the stories had a resolution they just prompted discussion. The amazing thing is that most of these children identify with these issues, they will all have lost a relative through AIDS, many are orphans and they all are aware of discrimination. Soweto is surprisingly suburban, neat little houses with neatly tended gardens with fences shops and evens couple of malls. In places it reminds me of a seaside retirement estate with pastel colours and clapboard bungalows. Many of the new middle classes prefer to stay where they come from and have gentrified their area but sadly the schools are still the same. The amount of hand painted street signs for funeral directors is a telling indicator of just how many people are dying from AIDS in this country. We drove by Mandela's house from pre incarceration with its tourist coach park, gift shop, admission gate and restaurant. But in the city on every corner and at every junction there will be a black south African, waiting for an opportunity, or sweeping or handing out leaflets an underclass that at present are unable to become truly part of the rainbow nation despite the best efforts of many. It is as if South Africa had two children one went to public school the other grew up on the streets. Then Rwanda, associated with human horror and a country where divisions between people went as far as they should never go. The first time I worked in Rwanda I left with a complete intolerance for any form of tribalism, be it football teams or Welsh and English nationalism. At what point will you start using a machete to get your way? I have seen the results. But driving through Kigali early evening this time, I marvelled at the quality roads and traffic lights, the cleanliness and order of the city, things had really come on. Next morning driving with Karanga the beauty of Rwanda unfolds around us – Tea Plantations and wooded slopes dotted with houses and villages, People on the roadside carrying large sacks of freshly picked tea and urns of milk. I am impressed with Keranga's good news stories about the country. Get a cow has been implemented ensuring every family living below the poverty line is provided with a cow to provide milk and ultimately a small income. Corruption is not tolerated and citizen's rights are paramount. It does seem everyone we passed was doing something and busy and there was an air of happiness and levity on the road. Both South Africa and Rwanda have suffered from gross discrimination but they are so different to one another, South Africa experienced a much-needed change in government and constitution but is a divided country. Rwanda suffered appalling genocide and but now as is written into its constitution. Is a country of one people; Rwandans, But who knows what is going on in peoples minds? On the surface Rwandans after enduring terror, hate and fear seem to be actually savouring and appreciating the peace. It's understandable, the calm after the storm. No one making trouble everybody just getting on with getting on. A lesson for all of us, why should we want anything else but peace? President Kigami is accused of a running his country like a soft police state of being like a schoolmaster -but it seems to be working. Superficially everything is running fine. "We are good boys here now,” says Kirenga " I just thank god we don't have oil like Uganda. I laugh, “Yeah but the income would be good surely?” “We have a saying” he replies " When prosperity comes through the front door peace slips out the back.” How true that is. 
Sent on the move

Monday, 17 October 2011

Hajj flight

The 10.30 Emirates flight from Dhaka to Dubai is mainly full of Bangladeshis making their Hajj. My heart fell as we arrived at the airport seeing the general disorder of the city had found its way into the airport which is normally the start of a return to international standard along with coolant levels, brake fluids and port and starboard emergency exits. There are no queues just a throng of White robed men and women milling and waiting to be directed to where they need to be. Most have clearly not been this far from their village and this air conditioned departures hall is the largest and coolest room they have ever been in. They are confused and totally out of their element which in itself is a new thing. These people inhabit a lifestyle that doesn't include fast change they are poor folk from all over the country that have saved a lifetime to make this journey as according to the five pillars of Islam. The hajj or a pilgrimage is a great thing especially in a historical context when it forced people to broaden their horizons and go beyond where they knew. An education in itself and it is plain to see why it would be included in holy writings. Nowadays it is quite different though it’s all tour buses and large groups not so much the personal journey. It is quite sweet however seeing all of these mainly elderly people wandering round hand in hand with their wives or friends with travel document packs supplied by the tour organisers hanging around their necks like students on a school trip somewhere. Most have new footwear on, flip flops and sandals and some most bizarrely with basketball trainers. So incongruous on a thin and wrinkly frail ankle that sticks out from the bottom of a white haji robe, they are led like pensioners and slowly make their way from check in to immigration to the gate and at each station there is mass confusion and human blockage. It is a bit like the rest of the country but here they don't know what they are doing. Another group out their element are young and middle aged men that are flying to the Middle East. They move around in new western style clothing preparing for a new future It is scandalous they sign up for $2000 to an agency to go and work for $1500 a year as cleaners, servants and labourers 6 days a week. So after two years away they may pay back their debt and save a$1000 if they work 6 days a week and don't spend too much. I cut my way through the mayhem and madness and after far too long a time board the flight. Thoughtfully Emirates put non haji travellers together to try and offer some separation from imminent chaos of boarding. I can only liken the experience of some of these people as being similar to being abducted by aliens and being left to find their way around their craft. It is wrong and they should be told what to expect because what ensues is undignified slow, frustrating but hilarious. Most of them understood idea of a fixed seat but had no idea where it was. Bus mentality rules, the first class and business class seating is the most fiercely contested whilst the cabin crew try to keep them moving through trying to communicate that they can't sit there. Back in economy one Bengali business man makes the fatal mistake of going to the loo and returns to find a full burkha wearing woman in his seat who refuses to move or be moved. He eventually sits somewhere else until after take-off. The idea of sitting down is a hard concept to handle and another woman decided to get some water from the overhead locker mid take off amid screams and shouts from the crew. To people that don't deal with locking sealable doors the toilet doors causes many problems, throughout the flight there was a performance going on involving a thousand ways not to get into a toilet on a plane. I had never thought it would be a problem. First thing I noticed was a guy pressing some lights and engaged signs around the door; he tried sliding it and pushing it. I mime a handle action and pointed to the handle he pulls that, lifts it then pushes down and enters. Of course he doesn't lock it and of course somebody else walks in on him it just went on and on the door isn't shut and sings open to reveal a guy squatting inside. At one point a handle comes flying off and rolls down the aisle. Somebody for quite a while gets inside a loo with a concertina door a completely new concept and four people are trying to work it out there are muffled calls for help from within , a steward shows them how it works and the victim emerges happy and laughing. The whole mood of these people is happy and positive and there is no sense of embarrassment of loss of cool. It’s all a big adventure – the biggest one of their lives, That’s Hajj for you. But this is different, this is big business and a lot of money is made by tour organisers and hotel owners out of these poorest of poor people who are only doing what their holy book dictates. They could improve their family’s lives if they spent this money on something else other than a return trip to Mecca. They will come back and be as poor as they were 40 Years ago. If it's about the journey they would get more from a ten day hike round the country and still come back richer in mind and pocket. Sent on the move Sent on the move

Sunday, 9 October 2011

No rhyme nor reason

Dhaka is a hard city to be in, heat alone I can deal with,but with the  combined effect of humidity, noise, fumes , congestion, crowds,  filth,traffic and no sense of space or horizon, life becomes hard. , There have been times when I could give myself up to panic as there is  simply no succour nor solace from the claustrophobic condition I  find myself in . I am captive, even lying naked on a bed in a hotel  room after eating and showering there is no relief, my situation will  not change until I am on a plane flying somewhere else. I simply could not live here, the people can be lovely , the food  exquisite but I am captive. My head aches my stomach has cramps and I  have a chest infection . But its pathetic really, I am staying in a $50 a night hotel with air  conditioning and shower a big clean bed and breakfast waits but I guess  I Am soft, by these people's standards anyway. It is estimated that 35% of Dhaka is slum and the rest of it  certainly isn't luxurious but it isn't slum Unplanned, unserviced, unhygienic and unxious, slums are the pile on  the anus of the city forced out of the body of mainstream society  where life and its by products do battle. Mankind is show cased for  all it's tenacity and poverty holds generations in its strangling  any future and restricting change. Tin, wood, plastic and concrete are all used to make shelters from  the appalling outside world but none is ideal the rain and the heat  still penetrate and inside the dark airless rooms where people eat  sleep and die, Children are born into a life that they can't escape  and the rest of the world the grace of something none of us  really understands. it is someone else not you. Humans are incredible though and can adapt and proliferate in the most  abject conditions. Every one of the hundreds of thousands of shacks  and huts squeezed in amongst rivers of shit and waste, under flyovers,  by tips and railways is a home. People start and end their days there,  they go out and come back home there, they have pride in their space  and keep it clean just like any other home owner. Always a bed and a scattering of objects that tell of a family  environment, some baby powder, a bit of a toy, some clothes nothing of  worth in fact what I stand in and the equipment I carry is worth more  than these people will ever know. But what they have they value and  maintain, it counts. I am reminded of the Californian trend to try and live with only a  hundred objects, what would these people do to have a hundred  objects ? It is a totally western concept less is more and indulgence  an a privilege. Be thankful for what you have got you are lucky if you are reading this. The only ones able to make light of the situation are children Until  a certain age they are unaware of their deprivation. They will play  with anything whether it is an expensive unit made in a Korean factory  or a piece of paper floating in dirty water they are the best  improvisers and endowed with a heightened sense of play. But the  hazards are everywhere , the groundwater is lethal, the traffic  heartless and the trains oblivious The world is only a playground  until you have to pay your way. To be born into this trap is a nightmare but to be born disabled or  become disabled here is a curse and on the scale of the unfortunate it  is the very bottom. Just above that is the parent of the child who has  a disability. Outside of the slums there are people that care, Their own lives  aren't easy but they spend their time on this earth making changes to  other people's lives CSID are an organisation that have an incredible impact on lives. With  CSID I see polio victims become victors giving advice and support to  cerebral palsy sufferers, disabled children performing theatre in  slums, kids with learning difficulties being offered schooling  limbless children being given job training, pathetic hard and unfair  lives having the balance being redressed. Down by the railway a slum exists that is a town in itself, by the  side of the tracks traders are busy, fish are gutted . Fruit and veg  sold and children run playing on the open space that the lines cut  through the city. I meet Salim with an uneven brutal stump left where  a train wheel ran over his little leg. He is maybe four years old and  is now just the right height to run up and down the tracks with his  stump on the track and his full leg on the sleepers. He is incredibly  fast and giggles as he enjoys his mobility. Others are less able and  need to be carried everywhere until their arms develop enough strength  to drag their torsos around. Elsewhere I make my way through stinking  waterlogged paths between dwellings to be ushered into a tiny low  roofed, hot and airless home to meet a little lad with encephalitis  his mother and sister sit on the bed by him manipulating his limbs  lovingly, a technique learnt in physiotherapy classes. Later we take him  out into the light and a crowd gathers and watch him take a few  unsteady steps. The fear on his face turns to joy as he forgets my  camera and plays to the crowd. He becomes a star in the neighbourhood,  fuck x factor I meet a wheelchair bound boy fixing cell phones in a tiny roadside stall a skill he's be taught by CSID. A young woman of great beauty and almost beatific smile who is dragging her legless self through the ever present traffic jams begging, she is at exhaust pipe level and in  extreme danger as stretches her callused grubby hand up towards  indifferent drivers. She is just a child, some mother's daughter. The  organisation is trying to get her into school and to liberate her from  this humiliation but her parents are against it because she provides  a much needed income . At one time I am almost overwhelmed with emotion when I film a group  physiotherapy session, limp bodies are tended to and gently massaged  by mothers the tenderness is beautiful and the love tangible. In this  room there is a respite from the pressures of life outside and the  mother child bond can grow, a normal relationship can begin to  develop. It is an intimate and deeply moving moment watching what is  every mother and child's right. Outside the practicalities of  constantly caring for a totally dependent being is a constant  additional pressure. It is both the tragedy and the salvation of  mankind that we have to care for our progeny no matter what and that  parents can only but love and care for their newborn child. Life is harsh and the developed world spends a lot of money softening  the blows it can deal us. It is true that everyone of us thinks our  burden is the heaviest but in the bigger picture we are skipping  through this life without a care in the world with wings in our  ankles. Poets and Philosopher hush up for a moment and understand there  is no rhyme nor reason. Sent on the move

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Three times blessed

    Three times blessed '
The stubble on my chin is longer than  the hair on any of the heads of the young girls sat praying in the room around me. They are uniformly shaved and the difference in their head shapes is astounding, they are as different as hairstyles can be.  In their Tibetan monks robes they are uniformly androgynous It is only in their voices and movements that the female in them is revealed. They are chanting a mantra “Oum ah oum bazra guru padma siginghi om”. Not together but each in their own rhythm, cyclic and weaving in and out of sync with each other, occasionally in unison like windscreen wipers moving in time with music in a car. Its effect is hypnotic and as I sit cross;legged at the back of the hall I begin to forget my physical ailments and just exist in the now The now is perfect. Drum Amitabha mountain nunnery which crowns one on the many peaks that surround Kathmandu is the vision of the Twelth reincarnation  of the Anmitaba guru Gyalwang Drukpa and I have walked up here with Ravindra the CEO of Restless development and a group of his friends. The walk itself was an awakening we made our way up through the outskirts of the city into the pure morning air it was like coming out from under the covers when you are kid and being able to breathe again. Just twenty minutes hike up a gently sloping road and we were in rural Nepal, past wooden houses , cattle, paddy fields and temples we emerged into a gilded timeless world  that looked down on Kathmandu and its smog. We stopped for a breakfast of doughnuts, sweet miky tea, eggs and spicy chick peas. Sat on the concrete roof of the Chai house, I felt blessed, such a fine moment spent with relative strangers transformed  us into good friends. Beautiful as it looks Kathmandou has made me ill, the pollution from hundreds of thousands of untuned engines has given me a cough and sickness that is hard to shake,I feel sullied and abused and as if I am inhabiting and older frailer version of my own body. The rain that has been flooding the city for days has meant that it is marinading in its own juices and now it gently simmers as the the sun has come out. I am constantly assaulted by my pity for those thousands of poor soils who inhabit temporary housing on the dumps on the banks of the rivers and wastelands where no one else can live. With no door to close to remove themselves from the foul outside. The only refuge is up any small incline way from running water's destiny, the air is marginally clearer and there is a distance between me and the real world. This is where my hotel is and of course it is no accident that this is where most the foreign NGOs are based and the people that work them. There are purportedly 33,000 NGOs registered in Nepal so there are a lot of people doing some fantastic work there and about as many not I guess. It's a whole industry and and a career choice for many Nepalis. The Summit hotel is aptly named and is popular for eating meetings and rendezvous pre field trip. Confident Westerners greet local partners in an over friendly faux jocular manner, patting their backs and dropping the odd word of Nepali in their conversations. Others bury their heads in their lap tops looking up as I pass but rarely returning my smile. I have been here a week and have not had a conversation  with anyone. There is a pool that expats come to.  Distracted dads neglect their kids as they work in the shade, whist their trailing spouses try and find something in common with each other. Their children meanwhile run riot splashing guest with their  poolside war games. "Leon took a head shot" Boys can take time to ratify their fathers' policies. Even on the streets around the hotel whilst dodging the NGO vehicles as they splash through potholes my eyes are avoided, I smile or nod but no reaction. I go into busy bars but am excluded , in restaurants I eat alone and am unnoticed. I spend alot of time travelling alone but in this ex-pat enclave I feel like a dog at a gate wagging it's tail expectantly. I just get the feeling that most these people have created their own  reality in a foreign environment and that they  don't want to relate to the world outside of that. It is very similar in the BBC a kind of pious smugness but a fear of anything out the ordinary or not a la carte. Scared deep down but aren't we all ? But in this prayer room, temple I don't know what to call it. I feel completely detached from everything earthly. We walk clockwise around the praying nuns, I am amused to see sweet wrappers, bowls of food and empty crisp packets scattered around their discarded socks a. Little patterns and lacy tops on some. So normal and prosaic. It feels cool and echoes like a church but is so much more colourful and less formal. There are 1008 buddahs in small glass cases surrounding the walls. The ceiling and pillars supporting it are moulded with symbols and figures all painted in bright colours. We pass between groups of praying monks too who look up and over their shoulders at us are ushered towards the highest part of the hall and behind what can only be described as a throne and there in front of the mantra chanting room stood in my sweaty shorts and no longer clean shirt I am faced with the Twelth reincarnation  of the Anmitaba guru Gyalwang Drukpa..He is youngish for a Guru (I'm sure they're meant to be old) with dyed black hair and black rimmed glasses, he looks more like a music promoter than spiritual leader, though they are not without their similarities. Ravindra says we are lucky as he only leads prayers once or twice ayear and we can be blessed. Fair enough I felt blessed at breakfast so twice before lunch is a bonus.  I watch him and his friends approach in turn with hands together fingers touching chin, Namaste style  and the the Twelth reincarnation  of the Anmitaba guru Gyalwang Drukpa gently places a bell on the back of their heads and inaudibly makes a blessing .I don't think I was expecting a tingly sensation or a rush to the head but the banality of my blessing experience can be summed up by my memory of looking at an old AA battery and a couple of biros as I bow my head before him. We file off and sit down at the back of the temple. A young girl brings us some cushions and we all retreat into ourselves for a while. There on top of that mountain from that one space it is a beautiful thing that happens. 200 or so people meditating on love and peace for no other reason than to generate it and so it goes on everyday in similar monasteries worldwide. Who can say if it makes any difference but I know I wouldn't like it  if I knew there were groups of people sitting somewhere meditating on hate and pain. We leave the room wordlessly and when we exit all are excited and thanking me for being the reason that they came. None have been blessed in this way and though atheist with a few dashes of Hindu they can't but be really happy. We exit via the giftshop and I am touched to see at this point of interface with the outside word there is a radio playing and some young nuns are slouching over the counter reading a magazine, chewing gum and giggling they give Bringing it down to the practical, one of Ravindras friend says of the Nunery "It's all about contraception really, there is another Nunery like this on that hill over there and over there. Think about it that's about 600 girls that will not be having babies   Its a way of keeping the population down " We set off down the hill in the glorious mid morning sun with our peace and blessings. Then auspiciously I feel my stomach lurch and rumble and I have that unmistakable effervescent first belch of my having been blessed a third time that morning, by smallest of creations a bacterium.It must have been that blessed breakfast