Coconut Oil + Education

She steps into the darkness of her hut and emerges with a small white container and thrusts it toward me. I look at it and see that it is coconut oil, the type that is used to smooth and condition hair in Ethiopia. It might seem like a simple gesture, one without meaning back home, but this jar represents the world to Kuye, a high school student living in a small village near Konso, Ethiopia.

Kuye is one of very few girls who get to attend high school in this southern area of Ethiopia. This is not due to a lack of desire, they simply have too many duties to perform at home and the costs to attend school are outside of most families’ reach. Within Kuye’s class, there are 42 students and only four of them are girls. (Hear students at Konso High School)

Kuye’s mother, Taiko, notices other girls at the market who are educated and wants the same for her daughter.

Taiko was able to obtain a scholarship and academic support via a program developed by Mercy Corps.   Kuye is flying down the path toward her education goals. Her favorite subject is social science, which includes computer programming, and she wants to become an engineer. She has seen women in other countries work in this field, and she believes it is time for Ethiopia to have more female engineers.

Kuye knows that she is a pioneer of sorts. There are people in her village who still think a girl “is not a good girl if she goes outside of her house” to do things outside of her traditional activities. To some, this might seem patriarchal and dismissive of women. But it is more complex than this simple conclusion. Girls are highly regarded in Ethiopia and they are cherished to the point of believing they will (and knowing they can) be stolen, and therefore they are highly protected.

Most women who are not educated end up living a life full of extreme physical burden. They fetch water and firewood, carrying bundles of heavy loads for miles, sometimes days, to help provide for their family. They suffer during child birth, often losing their baby and living with resulting injuries obtained during days of laboring. Life indeed can be hard in the rural areas of Ethiopia, for both men and women.

Kuye wants to alter this path, and show the world how capable a woman in Ethiopia can be. I give her my camera, and she quickly learns how to operate it, snapping a photo of her mama Taiko and gleefully turning to all of us with excitement about the beautiful image she just captured.

She is a quick study, smart as a tack.

Her hope for her future is to “finish school, get a good test result and go to university, then return” to help her village. I can only imagine what she would do if she attains this goal.

She cites gender inequality as being an issue in Ethiopia, but she has a simple reason for its existence. She points to the fact that boys, at an early age, begin to carry heavier loads than she can carry. They appear stronger and and more powerful, just because they can pick up heavier objects. Kuye believes that gender equality begins at home, with each parent treating boys and girls equally, and instilling within a young boy’s mind that his sister is as strong as he is.

I ask her where she studies when she is home, and she shows me her bed made of mud and clay. To the left of the bed is a small shelf made from hay and mud and I notice again the coconut oil. This is a prized possession, as it makes her feel beautiful and a part of the group of students in her class. Like any 18 year old student, she wants to fit in.

And she wants to feel like a girl, all pretty and smelling wonderful as she faces her new world and emerges as a strong and educated woman.

I will cheer her on. all the way through her university years.

One coconut oil jar at a time.

(Photo of Taiko above by Kuye Orkaydo)

(All images for Mercy Corps)

 

Something, Anything

She walks up to me and extends a greeting, but all I see are her eyes and I miss the first attempt at shaking her hand. Those captivating and mesmerizing eyes she has; they will haunt me forever.

She is a camel milk producer, living in the small remote town of Bambas in Ethiopia near Jijiga, in close proximity to the Somalian border. Her days are spent milking camels at the break of dawn, collecting the milk in antique wooden containers, the interiors burned by fire to instill a nice smoky taste to the milk.  (Hear Fatumo milking her camels)

She pours the milk into larger containers and then carries the heavy load miles away to either sell the milk by road side, or give it to milk collectors who will then take the milk to market. Her work is assisted by programs developed by Mercy Corps.

And the next day is the same as today.

She tends to her children, she collects firewood in the distant fields, she prepares dinner for her family, she feeds the animals and cleans their spaces, she settles neighborhood disputes, she sweeps the hay from the floor of her hut. And she looks for water, desperately at times, a scarce resource in this drought-prone area of Ethiopia.

And the next day is the same as today.

She has a quiet yet bold demeanor and when she looks at me, she looks into me. Her eyes never leave mine, and with her chin slightly tucked in and eyes constantly seeking mine, I cannot help but think that she knows how the power and grace she exudes has an effect on others. I muster up something, anything, to break the spell she has on me, but it doesn’t work. I ask her how old she is, and her answer is I am woman.

She looks at my travel clothes and makes her first observation toward me: You will never attract anyone dressed like this. Try adding more color to your style.

And on it goes, one observation after the other, her to me, and me to her. I want to touch her face, but then I realize it is only because I don’t really believe that she exists. She must be a dream. As if she knows what I am thinking, she extends her hand and touches mine, eyes never wavering her intentions.

I cry.

I feel my belly turn upside down and I know this is so inappropriate. Crying in front of an Ethiopian beckons all kinds of feelings and it is highly disturbing to them. I swallow it all, turning away to say something, anything, about the beauty of her home.

We spend the day together, and she shows me what she does all day long, every day. We visit the other milk producers and initiate song and dance among them, pounding beats on the makeshift plastic milk containers as our drums, me singing the Somalian words that I did not know that I knew.  (Hear the milk producers singing)

I return the next day before the sun rises, and she shows me how to milk a camel and what camel milk tastes like right after it has been collected. We walk in silence over sandy fields strewn with beautiful pink sparkly rocks and I try to reason with my soul why I should return home. I want nothing more than to stay longer, learn from her, feel my body adjust to constant movement to obtain nourishment. She knows what I am thinking, and she asks me to stay, inviting me to live in her village with her. I can’t even answer her right away, walking in a stupor as I wonder how she truly is able to read my mind.

I dream of living a life of simplicity, making my own music and dancing when I feel like it, listening to birds awaken me each day and wearing colorful scarves and dresses and greeting visitors in the manner in which she does. And I know I will never be like her.

I know I will return home and acclimate back into my own culture and sit at my computer and write about her, longing for this kind of exchange, deep exchange, with people back home.

And I know that our manufactured distractions will prevent me from doing this, and I might feel happy but deep inside, if I am honest, I often desire a deeper human connection in my every day. Or I won’t long for this, and instead I will replace my longing with pleasure garnered from material goods and the next travel destination and a plate filled with some chef’s concoction.

I turn to her to say goodbye and this time I can’t hold back the tears. She gasps, and waves her hand back and forth in front of me.

No, no, NO! Don’t cry.  Saying goodbye is part of life.  Are you not a strong woman?

And with that, she turns and walks away.

(All images for Mercy Corps)

 

The Fear Of Affection

I can’t help but look. And look again.

Rhythm and swoon, their bodies meld, back and forth they sway, eyes locked on each other, hands waist level with fingers rippling like a sea of fish in an ocean of love.

Two men, friends, in Ethiopia.

In Western culture, we would label this display of affection as something other than a respectful acquaintance. But here in this land where mankind first existed, love is shared between men in a highly sensual, if not downright, erotic manner.

This, in the light of day, outside, in fresh open air.

For God’s sake.

The first time I saw this type of electricity pass between hard bodied and uber masculine men was in a dark bar, tucked away in the Piazza area of Addis Ababa. I watched in amazement as men beckoned one another to dance, their bodies aligned with the thump of bass that was spilling out of the too-close speakers. As two men conversed with dance, they each started out with patterned steps, tentative with each move, but always maintaining eye contact with each other, lest one might break the spell.

As they warmed up, in body and spirit, their movement became more erratic, but with more fever to stay on beat, and aligned with each other, legs woven. They are that close.

Do they have sex?! I blurt out, my USA need to label rising to my speech.

No. No, they don’t. They are friends.

Then how can they look at each other like that? Like THAT.

Once again, as often happens here, my words solicit a reaction of tilted-head amusement at my questions.

But, of course. Why wouldn’t men love one another? And show it? Isn’t this how we were born to relate?

I continue to watch with humble heart, feeling silly for asking such questions. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I see my Ethiopian friends watching me, intently, as I watch the swirl of energy in every direction.

You silly Western girl. Why does this fascinate you so?

I feel rhythm beckon me, and with tempered manner and the thrill of a new encounter, I take the hand of my friend.

The Pendleton Round-Up (aka The Pendleton Pound ‘Em Down)

She brushes past the crowd of worn out people waiting for their tables, her blonde hair preceding her real self, and her bling blinds us all. Cowboys tip their hats, women take deep breaths and straighten their spines, their eyes burning into their men.

Miss Terri, owner of “Terri’s Dirty Blonde Salon”, is in the house.

I first met her last year at the Canby Rodeo while I was photographing rodeo riders with my Speed Graphic 4X5 film camera. As I fumbled with the low light conditions, I reached for my dark cloth, and instead almost plunged my hand into her ample and adorned-with-a-huge-shiny-necklace cleavage.

Hi, I’m Terri!

She proceeded to rattle off cowboy names and stats, peppering the conversation with a bit of rumor here and there just to make sure I was listening. Her passion for the rodeo was unlike any sideline sports fan I had ever met. And yes, it extended past the “I want a sexy cowboy” quest.

We met several other times at other rodeos (imagine her glee when I got us press passes for the dressing room at the Mollala Bull Riding Competition) and throughout the year she kept me informed via text messages about champion rides, marriages and divorces, broken legs and even the death of one of her favorite riders who was her dear friend.

Her heart is big and unbound. She brings her scissors to each rodeo and cuts the riders’ hair when they need it, feeds them chips and salsa, gives them a soft place to pass out in her trailer after a night of too much whiskey. She’s a good girl.

And a sexy mother hen to boot! At home, she cares for her beautiful thirteen year old daughter and her erratic and loving autistic son. Sparkly and girly and bold and strong as a man, she drives a monster truck and hitches her trailer by herself, thank you very much. And she can shoot a gun like a bandit.

This week we are at the Pendleton Round-Up, the Mother Lode of Rodeos. After finishing our plate of bad Mexican food, we head over to her usual evening starting point, The Hut. We meet up with her cowboys and they take turns feeling her breasts, betting whether they are real or not. They have to check a few times to make sure their previous conclusion was correct. Oh, Terri.

Before I finish my Pendleton Whiskey on the rocks, she grabs my arm and swings me toward the door. Time to go downtown. I pony up to walk a mile in my cowboy boots, when I see a bull rider run into the street and stop a flat bed truck. On we pile, and away we go. This is how the cowboys get their rides downtown! (A few days later I try this technique on my own, and it doesn’t work. I had to resort to hitting up people in trucks waiting in line at the Taco Bell where they were trapped and had to listen to my sorry begging for a ride.)

We make it downtown, and one exceptionally sturdy cowboy who had seen my attempt trying to jump up on the flat bed fail miserably lifts me onto his shoulder like he would a heifer, and in a jiffy I am on solid ground again.

We make our way straight to Crabby’s where Terri tinkerbells her way around the room. Boy, Man, Girl, Woman….everyone watches Terri as she sashays her way to the bar to the dance floor and back to the bar.

I learn to dance the Cowboy Swing, taking home arm bruises to prove that I lost my battle to try to lead these bull riders.

And I vow one thing before the night is over: tomorrow I will bring my stick horsie with me and get these rowdy boys to ride THAT.

I think Terri would approve.

(This account was written about Day 1 of the workshop I taught at the Pendleton Round-Up. I was sworn to secrecy about Day 2, 3 & 4.)

(Last photo courtesy of Terri Nicol)

 

 

International Photography Awards

Out of over 10,000 entries, three of my images have been awarded Honorable Mention Awards in the 2012 International Photography Awards in the following categories:

 

“Abera”  Fine Art/Portrait, People/Children, People/Portrait

 

“Bekele”  Fine art/Portrait, People/Portrait

 

“Lena”  Fine Art/Portrait, People/Children, People/Portrait

 

See the list of talented finalists here.

 

Worldwide Photography Biennial Exhibition

One of my favorite images, “Abera”, was selected by Steve McCurry in his list of “special mentions by the juror” category and will be included in the curated exhibit opening at the Borges Cultural Center in December in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

This image is dear to me because while I was deep in a remote area of Ethiopia photographing a midwife, I turned around and saw this young boy looking at me with the most intense expression. I had seconds to react, obtain his ok to permit me to photograph him, and not lose that moment where he seems to be looking into my soul.

My focus was off. I usually focus on the eyes, and in this image the center of focus is on his hands. But had I taken longer to compose the shot to my liking, I would have captured an entirely different portrait.

I look at this image almost every day to remind me of the level of humanity that is found in the spirit of the Ethiopian people.

(Funds from any sales of prints are returned to projects in Ethiopia.)

 

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