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

Dignity Period Imagery

I love to see how clients use my imagery. The Dignity Period website is full of images I captured, but the way they used this one just blows me away. Their whole focus is so inspiring!  The founder, Freweini Mebrahtu, will soon be in Portland to brainstorm an idea we both have….more to come on that!

Dignity Period will be hosting their annual gala on April 30 at the Missouri Botanical Garden, where they will auction ten of my prints from Ethiopia.

Dignity Period

Ethiopia: What It Feels Like For A Girl

In the back of my mind, a Madonna song is playing. I can’t recall all of the lyrics, but the ending lines play over and over as I watch Kuye in her classroom full of boys:

In this world
Do you know
Do you know
Do you know what it feels like for a girl
What it feels like in this world?

There are 42 students in Kuye’s class, and only four of them are girls. In a society that cherishes girls to a point of thinking of them as “prizes”, too often girls are not seen outside of the home for fear that she will steal the heart of a man before they are ready to have her live outside of the home. When a girl goes outside of the house to socialize or to school, she can also be ostracized a bit, out of fear, jealousy, or the upholding of traditional norms.

Kuye used to go to the spring to fetch water at 3am with her friends because water was very difficult to find. In exchange for her labor, these friends helped her by purchasing pens and exercise books for her to use while at school. If she didn’t help them fetch water, they would not help her. Sometimes she would arrive at late school because she was so tired.

However small, her support is provided by her mother, Taiko. Since she attends school under such financial hardship, sometimes she wanted to quit, but her friends encouraged her to remain in school.

Mercy Corps supports Kuye by covering the expenses of pens, exercise books, uniforms, and soap. Kuye speaks about her moral obligation to her friends, and still wants to help them. But now she tells them that she has assignments to do and will help them as soon as she is finished with her homework.

I ask her what her dinnertime is like, and she tells me that if food is present, they eat. If no food is present, they don’t eat. Sometimes Kuye walks home from school with a friend and they search each other’s homes to see which home has food for that evening, and they will share what they find with each other.

A tough life she has. Yet she remains confident and excited about her future.

She realizes that she is learning more than just the traditional subjects at school. One area that has been particularly difficult is changing the way her family and village think about equality between males and females. Since attending school, Kuye has successfully built the case surrounding her brother’s and her duties at home: hers should be no more nor less than those of her brother’s.

Kuye wants support to be available so she can go to university. She wants a comfortable home in which to lay her head down at night. She wants a husband to love, and children to educate. She also knows more about family planning, and has decided that she would like to have only two children, which will reduce the burden she and her husband will have to feed and educate them.

Kuye is a girl. She loves pretty shirts and skirts and hair bows and bracelets.

She is also a pioneer and a fearless leader, bold and defiant, paving the way for others.

Madonna would be proud.

 

Ethiopia: A Girl Can

The imagery and sound I collected while in Ethiopia last November has been edited into a video and included in Mercy Corps’ new “A Girl Can” campaign.  It is an honor to be involved in this effort to assist girls’ education in rural Ethiopia.

(Photo by Sean Sheridan for Mercy Corps)

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)

 

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