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.

 

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)

 

I Love Rap Music

I love rap music. It makes me want to move my body. It moves my soul.

I got the chance to go see a rap concert in New York City and all I had with me was my cellphone. It was dark in the venue and it was difficult to track the lighting without getting much blur because these dudes can MOVE!

Here are a few images, and also one of the many videos I took.  This one has my cell phone going for a little ride.

Music Permissions for Video

I was interviewed for this ASMP Bulletin about the difficulties in securing permissions to use music for multi-media presentations. Thank you, David Schommer, for granting permission to use one of your groovy songs from Bole 2 Harlem for my Ethiopia: Feel The Love video. Bole 2 Harlem was playing everywhere I went in Addis last month!

 

Read interview here.

Betam Konjo!

Ethiopia: Meet My Bro, Dani

Dani appears from the darkness surrounding the Mimosa Hotel, and my heart takes an extra jump. DANI! I am incredibly happy to see him, this young man who keeps me safe, and more importantly sane, in Addis Ababa.

I am here! He says. Do you think otherwise?

We share the same love for hip hop and rap music, as well as more traditional Ethiopian fare, and when our eyes first meet each time we see each other, we break into shoulder dancing. It is always so great to see him!

He helps me get settled the first day here, and the love I feel for him grows each day I am with this funny and spirited guy. Dani!

Each morning, he comes to pick me up in his van, and helps me navigate language barriers, cultural protocols and equipment issues. Such a creative soul he is. Give him any problem, and he will think of a solution. He only likes spending time with “people of positive” and I watch him as he intently looks at people….he has an uncanny ability to assess situations and make the most of them….or get the hell away.

Do you want to take lunch with me, he asks? YES! I say, and off we go on another happy van ride…..he in modern style, me trying to respect and emulate Ethiopian traditional culture. We make a great pair, and by the end of each day, my cheeks are literally aching from laughing so much. He personifies the Ethiopian wicked sense of humor.

Dani works with me at the Hamlin Fistula Hospital, helping to set up interview equipment for our time with Dr. Hamlin and other work. He also is a compatible travel partner; our time in BahirDar following a midwife by foot into the bush to see her outreach health post was productive…..and wildly fun.

And can he DANCE! The professional dancers can not even keep up with him, whispering in his ear on stage that they are tired and need to rest.

I learn so much from this special soul. We sanction our friendship into “family”. He is now my bro in the most heart bonding sense.

I love you, Dani.

 

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.

Copyright 2017 Joni Kabana. All rights reserved. Site by TD