I'm pretty sure that the "blind leading the blind" is intended to be a statement implying absurdity, but after visiting a school for blind and visually impaired kids in Mukono, I find the concept breathtaking and giving.
Thursday, October 30, 2008
Just the other day, Anonymous got really, really mad at me for a posting that questioned the efficacy of work by people like Rankin, a celebrity photographer who went to Eastern Congo to "raise awareness" and get some good PR for himself and for his sponsor Oxfam.
Low and behold, one Brit with studio lighting did not manage to prevent the humanitarian disaster currently going down in Congo.
Despite Rankin's best and most (maybe) earnest efforts, Laurent Nkunda's forces are fighting with the FARDC (Congolese army), MONUC is incapable of doing much, and anyone who can leave has left. Great summaries of all this, and "How the hell did we get here?" at ever snarky Wronging Rights.
Rankin's intentions may or may not have been good, but that's just not enough even in the best of circumstances. (And we all know where good intentions lead.) What's happening is an amalgam of Central African governments getting in each other's business, combined with way too many weapons for any one's good.
Does Rankin's work help this? Nope. Does it hurt this? Also probably no. Rob Crilly posted a bit on this, saying that the Devil's in the Details:
It surely has to be a welcome thing that the likes of Rankin, Mia Farrow and George Clooney have got involved. Precious few people give a toss about African civil wars and it is down to the work of filmstars and a few musicians that Darfur has generated headlines far beyond its fair share (based on comparisons with deathtolls in the DRC etc). If it takes Michelle Collins (a second-rate British soap “star” - for my overseas readers) to visit Kenya to highlight hunger, then so be it. (Incidentally, her trip for a charity was hurriedly cut short because a Sunday paper was about to reveal lurid details about her lovelife, according to my sources with the NGO T-shirts. Officially, she was unwell.) A story read by millions in The Sun is worth a lot more in terms of raising money and putting pressure on world leaders to do something than my output in, say, the deep inside pages of The Times.
But does Rankin's work actually raise money? And what does that money do? I'd love a statistician to find that out empirically for me, or for someone else to a venture a guess at these questions:
- How many people donated money, goods, or other support after seeing Rankin's photos?
- How many of people in question number one did so who didn't previously know about Congo?
- How much money did Oxfam spend on this stunt?
- How many people could benefit from other means of spending Oxfam's money in question number three?
- How much of what's going on now can be helped with money and goods?
- If a bunch of people who don't know much about Congo suddenly feel a sense of outrage because of Rankin's photos, or a new brief sans context, what do they do with that knowledge?
Wednesday, October 29, 2008
I've been nominated for a Best of Blogs sponsored by Deutsche Welle. According to the site, 8,500 blogs were nominated and have been filtered to 176 blogs in categories like Blogwurst Award, Best Weblog Persian, and others, including my category - Best Weblog English.
I guess it's hard to categorize my blog. Obviously, I write in English. About Africa. But I'm not African.
They describe me as: A reporter, writer and photojournalist describes life in Uganda, through touching stories and amazing photos.
On a similar but slightly different note, Afrigator also recently created a list of 45 top female bloggers in Africa. Well, the original email I got informing me that I'm #10 of said top female bloggers in Africa. The Afrigator page said Top 45 Female African Bloggers.
In her review on Pambazuka, Sokari of Black Looks says:
Unfortunately the term “African women bloggers” is somewhat misleading as many of the blogs, particularly the non-South African ones are actually written by non-Africans. This is a real shame as there are so many excellent blogs written by African women from across the continent and in the Diaspora none of which are listen in the top 45. A more efficient way of finding out who is writing a blog is simply to include a box for gender and country of origin.I understand the frustration. I think that a better poll would have included lots of great blogs that somehow aren't on Afrigator, but I didn't make the poll so they didn't consult me about parameters. And I do think it would be silly for Afrigator to create one list of female expat bloggers in Africa and one list of female African bloggers in Africa. I don't think Sokari is suggesting this, but maybe the best solution right now is to encourage other female bloggers in Africa who are actually African to register for Afrigator.
Anyway, if you want to vote for me for a German Best of Blogs where I'm nominated in the English category, since there isn't a category for Best Weblog by an American about Africa and Appreciated by Germans, please do so here.
You'll also notice that this slight blogging identity crisis has prompted a new succinct blog description under the lion's photo.
Thanks for voting!
Monday, October 27, 2008
The Refugee Law Project, through the Beyond Juba initiative, is having a film festival and discussion sessions on Thursday and Friday of this week at National Theater in Kampala. Entrance is free.
RLP is one of the only organizations that is advocating for the rights of internally displaced persons who live in urban settings both locally and internationally. (Remember Stephen?) While IDPs in the north receive government and non-governmental assistance, the same is not true of their urban counterparts who are more vulnerable than most slum dwellers.
Meeting Point International (supported by AVSI) also works with urban IDPs, and Siena also started a blog to raise money for a sustainable tailoring project in Kireka.
Thursday, 30th October
3.00 Trapped in Anguish - an informed account of the war in northern Uganda, its humanitarian implications and the process of return and reintergration of former combatants
3.30 Ekisil - a graphic docu-drama on the culture and values of the Karamojong and their struggle to find a lasting peace in the region
4.20 Panel discussion on the conflict in northern Uganda and the situation in Karamoja, with David Pulkol, African Leadership Institute, Naome A. Mao, filmmaker, Giovanni Dall’Oglio, filmmaker, and others
5.50 Uganda Rising - this multiple award-winning film, featuring interviews with Betty Bigombe, Samantha Power, President Museveni and Mahmood Mamdani, amongst others, gives a ground-breaking account of the 20-year war in northern Uganda
Friday, 31st October
3.00 What about us? - the Beyond Juba Project launches its documentary on urban IDPs and their exclusion from IDP policy, to be followed by a discussion with the IDPs themselves
3.30 Panel discussion on the return of IDPs and the challenges faced by their urban counterparts, with Apollo Kazungo, Office of the Prime Minister, a representative of UNHCR, and others
4.15 We didn’t know - the process of truth telling is unravelled in this insightful documentary on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa
4.40 Panel discussion on justice, truth and reconciliation in Uganda with Ofwono Opondo, NRM deputy spokesperson, a representative of the South African High Commission, and others
5.40 Red Dust – an award-winning drama exposing the complexities of truth telling at South Africa’s TRC through the disparate lives of it witnesses.
Sunday, October 26, 2008
Thursday, October 23, 2008
Tuesday, October 21, 2008
Rankin said, in a press release posted on Oxfam's site,
“It is crazy that we hear nothing about the Democratic Republic of Congo. The level of suffering there is horrendous, but it hardly makes the news. I heard awful stories of young girls being raped and people fleeing attacks on their villages. Despite the suffering that they have been through the people of Congo are just like us and need our help. I hope the exhibition will wake people up to what is going on.”
The NGOs, for example, get barrels of money thanks to the images that photographers generate of mortally sick or malnourished children, money that they use, among other things, to expand their projects… If I ask a local African what he would really like to do professionally, I often get the answer that they want to work for an NGO, because in their country, NGO workers live a rich life in comfortable houses.”“In fact,” continued Martens, “I find it a very hypocritical situation. Not because journalists and photographers would be just a gang of profiteers exploiting others’ poverty by turning it into attractive or impressive images and making piles of money, but because none of the profits that these images generate return to the people that deliver the raw material: the poor allowing themselves to be filmed. This makes the exploitation of filmed and photographed poverty a perfect double (analogy) for rubber, coltan or slave labour. The economical value of these phenomena is denied to the local population, and consequently, they get hardly anything in return. The poor are never involved in getting anything back from the exploitation of their poverty, they have no ownership over it, they are mostly not even aware of the fact that their willingness to be photographed brings in huge amounts of money for the NGO’s."
Saturday, October 18, 2008
On November 7, 2007, I got an email from a man I had never met before.
Dear wife to be, Glenna Gordon, It is in the name of Jesus Christ, I am writing to you this message in order to let you know about my proposal wish just to you.
And that was the beginning of my relationship with Joseph Mozi (not his real name), who likes reading but not swimming, and thought of our imminent marriage as “DURATION OF PROCESS: Is from now after each other agreement. No time to waste for nothing.”
I’d just reported on Congolese refugees in Uganda and had given my business card to more than one person, which means that lots of people in Congo have my email address. I did think it was strange that he referred to “Partner Donor Father Robby Gordon,” since my dad’s name actually is Robby Gordon, though I usually don’t address him as Partner Donor Father.
Then Joseph called me. Twice. I told him to please stop contacting me.
The next email explained,
Is not from confusion I got the contacts and made decision to be in touch with Glenna Gordon, jus be aware I got her isssues from my Partner Donor again as his Heir Son from Father Robby Gordon when I have proposed to Him to get married with one of her daughter. And is Him who sent to me the web site of Glenna, so is from there I got those contacts of Glenna.
My dad lives in Irvine, a suburb in southern California . The next time I spoke to my dad, I asked about Joseph. And it was at this point, Partner Donor Father Robby Gordon revealed that he had not just been emailing with Joesph, they’d been speaking on the phone once or twice a week for at least two months. Joesph had found my dad’s website, where he advertises his services as a financial advisor, and had called him. They’d developed a rapport, and according to my dad, he’d mentioned that I live in Uganda and had given Joseph my email address.
I told my dad to never give any strangers my contact information. Ever. This may seem obvious to some, but my dad still wears the stonewashed jeans he purchased in 1983 on vacation in Jamaica, and hasn’t really moved ahead in time since then. I’m not sure email and stonewash have ever existed together in the same room, besides in my father’s house. The story continues...
Friday, October 17, 2008
I was excited to read a the book that set a "new standard by which all correspondents might approach other forgotten wars."
Bryan Mealer's All Things Must Fight to Live: Stories of War and Deliverance in Congo was all at once more than I expected and more of the same.
There were journalists, aid workers, diplomats, diamond dealers, assorted opportunists, and third world peacekeepers...when we arrived, there was always the same war. Many came simply to test themselves against the brutal country, and I've learned there is nothing wrong with that. What mattered was the kind of prints you left behind in the red dirt. Five centuries of those bootprints now packed the soil and snaked into the trees, so many they bled into one enormous trail that hid below the camouflage and slowly choked the land.When I first read this book about a month ago, I was enthralled with the story Mealer told. I finished the book in a couple of days, cherising chameos by colleagues whose paths crossed with Mealer's, and reading it with awe, envy and an eye towards understanding.
But get down close and you can see.
One of those trails was mine.
There are a few great books about Congo that I know of: King Leopold's Ghost and In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz at the forefront. The first here takes care of colonial eras, then next of Mobutu's reign.
Mealer picks up where they left off, but in a differnet genre. The title promises war and deliverance, but I felt there was a lot more war than deliverance. Ultimately, I think that's as much about Congo as it is about Mealer.
In the first half, he writes about his original forays in Congo, convering news in Ituri and then later in Kinshasa. In the second half, he seems tired. Tired of Congo, tired of traveling, tired of noise and bugs and heat and bad food and bad nights. The writing, which shines in the first half, falters in the second. It's tired. The book becomes less about Congo and more about Mealer in Congo.
I thought of Michela Wrong's words in an essay I linked to just a few days ago, about young male journalists writing about Africa:
You deliver a manuscript that is all about you, with Africa as a picturesque backdrop to your macho derring-do.And then I thought of a comment on my blog post about the contruction accident on Tuesday. And I thought of one of the comments:
From the tone of the post, I felt the journalism/photography took precedence over the tragedy, which to me is even sadder.I wrote, in reply:
@bsk - I fear you may be right about the tone, but I think on my side I was trying to comment on how journalism handles tragedy. As a photographer covering this kind of thing, I don't have the ability to spend time investigating the construction company practices or speak to people at length about their losses. I have to get in, get photos, get out, file photos, as quickly as humanly possible. AP hires me because they know I can accomplish this task.At some point, there has to be balance between the author and the subject. Without the author's presence, some readers who are disconnected from the subject will only be futher alienated. With too much of it, a reader who didn't purchase a memoir wants his money back.
In this post, my goal was not to make my work more important than the tragedy, but to account an experience and maybe shed some light on tragedy and the media. I'm sorry this made you even sadder than the deaths of seven people, but I really hope that's an exaggeration.
I'm not sure where the line is, but I think for the most part, Mealer does a good job tightrope walking.
Mealer stayed in Congo on and off for several years. While that's not as long as Michela Wrong, it's long enough to see fresh faces come and go, a journalist from New York who has a business card that is a metal dog tag, and violence junkies who have been to every hot spot on the planet.
It's also long enough to form a real and meaningful relationship with his translator and fixer Lionel, who he tries to convince that Fela Kuti is way better than Phil Collins, with only marginal success. It's long enough to reach remote places and transform them from dots on a map to places with details and description.
And he kept going back, even when there was more war than deliverance.
A friend who did some work in Congo (and incidentally reviewed Mealer's book) blogged recently, from New York,
In a way, I'm glad she's not there. Things aren't good. And when things are the way they are right now, stories like her piece on cattle theft or chikudus are less pressing to publish, and less possible to report since movement is heavily restricted.
I finally understand that thing I’ve read about in books, where hardened correspondents talk about the desperation they feel to return to the completely screwed places they’ve covered when things take a turn for the worse. It means something different when you know how that place looks in real life, and something gnaws at your gut, beckoning you back.But for now, I’m here. I’m here, wishing to be there. Which is something those 100,000 people would probably think the stupidest thing they’ve ever heard.
On an accident scene and in a war zone, the possibilities for the kinds of stories you can tell are restricted by concerns about safety for yourself and the people who answer your questions and the immediacy of what's happening around you.
I think Mealer is a great writer and a great journalist. And I hope he goes back to Congo - again - at a time when he can tell another kind of story.
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
WARNING: THIS POST CONTAINS GRAPHIC CONTENT.
It happened yesterday around 11:50 AM. I got a call around 12:30. I was at the site by 12:50.
I once had a journalism school teacher who said 80 percent of journalism was showing up on time with all your equipment charged and ready.
I was there as fast as humanly possible, with all my equipment charged and ready.
Another thing they told me a journalism school: If it bleeds, it leads.
Associated Press hasn't had interest in many Uganda stories, but when I spoke with the photo editor in Nairobi, he was interested in photos of a construction site accident in the middle of town that left at least seven people dead and more injured. He told me to go get images, and to be careful, be safe. (This is the AP low budget hostile environment training course.)
On the boda ride to the site, I didn't know exactly what to expect, but felt exhilarated by the rush, the work, the immediacy. I thought of the passing scenery in F-stop/aperture ratios, set the ISO and white balance in my head.
Then I arrived. The site was boarded up, people peering in through cracks in the awning. I made my way in. From the top, it was hard to tell exactly what was happening, but as I got closer, it was clear.
Many dead, more injured. The foundation of a construction site had collapsed, burying all the workers nearby in a flash. The number of dead bodies I've seen went up by a percentage somewhere in the four figure range.
At first I took general shots, wide angle views, captured the scene. But then I went in closer, as I knew I'd need to in order to get any decent shots. I have never thought about composing a photo of a dead body, but yesterday I did. There were moments I had to back up and allow myself a bit of hyperventilating, but then I continued. I let the ratios become automatic, changed the settings on my camera without thinking.
I flinched at the dead body in the police truck. His toes made me sad and scared. I flinched at the chunk of flesh missing from the back of someone's head. I flinched at someone's head flattened and egg-shaped.
I flinched again when I left and then edited my photos, which captured details I hadn't even seen: a man on a gurney with his fingers curled up, a construction worker irate as he uncovered what must have been his friend's body.
I wish it weren't true that if it bleeds it leads. But AP hasn't asked me for photos for months, and yesterday they did.
A few hours after I filed, my editor in Nairobi called me and said that one of my images was an AP Top Picture of the Day. Should I be happy about that kind of thing?
Tuesday, October 14, 2008
More Scarlett Lion photos on Demotix
Saturday, October 11, 2008
Journalism about Africa consists mainly of 600 words from Reuters, 800 from AFP, a minute of radio on BBC, or books written by wire journalists who want to do something more. There aren't a lot of the 10,000 word magazine pieces or "new journalism" stories that every J-School graduate dreams of composing. This is partially beacuse there aren't a lot of outlets for 10,000 word pieces, and those that do exist are rarely interested in Africa. And even if they are, they are usually uninterested in the costs involved in a journalist writing that kind of piece.
These are a few pieces listed here that I know of and read greedily. These pieces are in no particular order and are heavily weighted towards places and topics that interest me. But I'd love ot read more work in this vein on other places and topics if you readers would like to suggest some.
Ten Conover, Trucking Through the AIDS Belt
New Yorker, 1993
AIDS in East Africa before ARVs or Pepfar, with some interesting observations about Rwanda right before the genocide
Adam Higginbotham, The Gangster Prince of Liberia
Interesting piece on Charles Taylor's son - his Florida and Liberia escapades documented in full with more than a little cliche but still some finesse
Helen Epstein, God and the Fight against AIDS
New York Review of Books, 2005
How religion plays a large role in Uganda's HIV prevention and treatment strategies. Not all of the information currently holds true, but Epstein's ground breaking research on HIV was conducted mainly in Uganda and makes this article a good read
John Ryle, Tropical Baroque, African reality and the work of Ryszard Kapuscinski
Times Literary Supplement, 2001
Love Kapuscinki? You might still love him after you read this piece on the accuracy of his work, but you'll at least know more about what you're reading.
Andrew Rice, A Dying Breed
New York Times Magazine, 2008
Didn't think Ankole cattle were that interesting? Neither did I until I read this piece which is as much about some cows as it is about the development industry
Ron Rosenbaum, How to trick an online scammer into carving a computer out of wood
Not about Africa per say, though a good bit devoted to Nigerian scam artists and what's really happening when people engage in scam baiting
Barry Bearak, In Destitute Swaziland, Leaders Live Like Royalty
New York Times, 2008
Not a long piece, but written like a fairy tale, very fitting for the topic
Bryan Mealer, Congo's Daily Blood: Ruminations on a Failed State
Harpers Magazine, 2006
I don't have a log in to Harper's but I remember reading this piece in 2006 and thinking it was great. I also recently read Mealer's new book so stay tuned for a review
Sam Knight, Births of a Nation
Finanical Times Magazine, 2008
Again with the log in! If my memory from March of this year is correct, this is a well done piece about how Uganda's high birth rate is affecting average people now, and what it will mean in a few decades
Notice that all but one of these pieces are by men? Funny becasue I did too!! Michela Wrong, author of In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz has some interesting things to say about why this might be and why men think they can speak for a coninent when women think they can't. I love Wrong's work, and also Alexandra Fuller's work, but other than that, there aren't too many women writing long-form pieces about Africa these days.
Think I'm wrong? Send me some links! I'd love to be wrong about this.
Posted by Scarlett Lion at 10:06 AM
Tuesday, October 7, 2008
What just happened:
Someone from MTN just called me. He wanted to know if he could put my name on the media accreditation list to cover the upcoming MTN marathon for the Associated Press.
I told him I didn’t think the AP would be interested in this. Can I put your name on the list anyway? he asked. I replied, sure, if you want, but this isn’t quite international news.
It’s getting there, he assured me.
I said to call me back when it’s there.
What I think:
- AP has almost zero Africa budget right now, all monies having gone to the Chinese Olympics and now to the American elections.
- AP doesn’t care. Even if they had money for me to be out covering things this would not qualify.
- I hate MTN.
MTN, you are awful. Appfrica recently did an interview with Erik van Veen, a big shot at MTN, where he says that MTN makes very little money off of broadband internet. Hm. Interesting. Given the prices, it seems they probably make more money off of me, as a broadband internet user, than say, someone who lives in the village and has a Katorchi and spends 2k per month on airtime.
Let’s say they do make more money off of me than said village resident. Even marginally. You would then think that they would care about me as a customer and the millions of shillings I spend. Yet, when I call because there’s a problem with my internet, they say, call 122. That number is like a hotline in the USA where you’d call for tech support but has the following problems:
- It’s not toll free
- I wait on hold, spending my airtime, for at least 10 to 20 minutes every time I call in
- When I finally reach someone, he or she will usually ask me if I know how to restart my computer.
Another, unrelated, recent MTN run in:
MTN sales people are not expected to know what their products can and cannot do.
Thursday, October 2, 2008
“There’s a man here with one leg, five women, and thirty-two children,” Sarah Shambe tells me, on the day of Rosh Hashanah, as we walk away from Eid prayers to her two-room home in a suburb of Kampala, Uganda. Sarah spent the morning praying in an open field with thousands of other Ugandan Muslims. Now that the praying is done, she fills me in on the neighbours.
I didn’t know Sarah before about an hour ago, but now she’s invited me to her home. This is after prayers where small kids ate ice cream in shades of bright pink and pastel orange, and music played in the background while friends and relatives greeted each other, and everyone wore their best clothes for Eid, and people prayed in a clearing under the clouds in front of the Kampala skyline.
This is how I spend my Rosh Hashanah in Africa: observing Eid.
Back at Sarah’s house, her sister visiting from Nairobi makes a sweet called “Tambi.” She deep-fries vermicelli noodles, adds sugar, vanilla, and cardamom, and then boils the concoction. It makes me think of kugel. I drink a sticky sweet fruit soda called Mirinda. In color and taste and everything but the syrupy residue of low alcohol content, it makes me think of Manishevitz.