Archive for the ‘ENEMIES’ Category
Ten photos for the whole year? What was I thinking?? This is the second of two posts about 2011. The first part that covers Jan-June is here: “What was I thinking?”. If you just want to see the pics, scroll down. But here’s what I think about them…
My work is in transformation, and what you see on this post is a part of that change. I saw this trip to Africa as a trip to gather raw material in the form of images for new work that I will be producing both as part of the ENEMIES Project and beyond. Some of what you see below are the paints for new works not yet made, some of it is documentary images I did for other people and for myself, some are just snapshots that show what I saw and what moved me. So many artists conceal their process and only show finished images and pieces. The whole point of my blog is for you to see what I go through, how I think, how I edit, how I see the world. This post is a lot of just the raw cut of my view when I was traveling in Africa. I like to expose my process, the way I see the world and this is what my blog is for. This isn’t a supposed to be full view of where my work is going, but it will show you a part of the process. I think there is a risk in this, because the art world is so heavily based on image. For me, I see my life as something of an evolving artwork so this seems appropriate. I’ll continue to put up more of the process throughout the year, and you’ll see it if you keep watching this blog.
Yesterday I came up with dozens of photos from just the past six months that I love. The problem is that I love different images for different reasons – some I simply love because of the image itself. Some I love because of the story behind the image. It always fascinates me how all of us connect to different pieces of art for different reasons, and I like to examine that process in myself. One of the hardest things in photography or any art form is to step beyond your the emotions that are wrapped around your own work. Of course you have to have the emotional relationship with the work in order to produce work that connects with other people.
Art is about expression – at least for me it is. It is about trying to understand the world, myself and my place in the world and expressing all of that in a way that communicates what I feel to others. But I also think there is a fine balance that an artist has to walk here, because we have to express our view while at the same time being able to understand whether the work is conveying that expression on its own. You must absolutely have your own vision and the ability to stick to your own vision in the face of being pummeled by the expectations of others. But I’ve seen tons of art that fails because it is too personal in a way that makes it impossible for other people to connect with. It’s a very fine line, and I think that’s the real skill of being successful as an artist. Perhaps the real issue here is building your inner self in a way that is intellectually and emotionally connected to the rest of the world enough so that when you create your own vision it becomes something that other people relate to or can learn to relate to. You may not think that this type of issue extends to editing and choosing photographs, but it does, and for me it is relevant as I move forward with my work and beyond the simple photograph.
Enough babbling. Here are the pics – some are raw, some are sketches, some snapshot. This is what I saw – or at least a portion of it.
My favorite… toughie, but it may be this one. I saw this girl flying her kite while I was traveling in the Rwandan countryside. It was just one of those beautifully magical, unreproducible little moments.
After that I decided to pick one or two for each project – that made it a bit easier.
This was the reason I went to Africa. If you don’t already know, this year I started a project to photograph people from opposing sides of violent conflicts around the world. You can read more about it on the ENEMIES Project website, and if you are inclined please consider backing this project on Kickstarter or help me spread the word about the Kickstarter with your friends. Here is the video I made about ENEMIES for Kickstarter. If you don’t see it below, you can see the video on the ENEMIES Project on Kickstarter. For those of you who don’t know, Kickstarter is a way to raise funds for arts projects. You can become a project backer, and you get rewards for different levels of backing – prints, calendars, books from the project. You back a project with a credit card that is processed through Amazon.com, and your credit card is only charged if the fundraising goal is met.
I went to East Africa so that I could travel to South Sudan, the newest country in the world that is recently out of a grueling forty years of civil war. I also photographed people from conflicts in Kenya and Rwanda. You can find blog entries about them here or just go to the ENEMIES Project website and click on the blog link. Picking one of all the photos I took for this project is really tough – really tough. I like a lot of them, and the stories are intense and many of them inspiring. But here is one. You can see more on the ENEMIES Project website.
I photographed this couple in the village of Wanjyok, South Sudan. The man is Dinka originally from the south. The woman is Mysseria, from the north. South Sudan has been in a bloody and repressive conflict with the northern part of Sudan for four decades. Mixed couples in which the man is South Sudanese are rare for reasons that are too complex too explain in this short paragraph. This is one of those many examples of two people who fell in love rising above ethnic barriers that have been hardened by generations of painful memories.
While I was in Kenya I did some photographic work for the Grevy’s Zebra Trust, a small non-profit that works to conserve the endangered Grevy’s Zebra.
I met so many amazing people in Samburu, the northern Kenya province where I was photographing Grevy’s Zebra. I also took the opportunity to photograph the Samburu and Turkana people for ENEMIES. This man was the brother of one of the guards of the Mebae Conservancy – a community owned ranch where the idea is to manage it for ecological sustainability.
The Samburu people were so incredibly photogenic.
I did relatively little nature photography this year, but I did a few that I made a set of prints from and these gave me an idea for another set of works. Here are two that I liked a lot…
The Human Dominated World
Traveling in Africa made me more aware of something that I’ve been thinking for a while now. The earth has transformed from being a world dominated by wilderness with patches of people to a world dominated by people with only patches of untouched wilderness. I thought about this a lot this year, because in Africa there is still wilderness, but it is generally heavily managed and protected. Africa is truly a human-dominated landscape – much more so than I had imagined, and I wanted to create a set of works that talked about the disparity between what tourists see in Africa and the majority of the landscape. Here are two of those works.
The Charcoal Seller – this man lives in the Kibera slums of Nairobi, a few miles from the David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage and Nairobi National Park, regular destinations for tourists. He has never seen an elephant and probably never will. He is holding a photograph of an elephant orphan from the elephant orphanage .
These Masai school children live in an area where there are extremely severe conflicts with elephants. Elephants regularly kill and injure people and steal their grain here. Children frequently don’t start school until they are much older, because it is dangerous for them to walk to school. I photographed the elephant in the print they are holding in the Masa Mara National Reserve, which is about 40 kilometers away.
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Masai – Elephant conflict
One other project I did in Kenya was photographing and documenting the conflict between the Masai people and elephants outside of the Masai Mara National Reserve. This was a pretty intense story to see. I wrote a lot about it in my blog, which you can see here, here and here. There are a lot of cool photographs from there, including the one above.
This is a drugged elephant inside a transport truck, about to be moved out of a heavily populated area near the Masai Mara National Reserve.
Masai children looking out a hole in the wall of their house made by an elephant the night before. The elephant rammed a hole through the wall in their bedroom, two feet from the bed in the middle of the night searching for grain.
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I loved this time-lapse I did in northern Kenya. The singing in the background are Samburu elders from a wedding ceremony I was invited to attend in a Samburu village. If you don’t see the video below you can see it here on youtube.
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I love this picture of Ben Ochieng. Ben lives in the Mathare slums of Nairobi. He lost his business in the 2008 post-election riots. Since then he has started a crafts making cooperative, a school and a youth group to keep kids out of trouble. Very cool. You can see some dancing by members of his youth group in my post about the artists in the slums. I am helping them build a small business to take tourists into the slums and see the vibrant arts culture there. It is called Kenya Street Slam – here is the website I built for them: KenyaStreetSlam.com.
Another favorite photo – one of the acrobats from Dandora slums doing the impossible. Also on KenyaStreetSlam.com.
Loved this. I was taking a picture of this newly born goat in a village in northern Kenya when this kid stuck his head in to look at my camera.
Lastly, this is one of my favorite pics of the year. After I got back to the US I took a trip to NY City, and I saw this abandoned rose in the middle of the subway tracks on my way home at 3:00 am. I took this photo with my ipod. It was dark, the photo is grainy. I love it. It’s a story waiting to be told.
My favorite picture of me. Got loads of good pictures of me on this trip to Africa. I quickly found out that doing a self-portrait with someone was a great way to break the ice. Especially with children. But, this isn’t a self portrait. It is a picture of me with a group of Samburu Moran (young men warriors). They all carry guns in this area because here their tribe borders with the Turkana tribe who they have been in conflict with for generations.
Ok, ok stop already… that was more than ten photos. So shoot me :)
But I’ll leave off with this one hilarious image. This is the son of a Masai friend wearing my sunglasses. His last name is “Kool” – so totally appropriate :)
And speaking of children… go look at the photo on this blog post – “Hand in the slums”. I love that one too. I think I love a few too many of these photos. :)
Here is a quick look back on a few of my favorite images, thoughts and experiences from 2011. This is part 1 from before I went to Africa. I wasn’t doing much photography in the spring, and this post doesn’t include the many, many personal experiences with friends and family that were totally seminal to my work and my life. That would make it a much, much longer post. I have a vast and almost inexpressible gratitude for the support of my community of friends and my family.
This has been a bit of a crazy year, and it looking back over my images I realized how transformative it was for me. You’ll see the transformation from here to the end of the year, so here we go, starting in January…
I write poetry. I started several years back as a way to understand things in my life that needed words. I usually only share my poetry with a few close friends, but I’m going to include some in this post that are relevant to this year. My poetry is pretty romantic and tends to be filled with night imagery. I love the night. Bear with me or skip past them, but they do say something about this last year. In December my friend and fellow poet Paul had requested a poem about the eclipse that was happening on the winter solstice. I didn’t finish it until the first of the year. When I wrote it I didn’t realize that it would foreshadow the coming year a bit, since I would find myself seeing some of the vast range of the human condition as I started out on the ENEMIES Project. Here it is…
Minute by minute, under the gaze of the waning moon, the dark burn of winter has turned and is falling away. Last year the night sky was shattered, and now the solstice moon is hiding, eclipsing in silence behind a thick ceiling of gently-lit clouds. In the distance a siren is wailing, but I hear only the dropping of minutes into an empty bowl. And now even that has stopped as the earth swings on her pendulum back toward another season of seasons and I hold on to keep from falling away into space where the broken pieces of older nights drift out beyond the pull of gravity. I see you moon, behind the clouds, I see you. I know you have hidden behind the earth this night for a moment of reprieve from the glaring gaze of the sun. The siren has faded, and the long night, once split and broken, is whole again. I know you are here even though you are shy and hiding. Somewhere tonight lovers are laying under you, and other poets, better than I, are writing words about you. Somewhere tonight people are killing others under your gaze and you hide from it all eclipsing behind clouds on this longest night. Perhaps if I had to watch both the lovers and the killers, the sated and the starving, I would hide as well. You don't know that the night was broken and you don't care that I will run through your touch once more, or that sometime again I will swim naked through a sparkling sea under your silken gaze. Now that this longest night has passed and you have hidden, I will still wonder about you when I am gazing across meadows of dancing fireflies, And you will caress me again without knowing.
Midway through January I was driving back to Austin from Salt Lake City when I passed this refinery. The previous summer of 2010 I was photographing National Forest Roadless Areas that had been leased for oil, gas and coal – it was my last major work for my ROADLESS project. On the way back to Austin I photographed a few refineries that I happened to pass by. I stopped to photograph them, because of the connection to the Roadless work. The first refinery I photographed ended up in a show in California called Earth Through a Lens. I called this first image “Dante’s Refinery” – it is chilling and surreal – worth a look, but this one below was in New Mexico. I saw it from the road, and when I drove up I noticed that it had been built around this little cemetery. Also a completely surreal scene.
In a way, these refinery photographs were fitting images for the new year transition – they are refining the leftovers of old lives to power new ones, and I was just about to embark on a new project that would take my work into a totally different direction. Until last year, a great deal of my photography had been natural history. It was an amalgam of my training in the arts and my work in the sciences. But several things were changing. I needed to get back to an art that was more purely expressive, and I had become obsessed with understanding how people step back from truly dark places. So while I was driving back to Austin I was making calls and starting to strategize for the ENEMIES project. The ENEMIES project was to be that first stepping stone towards moving my art.
The last couple months of 2010 I was a visiting artist at the Archie Bray Foundation in Helena, Montana. I worked on a few projects at the Bray including photographing the resident artists and their work. This all started out by photographing my friend Kevin who was a resident artist there.
While at the Bray I also created a set of mixed media works that I called Fall of Man. These were a set of installations of ceramic torsos that I sculpted and then photographed inside an old abandoned brick factory while projecting images onto them. I did these photographs the day before I left the Bray and only finished working on them when I returned to Austin.
It was at the Bray that I decided that I really needed to pursue my desire to push my work beyond photography, incorporate more media, and allow myself more expression. In the past I’ve worked in glass, ceramics, drawing, sculpture and printing, and I wasn’t happy that my works had fossilized into one media. My time at the Bray was the start of this, and I spent hours sketching and sculpting. Towards the end of the year I became obsessed with the ideas behind the ENEMIES Project – conflict, peace, hate, forgiveness. Right away I realized that ENEMIES would have to be transitional – it would have several layers, a layer that is mostly documentary, and layers that get progressively more expressive, further from the lens, and more about my vision and experience. It seemed to me that this might also be an interesting way to present art anyway – so that the pieces also show the process. The photographs would be raw material – paint that I would go out and gather.
So back to 2011, as I was driving through New Mexico on my way back to Austin I got a call from the President of the US Institute of Peace. I had sent him an email message at the very beginning of the year. He was calling because he liked the idea of ENEMIES and encouraged me to seek collaborations with the Institute. Just after that call I got to Chaco Canyon. This felt like a major life step, so I climbed the cliffs above the ancient dwellings there and made this balance. It was a small one, but it was my first balance of the year ( more balances here if you’re curious). Balances are a meditation for me and with this balance it felt like I was somehow making a connection with the past before I stepped off into the future. This was the day that really felt like my new years day.
Back in Austin I spent most of my time trying to organize logistics for ENEMIES – figuring out how I could make it work and where I should go first. This meant an immense amount of time on the phone and the computer, and very little time taking photographs or creating art. Logistics take ages.
In the spring I started hanging out with some very fun new friends including Jean Krejca, a well-known caver. Jean took a few of us up in these hilarious little machines called “powered parachutes” (I’d call them flying mopeds). Too fun. This is still one of my favorite images from the year. It made me want to start hang-gliding again.
Throughout this time I was on the phone a lot trying to do logistics for my trip to Africa. I had decided that I would start ENEMIES in East Africa, because I had been invited to go to South Sudan with the US Institute of Peace. At that time South Sudan wasn’t even a country yet – it would become one on July 9. It seemed totally appropriate to start ENEMIES in the newest country in the world. A country that had endured forty years of civil war.
Just before I left for Africa I finished a music video project that I had shot at the end of 2010 in Helena, Montana for my friend Ryan Rebo. This video was shown in the Holter Art Museum in Helena, Montana this summer. Here it is below. Click on the little symbol in the bottom right corner to make it larger or go and see it here on youtube. It’s called the Lonely Scientist.
This is a bit of a snapshot picture, but I love it. Barton Springs is one of the things that has kept me in Austin. I spent a lot of the spring and early summer there. I often went there at the end of the day and sat by the pool as the sun set. It is a place of community and healing for me. This photograph was from the night before I left for Africa to start the ENEMIES project. I met there with a few of my closest friends to say goodbye.
That day a friend from my community at the springs gave me an idea and a piece of string, which I soaked in the pool right where you see this picture, cut in half and tied half to my ankle and half to one of the trees next to the pool. This was my connection to home when I left for the ENEMIES project in Africa.
Next stop, Africa…
Warawar – an ominous name for a town in a country that is coming out of decades of civil war and genocide. Add to that the fact that Warawar also happens to sit near the border of South and north Sudan, and you could be excused for thinking this little town might not be the safest place to travel in the newest country in the world. These thoughts and more were bouncing along in my head as we rattled out the road to Warawar from Aweil, a long red scar that runs through an otherwise green landscape dotted with small clearings, mud huts and large spreading fig and mango trees. Though filled with massive potholes, the road was better than I expected. We passed occasional vehicles and once stopped to take pictures of a bus that had overturned in a massive water-filled ditch by the side of the road. Manal, our Sudanese colleague and soon to be American citizen wanted her picture taken with the overturned bus. We also passed a steady stream of people walking for miles between the nearest towns – women carrying vast burdens on their heads, young children herding cattle and scores of men on bicycles. Now that I think about it, I never saw a single woman on a bicycle and I wonder why that was. Nearly everyone here walks, even the police. In nearby Wanjoyk we asked the police what they do about cattle theft incidents near the border, and we were told that they only have one vehicle. Otherwise they have to walk three days or bike one day to the border. After rains the road is a red, gooey mess.
Warawar is a market town. Dirt roads lined with stalls spread out like ribs from the raised red road that runs through town, and we drove by brightly colored goods spread out onto tarps, open buckets of grain and racks of clothes. After a quick lunch of fresh pita bread, grilled goat in sauce, a dal-like lentil dish and beans (see last post) we met our hosts on the far edge of town going towards the border at the Warawar Peace Center, recently built with aid from USAID. I traveled to S. Sudan with a delegation from the US Institute of Peace led by Jacki Wilson that had come to talk about the implementation of a peace settlement they had helped negotiate between the Dinka communities of the south and the Misseriya communities of the north. Before we arrived, Jacki’s local partner had gathered together members of the Warawar peace committee who came from both sides of the border to spend two days giving Jacki and her colleagues their stories about the history and reasons behind the conflicts in the region, and as they settled into their talks a man who worked for the city administrator offered to take me around to meet and photograph the traders in town. Warawar was filled with police, and I was told without hesitation that I should not raise a camera around the police, so unfortunately I didn’t get any pictures of the streets of Warawar.
But, you may ask, why did I care about photographing the traders in Warawar? Years ago when Sudan was still embroiled in civil war the government in the north had locked down the roads to the south. Nobody was allowed in or out, and gangs of Misseriya militia regularly attacked anyone on the road who tried to travel back and forth between the north and south. The Misseriya and Dinka have centuries of conflict and mistrust behind them, but they also have relied on each other for trade, and the blockades were hurting Misseriya traders as much as they were the Dinka people of the south. Eventually a group of traders from the north braved the militia and crossed the border to set up a market in Warawar, and they called it the “Peace Market”. This was the seed of today’s peace efforts in the area, peace efforts that grew from the ground up rather than being imposed from the government.
Today the Warawar market is filled with both Misseriya and Dinka stalls, and a number of shops are run jointly by Misseriya-Dinka partners. These three men are just one example. They have been working together for several years now. The two men on the left were the first partners – the Misseriya partner makes trips north to buy goods while the Dinka partner stays to mind the shop. This is a typical pattern This market is a living story of people who have overcome extremely serious grievances that stretch from the forgotten past into recent months. The conflict here has foundations in ethnic, racial and religious differences as well as land ownership, economics and even national politics. It is a conflict that has been filled with horrors that include ethnic cleansing, abduction and property theft. These are not easy to move beyond, and yet these people are trying to put the conflict aside to make their lives work. Are they friends? Ignore the lack of smiles, smiling for a camera is not part of the culture here. Many of them clearly are friends.
On my second day in Warawar I walked around the shops myself. The atmosphere was so completely different than Kenya. Almost every shop that I stopped in the people would smile and seemed happy for me to take their picture (and generally totally entertained to see the pictures afterward). One group of five merchants insisted that I sit down for tea. They were overwhelmingly friendly even though we had absolutely no shared language. They were three Misseriya and two Dinka, and they ran a clothing store. Right now these guys and all the merchants I talked with are suffering because of the actions of N. Sudan. North Sudan recently blocked the road and isn’t allowing any merchants through again. So instead of making trips by car they have to take motorbikes and travel at night often on small trails through the bush. If they are caught they can be jailed, but this is their only way to make a living.
The other problem is currency. After South Sudan created its own currency, north Sudan said that it would only take the old Sudanese currency for a grace period of a few days. That happened while I was there. Several of the merchants were trying to figure out what they could do with the cash they had in the old currency. By the time I’m writing this it might be useless already.
At the end of the day I met the group from USIP at the Warawar Peace Center and after a few photographs and much hand-shaking we climbed back into our Land Rover and headed out of town. I felt good. I’d had tea with three different people in Warawar and had spent a half hour chatting with a man who spoke english under a fig trea. I was leaving with a good feeling for the future of South Sudan.
As we drove out of town, a kid I didn’t see shouted at our car. Jacki turned to me. ”Did you here that?” She asked.
I had. He had shouted ”I want to kill you!”
We agreed that it was probably just something that he heard in a pirated American movie. Still, it left a funny taste in my mouth. As we bumped back along the road toward Wanjyok I thought back on the five men I shared tea with. They had tried hard to give me a second cup of tea. I focused on their smiles and laughs as we looked at the photographs I had taken of them.
Parting shots… a handful of currency that was going to be obsolete in three days; an ancient english reader that a young Dinka boy showed me – I sat and read with him while drinking sweet tea.
Cows are everything in South Sudan. At least if you want to get married they are. Here, as in much of Africa, men pay a dowry to their future wife’s family in livestock, and in S. Sudan this means cows. The thing that makes this part of the continent a bit different is that the people here don’t use their cows for anything else. They don’t milk them and they don’t eat them. They do eat beef, but the type of cows people raise here are not considered very good to eat. So here cows are simply currency, a sort of bovine bank account that has to be herded around the countryside until you, your son or a male relative needs to get married.
I’ve talked to dozens of people about dowry. Even men living in Nairobi, Kenya, one of Africa’s most modern cities, pay dowry. One local television actor who I met told me about the negotiations he had with his wife’s family and how many goats and cattle he had to buy to pay the dowry. One morning I was walked around Wanjyok by a young Dinka man named Justin, and at the end of our he took me to the market to sit and have tea. As we drank our mouth-puckeringly sweet tea I asked him about his life and if he planned to marry soon. Justin was fairly well educated having the equivalent of a secondary school degree and a moderately good command of english. He told me that he needed twenty cows to marry and that he would probably get them from the dowry his two sisters had received when they married. When I told Justin that we don’t pay dowry in the U.S. he simply could not understand. “Why would a father give his daughter away if he doesn’t get anything?” he asked. I tried to explain that women’s lives were independent, and he seemed to grasp the point I was trying to make.
Cows are also the reason for many of the conflicts in the border areas where I traveled with the US Institute of Peace. This photograph is of the two heads of the Warawar Peace Committee (one Dinka and one Misseriya), which was formed to deal with conflicts in the border area around Warawar, a trading town near the border of north and South Sudan. Warawar has a really interesting history in peace-building that I’ll write about next time, but the main issues that came up in the peace conference on this trip were related to cattle theft between the Dinka of the south and the Misseriya from the north. Cattle aren’t the only conflict, but they are central. The Misseriya are nomadic, and for centuries they have been moving their cattle down from the more arid north to graze in the south during the dry season. Their need to find better pasture for their cattle has also become increasingly severe with an increase in desertification that is likely related to climate change. There is a sensitive and difficult history between these communities including abductions, cattle raids, and violence during the war. It is a complex problem. On a visit to the governor before going to Warawar, the governor talked about his efforts to return a large herd of cattle that had recently been stolen from Misseriya herdsman.
Before I go on, here is a big callout to Jacki Wilson of the US Institute of Peace who started this grazing corridor peace building initiative. I had heard her stories, and it was wonderful to see her work in real life. So during the talks on this trip, Jacki asked how they go about finding and returning stolen cows. This is a huge area and there are cows everywhere. We were told that the Dinka cows are all black and white while the Misseriya cows are red. Okay, fine – so we started paying attention to the cows we saw from the road when we were driving, and we thought “hmmmm…”. Take a look at the herd of cows in this picture to the right being herded by a Dinka boy.
Cows, cows, cows, cows…
It was interesting talking with the Samburu about cows also. The Samburu and Turkana will basically never sell their cows. They have a massive traditional biases against the idea of selling cows, even in a drought when they know their cattle will likely die. One Samburu man who worked for the Grevy’s trust told me a story about his own cows. He had decided to sell most of his cows when this recent drought began several years back. His family nearly disowned him – they could not understand at all why he would want to sell them, because you never, ever do that. He sold them and made a fairly decent amount of money for them. Six months later his family’s cows were all dying, and by then the price of cows had plummeted to less than half what it had been before.
Parting image… Lunch in Warawar
I love the airport in Aweil, South Sudan. A thatched grass hut, with a giant hanging fish scale to weigh the luggage. Wouldn’t it be great if our airports could be so simple?
South Sudan was nothing at all like I imagined. Maybe because of it’s proximity to the arid north Kenya, I had imagined South Sudan as infinite stretch of arid semi-desert. So as the airplane was descending towards Aweil, the third largest city in S. Sudan, I was surprised to see a sea of lush green surrounding the airport. Hundreds of acres of flat and flooded land that sparkled like the new green of freshly planted rice paddies. But after leaving the luxurious Aweil airport waiting area, we stopped by the local Ministry of Agriculture on our way to the hotel, where we found out that none of the land we had flown over is cultivated. In fact, very little land in South Sudan is cultivated. Now that South Sudan has gained independence after decades of civil war, the people of South Sudan are coming back from the north or other places in the region where they had been hiding. But they have largely forgotten how to do agriculture. The UN Food Programe is predicting a serious potential for famine in this newest nation for the next year. So the sparkling green of these vast fields seem like a cruel irony.
I went to South Sudan with a peace-building mission from the US Institute of Peace (USIP) to get images for my ENEMIES project. The USIP group, led by Jacki Wilson, was there to follow up on a peace-building project in a grazing corridor on the border of South and North Sudan east of the contested Abyei region. Jacki has been trying to help negotiate a peace settlement here for nearly five years.
In this part of South Sudan / Sudan, the main conflict is between the Dinka people who are black Africans related to the Luo tribe of Kenya and the Misseriya, who are Arabic Africans more closely related to tribes further north. The Dinka and Misseriya have been in conflict for generations – as long as anyone can remember. The Misseriya are nomadic and historically they have moved in and out of Dinka territory with the wet and dry seasons. Unfortunately the Misseriya also have a long history of abducting Dinka children as slaves and Dinka women as wives. The most recent abduction of children happened two years ago. The Dinka and Misseriya also have a long history of stealing each other’s cattle and reprisal raids for cattle theft. This year a few dozen Misseriya cattle were stolen, and we heard that the Governor is in the process of trying to have them returned.
Aweil was only a stopover, we were actually going to a town on the border called Warawar. I dont think you could have invented a more ominous sounding name for a city in a country that has recently come out of twenty plus years of civil war and genocide. On the way to Warawar we passed through the village of Wanjyok, a town almost entirely comprised of people who have moved back to South Sudan from Khartoum after fleeing from the decades of civil war in the south. In Wanjyok I photographed Nhial Deng and Fatima Ali Ahmed, a mixed Misseriya/Dinka couple in which the wife was Misseriya and the husband Dinka. Normally Misseriya never allow their women to marry Dinka, even though they regularly take Dinka wives for themselves. This couple met when they were living in Khartoum, and Fatima’s family was happy for them to marry. Soon after marrying they moved back to S. Sudan and settled in Wanjyok where Nhial’s family had been from. Both the Dinka and the Misseriya pay dowries in cattle (more on this later), but Fatima’s family accepted a dowry of cash.
I talked with many people about the conflict between the Dinka and Misseriya and what they think of it. Most of the people I talked to said that they don’t trust the other group, but they do have friends who are different. They trust their friends. This was particularly true among the traders I talked with and photographed in Warawar.
I’ll write more about the other people I photographed later, but in the meantime… of course the kids in the villages went crazy over my camera. It’s fun to be able to be so hugely entertaining to people. :) This guy just had to have me take his photograph doing a handstand – he was great! This was in a little village near Wanjyok where we were staying in a hotel owned by the governor. The governor of Bar El Gazah state is reputedly one of the most powerful men in South Sudan. He’s got 70 wives and according what we heard people who oppose him don’t stay around for long. The hotel had good food, but the rooms were totally filled with dirt and in fact, some of the food had sand grains in it as well.
One of the evenings when we were then I went out into the village with Manal, a Sudanese woman from the U.S. who is contracting for USIP. Manal wanted to show me a small place next door that was making a local alcoholic drink made from sorghum. I took a few pics of them pounding the roasted sorghum, and then a drunk policeman came in and started hassling us. I don’t know what he was saying, but his tone was aggressive and he was waving an ak-47 around. Manal hustled us out of there, and he followed. Finally Manal gave him one S. Sudanese pound, and he went away. As we were walking back to the hotel, Manal told me what happened. Apparently she told him we knew the governor (which was true), and then he was said we should give him a pound for a drink.
A few more tidbits…
One of the biggest impressions I’ve had in Kenya is the staggering amount of poverty and the massive income inequality here. All the cities I have been to are filled with people who are clearly unemployed or underemployed. Official unemployment figures are 40%, but I’ve heard numbers as high as 75%. I’ve been to plenty of other countries that have massive poverty problems, but I’ve found the poverty issue here to be different for a number of reasons. I’ve had a chance to see the lives of foreigners and white Kenyans who live in the upper few percent as well as dozens of people from the slums of Nairobi and poor rural areas. The main question that I have found myself asking is how an economy with such vast poverty and immense income inequality can also be fair and working toward the improvement of everyone’s lives. More importantly, how can someone coming from a country with vastly a different economy treat people here in a way that is both reasonable and fair. This is a harder question to answer than you might expect.
Working in the slums around Nairobi has been an interesting and fairly enlightening experience. The people I’ve met there don’t seem to fit easily into any broad generalization that we might take away from what little we can read in the western media. Even the writings of Nicholas Kristof, who is one of my journalism heroes, creates an fairly simplistic impression of this vast world of economic insecurity. The slums around Nairobi are vast, some of the biggest in the world, and the people who live in them cover a vast range of backgrounds and are here for a variety of reasons.
A couple of posts back I wrote about Fred Owino who I met in Mathare. Fred was part of a youth gang and was involved in the riots that broke out after the 2007 elections. Shortly after the riots he went through an Alternatives to Violence Program workshop (AVP), which gave him a certificate that he was able to present to the police and have his name cleared. Now he works with the Alternative to Violence Program training other people in the slums about how to deal with problems without resorting to violence. Fred is articulate and passionate. He is a barber, and he is actively involved in a church. Fred was part of one of the largest gangs in Kenya. The gangs here are not all what you would imagine. The largest gangs police the slums, because the police don’t. To be a gang member you must have a job, so these are not people who sit around drinking all day. This is not to say that the gangs are saints – I am sure they are not, but the situation here is not what you would guess from the outside.
Last week I went to another slum called Kasabuhi. It is a relatively small slum compared to Kibera and Mathare. Fred arranged for me to meet a large group of people who he has brought into AVP. All of them talked about their experiences during the post-election violence and something about their backgrounds. One story I heard over and over was of people who had small businesses and lost everything to looting and fire during the riots. Many of these people had taken out small bank loans for their businesses, and now four years after the riots they are still struggling to repay loans for businesses which no longer exist. They don’t have their businesses to earn money from and repay the bank, and they cannot get loans to start new businesses. It is a vicious cycle of poverty.
Also last week I met another guy from the slums in a capoeira group that I’ve started training with in Nairobi. He is from Mombasa, and he moved to Nairobi to escape a bad life, and he admits that he has been involved in drugs and crime. He has gotten himself out of that cycle and he attributes it largely to the capoeira training he started getting from a local teacher who teaches capoeira in the slums. Now he helps teach other kids in the slums and he has dreams of becoming a capoeira teacher and starting a school himself. I played capoeira with this guy in class, but I got a chance to talk a bit more with him when I accidentally ran into him at a concert at the German Goethe institute – a cross cultural arts institute sponsored by the German government. It was very esoteric – not the type of event where I would expect to run into someone from the slums. Again, these slums are big places with complex communities that defy the expectations I had come with.
These men and their lives paint a complex picture of low end of the economic spectrum here in Kenya. When you start meeting people here, you realize that these large communities cannot be easily delineated with a single brush stroke. I could write pages about them.
Right now I am sitting in a lovely house on the beach in Mombasa writing this on a laptop computer. The sun is shining, the waves are rolling gently against the sand, and inside the house the paid servant is cleaning up the living room. It is lovely. It is the house of a friend of someone I met here in Mombasa, a couple who live like most other foreigners in Kenya. However embedded in this scene is another side of the issues of poverty and income inequality. Here in Kenya, where so many people are unemployed and there is no social safety net, normal wages can be pitifully low. Everyone above a certain income, which includes almost all foreigners and certainly all politicians here employ guards to watch their house and people to clean and often cook for them. A typical wage for guard or house servant is 5000 Kenyan shillings a month, which is about $50. Most of the foreigners I’ve met consider this impossibly low and pay their employees twice that – still only $100 per month. Typically most workers also only have off one day a month, and again most foreigners give their employees one to two days off a week.
Five thousand shillings a month, 160 shillings per day, is abject poverty. It is not enough money to pay for food and housing let alone school fees and medical costs. In Nairobi to get across town and back on a matatu, the cheapest form of public transportation, is 80 shillings – half of a day’s pay.
Why are wages so low? People here are desperate. Many parts of Kenya are over-populated, meaning that there are too many people for the land to support. This is obviously true in the southwest where people crowd the fertile land intensely and regularly kill family members in disputes of land inheritance. It is also clearly true in the arid north, where the population is sparse but the land is clearly over-grazed. Desperate people will work for whatever they can get, and if someone is unwilling to work for 5000 shillings a month, there is always someone else to take their place. It is easy to understand the economics of this situation, but it is hard to understand the morality of it. It is an issue I have been struggling with since I arrived.
Can economics and morality be separated? It doesn’t feel to me that they can. Next time I’ll write more about my own interaction with the economy and what I’ve run up against in dealing with these issues.
She reached out her hand. it was small, delicate like a flower. And when I held my hand she tentatively took one of my fingers. "How are you?" Her voice was small and full of innocence. While we held hands a sea surged around us "How are you, how are you, how are you?" And beyond them a forest of hardened faces, beaten down by years of compromised hopes, and certain about the desperate unfairness of the world. "How are you?" I ask And a riptide of laughter ran across the muddy path. In the shadow of a nearby doorway an older woman smiled as the giggles bounced down the street. We look at each other and she smiled again. Her bare feet are dirty and worn.
On Thursday I went to Mathare again to photograph a man who was the head of one of the youth gangs that were directly involved with the post-election violence in 2007-2008.
A little historical background… Since gaining independence in 1963, politics in Kenya has been marked by corruption and high levels of politics related to tribal background. The riots that happened after the 2007 elections were an outpouring of anger at the perception that the election had been stolen by the sitting president. The anger was intensified by immense levels of poverty and the feeling that the politicians were enriching themselves at the expense of everybody else in the country. The election came after several years of scandals in which government officials were found to be involved in corrupt business dealings that funneled government money into shady business deals. Because the government was dominated by one tribal group, tribal tensions flared and politicians from both sides started using these tensions to their advantage. The anger that started as economic desperation was quickly fanned into an ethnic fire that exploded into riots and looting. For over three months Kenya was shut down. Thousands of people were killed, and over 300,000 were driven from their land in response to what were perceived as unjust land-takings in the past. The main two ethnic groups in this conflict were the Luo and the Kikuyo. A great book that explains much of this history is “It’s Our Turn to Eat”, by Michela Wong about the Kenyan man who blew the whistle on the corruption scandals by the Kibaki government.
This is a photograph of Fred Owino, Joseph Maina and Jemimah Kafura. All three of these men were directly involved in the riots that exploded across the slums in 2007. People who had been friends turned against one another based on ethnic background. Fred, in the center, is a Luo. Joseph and Jemimah are Kikuyu. Fred was a leader in a gang that had been politically involved and turned violent when the results of the election came out under to great suspicion. At one point during the riots Fred came across a Kikuyu friend of his who was being attacked by a group of Luo armed with machetes. His friend called out for help. He was already injured and bleeding. Fred knew that he couldn’t appear to sympathize without becoming a target himself, so he told the others he would take things into his own hands and pulled his friend away roughly as though he was going to continue the violence. Once alone, he told his friend to never return to that area and let him go. Unfortunately, that act was misinterpreted by the other side and Fred became a target, and he soon went into hiding.
Two months after the riots ended Fred went to a workshop sponsored by the Kenya Alternatives to Violence Project. Fred feels as though that workshop changed his life, and he started training to give workshops himself. Now Fred gives workshops regularly. Joseph and Jemimah are two men from the other side of the conflict who have attended his workshops. Since 2008 Fred has been leading the charge to make Mathare into a safer place. It is clear that the part of Mathare that I visited is safe. I walked the streets there without any feeling of tension.
Next week I am going back to photograph a group of men from the youth gangs from both sides. Fred is getting them together for me. Today I am meeting with a graffiti artist to talk about converting these photographs into a mural for peace.
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On another note, I met Ben and Janet again, and this time had the opportunity to photograph him with all of their kids – their one natural daughter and the eight orphans they care for. Their nine kids are between them – a few other kids had crowded in – it’s almost impossible to keep kids out from in front of a camera here.
During the riots Ben and Janet took in four children whose parents had disappeared (maybe killed, nobody knows). A year later, Ben was approached by a man from the US who was in Kenya to help orphans through a small non-profit he was starting. He encouraged Ben to adopt another four children so that he could more easily get a Kenyan work permit, and then use the work permit to help support Ben and others like him. The man’s project was called “Haven of Hope” – promoting itself as a Christian ngo supporting poor orphans. Ben assisted the man in getting a work permit, and Haven of Hope profiled Ben and his orphans in a newsletter their first project in Kenya to receive support. According to Ben after the man received his work permit, he never contacted them again. Ben and Janet now had twice as many kids to take care of and no additional help.
This is a picture of the newsletter in which Haven of Hope asserted that they were helping Ben and Janet’s orphans. I don’t know what really happened with Haven of Hope. It is clear from the rest of the newsletter that they received donations from churchgoers in the US. Looking through the web, they have a facebook page and a non-functioning website. Ben says the man is still in Kenya working. Unfortunately, I have heard plenty of stories of small non-profits like this coming in with great promises and then leaving unexpectedly.
The riots left many orphans. Ben and Janet aren’t the only couple I have met who have adopted orphans after the violence. Many people have. It is a testament to the nature of the people living in these dense and difficult conditions that they adopt these children.
The kids in Mathare are great. As you walk or drive through they gather around to call out “How are you?, How are you?”. It is adorable and hilarious. There was an art project done by a Kenyan artist where he made a ringtone out of kids saying “How are you?” in Kibera. It’s great – you can get the ringtone or just listen to it here: Conversations in Silence. I’m totally putting this on my phone when I get back. :) Too bad my Kenya cell phone is too cheap to use cool ringtones.
Snippet of the day: Kenya bread – soft as tissue; Kenyan peanut butter – hard as dried mud. A combination guaranteed to create morning frustration for silly muzungus like me :)
Oh yeah, one more thing…
Check out the song on this youtube video. Totally the most popular song in Kenya now, maybe in all Africa. It’s from a Nigerian band called Flavour. Awesome tune – it’s everywhere – stores, clubs, taxis, homes, matatus… (the video itself is just another stereotypical music vid – ignore it if you don’t like it, it’s the song that is great).
And… I just found the origin of that song. Apparently its an old highlife song from Nigeria called Sawa Sawa Le. You can hear it here.
This weekend I went into the Mathare slums of Nairobi to photograph people involved with the 2008 post-election violence. I met and photographed two families. Ben was directly involved in the violence, and he talked at length about what he considered to be the problems that led to the violence – specifically the lack of jobs for young people and the fanning of ethnic divisions by politicians who were seeking to make political gains.
After the riots Ben and his wife, Janet, adopted eight children who had been orphaned in the riots. The eleven of them (including their own daughter) live in two small rooms that are maybe eight to nine feet square. This part of Mathare is really different that Kibera. The Kenyan government teamed up with the German government to build concrete structures here that people live and work in. They are still tiny, but it is totally different than the haphazard mud and tin structures of Kibera.
Ben used to own a butchers shop, but his shop was burned down during the riots. He still owes money to the bank for the shop which no longer exists, so he hasn’t been able to start a new one. He now runs a small co-op that makes jewelry from bones for tourists. Janet sells frozen sweets from a small freezer that takes up the corner of one of their rooms. After the riots, Ben became involved with the Kenya Alternatives to Violence Project which he feels has helped him get past his anger about what happened in 2008.
Tomorrow I’m going back to Mathare so that I can photograph Ben and Janet with all of their children. I’ll also be working with two other people from opposite sides of the conflict who were also directly involved with the violence.