An Extended Hand, From The Heart Of A Boy

Too often, African males are characterized as being insensitive to a woman’s needs. Magazines, newspapers and even charitable organizations frequently focus on rape, child marriage and physical abuse to reveal injustices from men that women face while living in an African nation.

But there are other sides to these stories, and scenarios abound that depict men as caring and loving human beings, showing deep respect for their sisters and wives. We see men carrying their sick wives for days to reach a health post, traversing rugged terrain and selling off their cattle to pay for the bill. They realize how vital their wives are to the well-being of the entire family. Men are visibly shaken as they fear the loss of their loved one, and they will go to great lengths to ensure that she receives the care she deserves, often traveling to various health care centers before finding one staffed with a health care practitioner.

Men gather around a woman who has just had surgery to alleviate obstructed labor in preparation to carry her home. Motta, Ethiopia

Man helping woman in Ethiopia

We recently visited several schools in rural areas outside of Mekelle, Ethiopia, and we were able to talk with some of the boys to see how they viewed the topic of menstruation. In the recent past in Ethiopia this topic was taboo even for mothers and daughters to discuss and some families still view it this way. But all of the boys we randomly chose to interview had positive things to say about the time when a girl has her period. Many of them asked if the school could have a place to rest, showers for cleaning and tea for stomach cramping, just so the girls will feel more comfortable during this time.

Ethiopian boy Dignity Period

Ethiopian boy Dignity Period

Ethiopian boy Dignity Period

Ethiopian boy Dignity Period

Dignity Period not only supplies reusable sanitary napkins to girls, but the educational component has had a great impact on lessening the mystery when a girl shows blood on her clothing. Schools now require all students to read a booklet that details why girls menstruate and how they can be supported rather than laughed at.

Older boys now teach younger boys how to react sensitively when they know that a girl is menstruating. G/Maryam Asene, a student at Adikeyh, even cites this time as being “a gift” and says that anyone who laughs at a girl is also laughing at their mother, an extremely shameful thing to do.

We ask the boys: What would you do if you see that a girl has unexpectedly started her period?  Their ready answer was energetic: We would take our shirt or sweater off and let her wear it until she could change her clothes!

Sensitive souls they are.

Ethiopian boy Dignity Period

Ethiopian boys Dignity Period

Ethiopian students Dignity Period

Featured in Photographer’s Forum Magazine

Many thanks to Claire Sykes for the lovely article she wrote about my philosophy and work in this month’s Photographer’s Forum magazine.

It is a humbling honor to read what she has written, and also the various quotes by people (Jim Friedman, Shelby Lee Adams and Lewis Wall) who have greatly inspired me over the years.

Photographer's Forum Magazine

There Is A Reason For This

I saunter up to the tall lanky cowboy who is leaning against a shed and muster up confidence to ask him my question:

“Do you know where I can find a good plumber out here? I’d like to get an outdoor shower up and running before my extended family arrives from out of state soon.”

He looks at me straight in the eye, pauses, and with a slow curl of his lip, he said,  “You already have one. That is what hoses are for. Let ’em sit in the sun a bit, and you have yourself some nice hot water also.”

And like that, I learned more than a few lessons.

This might seem like nothing more than a humorous exchange with a dollop of sarcasm, but that moment set the stage for how I would come to live in (and understand) my new rural town of Spray, Oregon.

As I make my way around the new digs, I am constantly learning things each and every day. Close all gates. Respect the land. Ask before making assumptions. Listen closely. Have a sense of humor, politically incorrect at times but rooted in truth.

I was drawn to this area of Oregon because it reminded me of being in Ethiopia, where most of my work has been of late. The landscapes share striking similarities. I also am finding that there is  a cultural divide between city/rural that is not unlike the chasm that exists between western/developing nations. And just as we often see aid distribution with well-intentions go awry, the same “we know best” attitudes are too often seen when city/rural tensions collide.

As I dial back my city attributes and attitudes, I am finding myself surrendering to the notion that mankind just might fare best when living close to the land and in shared community. Yet at times I witness something that I just can’t wrap my head around, whether it is seeing a dead coyote draped over a fence or listening to harsh complaints from a local shop owner. Luckily, as I meet people out in this area, I am fortunate enough to be getting some great advice along the way.  A very wise local once said something that has now become one of my mantras:  There is a reason for this.

There is a reason why city folk and ruralites might clash at times. Judgement and misunderstandings prevail over mindfulness and openness to what I refer to as “crossing the cultural divide”. Whether it be in far away lands with exotic cultures or close to home in rural/city Oregon, both parties must be willing to set aside preconceived notions and seek to understand the position of the other and not make assumptions for what is best. Once this happens, synergistic collaborations can surface.

Our small towns are struggling to stay afloat all over the nation. Big box stores, online shopping, and digital “travel” through our computer screens have fostered a laxity in some for in-person explorations of places outside of our misguided comfort zone. While seeing a beautiful photo online gives great pleasure, there is nothing like planting our feet in front of a soaring and majestic colorful rock formation that is millions of years old while watching a large bird against a kaleidoscope sky search for its dinner and feeling the wind nudge us into letting our fears and worldly concerns slide away.

Nature brings a perspective like no other antidote. It doesn’t matter if we like outdoor sports or not, the point is to just run for the hills and immerse ourselves in sensory delights, whether by foot, bike, boat and yes, even a clunky car. I love finding myself on a deserted road at night when the stars come out and only the moon can be seen with no other man-made structure in sight. It makes me free fall out of the chaos that cities can at times impose upon us. I believe we are more fragile than we realize.

So let’s go. Stop short of only following adventurous people on social media and make your own adventure. Select a far away small town to explore (your dollars are desperately needed to keep these towns in existence), cross that cultural divide and listen to locals tell their stories, tell yours, and become inspired by one another. Commune with some animals. Perch like a bird on a lookout point. Read a book on a riverbank. Explore the remote outer areas that take you a while to reach.

I think there is a reason for this.

 

Painted Hills

(The Painted Hills, part of the John Day Fossil Beds, Oregon)

 

Spray Cabin

(Spray, Oregon)

 

Maupin Deschutes

(The Deschutes River, near Maupin, Oregon)

 

Blue Basin

(The Blue Basin, near Kimberly, Oregon)

 

Wallowa, Oregon

(Carmen Ranch, Wallowa, Oregon)

 

Painted Hills

(The Painted Hills, near Mitchell, Oregon)

 

IMG_0071-2

(My cabin in the John Day River Territory, photo by Michael Schoenholtz)

Altered Views: Lessons From Africa

For the past several months, I had the honor of traveling to Africa to document various projects for some really outstanding organizations that are performing tireless and devoted work in Ethiopia, Tanzania and Uganda. I welcomed these assignments as an offering to alter my lifestyle and challenge my perspectives, but more importantly, I wanted to set aside all other commitments to create imagery that might make a difference to people who are struggling.

Now back home as I reflect upon the past several months, I realize that I am going through reverse cultural shock. What once brought joy to me is altered. I still love meals from Portland’s creative restaurant scene and the idea of wearing a pair of sassy boots, but this trip has made me reach ever so fervently for how we touch the earth…and each other.

My days in Africa were spent in heated debate, exchanging innovative ideas, feeling the shock of human peril, learning about living a truly nomadic lifestyle. and dancing until I collapsed. My heart was so full at times that I had to shut down, fold up, and sit alone in a room to come down from this life high. And sometimes I needed a rest from the effects of my own physical and mental curiosity.

Africa is where we began. Lessons abound from the moment a person steps onto the Motherland. I have many stories to tell, but I will start by highlighting a few of the assignments that sparked a renewal of my mindset.

 

SABAHAR, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

I started my journey by working on a fashion shoot for Sabahar, a collective of some of the finest weavers in Ethiopia. Their scarves are woven with super soft traditional Ethiopian cotton and silk spun by silkworms raised on their property. Most importantly, they are devoted to fair employment practices. Their Ethiopian staff are paid a great wage while working in a beautiful and supportive environment. Happy faces were seen throughout the garden-filled compound.

Sabahar

Sabahar

 

TERREWODE, Soroti, Uganda

Returning to Uganda seared my soul. Seeing friends I had met earlier in the year and getting to work more closely with TERREWODE (a reintergration center for fistula survivors) was an educating and heart-touching experience. A team volunteered services to teach goat milk soap-making to villagers and TERREWODE staff, advise on the development of packaging, develop a video about the soap-making process and document the way music, dance and drama are used to educate others about fistula.

Soroti Goat Milk Soap Making

Soroti dance drama music

 

OREGON HEALTH & SCIENCES UNIVERSITY, Portland, Oregon, USA and Mekele, Ethiopia

Some people say that a “silent epidemic” of prolapse conditions are occurring across the globe. Many women suffer from this debilitating healthcare concern while continuing to perform their physically demanding work despite the constant severe pain they experience. Medical staff from Portland joined their expert hands to repair prolapses in many women in the northern Tigray area of Ethiopia. In addition, they trained other Ethiopian medical staff how to perform this life-altering operation.

OHSU Ethiopian Doctors

OHSU Operating Room

 

DIGNITY PERIOD, Mekele, Ethiopia

Who would have thought that lack of education and support for menstruating girls and women would have such a dire effect on so many aspects of a female’s life? Lack of menstrual supplies and running water, coupled with little education about the natural occurrence and importance of menstrual cycles, has a direct correlation with how a girl can stay in school and the effects of self esteem for all women. Freweini Mebrahtu responded to this need and created a factory called Mariam Seba (named after her daughter) that makes reusable sanitary napkins and employs women. Dignity Period provides access to sanitary pads and educates students about a female body’s natural process. They also are in the process of researching latrine and water sources for schools to enable hygienic practices. In addition, they are researching the impact of this intervention on the lives of young school girls.

Watch a short video that uses my still images and video I captured while in Mekele, Ethiopia here.

Dignity Period Hands

Dignity Period Teen Girl

 

THE MEKELE BLIND SCHOOL, Mekele, Ethiopia

I am haunted in a very good and profound way from the way the students and other staff got to know me while I visited The Mekele Blind School. I was petted, nibbled, pinched and truly moved by the students, and learned many new ways of emphasizing one sense over the other. It was astonishing to see the children running freely and holding each other so closely when they were together. If only we all could experience each other more so in this manner. This school is in dire need of many improvements but they march on inspiring within each student the confidence that they can do anything they wish.

Mekele Blind School

Mekele Blind School Young Boy

 

TIGRAY ASSOCIATION ON INTELLECTUAL DISABILITIES, Mekele, Ethiopia

Every so often something will shake my foundation and enrage my soul. On this trip, I found out that girls/women with mental illness are often targeted for rape because some men believe these females are unwanted and therefore free from HIV or other diseases. The afflicted female needs to have 24/7 watch over her in fear she might exit the home compound without someone accompanying her. The Tigray Association on Intellectual Disabilities, founded by a sister of an intellectually challenged girl, helps to nurture and provide activities for both women and men, as well as keep them safe.

Mental Illness in Mekele

Mental illness in Ethiopia

 

HOPE ENTERPRISES SCHOOL, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Imagine living in the most desolate of situations at a poverty level that is at the lowest shanty structure level. Someone knocks on your door, and they ask many questions about your children that are living there. After a lengthy interview process, your family has been selected to be a part of the Hope Enterprise School in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Your child will be supported from the time they enter school through high school graduation and they will be assisted until they are placed in a job. This is just one of the many remarkable projects that are funded by Hope Enterprises.

Hope Enterprises School

Hope Enterprises School

 

STREET CHILDREN’S BREAKFAST, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

I rarely feel the devastation of having great pangs of hunger. I can grab a cracker and know that a meal will be had soon. When I am very hungry, my senses get mixed up and I get irritable. For a young boy faced with living on the streets of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, a breakfast in the morning can mean he can live a day of staving off hunger and not having to hustle or steal for food. Hope Enterprises feeds street boys bread, banana and milk each morning.

Street Boys Breakfast

Street Boys Breakfast

 

MATERNITY AFRICA, Arusha, Tanzania

Fistula is a devastating condition that affects thousands of women and the families they nurture and support. Dr. Andrew Browning is one of the best fistula surgeons in the world and after working for many years with the Hamlin Fistula Hospital, Andrew now is based in Arusha, Tanzania where he practices and teaches on a global level. Maternity Africa supports his efforts and is in the process of building a new hospital which will ensure that best practices are in place. They also are firmly devoted to fistula prevention by working with midwives to educate villagers about the dire consequences of obstructed labor.

Tanzania Maternity Africa

Tanzanian Girl Maternity Africa

The Wind’s Whim

As I was going through some things to give away in an attempt to become more mobile and lighten my footprint, I came across a portrait of Kurt Cobain printed wall size on a piece of silk. This image was one of my favorite portraits of all time. His angst could easily be seen in his eyes, and his hair fell just in the right spots to solicit a “god, he is handsome” comment when people looked into his larger than life-size soulful eyes.

Many a day did I look at this lovely item and wonder how the photographer felt as s/he captured this image, and how Kurt felt at this time to be so sought after and his privacy so frequently invaded and tampered with. I loved that the image had been printed in Italy, on a fine piece of silk. I had visions of printing some of my own portraits on this same kind of silk and hanging them under the rafters of the Burnside Bridge next to my studio, creating a pop-up outdoor exhibit, with faces freely flowing here and there per the wind ’s whim.

Really? Do I need to keep this now? What if someone else loves Kurt Cobain’s image more than I do? I turned to my computer and posted an image of the treasure on Facebook and asked if anyone wanted it. The first person to respond was my friend Ankitt, a guide I met in India on a Mercy Corps donor trip when I first landed in New Delhi almost ten years ago. I instantly felt good about giving this to him and after asking for his address, I placed it in the post to him.

This action sparked a flow of what I am referring to simply as the “Give Away Project”. As my day moves along, if I see something that is valuable to me, but it is not getting the love or use or attention it deserves, why not post it to the friendship universe and see who would like it? For free. No expectations for anything in return.

This process has been incredibly joyful. I love to see the random surprise of who wants what. From professional camera gear to red hot high heels to leather postal bags, there goes pieces of me and I am thrilled to discover who will be the new recipient.

I have had numerous calls, messages and texts from concerned friends and family asking if I was ok. Some people thought I was planning to kill myself. Others thought I was moving to Africa full-time. Some knew exactly what I was doing right away and applauded the effort.

What does it truly mean to give something up? To grieve its loss, to know you might never see the item or person again? I often wonder why we hold on to things, and even more so to people: do we hold on more tightly when someone wants to grow? Does the act of holding on to things prevent us from growing? A wise Ethiopian friend of mine told me today that when just even a small amount of pain is present when giving, then we are truly giving. Most often we are simply discarding, rather than truly giving.

In Africa and other nations that are not focused on the constant acquisitions of goods, people can live happily with a few pieces of clothing, one pair of shoes, and a coat. They live in small spaces and focus more on gardens, kitchens, animals, caring for each other, building community, music and dance.

I cherish my time when I am visiting these countries, and often feel forlorn immediately upon returning home when I witness our thirst for the accumulation of goods. I miss the freedom to move about without continuous cleaning, organizing, and shuffling of things, and the necessity to own a house that can store all of these things.

So now I wish to see what will happen when I pass along items that are no longer of frequent use or an inspiration to me, but understandably might be to others.

I might be wrong, but I believe something will happen. With a lighter step and having less material goods, it just might be that I will be one of those faces flowing freely here and there per the wind’s whim.

Kurt Cobain

A Rally For Maternal Care in Uganda

He stands tall, towering over the ladies, yet his gestures are gentle. His smile comes quickly as he expresses his love for these women. We are here to listen to his song, hear his words and see dancers hop, shake and spin to the music he makes, all in the name of educating others about the devastating effects of fistula.

The women file into the room, their colorful dresses accentuating their inherent cheerful spirits. They are all fistula survivors, and they are here to help spread joy and encouragement to those who are still suffering from this condition. They have been here before, and they know the isolating despair they felt when they were leaking urine and feces down their own legs.

But today is a new day. They have been healed by the hand of a skillful surgeon and they are now participating in reintegration skill training at Terrewode, their programming funded by the Worldwide Fistula Fund, in the beautiful Soroti region of Uganda. Sewing, jewelry and basket making, bread baking: the products of all of these activities can be sold in markets and and is a way for these women to get back on their feet and feel productive once again. They are here to learn these skills, and also participate in a performance for us.

The African man suffers a generalized stigma that portrays him as typically uncaring, a tyrant who dominates women, marries them at an early age, and abandons them when when they become ill. While these things do happen across our globe, there is another side to this portrayal; concern for women by males in African countries also can be seen readily if one spends any time in villages.

Stephen Otim uses music to attract others to the joyful sounds heard in the distance. In various villages, people gather to see the colorfully clothed dancers and to watch the drama unfold before them. The message in the lyrics and in the dialog all centers around educating others to look for signs of obstructed labor and also to refer a loved one for care should she develop a fistula. Through music and drama, this group is removing the shameful stigma associated with fistula, and in its place they are helping men and women rally around the condition.

One by one, more men ask to become a part of the festive ensemble. They not only understand the issues surrounding maternal care, they feel a sense of responsibility and a surge of motivation to spread maternal health education further. Young men, old retired men, boys: they all want to be a part of this collective concern for their wives, sisters, mothers and daughters.

Each day, approximately 16,000 women die or suffer serious complications from causes related to pregnancy or childbirth. Every six seconds a mother-to-be experiences a life-threatening complication.

I think we all have some work to do.

Music heals, beckons and is a universal language that has no boundaries. Stephen picks up his thumb drum, smiles at my young Moroccan male assistant who has been busy setting up equipment, and says slyly “Would you like to learn how to play?”

(Update: I will be returning to Uganda in November 2015 to work on documenting the music and dance troop’s performances and to assist with an Oregon-Uganda goat milk soap making project. Donations for this work are greatly appreciated. Send us an email if you would like to hear more about these two projects. You can make a donation here. Specify “Soap Project” or “Music Project”)

 

Stephen Otim leads a music, dance drama team to tell stories, educate and instill hope about fistula

Stephen Otim leads a music, dance drama team to tell stories, educate and instill hope about fistula

Fistula survivors learn skills to enable them to earn money via the owenership of small businesses

Stephen Otim leads a music, dance drama team to tell stories, educate and instill hope about fistula (Soroti, Uganda)

Stephen Otim leads a music, dance drama team to tell stories, educate and instill hope about fistula (Soroti, Uganda)

WWF Uganda

 

View a video of the musicians and dancers in their village here.

 

Mary Ellen Mark: An Inspiration To Many

Mary Ellen Mark lives.

She is still examining between the lines of what we see and what we understand. The subjects of her portraits, her students, the people whose eyes she deeply sought and whose lives she intricately examined, know she is not gone. How could she possibly be far from our reach for influence?

Her voice lives on. Her love of the less seen and forgotten souls lives on. Her catch of nuance and unveiled thinking still moves us.

I will miss talking with her, yes. Seeing her braids. Hearing the jangling of her bracelets. Feeling the swish of air that arises from her swirling skirts when she walks by. Looking at her hands.

But she lives. She’s here. Her belief in humanity and resulting photographic images command a riveting attention like no other. How she moves us.

Maybe I finally will listen to her words of advice more so now since she won’t have to repeat those sentiments as often as she had to in the past. Sorrow blankets my heart. I can hear her voice, magnified.

No, Mary Ellen has not left us. She has only just begun to fill the world around us, and will do so for our future generations.

She just caught the light.

 

Mary Ellen Mark

Mary Ellen Mark

Mary Ellen Mark

Mary Ellen Mark

Mary Ellen Mark

Mary Ellen Mark

 

To see more images, follow this link:

www.jonikabana.com/clients/MEM

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To hear my radio interview on Oregon Public Broadcasting:  Remembering Mary Ellen Mark

 

The Cadence of Motherhood

I watch her slip into a surgical cap and gown, and carefully wash her hands. This isn’t the first time she has been in the operating theater in Africa, nor will it be the last. She stands tall and confident, and moves about as though she has the experience of a lifetime.

But she is only 18 years old, and she is on a mission trip to Ethiopia to help with maternal care surgeries.

Brynn in surgery

As I watch my daughter work alongside deft handed surgeons, my heart pounds a bit harder. Here she is, whole and healthy and grounded, and had we lived in this same Ethiopian town at the time when she was born, most likely we both would have perished. She means the world to me.

I suffered obstructed labor with my first child, and luckily lived in a nation where I had access to emergency obstetrical operations. Two other children came after the first, born under the same conditions, and all three are now enjoying robust lives. And now I have a family to cherish. They mean the world to me.

Ben, Aaron, Brynn

My connection to women in Ethiopia runs deep. I am devoted to bringing their stories afar with the hope that more people will rally around global maternal care concerns. Each time I look into their eyes, I want to express my sorrow for the inequity of health care around the world. Why was I so fortunate to have had access to emergency obstetrics and these women, the women who teach me so very much, do not? In this day and age, it is unforgivable.

Fatumo

Yet, faced with so many problems and maneuvering a day’s hard work of fetching loads of wood and carrying heavy jerry cans of water while traversing rugged terrain just to get food on the table for their loved ones, these mothers show no remorse and reflect only astonishing resilience. In their eyes, I don’t see sorrow or resentment or desperation; instead, I see a quiet fortitude, boundless happiness, and flickers of hope.

Lalo

Ethiopian woman praying

One woman takes my hand and helps me learn how to milk a camel and cook over a fire. Another tells me that my attire will never attract anyone. And yet another mother shows me how to nurture a child through a tantrum. They all, each and every one of them, show me the virtue of grace and the benefits of choosing happiness over despair, even while experiencing dire circumstances.

Taiko Cooking

Joni and The Camel Milk Producers

The demand for good maternal care in Ethiopia is high. Men will carry a woman for days to a health post only to find no staff in sight due to a shortage of doctors and health care officers. Women will stand in line at rural health posts for weeks, waiting for assistance. I applaud organizations such as The Liya Kebede Foundation, The Hamlin Fistula Hospital and The Barbara May Foundation and many others as they work tirelessly to bring effective health care services to these women.

Women waiting in Gimbie

Woman waiting for health care in Gimbie, Ethiopia

Yet it is the young girls who are embedded in my heart the most. They learn early on to withstand pain and suffering, and to only focus on the positive threads in each day. It is these girls who need reassurance the most – that the world is here for them, and substandard and inequitable health care practices are unacceptable.

They deserve to know that they mean the world to us.

Fanta

Young girl in Sheno, Ethiopia

The Passage

 

New Storytelling Format

We just launched a new visual format for telling some of the stories we capture, incorporating several types of media: still images, video, sound, and slideshows.

Follow this link to view the first two we created!  The first story is about Degie, a young woman in labor in rural Mota, Ethiopia , and the second story is about Fatuma, a camel milk producer near Jijiga, Ethiopia.

Stories

A mother contemplates her long walk home after surgery in Motta, Ethiopia (For the Barbara May Foundation)

Camel milk

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