ASMP Best Of 2011

My work documenting emergency obstetrics in rural Ethiopia was chosen to be in the American Society of Media Photographers “Best of 2011” project list.  I am hoping that this will bring about increased understanding of the difficulties surrounding maternal health that are present in rural settings.  The Ethiopian government is actively developing solutions to address these problems as quickly as they can, with minimal resources.

Here is an interview that details this project and others that I am working on, plus some of my philosophies and business practices.

Ethiopia: Presentations and Discussions

Here is a list of upcoming lectures/slide show regarding our emergency obstetrics efforts in Ethiopia:

February 17, Portland, OR
Portland State University, 2:00pm classroom discussion. Call for details.

February 17, Lake Oswego, OR
Lake Oswego Reads, 7:00pm, Marylhurst College, 17600 Pacific Highway

April 19, Portland, OR
Medical Society of Metropolitan Portland, 7:30pm, Embassy Suites Hotel, 319 SW Pine St.

May 15, Portland, OR
The Development Salon meets in the Park View Room at the Mirabella in South Waterfront. 4:30pm Wine Reception, 5:30pm Discussion. Mirabella is located one block east of the OHSU aerial tram base at 3550 SW Bond Avenue. Call 503-688-6806 for further directions.

May 16, Bend, OR
Cascade Camera Club: Bend Senior Center, 1600 SE Reed Market Road. Doors open 6:30 pm; meeting begins at 7:00 pm.

Ethiopia: And The Beat Goes On

Many people ask me why I travel so much to developing nations, continuously witnessing such dire human circumstances. Do I come back depressed because I could not help the people as much as I want? Do I lie in bed at night sleepless because I am thinking about what I saw? Do I ever feel joy again after living for a period of time in the bush of Africa?

Yes, there are difficult situations and living conditions where I work. I do see things that haunt me for life, wishing I could somehow eradicate the problems. But in Africa, there is a fuel that exists that blasts into my soul and spills out into my body as I dance, sing, play…and share the feeling hope found in the most trying conditions. That fuel is called “Joy” and it is found in Africa in the most pure sense. Over and over again, during the many visits to Africa and Madagascar, I see a sense of joy that is never, and I do mean never, experienced in my own home country.

I often think about this, and wonder: is it because we are so removed from the Earth that we don’t sing and dance with each other every day? Are we so individualistic that we don’t feel a tribal village sense of community? Sure, we occasionally dance and sing. Some people drum, or play instruments. But when we are most depressed, when the world seems to be ending, do we often reach inside and experience joy at these times?

Often in Africa, when I least expect it, people will break out in shouts, dance, song. Drums appear, sticks are tapped together, voices surge. And little can be done to not get completely swept up in the festive feeling. Even the most staid of people are drawn into the happy frenzy that arises. You simply can’t help but join in, even get swept away to the next village. It is, simply put, our human nature to do so.

Ethiopia is a special country, indeed. Music and dance play a large part in elating the human spirit here. Priests chant, women sing, men dance. I find myself often letting caution go to the wayside, and along with that a sense of play emerges. Camera equipment? Be gone! Shoes? Get them off of me! Hey…I did not know my body could twist like that!

And when I look into the eyes of someone I am dancing and singing with, I did not know my soul could be loved like this.

When I return home, I try to replicate this same feeling. Hip Hop lessons, shower singing, dancing with my dog. But when I play this feeling out with another human friend, my gesture is usually met with a side look and a mumbled comment such as “you are so wacky”. And right there begins my plan to return to Africa as quickly as I can.

It does not take much to instill within an African village the desire to break out in song and dance. In these images, happiness was expressed for a range of reasons, from sharing an engaged smile with a person, to excitement at a wedding ceremony, to villagers appreciating a new water system put in place by Mercy Corps donors.

And as I sit here now in my warm and comfortable home, my heart is back in Africa because I know in various places (right now!) many people are expressing pure and unadulterated elation.

And so it is, in Africa, the beat goes on.

Ethiopia: Reaching Across The Divide To Find Home

How does one reach across the physical divide, the oceans, the continents, the cultural ways and manners and ancestry, through the ages and wants and struggles, with fever and perfect pitch, over again, deep inside from one heart to another?

He appeared from inside his grandfather’s home, now his own, a grass thatched hut that looks like the face of an elephant, eyes piercing mine with his first question:

Are you here to see my home? My village? Wait here.

We wait. He is in complete control.

It was a last minute decision to come to Dorze. I had originally wanted to see “the real thing” tribes in the southern region of Ethiopia, only to reverse these plans upon hearing about the overflow of large groups of tourists invading that territory. I prefer more off track experiences, nuances, glances, the hesitant gesture of a hand reaching for something unfamiliar, the shy flicker of a smile that can’t be helped.

His charisma fills the air as he goes about his work, revealing to newcomers the specialness of this village high in the mountains. Here is the house my great-grandfather built, here is the much loved false banana tree that supplies so much to us, here is where the animals sleep, right with us so their heat helps us to feel warm in this high mountainous place. And perhaps most beautiful, here is the sensually soft kuta gabi our villagers are famous for creating. Feel it in your hands, wrap your body in it. It will surely change you, in the place where yearning meets comfort.

Large frame, muscular with dread lock hair, his eyes are intensely focused and won’t let go. Disturbing, in a most beautiful way, as I have felt often here in Ethiopia.

I ask him about the local Timkat celebration that is about to start, and as many experiences go in Africa, I soon find myself immersed in something I can’t turn away from, no matter that we only contracted our driver for one half day.

In a sea of white kuta gabi cloths, searching stares, and energetic dancing, I soon forget about anything I possess, camera equipment and my own mind, and I feel like I am floating in a galaxy of stars. I feel so alive!

I find him in this sea of faces, watching my every move. Protective, caring. He has my laptop and photo gear in one hand, a spear in the other. The first image of the expanse we anchor. Two lives brought together by Chance, East meets West, white fuses into black, ancestry pulls present, craving trips restraint. The music joins us all. I let my photo equipment and laptop scatter among the people.

More, I want. More of this floating feeling. More of this living thing. More of this instinctive trust.

He takes my hand and invites me further into his life, his people, his spirit. We make the long trek up the side of the mountain into the village center and he brings us to his joyous and screaming fun pub, bodies smashed against each other, gyrating and pulsing to the music. How do these Ethiopians dance like this?! I try to join in, which only increases the euphoria as they burst into laughter and more people get up to show me how it really is done.

Soon, the driver is impatiently pulling time into my mind and we set off to leave, aborting the rousing festivities far too early. I feel like we hurried our goodbye, and I leave with a sadness knowing I did not properly thank him for his time and opening his village to us.

Darkness falls, and not knowing this at the time, I later find out he came down from the mountain and called on us later that night, only to find us away from the hotel fulfilling a work necessity. Looking back, I was shaken that evening. Stunned by the ancientness of his land, the sacredness of it all. I continue to feel so small, yet so consistently loved by the people in this country. Often, someone will tell me in broken English: “You not American. You Habesha!” Still, I feel so insignificant.

Morning dawns, a week passes, then almost a month. My awkward little phone I purchased flashes a call, and thinking it was one of the doctors, I hurriedly relay the state of the requested task at hand. I go into full commentary mode, explaining our status. Confusion persists, and I keep thinking I just am not able to find the English words he knows. I keep repeating the words.

Wait. Who is this?

It is me, he says his name from many miles away, and he wants to know where I am. Despite poor cell and no internet reception in his village, he has found a way to communicate by securing my cell number from one of the guides in Dorze.

Mekonnen? Is this really you? He is now in Addis and relays that he has come there, a 10+ hour bus drive away, to say a more proper goodbye since ours was done in haste, and to thank me for trusting his village. Once again I am not there to receive his gesture, but this time he says he will wait for the day that I return to get on my plane to return home.

I fail miserably at an attempt to respond to this ardent and kind gesture. No words, no reaction surface…I am just utterly stunned. He knows nothing about me or whether I deserve this extended hand, nor do I know anything of him or why he feels it is necessary for closure on our goodbye, and it simply does not matter.

It is Saturday now, and I sit in the hotel lobby, waiting to see him. He arrives in a taxi, ambling out of it like a rock star headed for stage, his body simply can’t restrain the rhythm and soul within. I jump up when I see him, and forget the traditional Ethiopian handshake and grab and hug him hard, the American greedy way, as I try to consume him.

We spend the evening together, along with one of his weavers and Dr. P, and he gursha feeds me bites of injera and grilled tibs, a vast divide growing as each minutes passes. I can’t join this world, no matter how hard I try. I was not born within these ancient practices. Yet the seduction and romanticism of the Ethiopian culture passes over my heart and into my mind as I think: We came to this exquisite country to teach and give guidance, and here I am, in this very moment, on my knees of sorts, filled with wonderment and respect and awe of this gentle and powerful soul who has taught me so much about grace and human relations and engagement in such a diminutive period of time.

His eyes catch and hold mine, and his mouth curls without thought or hesitation, nor the overlay of structure and division of beliefs and pasts, and I realize something that has alluded me for most of my life:

Across the physical divides, the oceans, the continents, the cultural ways and manners and ancestry, through the ages and wants and struggles, with fever and perfect pitch, I have found in Ethiopia, my home.

Ethiopia: The Shoe Shine Boy

Yemataw, body lanky and now molded into our doorway, asks if I need anything.

Water to be fetched? Floor to be cleaned? Chicken slaughtered?

I am completely captivated by his most kind eyes – the kind of eyes that play with you, turn you upside down and inside out, fully aware of their capability and effect. How can I possibly resist engaging with this impossibly charming young man?

And indeed, I want to.

He assumes his service role with aplomb and grace, with a dash of mischievousness. I look at him, and I am witnessing heaven. And a bit of hell as well, as I realize I will too soon have to say goodbye to this riveting soul.

As days turn into weeks, Yemataw becomes part of the fabric of our lives. He shows us how to conserve water. He laughs as we run and hide while he slaughters what is soon to become our dinner. He eats with us, and shares our joys. His head at a constant curious tilt, his amusement rests just below his surface, relaying to me that he knows far more than he lets on.

His story begins to unfold as we walk to market. Fatherless at the age of six, he has assumed the role of family patriarch, wanting only to fulfill his promise to care for his mother, who lives an eight hour walk away.

On occasion, I offer to help him supply his home, a small former storage room the width of his floor mattress, with little light shining through the small window. No thank you, he responds. That purchase is too expensive. Just help with my education at some point, if you must.

One morning as we prepare to set off to see an outer clinic, he asks to join us. I tell him I will see if there is room in the lone hospital truck, which doubles as an ambulance. With ever twinkling eyes, he tells me he will pray for a seat. As we pile into the truck, I see him in the distant, fervently polishing the shoes of the doctors, his main income position, eyes darting from shoes to our car to the shoes and back again. I want to give up my seat to make room for him.

Yet, loss is an everyday occurrence here in this dusty and remote town of Mota. Hope, however, always prevails.

I see, instead of disappointment, a wide smile, eyes dancing. He shines faster as though to say without words Chigga Yellum! (No problem!). I won’t deliberate on loss. What is the use of that?

I return early, and walk to his room. He shows me the things he reveres: a lone poster tacked up crookedly, a warm blanket, two plastic buckets, a small pillow. I search for the well-used hotplate we had earlier given him and I don’t see it. Did he sell it at market? No, there it is.

Yemataw left his village a few years ago and went to work as a tanner for 12 birr (less then $1.00) a month. He picked up English, practiced it wherever he could and eventually found his way to Mota, where he assumed his current position of Principal Shoe Shine Boy and Gofer.

Many a doctor and ferenji (white foreigner) use his services. As I watch the interactions, it is clear that Yemataw is dearly loved. One by one, the doctors line up for lunchtime shoe shines, their western clothes peeking out from under their white medical coats. Handsome they all are, confident also. They have found their way to a secure and well respected position. Chigga Yellum.

Yet, here I stand, observing this scene, and I long to be in Yemataw’s presence most of all. He who knows the human spirit perhaps best of all of us who are formally educated at high levels. He who knows how to focus on solutions, always, rather than dwell on his problems.

I find my heart bursting open over this young man. Can I ever go back to my contained and restrained self after feeling so much love, over and over each day, for a human spirit such as Yemataw? I long, each morning, to see this young man, he who can start and end my day in the most brilliantly, sparkly way.

We find each other a few times every day, laugh hard at the myriad of problems that befall us (which there are, assuredly, many) and set off for his tasks at hand: floor mopping to the sounds of Michael Jackson music, market purchases with gentle patience, translation with gusto, soul soothing with vigilant sensitivity.

At market one day, I offer to purchase a gabi for him, as he does not have one of these Ethiopian traditional cloths. He refuses it. I purchase it anyway, and he shows me to the tailor who can sew it into one gigantic piece. As we wait for the gabi to be sewn, we walk to the local juice bar and sip on spritzes silently, keeping our communication to only smiles and heartfelt sustained eye contact. I love this wonderful human being.

Days begin to slip into the sad realization that soon we will be leaving, and here today I am now saying goodbye. I reach for the gabi he helped me purchase at the Mota market and say “Think of me when you wear it. Please?”, echoing his words he said to me when a day earlier I tried to give him an abandoned scarf I found.

This time, he accepts the gift.

And as I drive away, tears falling freely because they simply come easily here, I see him in a far distant field, looking zealously my way, hands held high in the air, holding the white gabi so that it sways like a flag in the warm morning breeze.

As I watch his form fade into the distant horizon, I am comforted by what I have learned from Ethiopians over and over again: the physical form is less important than the spirit of humanity, and I know he is coming home with me.

Ethiopia: A Place For Longing

In Western culture, I don’t think we find ourselves longing enough in our hearts. Perhaps in our haste and hurried manner, with the ability to connect immediately, we miss out on the effects of pining for someone.

For most of us, water flows, food is abundant, electricity is reliable. Everything is at hand, and we don’t often experience the loss or the threat of losing it. In Ethiopia, cell phone and internet communication is a luxury, if it exists at all. Daily life includes energy specifically reserved for the effects of breakdowns in communication.

And as a result, the human heart connects.

When phones work, I often get calls from Ethiopian friends just for the sake that communication can be had.

Hello? HELLO? It is me, Yemataw. Where are you? How are you? OK. I will call you later.

Click.

What did he want?

Just making a connection suffices, and once again, I have been spoken to without words. Tender, heart-tugging touch points.

Ah, we connect. Words can be unnecessary, an embellishment really, when the heart is affected.

Yet, with every call that comes in such as this, I hang up with a broken heart. What did they really want to say? I know what I wanted to say.

But instead, a series of “Hello? HELLO? Are you there?” consumes me, and then SLAM! A silence as I sadly realize the phone connection has gone dead.

To the depths of my inner soul, I long to hear their voice again.

Poverty assumes its position often here, and I suspect the caller might be conserving precious cell phone minutes. Or, they fear they won’t recall enough English words. Who really knows.

Eshi, I am here. I am so here.

And, I will wait for your call again. Please call me again, new friend. I promise to answer!

And I promise to let you go, quickly.

Are you still there now?

Ethiopia: How To Score A Wife With A Lemon

Tongue tastes lemon
Strike!
Once again, alive.
Captivating it is
Riveted to the Now
Problems wane
Only task,
Without fear,
Reveals.

During Timkat celebration, we hear that the tormenting and highly sensual lemon takes front seat as a beckoning tool to help secure a wife. Here is the recipe.

How To Score A Wife
Girl sees boys, lots of them.
Girl locks eyes with those she likes. Perhaps one. Maybe more.
Boy has lemon in his pocket.
Boy sees girl he likes, and she is looking at him.
Boy throws – hard! – lemon at the chest of the girl he chooses.
Girl at once becomes shy and looks away, never looking at him again, even thought she initiated this!
Boy persists to find her eyes.
Boy does not look elsewhere.
Girl has until sundown to – once again – look straight into his eyes.

Surrender.

Ethiopia: A Male’s Love

I came into this country set to focus on and expose the plight of women, how their frail under-fed bodies give way and break under the enormous pressures of their lives, from their daily hard work to child birth complications to relentless back and forth fetching of firewood and water for their family’s meals. Instead, the tender gestures of the men repeatedly beckon my curiosity and catapult my heart.

I will forever remember the image of these men, eyes searching for assurance, hope and a sign that their loved one will be well. They speak in almost inaudible whispers, “eshie, esh, esh”, (yes, yes, yes) murmuring as I try to communicate through body language and nuances. I extend my hand, hold their eyes with mine, and know sadly that I can’t reassure them of the health of their loved one. I can only offer my Western bred feeble attempt to return the gentle love they express through their delicate manners.

Without doubt, my heart beats for the men of Ethiopia.

One after another, they offer me a jarring counterpoint to my preconceptions of the barbaric circumstances I have heard about: rape, abduction, child marriages. Believing that these things do exist, I see no signs of the capability of these heinous behaviors.

I don’t think the heart can be directed willfully. And today, once again, I feel my heart opening and expanding into deep crevasses that were long ago hardened by a series of youthful poor choices and the history of watching first hand the abuse of my own mother.

These men toil the fields, tend to the animals and can’t bear the sight of their loved one at the throes of unbearable pain. They pace the hallways of the maternity ward, for days, after selling off their cows to pay for the hospital services, searching they eyes of anyone who looks confident. They carry her gently and lovingly for many miles and days in search of medical help.

Will she survive? Will she come home with me? How can I help?

Eshie, esh, esh.

An extended hand is met with a strong grip, from a place of desperation, never wavering their yearning that is born from hope. Passion at its most exposed and vulnerable level, they reach for the health of their loved one.

I also witness these traits outside of the hospital setting, as I watch the interactions on streets and in small villages. There is an unfamiliar and incredibly seductive way that the men protect the well being of the women they love. I know I am romanticizing, and that abuse and excessive control do exist toward women. I see this on occasion. But by far, and so surprisingly, I see the grace, love, and extreme tenderness that the males feel toward women here.

Many before me have remarked about the intense eye contact found in the eyes of Ethiopians. It is almost like their ancient ancestry and lack of colonization give them powers that the rest of the world does not possess. As one Ethiopian man recently told me while sitting at an airport, “Everything starts, and ends, with the eyes.”

If this is indeed true, and my own eyes are not deceiving me, then I never want this love affair to end.

Ethiopia: A Gabi Comforts

I remember the day my father told me that “Blankie” was lost. I was devastated, having held onto the remains of that blanket since the day I was born. I remember the love I felt for the threadbare piece of cloth, how it comforted me when I saw it after a long day of playing in the woods or riding my bike. Years later, my father confessed that he and my mother had decided on that day that it was time to throw it away. I felt betrayed.

When my oldest son Ben was around 8 years old, he had an “Oatmeal Bear” that replaced his beloved Blankie, and during a visit to San Diego, we inadvertently left it behind, tangled in the bed sheets. I went to great lengths to get it home….calling the hotel every day, asking if it was found. The hotel staff kept saying it was not there. I finally had the idea of asking them to check at the laundry service company, and sure enough, they found it and sent it to us. I think I was more excited than Ben was to open the box when it finally arrived in the mail.

Letting go of good things is something that I talk frequently about with my children. It is easy to let go of something bad, but incredibly difficult to let go of something good. It takes a special courage, and belief that better things are yet to come. There is risk with this also: what if the next situation does not work out as well?

I left my corporate job, one that I truly loved, when the first of my three children was entering college, a very difficult time to decide to do this. I was petrified that I would not have the same financial security than when I had this steady job in the lucrative field of Information Technology. Yet I knew that photography was my first love, and I had never tried to make a living from it. If I did not do it now, then would I feel up to the challenge when I retired? Would I even be around then? The concern of never making the leap outweighed the risk of remaining status quo. And I was right, my income did decrease extensively, and it has not always been easy to live with the question regarding where the next photo assignment might come from.

But I gained many things that I could never have attained had I stayed in my comfortable job. I learned firsthand about marketing and public relations and accounting and client relationships. I also learned how to shift my business plan as the field changed. And by far, best of all, I got to see extreme delight when people were happy with a photo I had made. Today I enjoy consistent and incredibly fulfilling work, and I will go to my grave thankful for those who believed in my talent years ago more so than I did, and were there to encourage me to give this a try.

As I navigate the issues that are present here in Ethiopia, I love to watch how important an Ethiopian gabi is to the villagers. They are comforted by the softness of the cotton, men and women wrapping it over their heads and shoulders. I see them stroking the edges when they are worried. I watch them shivering in cool evenings and wrapping up in their gabi to stay warm.

When I purchased my own, I could not help but remember how it felt to have a blanket be a source of comfort. As I move through these days here, my gabi brings me peace and inner warmth. When I wear it outside of my room into the town center, many villagers tilt their head and exclaim “Firenji! Gabi!”.

They know what this big square of cotton brings to me. And as I take yet another important new leap after I return home, I am happy that this gabi will be there as a source of comfort and a reminder that it is nice for even grown men and women at times to be wrapped in something soft and shielding as we make our way into the throes of uncertainty.


(Photo of me by Jay Wright)

Ethiopia: Degie’s Story – Part 3

I enter the room cautiously, not wanting to disturb the family. They motion for me to come all the way in, and when I do, I see beaming faces and hands outreached, scrambling to make contact. I am only the photographer, not a doctor, but their joy and appreciation are boundless: Degie has lived through an obstructed labor and childbirth, and the baby is thriving. I look at Degie, and her smile is wide, tears are in her eyes. I grab her outreached hands and shake them like a mad woman. I too am thrilled to see such a difference in her well-being. I can also detect concern regarding how she will comfortably make the long walk home.

She slowly uncovers the tiny baby boy next to her, her first-born child, and the cool air makes him stir. Lips plump, tiny fists pumping the air, he opens his eyes and makes a sucking sound that makes us all laugh. He is content. I motion outside for someone to come and translate for me, and I tell Degie that I think she will make a wonderful mother. I also tell her that I have never seen such devotion from an extended family, at least three members sitting at her bedside around the clock, waiting to see if she needs anything.

In rural hospitals, the family must provide basic care for the patient. They feed them, bathe them, and sometimes even administer simple nursing tasks. Degie’s sisters, brothers and grandparents have provided exceptional care for her. It is not always like this. At times, there is no family support. These perhaps are the most difficult situations to witness. When a person comes in great crisis, and they have no one to support them, most likely they have no means to pay for services and they reluctantly must turn away. It is heartbreaking to watch a very ill woman, laboring with a child, have to leave the hospital grounds based upon inability to pay the fees. Once again, our souls reach out to her and want to pay the fees, but the hospital administrator strictly advises us that this creates more problems than they can handle once we are gone.

What do they do? Where do they go?

This is simply a way a life here in rural Ethiopia. Our minds turn to how we could possibly make the payment of fees sustainable. An on-going fund for destitute patients? A plea to the government? We don’t know these answers.

But Degie is fortunate in that she has many brothers who sold cows to pay for her surgery, and have taken time from the fields to carry her home. They gently walk her to the makeshift stretcher, and tenderly move her down onto it, covering her with a gabi. A chaotic flurry of hands dip into injera and food is passed around. The men are fed quickly so that they have strength to make the arduous walk over rock strewn terrain back to their village. After a bit more clamoring as they decide who is in front and who is in back, they reach down and pull up on the stretcher, lifting Degie’s body high onto their shoulders. The sisters pack up the food and scurry behind, barefoot with gabbies flowing in the wind.

I watch them turn away from the hospital and walk together down the rocky road toward their village, their feet hitting the ground in rhythmic unison. And as they disappear into the horizon, I see the faint outline of a group of men carrying a woman toward the hospital.

 

Copyright 2015 Joni Kabana. All rights reserved. Site by TD