Sunday 7 November 2010

From Dawn till Dusk

Dawn was an epiphany. From the ignorance of darkness came the
noegenesis that only daylight brings. With the gradual opening of the
new day’s iris, forms took shape and colours crept into being. The
first glimpse of a new landscape: Driving along a straight levee
between mirrored fields of water, the red brick surface and the vans
tyres made a staccato rhythm together. A green arch of trees formed a
canopy over our heads and veils of
mist parted as we floated through. The paddy field and ponds reflected
their surroundings their beauty doubled Banana leaf roofed huts sat
secure, crowded by verdant deep green growth. I was passing through a
watery Eden and it was offering me hope because in the predawn
darkness I had been feeling tired and despondent
The previous night had been spent on a launch travelling through the
complex waterways between Dhaka and Barisal. It was a veritable bucket
and rammed to the gunwales with people covering every spare inch of
its surfaces. Most travelled in economy which was basically like two
floors of a car deck on a cross channel ferry. Bare metal was covered
by a piece of cloth that marked your space for the next 12 hours.
Dozens of families spread their sheets as if preparing for a pick nick
got out the necessaries and settled down. It was touching walking
through the decks as around me families carried on their family life
in open view, washing, combing hair and cuddling children
Night night sweet heart.
Above these two decks there were three decks with cupboard sized
cabins, which slept up to four people, and a blaring little television
I was lucky enough to have been booked one of three cabins that had a
shower room and balcony. VIP it was classed as but it was not luxurious
and I opted for the floor rather than the stained mattress. . There
was also the danger of being ejected if someone more VIP than you
turns up.
The launch had left at 8:30 the previous night from old Dhaka. It was
one of many moored to a pontoon in the port. We picked our way over
baskets and luggage all waiting to be loaded. Touts were
shouting, encouraging people onto their vessels. It was like a market,
with food, cloth and people all vying for space. Scents sounds and
sights battled for control of my attention.
Under a full moon we sailed up the river out the back door of
Dhaka. Escaping the confines and depravation of the city silhouettes of
factories and flats slid soundlessly by. Clumps of water lilies can
be heard approaching, alive with the sound of crickets cast away on
leafy rafts they divided like cells as we cut through them.
All on deck were united by a common destination under an all
encompassing sky. We were in the presence of something magnificent
and larger than ourselves. A mutual acknowledgment of profound beauty
in an uncaring world. The combined effect of all the stimuli, the
moon and my excitement was that sleep did not join me for long that
night and and as we docked next morning in Barisal I was far from
rested and I had a 19 hour day ahead of me.

The bloom of the new day had lifted my spirits; it was impossible to
be negative for long when faced with such wonder. We drove through a
deeply rural country; fields of water and every green imaginable lay
either side of the road, rarely a horizon, as jungles of trees and
vines surrounding dwellings obscured any distance. Women's saris
flashed primary colours against the green. Snooker balls on Baize.

As the sun began to cast its golden gaze on us we pulled up to the
Jibon Tari, which was moored by a wide tea brown river. The water
flowed slowly but steadily with the intensity of something nearing
its destiny.
Silent and incessant it is the source and scourge of life in Bangladesh.
Meanwhile on board the floating hospital, miracles were being
For the last ten years surgeons from all over the world have
volunteered their skills to change the fortune of the unfortunate;
giving sight to the blind by cataract removal, remedying cleft
palettes and enabling children with clubfeet to walk. Each operation
costs just £25 and the Jibin Tari moors at different remote locations
for a couple of months offering subsidised and affordable life
changing operations to the rural poor.
On board I met Mr andMrs Evans a surgeon and nurse team from Exeter
who fly out twice a year to perform operations on children with club
feet. He is in his Late sixties and only keeps practicing in the UK so
he can keep his licence to operate in order to travel to Bangladesh
and work. He talked of the wonder of being able to transform people’s
misery into joy and that alone sustained their work. In the ward I
film children who have had the operation their parents tending to them
as they lay with their little legs in plaster. Sitting amongst them
were children with clubfeet, waiting for operations, they are paraded
in front of me, and there is no discretion or fear for upsetting their feelings.
Little feet like twiglets, improbably shaped and distorted, limp
across the floor the rest of their bodies perfect but their point
contact with the earth dooming them to a life of exclusion
The original badly drawn boy shuffles by using his hands to pull
himself along.
I filmed the corrective procedure in the operating theatre a little
foot exposed under the scrutiny of the operating table cut open along
its length bone tendon and flesh an unfathomable puzzle. It reminds me
of a pig’s trotter on a butcher's block. A radio in the background,
Irony fm maybe, playing a woman’s voice singing "you make me feel brand
new". Dr Evans confided in me that he did this work purely for the fact
it gives him incredible satisfaction but his next trip will be his last
, as he is getting too old to practice.
I was taken to meet a child who had been operated on two years
previously. Out amongst the paddy fields and shrimp ponds a little boy
ran down a raised brick path into his mother’s arms. Freedom and joy
lit by sunlight dappled by a cool green canopy of trees The parents
told me of it feeling like a miracle to have their little boy, their
future healed.
Lazarus raised.
Back on board the Jibon Tari (boat of life,) six babies with cleft
palettes are waiting to be seen. Distorted mouths with premature teeth
protruding sideways they look like rejects from a doll factory.
Unable to feed properly they are disturbingly small and
underdeveloped, cleft pallets can be prevented through a balanced
diet during pregnancy. Lack of folic acid in the womb can contribute
to this condition. A twenty-minute operation can put a smile on these
children's faces forever. Impact foundation teaches women how to
grow vegetables throughout the year so as to have a source of this
easily available vitamin.
I was shattered and stunned by what I had experience but still had to
endure a six hour drive to one of Impacts static hospitals160 km away.
The day was eaten up as we hooted and swerved our way through the
astonishingly, consistently bewitching landscape.

Later in the day, the sun gilded all that it reached.
The Midas effect.
Shadows lengthened and the greens darkened and gradually all colours
were banished as darkness reclaimed its dominion.
Ten o clock that night found me in another operating theatre watching Dr
Sheffield remove cataracts from elderly people's eyes. He too volunteers
his time a row of confused but remarkably calm old women sat outside
with green gowns and green eye patches. They looked like a band of
geriatric pirates with their one eye exposed. Shafiul is a hero and
responsible for the removal of16, 000 cataracts over the last ten years
giving the gift of sight back to thief that once had it. He works
quickly and coolly with the patients conscious throughout or rook ten
minute to perform this miracle. Later I see him remove a patch and an
old lady blinks as light passes through her new clear iris.
I have been up for 19 hours seen a day from night through dawn, dusk
and back into night again. The old lady has been granted reprieve from
lifelong night I wonder what tomorrow's dawn will be like for her ?

This Man ?

This Man ?

The woman's face in my camera's viewfinder appears to be made of plastic that has been held too close to a fire. It is scarred, stretched and looks like it was once liquid. Her nostrils are not clear holes, there are pale sinews of skin that are stretched across them, and the bridge is too short for her face. Her lips must surely have once kissed something red hot for they are pure scar tissue, naturally smooth and featureless.
When I zoom in it looks as if her eyelids have been welded together, behind them I can see her eyeballs moving, searching for sight but captive behind fused flesh. Her face does not easily bare scrutiny; it is disturbing.

She was once beautiful and had married a man who promised to look after her, who had taken her from her family to procreate and increase the family's wealth. Whom she had given a daughter and two fine sons. This man who was not content with investing himself in her and their future had sought out prostitutes and other women to absorb his primal urges. She felt she deserved better, more respect, he beat her in return. She was brave and moved back to her family away from him and his brutalities, his wickedness and lies.
One night she was cooking and heard a motorbike arrive outside the family home. Her husband entered the yard with two friends, he walked casually towards her with his hands behind his back, she let him approach, he was still her husband after all. The last thing she ever saw was the man she married throw acid in her face.

We are sat interviewing Noahla in the small yard of her one roomed shack. that she will never see. It is a beautiful setting, goats and chickens roam and the sun plays on the water that the small settlement of mud and thatch huts surrounds. The entire area is protected by trees that offer shade and some respite from the heat. She was given this property by the Survivors of Acid Attack Association so she could a least have some level of independence. She is now able to find her way to her well and draw water she can stagger the four feet across the yard to lay some washing on a roof.

Her daughter is nine now and is preparing food on the clay wood stove, Fire, knives and hot oil three things we would banish from our children's reach. She is confident with them and at the same time keeps a look out for her mother. She is a full time carer and cannot attend school though she wants to.

I will always remember the sight of Noalah's tears forcing their way out of her fused eyelids unable to let light in but willing to let her tears out But they don't flow as single beads down her cheeks but part and form a delta tiny droplets that each make their own way down her ravaged flesh. I am behind the camera not daring to move for fear of my own tears welling out of the eyepiece.
She is telling of how pressure from her psychotic husband's family forced her to sign a piece of paper releasing him from jail, how she needed him to provide for here, of how he and his family had sworn to look after her needs. How he moved in to the house that was hers and immediately took any money that came in the house that was earned by her sons. How he rules the family by fear and how alone she is.
She tells us of how he continued to beat her. She is trapped and unable to escape. A sentence no court on earth would serve.
After the interview we are weak and furious, vengeful yet impotent. In the film or the book we would search the man out and take him out, there is no prison sentence suitable for him.such unimaginable cruelty can not be tolerated. A dog as mad as that needs to be put down.

But we represent civil society, We don't do such things.
Then Michael the VSO volunteer that brought us here tells us the same man is accused of killing his own father. His guilt is not proven and is currently awaiting trial but there is little doubt that he did it. His mother is lurking nearby as she has the adjoining huts she is distressed and eager to tell us of his innocence and that he is a good boy, yet she does nothing to help her daughter in law. The typecast roles of any mother to defend till the end.
I wander off to get some shots of the area, which has a squalid beauty. The trees, ponds, tiny waterways and raised paths give it a charm and lessen the claustrophobic atmosphere of so many humans living so closely together Simple lives in an unchanging world. If left untouched a cul de sac of evolution.
When I return the daughter is clinging to a slightly built unremarkable looking man, He is dressed in Western clothing and has a crisp clean shirt on, it has a pattern of big red hearts on it. He is the husband. I remember looking to see what he had in his hands. I smile at the daughter and am mortified when he uses the excuse to smile back at me. An animal urge wells up inside me, the impulse to confront threat to expurge evil.
I am unsure how to react. Simon the photographer obviously feels the same. We refuse to give him the credit of an interview or photograph him, we will not shake his hand or be introduced, but I must engage his eye. I need to see him. Our eyes meet I stare and search and see no remorse, guilt or regret. Just a pair of vacant eyes that are oblivious of the loathing we feel towards him, devoid of emotion they flit around the group of us seeking some kind of acknowledgement that would feed the hint of pride that I see there.
He is a weak evil being that is the cause of so much misery and pain and I want to accuse him, try him and see him off the face of the earth.
I have to leave I am being paid to cover a story not deliver retribution. But sometimes impartiality is a traitor to the soul.This creature before me doesn't deserve the title of a man or even a human. It deserves no understanding or forgiveness it has ignited a hatred in me I have never felt before. A loathing for all men that resort to violence when wrong that are not strong enough to acknowledge fault or brave enough to change. This aberration before us lives freely outside the codes of humanity and has no concept of human rights and is profoundly wrong.
This man that knows no honour and is not part of mankind.

I feel sick.

Friday 29 October 2010

Go with the flow

A tune breaches the blockade of sound that constantly surrounds the city.
A simple melody from a flute that is clear and pure, floats over the cacophony of horns, engines, bells and shouts. It casts a spell on me stilling the tempest in my head. It offers succour and soothes my soul. I walk out of its earshot and then realise I want more; I have to turn to bring it back into my life. Ryhad and I travel as pilgrims to its source and find it is a youth of maybe twenty with a sack of flutes and whistles on his back playing on a street corner. I am caught and helpless in his power the child to his Pied Piper.
The music he plays alludes to a place I haven't been but know I will visit, a greener quieter land where life flows at a gentler pace, away from the dust and noise of Dhaka.

I am again in my element -anonymous in an unknown city in a strange country with a newly made friend.
Rhiyad works for Impact Foundation in Bangladesh, pioneers of a floating hospital that visits the most remote areas and performs operations to correct clubfeet, cleft palettes and remove cataracts. Life changing procedures at affordable rates even for the poorest of the poor. The Jibon Tari (meaning the boat of life) is moored 150 miles away in Barisal on the banks of a river that makes up part of the vast delta of the Ganges as it flows into the Bay of Bengal. Bangladesh is 60 percent water and I will be travelling to Barisal by boat.
This is where I am transported to by the music played by the flute seller and I understand that I need to make a recording; it will work so well with my film.
I have only been in the country for five hours and two of those were spent in near stationary traffic coming from the airport. Dhaka like most of the SE Asian countries I have been to is absurdly congested, but whatever I must negotiate with this young man to take possession of his spell.
Sabaj (meaning green) is cool and confident and knows his worth. Though obviously financially impoverished he will never be destitute he has the special power to make people feel something, can change their state of mind. He is so obviously a musician, though unkempt his mismatched clothes look good on him, his hair is stylish but is not a haircut and he moves with the ease of someone who knows who they are and what they can do. As a musician I am proud of him.
We agree a price and go to fetch my camera from the hotel. We walk in an easy silence him perfectly content to have had his evening hi jacked then he starts playing a selection of tunes that herald our arrival as we moved through the city, children dance ahead. Then all three of us including my camera bag squeeze onto a cycle rickshaw and set of on a death-defying journey to the Impact Foundation office. More than once I feel the urge to get out and call the whole thing of it certainly isn't safe. It is sometimes hard in the moment to differentiate between exciting and foolhardy and even harder to stop what one has set in motion.
Sabaj is as relaxed in the 6th floor air conditioned office of Impact as he is on the street, unfazed, he is a musician aware of his power and can do what he does anywhere, it’s about what's in him not what's around him. He plays five tunes and by the time he finishes two security guards a cleaner,Rhyhad and I are sat at his feet completely enchanted.
Once paid he leaves me a flute and a whistle and goes leaving just the asthmatic wheeze of the door closing behind him.
One good thing about music...

Part of the fun of travelling alone is that you can indulge yourself completely in your impulses, be a complete free radical and throw your dice whenever you like Next morning finds me walking the baking dust dry streets of Dhaka making the most of my 24 hours there. I come across a market full of the most gorgeous looking vegetables all arranged beautifully like mandalas. So green, clean and moist but so open to defilement in the city’s atmosphere. I've no idea how large Dhaka is and I can't remember the name of the area where my hotel is (I've enjoyed getting stoned most my life but really don't enjoy the memory loss) But importantly I know how to get back.
Busy, frenetic, Brownian motion, thousands of souls each being driven by their own will and human need all with their own desires, fears and secrets. 4 million people living in the fastest growing city on earth with 400,000 rickshaws trying to get them around. Every square metre is used and there seemed to be as much demolition as construction it is like being in a human termite colony everyone doing something. At one point I stand on a bridge over a stinking green lake that can't possibly support life, on one side are new high rise apartments marble clad with tinted windows as good a money can buy any where in the world. Across the divide are stilted slum dwellings, wretched and shameful. The haves and the can't ever possibly haves. Such juxtaposition is beyond a joke. A family of geese float gracefully on the sludge. I find a likely looking restaurant and sit down to a coffee and rice pudding.
Sweet success.
A young Bangladesh man turns over his shoulder and asks where I'm from, it's a normal opener to a conversation and I tell him He asks if he can sit with me. No problem I say and he sits. We talk and he tells me he works in Eco tourism and he tells me he had an English boyfriend for a while. I ask him if that is a lover or a male companion." Oh no we had sex" he says blowing my tact out the water. We talk about being gay in Bangladesh society and how hard and dangerous it can be.Adnan works for a British guy who is trying to kickstart the tourist industry in Bangladesh he is ex marketing manager of Jaguar cars and Retired CEO Sony Europe. Sensing the opportunity to rustle up some work I agree to go and meet him.
On standing up Adnan's sexuality is clearer; so obviously gay. It is amazing how openly gay men have traits that transcend all cultural divides it is a if he is one of a tribe that is scattered throughout the world. Like musicians it is because they know who they are maybe? They know themselves and allow themselves to be how they are. A great liberation, the exorcism of male veils revealing the anima beneath. He really does mince across the road and the hand is limp and he throws his head dramatically back over his shoulder to check that I am following. I am behind him and dealing with the fact that everybody in the street that is looking at us is assuming I've picked him up and I'm doing my utmost to exude "straightness" and avoid being arrested for homosexuality
It occurs to me that anything could happen now, this could be some set up that I will have to extract myself from or at worst a gang rape in a warehouse down by the waterfront or... or it could be really interesting and I should trust my instincts (so do wildebeest sadly)
So I sit down next to Adnam on a rickshaw. By now he's turned into a full on queen and is flapping his hands round wildly and howling with delight at the near misses our rickshaw and gripping my arm in false seizures. I actually feel ok about the whole thing and enjoy this one-man camp carnival through town
I am also keeping myself aware of our route so I will be able to at least direct a rickshaw towards where we had come from. With a final whoop we arrive at a very grand apartment which is not too far from where we had recorded Sabaj the night before and we breeze by security as he informs me that this is the mayor's residence too. It is a fine looking place and I'm thinking there's either money behind this scam or all is cool.
Adnam knocks an apartment door gently and a servant let's us in to a hushed and cool interior
It turns out that Tim Steele is real and he makes me most welcome. We talk for about an hour an a half he has a fantasastic overview of the country. He could live anywhere in the world but is drawn here and is dedicated to turning the tourist industry into an income generator for rural people. He fills my head with facts and details and advice with what to do with the three days free that I have at the end of the week. I gave him the gentle sell offering to film some of the ancient temples, fantastic beaches and wild elephants he's talking about but he said he was very busy but would have a look at my website I put it down as a no sale in my head.
I notice it is 2:30 and I am being met at 3. I make my goodbyes and rush out to retrace my steps back to my hotel.
In between giving directions to a rickshaw driver I sit back and thank my luck and the way the world can sometimes run so smoothly, the ways things link up with each other if you have time to go with the flow. Give every opportunity the maximum advantage with no agenda but the desire for experience.
Don't be scared
I got up this morning and checked my mail, Tim Steele has contacted me saying he has looked at the website and would like to have dinner and talk about how we could work together.
Who knows something may come of it
It's always worth a try.
Go with flow and see where you go.

Saturday 23 October 2010

Human traffic jam

What does it take to make a man uproot himself and his family taking nothing with him but three mouths to feed?
Leave everything he is sure about, to find a new life in another city in a different country? To have no destination or bed to head to, no job and nowhere to keep the three bags he carries. Abject and completely at the mercy of whatever governs our luck and fortune, birth and future in this tilted world.
What can it feel like to sit with your family on the platform of a station waiting to take a train to an unknown future? Your two children still young enough to have faith in your decisions who expect you to provide and to know all answers, a wife that married you for security and a future and is now penniless, helpless and blind to the perils to be faced in a foreign and hungry city?

Marooned there on a busy platform at Gorakhpur junction the last stop before Nepal in Uttar Padesh Northern India this family is a vulnerable pathetic sight I initially apply my values and see the pair as brave- I could never have done that with my kids but I realise he is not being bold he is desperate. The family are migrants from Nepal, they are landless there and so forever bound to landlords and poverty, a feudal system that paralyses their lives. Without work they would starve, so a ticket to Delhi and the possibility of both parents working on construction sites is the only hope.
They are not alone; the platform is crowded with similar groups all sat gazing into space as if focusing on a point they will never reach.

Dressed in white jackets and moving amongst them like angels are two beautiful Nepalese women who hand out leaflets and counsel them on what to expect and who to contact if they get into trouble. They work for SEVA the organisation I have come to visit.
SEVA works to prevent human trafficking and are at every land border, bus and train station in this region looking to counsel migrants and identify young girls who may be victims of human trafficking. Nepalese girls are often quite striking and there is a demand for them in the sperm pits that are the red light districts of SE Asia. Young girls are lured there, sometimes by false marriages to young men who turn up in remote villages offering love, trinkets and a future. They are then abandoned in a brothel, abused and never able to return home through fear, shame and ignorance.
Human trafficking is a multi million dollar Mafia run business that knows many ways to get flesh on the plate of sex hungry inadequate man. SEVA along with the police and border guards are stopping hundreds of girls being sentenced to a life of sex slavery and it is a privilege to be filming their work.
I am with them for two days visiting the Borders following them on to buses and trains and visiting schools and homes they run for the most disadvantaged children in this the poorest state in It is not just Nepalese girls who find themselves part of the flesh trade in far off cities - the wretched caste system means that landless and un educated lower caste women are vulnerable so Seva educates and negotiates land ownership for many Dalit women
The landscape is flat and green, very wet with crops of paddy fields and sugar cane. An occasional Teak plantation offers shade and monkeys thrive there eating scratching and shagging on the roadside like the rest of us really but without a house. We drive for hours but we never pass through wilderness people and shelters are always present, lives being lived out and shrines attended to.

Gorakhpur is simply the dirtiest smelliest most chaotic place I have ever visited I am sure that all who live there have never been anywhere else or they would not return. When I arrive it has been raining and the whole city is awash with an evil black sludge. Shit, piss, decaying matter mixed with oil and drain water topped with a liberal dusting of litter.
A Crapuccino.
Of course we have all seen a bit of urban filth before but not a whole town. It's as if Glastonbury has been held in a sewage farm on a city dump.
Add to this people and cars and motor rickshaws and cows and dogs and bicycles an cycle rickshaws and donkeys and me... tiptoeing through and between it all, the only man in town saying sorry or excuse me please.
The town appears to gave spread unchecked and unplanned there is no style or theme in the buildings it's as if it is a storage depot for condemned buildings. Brick, wood, thatch, mud and concrete cohabit shamelessly separated by roads and paths that act as arteries for anything that moves. It has an element of the Klondike to it without the fortune to be made
Hindi is the second language in Gurakhpur the first is the car horn -there seems to be a vocabulary and at any junctions the noise is deafening and no one knows who's hooting who. To use the car horn in the UK is a last resort and an invitation to confrontation here it is as much part of the car as the steering wheel. There are no road laws traffic moves like marbles on cobbles wherever there is a gap fill it. Consequently the city is gridlocked even on foot I was frequently stuck in the middle of the road unable to move in any direction, the fumes, stench and cacophony combined to evoke an altered state I'd regain consciousness up the road wondering how I got there
PJ is a driver with SEVA and he was a constant source of outrage and admiration to me. He seemed pathologically opposed to anything being in front of him and spent the entire time I was with him overtaking things and would accelerate into an junction speaking fluent car horn and swerving to miss children and other annoying obstacles. He relied on the world moving around him and drove as if playing a computer game and that no one mattered but him getting through the metal an flesh blockade in front of him. Outrageous liberties but no one cared or took offence back home he would be followed to his house and beaten. . He liked to sing and wonderfully his voice was always in the same key as his car horn. He never hit a single object in the entire 350 kms we travelled together but incredibly whenever we hit a rare open stretch of road he drove really slowly.

Images unlike smells and sounds linger: a dog ducking underneath a stationary cow rubbing ears against udders causing the cow to shudder. Warm cow breath on the back of my hand. A spiders web the size of a blanket shrouds bare power lines above me. Shocking spiders
A laundry wallah washing his load of other peoples clothes in a putrid pool of fetid black water,
Shit brown bubbles.
A cow gently gnawing a poster off a wall its domino teeth exposed, lips that kiss the brick. . A rat running down a curtain in the reception of my hotel as I come down for breakfast. Inexplicable movement in the cornflakes I am about to help myself to, I explore to reveal a burrowing bug.
A look of surprise in a cows eyes as I feed it the last of my ice cream reminiscent of mothers milk with a hint of pistachio it had never experienced ice before -it followed me back to my hotel and was outside next morning

I film a man asleep on the platform the station, foetal and vulnerable with his hands between his thighs. For the moment he has escaped his life on earth is free from his mortal struggle, what does he dream of?
I wonder for these people who have nothing here in the conscious realm do they have more to dream about than those who have everything?

Its not that I don't like Gorakhpur I love the outrageous and everything has as much worth and the same rights as anywhere else its just so poignant that it's the first stop for so many who are dreaming and hoping for new life. But it just can't be any better than where they have come from and can offer little hope of a brighter future. Hundreds of souls all trying to escape their fortune or being duped into a life of exploitation. Thrown together and gridlocked in a Human traffic jam.

Tuesday 27 April 2010

Breakfast like a King

Breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and supper like a pauper a good and healthy maxim to live by but not often adhered to.

Somehow it always seemed like an innocuous comment as I sat down in the morning to eat and the waitress or waiter in the hotel said to me. "Enjoy your breakfast”. Of course it was well meant but they always seemed to put more meaning in it than it warranted, it was breakfast after all nothing special just the regular royal strain block for the human race. In fact I rarely did enjoy my breakfast it was lacking in variety, not much fruit no oats and nothing local, just a poor facsimile of a full British, which I never have. Uganda being a massive coffee bean producer held great hope for me as a source of a fine cup of coffee but all that was to be found was the universal filter machine that seems to filter out everything but the colour and bitterness. By the third morning much to some French NGO workers' disgust I produced my lavazza expresso and breakfast became a bit more enjoyable with the assistance of some sweet cake and a banana.

As part of the training I have been doing with six young information officers from NGOs and councils in Mbale we go to Gumutindu coffee cooperative to film the factory and visit a small plantation. The factory was a treat, the scent of roasted coffee hung in the air so strong you should have able to see it. When treated to a tasting session and quality control session I got to taste some of the excellent coffee that grows in this area in the east of Uganda on the slopes of mount Elgon on the border with Kenya. The cooperative has a resident taster much like a "nose" in a perfumery and this young lady in her mid twenties could discern nuances far beyond what my Lavazza addled buds could distinguish. However by mimicking her method of sipping and sniffing a small amount of coffee I could tell it was high quality and distinguish slight variations on a theme.

Later we drove up to the foot of the extinct volcano to find some coffee bushes and meet the people growing them. It has been unseasonably wet and the land is waterlogged, tall thin cascades cut down the almost vertical cliffs of mazembe ridge. Even from two miles away looking up at the colossus you can hear the torrents of water making their chaotic way down off the plateau.
We pass a stream with banks that are yellow with bananas that are being washed ready for market. They contrast strikingly with the infinite shades of green that are found in every bush, tree and grass that grow so successfully in the rich volcanic soil here. We climb up past huts, houses and shacks, all home to families that work the sloping land around them exploiting it the best they can. We reach the area that is cool enough for coffee to grow. Worryingly this moves higher up the volcano each year as the temperature below gradually increases. Unlike most of its drinkers coffee is a sensitive thing.
As we pass through one large settlement I am told by Gumutindu board member Joanne that it is a unique project called the peace project where there is a unique working relationship of Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Muslims working together to make a better life for everyone. She seems proud and we are certainly impressed. It merely takes common sense and a resolve to tour world a better place.
We turn off the red laterite road and pass down a track fringed with banana plants, cassava crops and coffee bushes interspaced with shade trees that keep the sensitive coffee from the fierce equatorial sun. We come to a group of rectangular mud and thatch huts that is home to a community of twenty or so souls that work this land. Chickens goats and children roam and though obviously very poor this seems like a tranquil and good place to be. We are high up but any views are obscured as we are surrounded by thick tall foliage. Encouragingly there is a tree nursery here providing saplings for both shade trees and sustainable firewood.

Deforestation is a major problem and Gomatindu have sensitised all its members to the importance of growing trees. The air is warm and has a flavour to it; moist and rich like a greengrocers in a heat wave. Birds and insects provide a sounded that if used in a film would be deemed over the top .As I walk round the back of the settlement to look at some stick wattle and daub cow enclosures I talk to Joanne, who tells me that as ever it is women who do the digging, planting, milking and cooking while the men do whatever it is men do that doesn't involve the aforementioned. She'd love to change this but tradition is so strong here it is hard to change. This is however an encouraging community as they are producing organic fair-trade beans and the sapling nursery is catching on with others. The children all seem a bit listless and are dressed in the scrappiest torn up clothes. They are more on than off, trousers ripped from knee to waistband; little floral print dresses with tears from hip to hem. Football shirts and threadbare sweaters nothing is new and all are spoiled but they are worn none the less. They are all casts offs and donations from the others and it makes me wonder about the lives of their previous owners and how much the fortunes of a pair o shorts can change.
I am amazed when Joanne tells me that these kids eat just one meal a day, in the evening before bed. Generally green banana beans and greens. Meat hardly ever if at all. Incredible to think that all these people get up and start the day without any form of breakfast then go through the whole day without eating. No king, prince or pauper, I find it hard to conceive, it's Ramadan everyday, it’s clear the reasoning behind people fasting is to remember those that don't have.

As we drove back down to Mbale I looked out at the incredible beauty that lay wherever my gaze fell and marvelled that in such a verdant fertile environment people went hungry. It is impossible to work our why and there is certainly no simple solution I looked at the people working; carrying lifting, digging pushing loads that most British people would consider a breach of health and safety and would probably be unable to deal with.
Interestingly there was a total lack of obesity.

This morning I awoke early and as it was my last day in Uganda I went out for a walk to enjoy an African dawn and get some shots. It had been raining in the night and everywhere was washed clean of dust and given a fine gloss finish. Once again my senses are working hard with the stimulation and it feels so good to be alive. Every dawn feels like a new start an absolution of yesterday's worries and a giving hope for the today, As if they have been waiting behind their doors suddenly people start appearing from their houses and walking towards me on the road down the hill to the town. One moment I was alone now I am walking against a stream of people who pass me with a nod or a greeting. I watch one man wake on a porch of a derelict house where he must have spent the night sheltering from the rain. He simply stands up looks around him stretches and walks towards the road and off into town. I am reminded again of the unroyal status of breakfast for so many people.
I film some lovely shots of birds, flowers and trees. The distant volcano has a tutu of mist around its midriff and as the sun rises shafts of sunlight spotlight the distant fields where small dark figures are already stooped over digging the earth. People work so hard here, up and working by ten past dawn.
I return to my hotel and to the restaurant as the waitress brings me my hot water for my coffee she once again says "enjoy your breakfast" and it all falls into place that breakfast is indeed a luxury and that never again shall I take it for granted and that every time I sit down before my kingdom of oats, fruit toast or eggs I will give thanks to my luck and truly enjoy my breakfast.

Sent on the move

Monday 8 February 2010

all that glitters

I still can't work out what it is about gold and diamonds that makes them valuable? Why through time have we given them such worth? Surely their appearance isn't enough for us to give them such value? It can't be their rarity, as a four-leaf clover is worthless but less common. It could be characteristics, one warm soft and malleable the other cold and so hard- People who lust for diamonds end up being cold and hard - it's all right for them but we have to suffer them. Gold and diamonds - the world could so easily exist without them they have no function other than their value and an ability to make some humans rich and others miserable.
There's gold in the low hills rising up south of Bolgatonga in northern Ghana and people move their whole lives there to try and sift, sieve, pan and dig a better life out of the earth. It's a hard life in a horrible place. Scattered amongst the trees and long dry grass are makeshift shacks and huts that are used for either or sleeping or working, the only two options here. Rocks and rubble lay in piles and everywhere is covered in rubbish and faeces. The area is devoid of luxuries and comfort, men are held captive here by their need to make money and children grow up simply to add to the workforce.
Small amounts of gold dust are separated from the crushed rock that is either dug up on the surface or more often from hundreds of feet underground. The mines are unregulated and men and women work in teams sharing any profits. I am told that at any one time there are more people underground than on the surface and that people stay down for up to a week once they have made the dangerous one hour climb down a manhole cover sized shaft, no steps lift or rope the shoring of the shaft acts as a ladder. I watch a man emerge drenched in sweat his whole body pumped and taught from his exertions. Everyone here is super strong and well adapted to live easily in this environment that I find hard to handle.
Gold powder and sludge, laying on the bottom of a metal tray used for panning looking like fine Demerara on coffee grounds useless, yet to be separated smelted and turned into bullion, rings and necklaces. Here amongst the chaotic desperation of a Klondike style mining community it seems so worthless and it is mind boggling to think that this residue is the base element of the whole world's economy. Here it is in the hands of young people that will never appreciate the full worth of the metal they risk their lives for and have no need for it apart for the wealth it can bring them. An element destined to bring others a status and enhance their own sense of worth. But it is a lie
You are only worthy to wear gold if you are able to extract it from the raw earth it comes from, if you are strong and fit enough to mine it from the land where it is found. Alchemists look for shortcuts whilst others betray, murder and invade for it. The gold remains when the body decays, Fool's gold is there any other?

The sun is reflected like a thousand jewels from windows below as our plane descends and is thankfully reunited with its shadow on the runway. Two weeks later and I am in a diamond mining area and it couldn't be more different. Kimberly in the northern Cape Province of South Africa has probably produced more diamonds than any town in the world. Originally a town for prospectors that slogged their way through 500 miles of inhospitable land to dig their way to a better life there is little mining done now but its history lies below the surface like the diamonds. At its centre is a giant hole 100 metres deep the biggest hand dug hole in the world where over the years men working for DeBeers shovelled their way down It now a tourist attraction with a museum made up of original shops hotels and houses gathered round a Protea hotel boasting a view of the hole.
Though South Africa is so different to Ghana There is something both these towns have in common. Mining by nature is a tough uncompromising and destructive industry. It does not ally itself with the arts and a cerebral existence, though those that profit from it certainly can.
Kimberly has all the appearance of an American Midwest town- a settlement with a collection of malls, houses and industrial units thrown together on a landscape so vast the whole place seems pointless, why be there? History is in the architecture but you have to look for it as the old is constantly being usurped by the new, perfect Dutch colonial veranda-ed houses by art deco shops next to 19th century churches and civic buildings dwarfed by 1960's square blocked offices and the inevitable 20rh century malls. There is history in the people too. Apartheid was finally smashed 15 years ago but it is hard to believe. Driving around the town it is only black faces walking the streets on the outskirts are large sectors of temporary housing with only black Africans living there and there are large areas of townships and squatted land all exclusively black inhabited. This is Afrikaans Africa and they are the people who fought nature, the British and the African to be here they are the people who didn't want a change in south Africa they are big strong proud and confident. They move around this town as if they own it and are contemptuous of everyone but their own. They also appear to be totally lacking in grace art and humour. Conscious of the need to play along with the new order they start most explanations of their world view with 'I’m not racist but...'
I am working with Louise from vso and Andrea from the British council making a film about global school partnerships a great initiative connecting schools from the south with schools in Britain sharing curriculums, thoughts and adjusting preconceptions. When asked by our sweet and charming guest house host Heidi which school we were visiting in Kimberly her faced registered discomfort when she understood that Isago junior school was an all black school in a township. It's just so deeply ingrained a dislike stemming from fear resulting from injustice. Isago school was built in the 1990's and is similar in size and style to a secondary school in the UK except this is primary and kids attend until the age of 12. Of course the classes are crowded up to 50 a class but so orderly and attentive, teachers are called educators and seem to be respected by their students or learners. The twinning with Juniper Green Primary in Edinburgh clearly works and I was astonished to hear 9 yr olds talking about global climate change, democracy, human rights and the benefits of a good diet. The two schools share their thoughts on the subjects by letter and the educators relate to each other.
Isajo is located in what is termed a township but it is well kept, paved, lit and the small single storied houses are generally well kept. It seems like a British council estate but the houses smaller. Elsewhere there are wooden and corrugated iron shacks that are less orderly and regimented but are connected to council services also estates of council built houses. There is other much less formal housing that is yet to be linked up to electricity or sewage, bright shining corrugated iron shacks shining in the sun yet to cultivate gardens they look like fields of pig sties. Common between all these houses is a barbed wire barricade against intruders impenetrable to all but small rodents. The learners from the school come from all these types of houses but their appearance gives no clue as to their home they are all impeccably turned out with identical uniforms and smart shoes, no trainer or fashion wars here and they are all children still, no provocative dressing or gangster styles.
Sadly there are areas that are just unsafe to move at night, families living there close their doors at dusk and don't come out at dawn. These are mainly the less formal housing areas that remain lawless, unpoliced and dangerous.
Kimberly has always been like a Wild West town perched on the edge of civilization it exists purely because below the earth it is built on are diamonds and there still are. Once everybody in Kimberly worked mining, or in a service industry serving the mines life was tough but money could be earned. Nowadays unemployment is the curse of the town thousands of people are out of work whole estates of people that cannot earn. This is why areas are so dangerous they are feeding grounds for those that have nothing. The grand irony is that below almost any of the yards surrounding all the houses there is the potential of finding diamonds. Dig down and there may be a fortune there could be a diamond anywhere even the giant mounds of rubble that surround the town may contain raw diamonds as when they were dumped there mining methods were less efficient. But you need a licence to dig for diamonds not just anyone can dig. De Beers own all the diamonds in Kimberly even those that have been thrown away. It seems you need a licence to get rich here.
There used to be two big holes in Kimberly one was in the middle of the townships. That was filled in recently to stop people throwing themselves into it so sad that they die on the rocks that could make them rich.