‘Prevention’, ‘safe sex’, ‘adherence’, ‘disclosure’….. Instead of ‘where are all the nice men’, ‘where’d you get those shoes’, ‘check out this new phone’, ‘what interest rate did you lock in at’, these are my new daily conversations here in Eldoret. We talk about this all the time and the main character is HIV.
I am working with (Kenyan, USA and Canadian) doctors, nurses, counselors, MPH’s, etc-ers. The ongoing conversation is HIV and all aspects of this ramped disease.
This is my second long-term project in Kenya around HIV. This time I am building media: audio, still photos, writing scripts for question answer content and skill building videos, all in collaboration with expert advisors. The media will be embedded into software that will in way support the lack of healthcare workers here due to the ever rising cases of HIV, in a country that cannot produce enough healthcare workers to respond in time. Compete imbalance. The software installed in a tablet computer and it’s ‘avatars’ will collect baseline data through mundane questions that will free up physical healthcare workers to move closer to the root of the problem.
So, I am surrounded by these professional health care workers in the heart of AMPATH, a partnership between Indiana University (USA) and Moi University (Kenya). There are handfuls of docs and medical students in and out of where I am staying. They are here to share what they know and also learn from Kenyans. It’s an amazing program founded by an amazing man, Joe Mamlin, and once I understand more I will be more specific.
In the meantime, these students are in constant conversation about HIV and how to get it under control and maybe even bring it to a halt. Today, during my 36th HIV conversation in about a week one of the MPH students said ‘they just don’t care‘ (regarding infecting others, preventing infection themselves by using condoms). Something dawned on me. What if instead of all of this medical attention more of the focus was to make life worth living?
I mean, in a country that brews chang’aa, sodomizes 8-year-old boys as a street kid ‘initiation’ (I met him), and where cars and motor bikes don’t budge for pedestrians (I was side swiped by a motorcycle yesterday on the side of the road), extreme poverty, let alone the past elections…..? It’s hard to keep people alive when at times they don’t want to live.
What would happen if some of the money that is pumped into healthcare instead supported a monumental surge to end corruption and promote sustainable small and large entrepreneurship so that people can lead more self-reliant lives… how might that change this HIV situation?
On the other hand, and this is grim, HIV is big business. Back when George Bush enacted PEPFAR although millions of dollars were established for AIDS, drugs back then were to be commercial, not generic. Big biz for pharmaceuticals industry (though that has changed). The are so many people employed thanks to HIV, so many jobs, so much aid, so much and yet the numbers of infected people are rising. However things are improving. When I was here in ’04 (outside of Kisumu) no one would even say HIV or AIDS. Now people are getting tested and have treatment partners.
What can we do differently? Where is the most logical innovation? Mamlin is using Google Android phones and going house to house testing people, and building a map (via the gps on the phone) to test and map out the infection rate then immediately integrate treatment. That’s exciting to me for multiple reasons. Will be checking that out in the coming weeks and write about it.
In the meantime, back to work on Monday.
by Amanda Koster in Eldoret, Kenya.
I ordered fish last night and like most dishes in Eldoret so far, with it came a heaping pile of oily, soggy french fries. I don’t touch them because they’ll make me fat. And, if I were to indulge there is no ketchup here. Instead there is some sugary, syrupy sweet and sour sauce died pinkish to possibly resemble what westerners would call their beloved Heinz Ketchup. Deal-breaker.
I pass the fries off into the up-for-grabs center zone of the table. 7 of us are out to dinner. Somone says, ‘give them to the street kids,’ the street kids in Eldoret, outside the restaurant sniffing glue, homeless.
I am torn. On the one hand definitely, why waste anything. The kids outside the restaurant are hungry, homeless, orphaned, dirty, reckless and high on glue. They will eat them.
On the other hand I remember Raj, our SalaamGarage tour guide in India last September, had another perspective. “Buy them their own meal.” Then he made a face like your guys are arrogant western assholes. “Why give them your leftovers. Give them their own plate of fresh food.”
I still see his point. I think to myself today, imagine your whole life people feeding you the food they don’t want. Not getting your own meal just for you start to finish. What does that do to a person?
Bryant and I asked the waiter when we are finished to pack up the ‘chips’ for ‘take away’ (‘french fries’ in a ‘doggie bag’ would not have made any sense).
We all finish out our dinner. I watch Bree as she keeps on eating the fries, even after it’s been publicy decided those fries are going to a street kid. I keep watching out of the corner of my eye. One fry afer the other she eats. “I feel munchy” she says. One after the other. The pile is decreasing and she keeps picking. I say nothing. She’s enjoying them. However all I can think of is that is one less fry for some kid living a horrendous life on the street.
Eventually we all get up to leave, the waiter has packed up the ‘chips’ for Bryant and I to hand off.
We get outside on the street and look around for all but 5 seconds. The streets kids are lingering amongst the rest of the Eldoreties, all of us out for a night on the town. It was Saturday night after all. Everyone was out and about. Street kids everywhere sniffing glue running around. Eldoreties out for dinner, drinks and dancing, us Mzungus (whites or literally ‘one who moves about’ in Swahili) also out endlessly trying to make sense of it all. All of us wandering around.
One street kid came up to me. He was small, about 8 years old, filthy and nearly barefoot. His shoes were too big, worn out and barely clinging to his feet. His clothes were the same, too big, half missing, worn away. Again, someone elses leftovers.
He came up to me sweetly. He wasn’t aggressive or mean, he was gentle. I know these kids are masters at begging so it could have been an act, though this didn’t feel fake. It felt hungry.
I hand him the bag of soggy, cold, damp left-over french fries. He looked up at me and said “for me?” … “Yes” I said and handed them over. He gently took the bag and said thank you. He then put his hands together, brought them up to his face in gesturing a prayer almost like Namaste, made eye contact and softly said “thank you, thank you,” again and again, smiling. Then he ran away really fast.
“I hope he doesn’t get beat up.” I turned around, Bree said that. I looked back at the boy running away from the bigger street kids. No one seemed to be chasing him.
If you are interested in helping the street kids in Eldoret, below is an organization I met personally here in Eldoret. Tumanini Children’s Center (‘Tumanini’ means ‘hope’ in Swahili) is run by former street kids themselves who are now married with families, employed and living productive inspiring lives. Tumanini is open 3 days a week, provides food, showers, counseling, medication and support for street kids in Eldoret.
their website, it needs help: Tumaini Chidren’s Center
Want to help? Let me know: firstname.lastname@example.org . I am going to talk with them to get a site up where people contact them.and help.
I finally submitted my TEDx title.
“In Steve Biko’s Backyard”
“Tell me about South Africa!” Her eyes were completely lit up over a latte.
I was quiet. Reminded me of when Becky asked me the same thing. It took awhile because it was, as most of my trips, pretty darn intense. I need to process through writing, speaking, exhibition in order to causally chat about anything. “You know Kathy, I can now.”
Post Apartheid South Africa really had my head spinning. I went to South Africa December of 2009 to work on a pilot of “African Women of Empowerment.” (under construction) We were to photograph, interview and document the life and work of Ms. Bandi Biko, 1 of 20 amazing African women. Bandi is an amazing woman on her own. Through her I witnessed patience, listening, community and soft leadership on a whole new level. Through her I met more amazing women ranging from Nommalindi and Mamphela Ramphele, both absolute genius human beings contributing at full capacity.
However one cannot ignore the last name, Biko. Bandi Biko is the sister of Stephen Bantu Biko. (Stephen) Biko has been one of my top 5 heros since my brother Evan told me about him in the mid 80s. Evan wrote his senior high school paper on the apartheid regime in South Africa and since then Africa has fascinated me remaining very near to my heart. I was entranced by what my brother had discovered and then shared with me. He was obsessed and subsequently we all were. Then came Live Aid, then U2, Bono, Sebastio Selgado, etc. Case closed, Africa was officially on my radar.
Then came the movie Cry Freedom and the song ‘Biko’and I broke down. They left me speechless, in a blind range, drenched in tears, disgusted, obsessed… and they were also a window for me. For me this took storytelling to a whole new level. I felt it was a paradigm shift that enabled Donald Woods to write the book and get the manuscript out of the country, to us all. I wept, felt totally insignificant and then in a puddle on the floor, strangely empowered. What can I do? A lot.
After about decade and a half later I resurface as a professional storyteller, building countess projects; some very successful, some complete duds, I find myself on a skype call with Bandi Biko. We are planning the project, scheduling this and that … then I drop the bomb: “I want you to take us to where you’re from.” The call got real quiet. You can see the audio levels of each caller on Skype and they all went down to zero. I’ve written about this already: https://amandakoster.wordpress.com/2009/11/05/stay-in-your-dreams-dreams-can-not-hurt-us/
Fast forward to South Africa 12/09, I squat in the backyard of Bantu Stephen Bikos backyard in the Ginsberg Township of King Williams Town, recording audio of the family and friends preparing for a Xhosa wedding. I am utterly silent a: because when you record audio you have to be and b: in a trance. I am hearing the scraping sheep heads, slapping of ‘rostiles’ (bread), I hear laughter, Xhosa language, singing, slurping of beer, feet dragging, cell phones ringing, cars honking…. can you hear it?
Why am I in a trance? I’ve been in these situations before, out of my element, a new unfamiliar culture, etc. This is WAY different. This is Steve Bkios backyard, his family, his son getting married tomorrow. This is Steve Bikos Backyard.
And before me I am watching joy, pure, simple joy. A family and friends getting ready for the wedding of a beloved family member. I am watching culture, tradition, laughter, happiness. I am watching what every human desires, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in action, a sence of belonging, love, culture, safety, peace.
So again, why am I in a trance? I’ve seen this before as well. I am in a trance because something swept over me like a slow, heavy, mighty, sand storm. It was because of exactly WHERE I was sitting.
“How can any of this be wrong, bad, subhuman?” “How can ANYONE call this less than?” “How?”
Well apartheid did. This was’ non-white’ to apartheid and therefore not equal. I searched everyone where in my soul, my entire hard dive in external and external and there was no where, no thing, no place that told me this was anything other than fantastically human. And that is where I continue to stand.
“Can you say that in 18 min?” Kathy asked.
“Yes I can… and there’s more.”
‘are you nervous’ becky asked me. ‘you can’t be, you do this shit all the time’ nick laughed and poked more spaghetti into a gumdrop. i was quiet. this felt different.
what went thru my mind last night on stage:
“crap! my slides are screwed up! and crap! i just spent way too many seconds thinking about how my slides are screwed up! crap, while i was thinking about how my slides were screwed up, they keep advancing anyway… wtf… i better quit this thinking crap….!”
man, everyone ought to try it. what i love about ignite is pure passion. and i love pure passion. there is a rawness to the event. the venue was cold, sticky, dusty and i was nervous. yes, pretty darn nervous. i could hear it in my breathing.
why was i nervous? i speak all the time? huh?
few things: 5 minutes is a flash in the pan + eternity, i could not see the audience… seriously: the audience was pitch black and it felt like no one was out there, like speaking to a black hole… (is anyone friggen’ out there?) the slides auto-advanced every (kind of) 15 seconds, my slides were screwed up (uh- they worked on my computer/s), i was in my home territory. i know the audience (even tho couldn’t see them). i have a crush on a few of the guys in the audience (they have no idea), i am used to talking to hundreds of strangers most of who i will never see again. this crowd knows me, i play with them, and they are ready and willing to give feedback (thank you kathy gill and brian dorsey… i truly loved that!)
and why was that awesome? because being nervous, feeling harmless fear is wonderful thing. it means i was challenged verses being on auto pilot. i felt like i was ‘just starting out’ again last night at ignite. i was out of my comfort zone on home base (seattle). oddly cool. delicious.
what an experience. to sit amongst the other speakers, feed off their nerves, passionate energy. the talks ranged from: ’huh?’, ‘yer kidding’, ‘i don’t get it’ to ‘i really have no idea’, to ‘wow’, to ‘that’s hilarious’ to, ‘are you serious’ to…. wtf.
i loved them all. all the speakers, the energy, brady so diligently summoning us right before we spoke, the ignite team managing what someone called a ‘mac orgy.’ all of it. i simply love ignite. in some odd way it was a love-fest. i knew the people, many of them have seen + helped salaamgarage (and me) grow from where it was to where it is now, it’s a community that immediately embraced an outsider like me: a photojournalist and writer without an iphone (gnomedex) who gives a shit.
who are these people, where did they come from? how is it there is a community of people who are willing to listen to god knows what on a tuesday night, cheer you on, and forgive your screwed up slides? imagine.
ahhh. for me ignite is like a platform and a lasso for reckless creativity and passion. a little welcome love mat with subliminal messages that say ‘i love you, say what you gotta say, deal with the screwed up slides and make room for the next guy. and i still love you.’ and man, was i nervous up there and man, would i do it again in a heartbeat. it would be an honor.
thank you ignite. thank you for doing what you do and for opening your arms wide to anyone who says ‘this is what a geek looks like, give me 5 min. let me do my thing.’
if these were film days it would have been half as many. easily. we paid (differently) for each click back then. hard cash. now we pay with time. this is photography, the other side.
the beauty of digital is that i get to re-live my trip several times, as editing is a multiple-session (2-4ish hours at a time) process. with help: red wine, jetlag and pandora. this is good. reliving the experience.
had dinner with my friend becky tonight. we sat down and she asked me, ‘tell me about vietnam.’ i smiled.
you see, when we were skiing 3ish weeks ago i had just returned from south africa and she asked, ‘tell me about south africa.’ i looked at her, paused and said, ‘i can’t.’ like any really good friend she understood, nodded and we skied on.
this time i could tell her about vietnam. why? because yesterday, when i got home i could see the top of this specific mountain. i saw a presentation and decided to submit a presentation to ignite seattle about my trip to vietnam (it helps that brady forrest -who kicks ass- curator of ignite and web 2.0 punched me in the ribs at the last ignite and said ‘i wanna see you up there’ … he gets it). i may or may not be accepted, though i now have a goal, a presentation, a project where i can share my trip with images. this is how i express. whew.
i told becky about my presentation idea and she got it with very few words. ‘artists need to create, they need to express their experiences thru their medium. it’s how they work through life.’
bulls eye. so good to have friends, lovers, partners, etc., who understand us, isn’t it? in fact, it’s vital (for me).
luckily, i was asked to talk about my south africa experience at TEDx. thank god, as this will help… with that. so i am a happy, busy woman. this is where i belong, this is how i contribute.
so, wading through these images has been pretty emotional for me. it always is. i have to carve out time to do it, right away, after any project. i have a few upcoming interviews and presentations that will help. believe it or not, these SalaamGarage presentations (upcoming TEDx talk: 4/16, SxSW: 3/13, a few schools and buzz bruggemans ‘tertulia’ (private event) on 3/9 in seattle) help a lot. For me it is a way to process, create, share, EXPRESS and complete. guess this is why i used to do photo exhibitions. however, life is moving pretty fast right now for me… so public speaking is my new exhibition. my book (and next one) helps a lot as well. ah. just figured that out as i write right now. i am grateful for every opportunity to present my experiences, as it helps me to process what i just saw.
and man, what i just saw was potent.