Sunday 28 October 2012

A slice off life ~ Ethiopia

4,4 million years ago a small, hairy, small brained hominid that would later known as Ardipithecus Ramidus or Ardi  made a final grunt and died. Her tiny form fell and lay in a moist and temperate forest where she had lived and was soon covered with a soft protective blanket of ash from the surrounding volcanoes.
4.4 million years and a week later a short and pale skinned small brained homo sapiens appeared out of the heat haze of the now arid desert grunted and lay down in the same spot liking the idea of sharing the death bed of his ancestors.
Ardi was found by archaeologist in 2004 in the remote  Aramis valley in the Dalifarge district, now part of the Afar region in the Ethiopian lowlands . It is one of the hottest and driest places on earth and now home to semi nomadic pastoralists known as the Afar.  Ardi would not have found these people attractive but to our modern tastes some have a profound beauty the likes often seen in travel brochures and fashion photo shoots. Young boys with jet black skin with long slender limbs, high cheek bones compliment a wide face that is framed with drapes of tightly braided hair. The women mainly veiled   treat you to flashes of their eyes with a beauty so deep they can give you vertigo.
Of course not all are so picture perfect beautiful but that is how I will remember the Afar.

I am travelling with Masresha Yazew Andarge and his partners who work with AISDA, an organisation he set up in 2006 to try and improve the lives of these marginalised but highly adapted people that live only 600 km from Addis but thousands of years away in terms of lifestyles.
A stunning 12 hour drive takes you through land that could be mistaken for  the Swiss Alps.  Over high mountain pastures and rocky peaks you drop lower through hair pin bends and wood smoked villages.  Slowly though the green veers off towards brown river beds run dry and the big trees are left behind. The road turns to dust then rock and you have reached the oven that is the lowland area.

The Afar live on a range of low hills and the flatlands below them. Both areas are dry and inhospitable. Summer temperatures are regularly in the mid forties and the quarry like landscape prohibits anything from growing easily. Sometimes clans decide to move to the neighboring Amahara regional state to graze their livestock.This often leads to angry disputes with the agriculturalists of that area as the Afar let their goats, cows and camels graze in their fields of Sorghum and maize. Consequently most Afar men carry semi automatic weapons that they use to defend themselves as well as their livestock.  They appear so militant as they approach you with their arms hanging over the guns across their shoulders, oversized curved bladed knives strapped to their waists. But they always approach in peace.

Through the work of AISDA, lives in Dalifarge state are improving, this is an area that kills if you don't know how to live in it.
Water security to most of us means something that doesn't leak, but here it means offering an alternative to spending up to seven hours walking to fetch water from a riverbed where you then have to dig down two metres to reach and then carry it back
This means no school for girls as they are either child minding or fetching the water. When it does rain the rivers swell as the water runs down from the highlands, AISDA are building water catchment reservoirs which can hold enough for a community to last 5 months through their dry winter season If they get their small second rains in January or February life will be good. 

As is sadly usual here on earth  the burden of the work is mainly carried  by women. Something we are not taught at school in our facts of life classes. Male penetrates female and womankind is shafted.  But here as well as being responsible for collapsing moving and rebuilding  their wood and skin dome  houses,  cooking, cleaning, fetching water, looking after the kids and the men and  generally running the place women have to deal with an additional injustice . 
 In Afar like a lot of the desert regions in Africa the women are circumcised, but here it is really extreme.
 A home made knife called a Makita is used to cut off the labia minora and labia majora then the clitoris is removed, the wound is stitched up leaving a pin sized hole to urinate and bleed out of.This is done on the floor of a smokey and dimly lit  hut by women without clean water or soap.  Known as Traditional Birth Attendants they generally mutilate soon after birth but sometimes a girl may have it done at puberty.
On her wedding night the young bride will be opened up so that her husband have sex with her. It normaly causes pain for life.and is  the equivalent of genital genocide.Even though it is banned by the Ethiopian government it is carried out anyway.They largely ignore these people and they largely ignore the  government  they are world’s apart.

I ask where the tradition comes from and apparently it is for cleanliness and to stop women sleeping around and becoming too strong willed. Also a woman will not be respected if she is not circumcised. I twonder if  its origins lay in  power. The one thing that women have that men want is taken away from them. Maybe it says something about lifestyles and sex.  Why mutilate the source of so much pleasure, unless mutual sexual pleasure is not a priority? Personally in a land with no alternative entertainment it makes no sense to limit the one pursuit available and cut off the power to hooded button of women’s joy.

AISDA is really active in stopping this and has had major successes in some areas, persuading women not to do this and so liberating hundreds of young girls from this horror. They train the Birth Attendants in hygenic birthing, have anti circumcision clubs in schools and walk around market places with megaphones denouncing it as dangerous  The men need to be converted too and immams, clan leaders and members are all targeted and allowed to understand the dangers of it.
 I met mothers and Birth Attendants who have taken the bold decision not to mutilate their children. I got hold of a Makita knife and gave it to them asking how they felt about it. All were full of regret at having had it used on themselves and having used it before.100% conversion from an ancient unfathomable tradition. 

Tradition: that boulder in the path of evolution. In the developed world we yearn for it and buy it for our mantle pieces longing for some sense of cultural belonging of our own.The reality is Tradition means oppression too, the continuation of an ancient madness with unquestioned authority. Some traditions are dropped if it means life gets easier, no hesitation when changing a camel for a four wheel drive or a spear for a gun.  
Yes tradition the oft used excuse for the continuation of brutal acts that I have heard anthropologists say they should not intervene with.
Despite the fact I couldn't look at a woman without wondering about the state of her genitalia and the discomfort she might be in, I loved the Afar region. 

The funny thing about deserts is that though nothing grows there, they really grow on you. Something happens, things slow down and relationships drop their veils, actions involve more effort and reactions have greater effect. Hospitality is fuel of this society. Masresha explains that when a stranger approaches a clan’s settlement he will sit away at a distance and after sometime, even if there are no males around a woman will approach and offer water and milk, then the stranger will either move on or enter the settlement. It is something so simple and human yet can only really happen here where all luxury is removed.
It is no accident that Islam,Judaism and Christianity were all forged in the desert heat.

The fast food, action packed, paved and pampered world that we are fortunate enough to enjoy is only seen on satellite television here and it is surprising how it is perceived . 
Dawed came from deep in the region to Dalifage the small market settlement where AISDA is based. Little more than a cluster of wood and dung sructures with a few bigger houses or compounds scattered around. To him it is like New York they have electricity between 6pm and midnight  a school some shops and a road. He works as a watchman at the centre and gets to watch the TV set in the open sided wooden hut that is the lounge. After a couple of weeks of working there he asked Mesresha why in Europe and America all they do I kill and kiss ? What was wrong with them? That is all he had seen on the news and films and I guess that is how we represent ourselves. It’s true we never see deeds of love only sex and we never broadcast the good news only the bad.
For those that experience our world through a tv screen they receive very dubious messages about our morals and have no positive role models to aspire to. It is the same for our children. There is  Nat Geographic and Discovery but then they just see themselves.    
During the heat of the day between 1 and 3 we had to stop work and escape the sun. That is part of the lifestyle. With only three says to make my film  I thought I couldn't waste time and stormed off to grab some shots of the town only to find that the heat made everything happen in slow motion The world had been steeped in honey everything became hard to do and the streets were deserted, even the goats were in the shade and any mad dogs had come to their senses and followed them. I returned to the rush covered space between two mud buildings that was in fact a hotel and lay down next to Masresha who simply offered me coffee and khat. In a culture free of alcohol and drugs khat is the accepted stimulant, unless you are in a monastery every culture has to have one and here caffeine and khat. It works  fine, it really is the only way to get through the day and gives you a little lift that sends you out at three pm to continue your day with a little spring in your step it is clear how alcohol would have the opposite effect and is Haram (totally forbidden) within Islam – things are different  in our cold north though. After coffee Khat is Ethiopia’s biggest export and it is illegal in the States.

 There is I means of communication called Dagu when two men meet for the first time in a while   they start by one saying " you ask me how I am" the other then says "no after you "  this can go on for several cycles until in general the elder of the two will proceed to ask the younger about his family, livestock and what news there is in his area. When we ask how we are we generally say fine not really wanting to know any more; it makes people uncomfortable if you do otherwise. Dagu involves total honesty and ailments, problems and issues will be discussed. Through Dagu AISDA spreads information in an area where there is no radio and most people don't own a mobiles  
I love the work that Masresha and his team are doing and I can see how rewarding it to make a difference to an area that needs to change but slowly at its own rate. Their work is really diverse and they are showing how to terrace and grow trees and are innoculating cattle to eradicate the diseases they are prone to.

After leaving Ardi's resting place we pass a group of mud dome houses that are scattered around a large tree.  The shade it offers is all there is in a 360 degree horizon of heat shimmering sand and rock. A clan sits on a mat and the elder beckons for us to stop and join them.
They give us perfect coffee, not bitter but a full roasted flavour, black and sweet. Mufe an earth baked bread is brought out, unleavened hard and dry , complete with random seeds and insects, it too is delicious . I hesitate at the bowl of curdled milk with a film of fat on top. I could sense the bacteria in it that would wage a quick and decisive war on my stomach flora,Masresha agreed and we decided to introduce the term lactose intolerant into the Afar language.This he explains is their diet, milk for protein and bread for carbs. Occasionally a goat will be killed and every part will be used for something.
Sitting there under that life saving family tree, I experienced a sense of earthing. My life force's charge connected with the ground where I sat and I understood that this is life at its most elemental . Anything more than this is a luxury, this is my new bench mark. The old man and his clan just gave and shared it's what they do, survive and share. It's incredible to know that whatever happens with world economies, elections, wars and floods these lives will remain unaffected. Much the same as Ardi. Guaranteed though, nobody mutilated her genitalia and that she remained intact until she was found.

Monday 8 October 2012

Power of Nun

Somehow I had managed to film the interview without getting too upset but when little Fortuna started to break down telling me her story, between sobs and caught breath, I felt my emotions start to run down my cheek.
My question was how did you come to be in the Laura Vicuña home for girls in Manila? The combined answers of the two girls took an hour and half and left me once again feeling sick with mankind and it's perversions.
Men and mosquitoes the most dangerous creatures here on earth ~ Terror Firma.

As a young child Fortuna was left by her mother at the doors of a born again Church. She was told to stay there and that her mother would be back soon.
After two days the Christian community took her in.
She worked for her keep but was punished for her slightest mistake; stomach blows and being beaten with coat hangers progressed to walking up flights of stairs on her knees with bibles on her head.
It was all so extreme and she was so confused that she didn't think it unusual when four young pastors in training began to regularly gang rape her or when they tied her up outside with the dog telling her not to tell anyone or she would be killed. Bravely she confessed to her teacher who did not believe her and did nothing.
She was finally found by a nun who took her to the Laura Vicuña Foundation centre, they pressed charges against the priests and set about teaching Fortuna how to live again and somehow restored hope in the most battered of souls.

Christine is the product of her mother being raped at the age of eighteen by her uncle. Her mother, unable to love her and beat her constantly. She said she was better of dead than alive and tried to kill her by drowning in a barrel of water and by gassing her in her locked bedroom. She can actually remember being forced under the water by her mother's hands. The ultimate betrayal.
Her mother moved in with a man who was actually an uncle who fell in love with Christine. She remembers the date; June the 8th when she woke up one night in her locked room thinking it was her younger sister that was laying on her.
The abuse continued until her mother was sent texts that the nanny had found on Christine’s phone. Messages that her partner had been sending to her whilst he was away working as a volunteer with an NGO in Thailand. He missed her he loved her – she never read them as she kept her phone off so as to avoid him.
  When confronted she told her mother what had happened. Her mother beat her more.
”I am a person that likes to make people laugh I like to make people happy – I am good at it, why can I not be happy?
Finally Christine tried to kill herself with pills and was referred through the hospital to Laura Vicuña centre.
“I have never had anyone who cuddles me I never even saw my father, but here at Laura Vicuña I feel part of something they are the family I never had.”

By this time Christine was sobbing and my head and heart had met and swapped jobs somewhere in my chest. There is such a difference between experiencing a story first hand and reading about it, the impact is immediate and doesn’t have to processed by the mind maybe. It was impossible not to fight back tears as the girls broke down whilst sharing their ordeals. Of course I suggested they should stop but both insisted it was part of the healing and apologised for making me sad!
After the sisters joined us saying it was not unusual and that it shows you are touching their hurt you are feeling it and it was a good thing.
Post interview girls were so happy really buoyant and the sense of relief was as it is after a thunderstorm. It was akin to confession maybe and obviously cathartic.
During the evening Flora started to call me dad and I was worried that this was a bad thing, she just smiled and told me not to worry.

As I write this I have just be robbed of a few meaningless items on the beach I am still angry and feel violated but how do you start to heal after something like those girls went through?
How do get to join in again with the rest of the world?

There are twenty girls in the centre and all of them have similar stories of abuse or terrible lives on the street. But dressed for school in tartan skirts and white shirts they are like any other kids leaving the house as they are ushered out the door by the Sisters. They go to local schools and many go on to further education and work with the foundation though few who are sexually abused settle into long term relationships and on having children Fortuna said she might like to adopt but does not want any of her own.

That night I ate with the sisters I bowed my head respectfully during grace and sat down to eat. I was wondering how they live and deal with these damaged lives and carry on unaffected.
I was amazed at how much they ate, whole prawns, crabs, tuna, rice, plantain, salad and fresh squeezed fruit and vegetable juice. For a secular man like me I was in heaven.
I have never been in the company of nuns before and it is a rare honor to see how they are out of public eye. They giggle and joke easily and take pleasure in feeding me. At times I get glimpse of their femininity as one delicately wipes her mouth or wipes a stray hair from her face back under her veil. They are still women underneath.
I am surprised to find that Sister Penny sat next to me is 73 but looks 60; Sister Lannie is 34 and looks in her mid twenties. They all look younger than their years and insist that working with the young keeps them young .As we talked I tried to find out more about their order and why they chose to become Nuns. They are members of the Holy Salesian sisters of the order of Don Bosco a 19th century monk now the patron saint of education and media. He taught to love and you will be loved that it is good to enjoy yourself. Spread joy and you spread Gods love. He encouraged eating and fiestas he believes in making heaven here on earth. They follow a doctrine of love and joy in the here and now and celebrate all that is good around them whilst trying to remedy the effects of the bad. It seems they put an extra o in the middle of God.
 I am so excited by this thought and it fits in completely with my way of looking at the world. They explained that their approach to helping their girls was one of showing them how to love themselves and then they can reclaim their lives. They do not judge and let them be who they are and slowly they will come to terms with what has happened by nurturing the seed of love that is in us all that sometimes needs a little help to grow. Though devout and sworn against certain acts they do their best to keep up with what is trending in the girl’s lives, it is simple brilliant, 150 years old and it works. The girls seem so confident and at ease with themselves and most of all genuinely happy.

The girls show me some dance routines that could have come from an MTV, they are grooving and moving like any teenage girl emulating their favorite moves and the nuns looked on their toes tapping in their sandals, smiles of encouragement on their faces habits swaying.
I am genuinely impressed and so invigorated to meet such thoroughly right on nuns and pleased to find some Catholics practicing what I preach.

Later that night as I lay down in my bed and my head and heart finally found there rightful places, my conscience the bastard child of that union reminded me that I may have left their toilet seat up.

Once more I have the privilege of filming for the STARS foundation and the Laura Vicuna Foundation have received a Protection award and they so deserve it. Their projects are vast. Apart from the what they do with the girls in the centre they also work with street kids in Manila’s slums - Manila is hot, gridlocked and over populated any drive will take a minimum of an hour often three as the city is prone to floods. This is made worse by the fact that Manila radio stations play some of the worst music on earth, I never knew there were so many songs I hope I never hear again in my life.
I film a mobile clinic and advocacy project on the outskirts of the city Fortuna and Christine are there talking to the youth and encouraging them to get to school and teaching then their rights as citizens of the world. Local mums are enlisted to help out and be part of the project – they love it and are key to the success it really works and during my time in Manila I am constantly being introduced to people that LVC has helped.
The slums are as others, unsanitary, disorganized and makeshift. The buildings looking like a collection of the worst sheds ever built. The blending of the mundane with the abject, washing clothes in a stagnant gutter, cooking by rubbish tips, toddlers playing naked in floodwater.

Sister Marevic is the animator or big sister of LVC and she is the force she is maybe 4 ft 8 tall and healthy as she calls it - She is as wide as her love but incredibly nimble and she like all the others sisters likes to eat. Before embarking on a cross-city journey we normally have to stop for some food. Even though we will have eaten a huge lunch just an hour before.
“This one is my favorite”  I kept hearing her say as another fried fish met it's gastric juicy destiny.  But she makes things happen it's the power of the habit. A lift that has a “Not in use” sign on it opens and we are allowed to enter,
when stopped by the police, we are apologised to and waved  on. Porters appear out of nowhere to carry things, food mysteriously appears where ever we are. I feel like I have been upgraded in my life and all the time I hear the happy giggling of the sisters as we sail through the city. Salutes, shouts and waves, I am hitching a ride on a mission from God
I love her, she and the sisters are so efficient they make things happen, they can see what will happen and they know what has happened. They are even telling the taxi drivers how to get places and when they get there park where they like. Of course they know where to get the best food, who serves the best fish at what time, don’t need to bargain they just get the best price. These sisters rock,
The Salesian Sister film productions – they could clean up. I tell them.

Sister Marevic and I fly to Negros Orientale a Cane Sugar growing island 250 miles south it is Marevics home she wanted to buy me an I love Negros t shirt I said thanks but I probably wouldn’t feel inclined to wear it
Of course we are whisked through the airport by a porter with divine connections and are met by sister Nancy in a white van with the engine running ready to go.
It's a relief to be in fresh air driving down empty tracks through green seas of ripe cane. Beautiful wooden houses like the best sheds you ever saw in the Ideal Shed Exhibition are nestled in stand of shade either side of the track. Each with little plots of flowers and vegetables. Half naked children run towards the van waving half chewed cane sticks in their hands, dogs amble out the way while chickens make a last second dash in front of us probably arriving at the other side wondering why they had done that.

I figure that I would rather be or here than the city at least it's clean and a kid can run. The fact is hundreds migrate to the city in search of better jobs and a future, but without an education life cannot improve.
 We pass an incredible half built cathedral abandoned mid construction when the heavily corrupt Victorias sugar company went bankrupt the nuns said it symbolised the company as it sat There a naked concrete pulpit meaningless within the vast tracts of whispering cane. 

Most families have over 4 kids so that they can earn more on the plantation during the 9-month cane-milling season. It is of course hard, hot dangerous work and is hard to associate with the sweetening effect of the product. Most of the families get stuck in a cycle of poverty never affording the time or money for an education so that kid can move away and get a job with prospects or a decent wage. Alcohol and sexual abuse is rife.
Laura Vicuña women's centre is built deep within the cane field but it belongs to women rather than is exclusively for them. 
It is Sunday and groups of parents and children have come here for their one-day off a week but this is no church gathering or Sunday school. People are having fun, As we park under a large Mango tree I see a group of men in their forties across the yard plying basket ball and some younger kids working on a suggestive dance routine.  The place is set out like a school 8 or 9 buildings some two-storey classroom blocks and a large covered space for sports, dance, exercise and mass. It’s like a wonderland people are having fun everywhere I look.
First though I am led into one the low level buildings for breakfast- local cooked chicken, pork, macaroni, rice, veg.

Six Salesian sisters and me tucking in to King of Kings breakfast sounds of profound pleasure coming from us all. I'm loving this.
We talk freely of faith and their approach to work and their callings. Before the centre was built in 2004 there was nothing here apart from government schools that didn't account for children that had to work, most dropped out and never made it out of the cane fields. With nothing else to do men drank and womanised and women got pregnant and compromised.  
Sister Marevic lobbied for an alternative learning system with qualifications and offerered training in skills that would help young people get alternative work. In Manila I met a young boy who was working in the 5 star Crown Plaza who had come through this system and there are dozens more like him. He dutifully sends 60% of his wage back home to his parents, who are putting his two brothers and sisters through college with the money – Cycle broken.

So every Sunday the centre comes alive with adults and kids 
I film an aerobic dance class for all ages   Old ladies with dark weathered skin and black shining eyes gyrating dangerously with their hands on their hips. Old men possibly their husbands trying to work out the dance steps.  Ragged clothes seeming to hang off their lean bodies like they are hangers. The hands that hold machetes all week free to express themselves, fingers clicking. Wide toothless smiles and good honest joy normally the only available to care free children. There is no sense of embarrassment or loss of cool just pure enthusiasm and an opportunity being taken.
Two old men sit on a wall playing chess with a small child looking on waiting for the next move. A young man plugs in his star shaped guitar and everyone stops what they are doing and start singing a song, a microphone is passes around and everyone who wants gets a turn. Not a sign of a preacher a priest or a bible, no liturgy or sermon yet this is a Catholic institution. 
I interview three old men, one openly weeps as he tells me how his life is better now, how his child is working in Manila he doesn't drink and he loves coming here on a Sunday. His peers look on approvingly. These people so appreciate what they are being offered and are using it for all its worth. Their lives are better, there is a non-secular core and mass is held monthly and the songs being sung are ones of Thanks and the Lords name comes up occasionally  - but that is a secondary thing. There are no strings attached, no judgment or guilt mongering. These nuns are giving these people an opportunity to love life that they otherwise didn't have and more than that a chance to change their destinies on earth not when they die. This is love manifest; this is why we are here. These quietly powerful women have changed lives in the whole area, crime is down and hopes are up. People come running from the fields to greet them. They wouldn't say this themselves but their work is akin to how the effect of Jesus and his disciples must have worked spreading love and positive change at the micro level sowing seeds that people grow. 

Spiritually I am a freelance man, no fixed abode when it come to places of worship but I spent 5 days with the sisters of the Laura Vicuña and I have seen a mission that works.

Generally it's hard being good, people don't trust you they think you are angling for something. They look for the catch; everyday humans don’t do good unless there is something in it for them. A pure spirit can move lightly but is rarely taken seriously. In a corrupted world we look for each other’s faults. The thing is with nuns is they make themselves immune to accusations by taking their vows and wearing a habit.  They wear the uniform we expect them to be good. I ask Sister Marevik if you can sin in your dreams she says no you can only sin consciously and I wonder if evil people ever wake up in sweat at night having dreamt they did something good?                 
Sent on the move

Friday 5 October 2012

Singing for the girls

After singing me some great songs they foolishly asked if I would sing them one...
The home is amazing as are the girls whose resilience and power to get over their traumas is inspiring. The sisters are a force and source of healing for sure.