Thursday, January 29, 2009
Tuesday, January 27, 2009
Monday, January 26, 2009
Posted on the Walrus
At the end of last year, I traveled into the rural Wakiso district in Uganda with a team of police officers, to watch them destroy several acres of marijuana. The plants were slashed with machetes, put in three-metre high piles, and then set on fire.
In this lush rural area, plants and vines and trees form practically impenetrable walls of green. Marijuana grows easily, and sells for about ten times as much s the same quantity of a starchy staple called cassava. Police officers estimate that about three-fourths of Wakiso residents grow marijuana, and just about everybody smokes it. Though this most recent spurt of activity has destroyed a couple of hundred acres, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimate there are still tens of thousands of acres of cannabis growing in Uganda.
Police alternate between calling it “enjaga,” the name in Luganda, and opium. I point out the opium is actually a different drug made from poppies, and an officer nods, points to a towering stalk of marijuana and says, “Yes, opium.”
The officers I accompanied explained to me that the only way to reverse the ill effects of marijuana is to drink milk. And that it can purify your intentions. Or help you accomplish your goals. But can also make you kill someone. And that’s it’s best smuggled to the UK in cabbage leaves.
The Ugandan police have identified destroying “opium” as a key element in fighting crime. Uganda is a heavily policed nation, and since most police officers are former military, it’s also a heavily militarized nation. Fear and rumor replace information. And in a rural area like Wakiso, cash crops like marijuana are the only way for a peasant farmer to even hope that his kids will go to school and maybe not have to grow a marijuana to be able to afford things like mosquito nets and clean water.
As we left the site in Wakiso, the groggy officers realized they forgot to bring back any “evidence.” One of them hopped out of the truck and ran to collect a branch the size of a Christmas tree. I commented that perhaps not everything had burned, since this was still around.
“You can’t eliminate it, you can just reduce it,” said the officer, who had clearly not even tried to eliminate it in one area. He also brought back an idler – a village resident who had said the police weren’t doing anything useful. On the floor of the truck, the officer placed his machete, the huge branch of weed, and the idler, who the officer announced would be tried by a court of law for his insolence. There’s about a five-year backlog in the court system in Uganda.
Perhaps police headquarters failed to consider that they are destroying a livelihood in addition to fighting crime. Perhaps police headquarters also failed to consider that burning acres of marijuana could potentially get the rural officers very, very high.
Friday, January 23, 2009
So you want to be a lawyer? (Wronging Rights)
So you want to work in a developing country? (Chris Blattman)
So you want to start an NGO? (Blood and Milk)
So you want to be an aid worker? (Road to the Horizon)
So you want to go to Somalia? (Rob Crilly)
So you want to be a journalist? (Scarlett Lion, that's me)
Thursday, January 22, 2009
The Ducor Hotel was one of Africa's first five start hotels. It had 300 rooms, a French restaurant and swimming pool. It closed its doors in 1989 when things turned for worse yet again.
At one point it was occupied by hundreds of squatters.
When I visited last week, the only people there were a handful of sleeping Nigerian peace keepers and a few kids wandering around the outskirts.
Wednesday, January 21, 2009
Monday, January 19, 2009
Before I came here, most people I told I was coming to Liberia referenced the Michael Jackson song, or asked me what I'd be doing in Libya.
Turns out, the song is partially in Swahili, which is not spoken in Liberia, and that I have no intention of going to Libya.
Anyway, these lovey girls were sitting around doing each other's hair on the corner near where I'm staying. I hung out with them for a bit and took some photos.
Updated Feb 1 for J., A., S., and V. and for the general sake of clarity.
I’m staying in an apartment in an area called Mamba Point in Monrovia. I’d read about this neighborhood of Monrovia before, and I had expected something akin to Kampala’s Kololo as it’s usually described as the “expat neighborhood.” Kololo is all mature gardens, wide roads, beautiful old houses I couldn’t afford.
Mamba Point is nothing like Kololo. The apartment I’m staying at is fine-o. It has four bedrooms and it has
four five bathrooms though only two of the bathrooms have lights one of the bathrooms had a nonfunctional light, which I hear is now functional. Right now there are six people staying here. There’s a big hallway with a moldy less than shower fresh couch of indeterminate age and several surfboards.
There’s electricity every day from 7 am until 9 am, and then again from 6 pm until 2 am. Rent goes up exponentially with the number of hours your place has current. This place is on the cheaper side.
When I stand on the concrete balcony, I look down directly on a neighborhood of Liberians living in one-room homes with tin roofs. Most of the roofs are held down by rocks placed around the edges. Laundry hangs to dry, children play, women cook, men sit.
Kololo is isolated from the lives of average Ugandans. Mamba Point is not. While there’s much more security here than in other neighborhoods since we’re just down the street from the US Embassy and UNDP, the place we’re staying is far from a sprawling Kololo home with a view.
Describing it as a concrete bunker would be reductive. It’s kind of like if none of the Bugolobi flats had ever been fixed up and if Namuwongo was interspersed among the blocks. But it has character, things left behind by past residents. There’s a tongue in cheek portrait of Ma Ellen and paintings of several past residents as Margaret Thatcher. There are DVDs of the Family Guy, Broken Flowers, and other shows and movies. In the bookcases, I found an old copy of Q and A, the book upon which the current hit movie Slumdog Millionaire was based, and a copy of Class Struggle in Africa, first edition, priced at $1.25, by Ghanaian intellectual Kwame Nkrumah, with a laundry receipt from August 2006 as a page marker. There are blister packs of over the counter medications and bottles of hair gel, bug spray and sunscreen.
I wonder about the differences between the two neighborhoods. Urban layout clearly accounts for parts of the difference, but it makes me wonder what Monrovia looked like in its heyday. Was Kololo always nice or did the 70s and 80s treat it as badly as other parts of Uganda? And if so, is that what Mamba Point will look like it fifteen years?
Saturday, January 17, 2009
Part of getting to know a new place is seeing lots of things that don't make a lot of sense. A brief selection of things I don't get, in no particular order:
- In a vacant lot, a boy, probably about ten years old, sat authoritatively on a the wall that ran the length of one side of the compound. In front of him were about five rows of younger boys, sitting cross legged, attentive, watching and listening to this other boy only slightly older than them.
- When you get a beer here, they put a napkin, or if a napkin is not available then a tissue, on top of the cap. It's opened in front of you, with the napkin on the cap. So far, it just seems like this results is soggy tissue all over the neck of the beer bottle. It seems that people use this soggy tissue to wipe off the top of the newly opened bottle, but I am not convinced of the effectiveness of any part of this method in making your drink less likely to contain things it shouldn't.
- The supermarket here has more American products than I could imagine in Africa. For example, Oreo Cookies, Crystal Light, Smuckers Jam, etc. All the preservatives and processed food I never wanted!
I get a lot of emails asking for advice on getting started as a journalist in Africa and how I got where I am now.
Thanks to a ten hour flight from JFK to Accra, I finally wrote it all out. In this document, you'll find information about how I got where I am now, and bits on interning, wire work, freelancing, blogging, and other random ideas: on being ten feet tall and other thoughts about starting out as a journalist in Africa
Monday, January 12, 2009
In about twenty-four hours, a car will pick me up from 106th and Columbus in New York City, and whisk my partner and me to the airport. Ten hours after we depart from JFK, we'll emerge in Accra, Ghana. We'll wait there for a few hours and then hop a Kenya Airways flight to Robertson Airfield, just an hour's drive from Monrovia, Liberia.
I estimate that travel time from door to door will be about twenty-four hours, which means in forty-eight hours from this moment right now, I will be in Liberia. Given that door-to-door from California to East Africa, a trip I've made about half a dozen times, is at least thirty-six hours if not forty-eight, I think I'm getting off easy.
A driver named Sando will pick us up at the airport. I've heard Sando's name from about four different people who have given me information and contacts in Liberia. I feel like I already know him.
When we arrive in Monrovia, Sando will take us to stay at John's house, whose colleague I met at a conference in Uganda this summer. On Thursday evening, my partner and I already have dinner plans with a friend who lived in Uganda about a year ago, then working for Global Youth Partnership for Africa, now working for Liberia's Ministry of Gender.
The first time I flew to Africa, I went to Kigali. The trip took about forty-eight hours. I went to visit my brother Grant, who was then working with the Rwandan Ministry of Health. Grant just started blogging at Mo'dernity, Mo'problems, and he's already got some great posts up - African music, goats, and why Somali rappers are way more hard core than anyone from the Bronx.
I'm excited because with the exception of a brief rafting on the Nile trip, Grant and I haven't been in the same place in Africa since my first visit. But starting next week he'll be doing an evaluation in upcountry Liberia, and I'll be able to meet him at the airport this time around.
So basically, I'll fly thousands of miles for tens of hours to see old friends and friends of friends and my brother, who should be grateful that I'm really resisting the urge to post funny pictures of him as child with big ears, and him as adult with big ears.
I feel so incredibly lucky to travel with my partner, have friends in far flung corners of the continent, and a relative who will arrive days later. It makes leaving a little less hard. It's still hard - I'll miss the convenience of the subway, friends on speed dial, fast internet, and plentiful cheese. I won't miss the cold weather or cold people.
I'm itching to work again, and ready to use my brand spakin' new 50 mm camera lens, and start making content and exploring, learning, and understanding.
As sad as it is to leave, I'm ready. Jet plane, here I come.
Here's hoping for a jet plane with more leg room and luggage room than this one. Image from Sudan-Congo border, April 2008.
Friday, January 9, 2009
Here are links to some photos and projects that keep me thinking and looking:
Andrea Bruce photographs a seven-year-old Kurdish girl's circumcision. A truly disturbing and graphic set of photos that, in my opinion, is an answer to questions of cultural relativity.
A casual yet consistent photo blog of daily life in Tehran, by a former LA resident who takes photos with a phone - Life Goes On in Tehran.
South African photographer Pieter Hugo takes uncanny and surprising staged portraits of a group of Nigerian performers who travel with hyenas and baboons. The Hyena and Other Men is a set of photos that makes you stop in your tacks and wonder which leash you're holding, or who is holding yours.
Jim Chuchu is a comerical photographer based in Nairobi who has done, among other things, the Vuka campaign for the new mobile phone company Zain. His blog shows a bit about how he processes his photos and highlights other interesting things he's up to.
Internationally acclaimed Samuel Fosso lives in Central African Republic where he runs a passport photo shop and small studio, though his playful dressed up self-portraits have been shown in major museums and galleries. He's feautred in a piece called African Spirtis in a photography magazine called Foam.
Obama cakes in Kenya! (Hat tip Chirs Blattman)
New York Times is starting a series called One in Eight Million, about the kind of unique personalites that could only result from cramming just that many people into just that small of a space. (I especially liked the Wedding Wardrober piece.)
A new magazine called PopAfricana has the tagline "The African Book of Global Style." The cool publication lives up to the tagline, and the editor blogs and looks great even in bad light.
Thursday, January 8, 2009
Buried in the business briefs of the New York Times is an announcement of a joint operation between Kenya and Uganda to rebuild the railroad that goes from the port in Mombasa to Kampala.
While this doesn't seem like big news, it's actually huge. It's more expensive to ship a ton of wheat from Mombasa to Kampala than to ship it from Chicago to Mombasa. That means that everything in Uganda which is not produced locally, ie, everything but tomatoes, matooke, and Nice Pens, has to come from somewhere else. Since the country is landlocked and the roads are notoriously awful, this could be a huge boom in the economy. Cheaper imports can help the market grow, and a railroad could also mean cheaper exports to sell on an East African and international market.
The train tracks in Kampala, near the Mukwano roundabout, are now more of a market and thoroughfare than trade route. More of my pictures from this side of the tracks (or rather, on the tracks) are on the freshly re-designed site Demotix.
I often think that's more written about gorillas in Congo, Rwanda and Uganda than about people. Gorillas in Their Midst is a great story because it's about gorillas, which people love, but not just about gorillas. But people will read it because they love gorillas.
The story looks into how gorilla conservation and gorilla tourism affects people living near and among the gorillas. Journalist Alex Halperin, a friend of mine, spends time with both gorilla conservationists and the local population around Virunga National Park to get both sides of the story.
This observation gets to the heart of what bothers me about the gorilla thing:
The Shingiro clinic doesn’t have a doctor for the 30,000 people in its coverage area. By comparison, a team of veterinarians attended the sick gorilla.Another good point, not really related to gorillas but more relevant to development:
Micro-entrepreneurship programs have proliferated around Africa, but the most ambitious examples, the ones trying to reach developed-world consumers, struggle with distribution. A group might teach widowed AIDS patients to stitch attractive, durable handbags, but where can they be sold? Tourist areas are already saturated with gift stalls. Big retailers such as Wal-Mart can’t be bothered to import the 500 (or 5,000) necklaces a collective might bead in a month. Selling through online auction giant eBay requires regular mail service and a decent Internet connection, neither of which are available in northern Rwanda. Even if there were vast unmet demand for African souvenirs, it would be cheaper to make them in China. Indeed, much of the “traditional” cloth found in Africa already comes from China.Alex doesn't necessarily take sides in the gorilla versus local debate, because that's not what the article is really about, but about the economic interaction between the two groups.
This kind of perspective is key to conservation, tourism and development.
To me, blogging about working as a journalist in Africa is often as important (if less lucrative) than working as a journalist in Africa (which is also not lucrative). My blog is an outlet for the stories that don't work in the mainstream media, photos that don't make the wire, and thoughts about daily life that otherwise wouldn't see the light of day.
Based on how many other Africa journalists also blog, I'm guessing I'm not alone in this.
I'd like to make a sort of ongoing list of foreign correspondents in Africa who blog. Feel free to add to the list in the comments section and eventually I'll put out a revised full list, complete with your suggestions.
In no particular order, they are:
In Nairobi, Nick Wadhams
In Kigali, Jina Moore
In Khartoum, Andrew Heavens
Also in Nairobi, Derek Kilner
All over the place, David Axe
In Zambia, Aaron Leaf
In Nigeria, Wil Conors
All over the place, G. Paschal Zachary
In Nairobi, and elsewhere, Shashank Bengali
In Nairobi and elsewhere, photojournalist Micah Albert
In Nairobi and elsewhere, Rob Crilly
In Nairobi and elsewhere, Steve Bloomfield
In Monrovia, Myles Estey
In Abidjan, Pauline
In Congo and elsewhere, photojournalist TJ Kirkpatrick
In Nairobi and elsewhere, photojournalist J Carrier
In Cairo, photojournalist and editor Ben Curtis
In Congo and elsewhere, unnamed author of African Heros
Formerly all over Africa and still writing about Africa, Alex Belida
Formerly in Kampala, now in Mexico City, Alexis Okeowo
Monday, January 5, 2009
The New Yorker almost never has articles about Africa. I may have purchased last week's issue at the newsstand to read Ariel Levy on Sex and How to Have It, but it was Lives of the Saints that held my attention.
The article is a dispassionate but engaging account of just why it's so hard to help people on the arid border of Sudan and Chad. And not just why it's hard to help refugees, but why it's hard living for those trying to help them.
A lot of accounts of this type could get caught up in whether or not the world is responding to what's happening in a moral way, or whether or not the UN is wasting money, or other such polemical questions. This article doesn't bother trying to have a final word on these issues - the author seems to recognize the futility of trying to have that kind of final word.
Instead, it focuses on the day to day technical difficulties of getting supplies from one place to another and giving them to the people who need them and not the people who want to steal them. It's a series of mini-portraits of the people who have chosen this as their job.
Here's one that stuck with me:
Over a meal of fried plantains and bony fish from the Chari River, she told me that, among the variety of aid workers, two broad categories stood out: the runners and the seekers. The runners were fleeing their past lives; the seekers were looking for adventure or enlightenment. She was a runner, she said, but offered no details.
She went on to say that she had reached a point in her life where she must make a choice. She was thirty-three, young enough to return to her country and try to establish a life with marriage, children, and a home. Or she could continue on as she was, with reassignments every few years and little chance for marriage and children. “Look around,” she said, “and you’ll see that this business is full of women thirty-five to forty-five who are strong, competent, good at what they do, and single.” She had never had a long-term relationship. She must make a choice, she said. It seemed to me that she already had.
Few articles give such straightforward insight not just into the lives of aid workers, but into how aid work is being done. A must read for anyone - aid worker, journalist, missionary, whatever - interested in Africa.
I also loved the photo that the print issue used. There's a slide show online, and then more photos on Christoph Bangert's website. His photos are amazing and thoughtful. They show small incidents, sweeping landscapes, all with eerie lighting and intentional jarring moments.
The article's author never decisively names these aid workers as saints in the context of the story, though with a title like that his opinion is a foregone conclusion. I'm not so sure. I think some of the polemical questions he doesn't tackle complicate sainthood.
For another eight days, I'm in the land of fast internet, macaroni and cheese, and friends and family. By the time I leave for Liberia on January 13, I'll have been home for about six weeks - the longest amount of time I've spent in the USA since I left for Africa in July of 2006.
I'll announce a new blog address circa arrival in Liberia. Until then, stay tuned here for short outtakes on other interesting things I'm reading, since the only thing I'm doing these days is hanging out and FTP-ing. Fun!
Have you written/read/seen anything Africa related you'd like me to highlight on this blog? Leave me a link and some info in the comments.
Posted by Scarlett Lion at 8:22 PM
Friday, January 2, 2009
- My favorite from 2008. From a good friend's introduction ceremony in south-west Uganda. Traditional weddings are busy events, but this quiet moment made me think of the bride looking through the window to her future.
- I posted Perspective in late November - a series of before and after photos, sort of. I enjoyed compiling it because the final photo often necessarily excludes a whole lot of context.
- Little Girls in Pretty Dresses combines photos of just that with conjectures on where these second-hand lovelies came from, and where they've ended up.
- This lady in Gulu is so happy.
Story Behind the Story
- After I visited the Congo border, I complied 20 questions, and ultimately, questioned the way we do news.
- My first ever AP Photo of the Day came from a construction accident photo of a dead body. Yuck.
- After I took photos in the Kireka Quarry, Stephen became a Ugandan orphan with a web presence.
My Two Shillings
- African Woman magazine publishes Fistula to Fab! and I question this.
- Celebrity photographers hit up the Kivus instead of the Hamptons, and I question this, and then someone questions me.
- Why a mzungu and a matatu make me think about development tourism.
Funny things that are so funny they don't seem true, but really, they are
- New Vision publishes about the failure to get the goat.
- My father is involved in my engagement to a Congolese man who I have never met.
- Are you looking for lion sex? And you are looking here? Really?