Archive for the ‘life’ Category

Hardly, Strictly featured in Impose Magazine: Scene and Heard

Impose Magazine featured a story I wrote about the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco. Check it out:

Naked feet sprint through Speedway Meadow in Golden Gate Park – a distant echo of familiar songs splintering the air as a cacophony of hipsters and old-timey folk listen and share their wares. Just a few more leaps through the thicket of eucalyptus, and we barely arrive at the edge of the “Towers of Gold” stage. My right hand is now pouring red wine, the left slapping my knee to the psychedelic sound of Dr. Dog, just one of the 81 musical performances at this year’s bluegrass weekend festival in San Francisco, Hardly Strictly.

Read the complete story at Impose Magazine: http://www.imposemagazine.com/photos/hardly-strictly-in-san-francisc

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Ailing in Addis

A classic form of torture is the practice of ripping off the fingernails of the victim until the information is forcefully and mercilessly extracted.

For a CLP reporter, a single fingernail torn out by the quick bite of a rusty folding chair, to the smell of unpalatable spaghetti, only evokes sympathetic questions.

And while such a bloody episode is more often dealt with by the likes of a fictional character played by George Clooney in the sociopolitical montage Syriana, my encounter was very real, covert activity notwithstanding.

On the contrary, my absurd experience at St. Gabriel’s hospital in Addis Ababa exposed me to the realities of healthcare in Eastern Africa, and provoked me to look further into healthcare availability and costs while comparing the Ethiopian system to healthcare realities in the United States.

It all started at the 7Up hotel and restaurant across from the CLP’s Addis Ababa home in a pocket of the 22nd neighborhood. We were planning on enjoying a late lunch. Tired of the fermented injera that we had consumed relentlessly for the past two weeks, we ordered a few plates of warm oily spaghetti and a round of cold St. George.

In my eagerness to take a closer look and whiff at the food served, I naturally scooted my chair closer to the table, tucking my hands between the two metal bars of the chair.

I felt a sharp quick tear, which soon turned to a numbing pain. My little finger had been mangled in the rusty joint of the chair. Choked up by tears, no words could come through my lips, except for a nonsensical screech, that my colleagues told me sounded like a distressed street cat. I assured the group that I was fine, and that they could continue eating. But suddenly none of the food seemed appetizing and Sarah insisted that we go to the nearest clinic or hospital.

Do you think my finger nail is even still there? I ask, looking down at the small, crimson ponds of blood oozing out of the sides of my finger.

“Ummm… I don’t know,” Sarah replied hesitantly, looking over at Jessica.

“Let’s just go see about a Tetanus shot,” said Jess avoiding the question.

We soon arrive at the small, white private hospital just a block from our house. There were a few other people in the waiting room, all sitting patiently and calmly. I looked around, and didn’t see any other blood but the one that was gushing from my finger. Within only five minutes I was already meeting with a doctor, who began pouring water and disinfectant onto the wound.

I immediately thought about how long I’d have waited in the U.S. to see a doctor.

“I think your finger nail is still here,” the doctor said.

The cold antiseptic burned like fire, and sent shivers throughout my arm.

She swabbed my finger gently and looked at me curiously. She could tell that I was eager to ask her something.

Which was true, while I was there, I thought it’d be a good opportunity to interview her about some health issues related to our stories on sanitation and water, not to mention health concerns regarding traveling.

As a traveler in Africa in particular, health is a topic of discussion several times a day. It might go something like this:

“Don ‘t drink this water, you’ll get diarrhea.

“Ok, just bottled then. And what about this fresh lettuce?”

“No, no, that’s washed in the contaminated water.”

“Ok. But I miss salad.”

“Well, you’ll miss proper digestion too when you become a hotel for parasites.”

“I think I already have parasites.”

“Ok, well, let’s get some Zentel. Did you remember your malaria pill today?”

“Yes, and I have my yellow fever vaccination card so I can cross the border into Kenya.”

“Ok, good.”

My conversation with the doctor took a bit more serious tone.

“Do many people come in here because of water-related illness?” I asked.

She told me that a large percentage of her patients suffer from waterborne diseases by simply drinking the city water, mainly due to road construction, which has broken some of the water pipeline, exposing this water to dirt and contamination.

“Most people don’t believe they are sick because of the city water, so they don’t boil it,” she added.

In Ethiopia, less than 40% of the population has regular access to an improved water source, compared to almost 100% of the U.S. population, according to the World Health Organization.

Due to these poor sanitary conditions, 250,000 children die every year in Ethiopia. One woman Ernest and I spoke with in the poor slum of Kechene in Addis told us how she had lost her granddaughter because of a water-borne disease. Where she lived, she had to walk 45 minutes to find a spring which was still probably too dirty to drink by most standards.

We also met NGO workers at CARE international who work on improving malnutrition in children around the border town of Moyale. With more than half of children under five severely malnourished, many Ethiopians chronically suffer from a lack of regular food.

There is no doubt that Ethiopians suffer from poverty and disease at an exponentially greater rate than Americans. But like my surprise regarding the accessibility of healthcare here it’s important to examine the benefits and drawbacks of both places – maybe with some lessons to learn in the process.

While most Americans have enough food to eat and drink, it is difficult to find organic meat or vegetables at affordable prices. Processed fast food, with its lack of nutrients, is much more accessible to America’s poor, who often suffer health problems as a result.

Ethiopia on the other hand, raises and serves grass-fed beef and organic vegetables by default. You won’t find a trendy, organic health food store here. Instead, market-fresh vegetables and fruits are found on almost every corner in Addis, and freshly butchered goats hang lifelessly in corner-store windows.

Unlike in America, most everyone here has access, though irregular, to organic meat and vegetables, but ironically, these foods raised in a natural environment without chemical fertilizers or pesticides are also often tainted by being irrigated or washed with contaminated water.

The same idea extends to healthcare costs. According to a Wall Street Journal-NBC Survey, almost 50 percent of the American public say the cost of health care is their number one economic concern. While an emergency room visit for someone without health insurance in the US can cost a month’s paycheck, in Addis, a trip to a private hospital is closer to $10 or $20. Public hospitals are even more accessible to Addis’ poor and working classes.

But in many remote regions of the country, Ethiopians have no access to hospitals private or otherwise and for many a few dollars in medical fees might as well be thousands. The grinding poverty of the country combined with a desperate lack of infrastructure creates an environment where most Ethiopian’s won’t live to see their fifty-fifth birthday.

Back at St. Gabriel’s hospital, with my interview completed and my finger snugly dressed I welcomed Sarah and Jessica as they arrived to pick me up.

“Well, the doctor thinks that my nail is still there. It’s just crushed,” I said.

“Actually,” Jessica said… “No.”

She held a single nail up in the air, the nail’s surface reflecting sunlight upon its incandescent curve.

“Oh…uh…really?” I laugh nervously.

“We found it under the chair. We just didn’t want to put you into shock.”

Laughing, I went and showed the doctor the nail. She was as dumbfounded as I was. I tucked the finger nail in my bag, and decided it might be a good thing to keep as a souvenir.

It’s easy to say that the healthcare system is far more advanced in the U.S. compared to a country like Ethiopia, and in many ways it is. But the reality is that the U.S. healthcare system is also in need of change. And like access to clean water, access to regular medical care—or lack there of—speaks to the level of development in a country.

My hospital visit in Ethiopia made me realize that while country is in great need of more medical resources, some services are more readily available and affordable than in the privileged nation of the U.S.

Losing a fingernail is the least of most people’s worries. Meeting those in Ethiopia who struggle daily with common yet potentially deadly diseases such as diarrhea and malaria makes me thankful for my health and the health of those around me more than ever. And it helps me understand the crucial issue of healthcare with a new depth.

Throughout the globe, it is up to us as individuals and our leaders, to help ensure the health and well being of all within our society. I know it sounds funny, but I still have that fingernail. I carried it all the way here from Africa to remember the experience and to remind me that as old systems die off, new ones can grow back.

© 2008 The Common Language Project

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Ernest Waititu with traveling companion and Salihu SultanBy Ernest Waititu

When our four-wheel-drive Toyota Hilux vroomed off the town of Negele I knew I was in for a giant adventure. Well, I must quickly clarify that I was not here for adventure; Negele is of course not one of those places you go site-seeing. I was here to work, following stories on water scarcity and how it had impacted the people of Southern Ethiopia.

But work or no work, I had to steal some moments and have some fun. For how could I close my eyes, ears and soul to the beauty of Africa? How could I possibly not be moved by the expansive fields and the distant hills of Negele, which carried me back to my childhood as I took care of my family’s cattle in the plains of Kieni in Kenya? While drier, this part of Ethiopia had more similarities with Kieni – the place where I grew up — than any other place I had been.

I was compelled by this alikeness to take a psychological journey back to my boyhood. In the small, bare-footed, parched-faced boys who were following dozens of their cattle, I revisited my childhood. I saw myself in every one of these boys. My eyes opened up to the wild, to the large birds I had trapped for food, to the deer I had hunted with my dog Simba and to the joy of carrying loads of wild meat in the evening when I accompanied my family’s cattle home for milking.

These experiences had brought me to a dreamy sense of being and completely banished from me the troubles of the journey — the bumpy and rugged roads that had completely exhausted us on our first day of travel and made our 600 km journey from Addis Ababa to Negele a 24-hour nightmare.The Road to Hudet

I was jolted from my reverie by a round burst underneath the car. The devil himself had visited terror on us again. By this time, the fifth time we had heard this sound, it was unmistakable — we had another flat tire to fix. But the most depressing thing about this experience was not changing the tire but the fact that we had exhausted all the spare tires we had. When we had left Negele we had decided to take a risk, bringing one spare tire and hoping the road would be better. Until this time, 150 km into the trip, it had worked okay.

But now there was no chance of finding a tire. The Red Cross chief of the Borena zone who had hosted us for the tour, Salihu Sultan, observed that we were now deep into the lion country and that the tire-changing exercise had better be done fast.

Curdled Milk

Ernest helps to change the tire.We quickly and nervously changed the tire and hopped back into the car. A few miles down the road we came to a small town called Hudet — a village of mud-walled houses lined in each side of the street where our host unsuccessfully sought ways and means of getting a new spare tire. While we could not secure a tire from here, we were able to get some food: a piece of the delicious Ethiopia bread, a cup of tea and glass of curdled milk made the Borena way.

Having eaten, we were ready to get started again. Immediately after hitting the road, a lump tightened in my stomach perhaps as a result of the fear of losing another tire and spending the night in the bush. Judging from the past day, we needed nothing short of divine intervention to protect all the four tires from the jagged rocks that dotted the road.

And still, the lump in my stomach tightened. I am usually not given to premonitions but something deep down in my tummy felt terribly amiss. But still I hung on to hope, we had covered more than 200 kilometers. We had less than 40 to go. We could do it. We surely could.

When it came, the bursting of the tire sounded just like the previous five: a loud puff and then a stream of gushing air. In unison, as if premeditated, we all muttered a muffled gasp of despair and rolled out of the car.

Some silence followed, and then rather foolishly I decided to enquire about the status of the lions to from a Borena man we had picked and given a ride from Hudet – our last town. The man, having grown up in the area and being well versed with the terrain was the best person to consult on such matters. The lion was not exactly here, he said matter of factly, but it would be found a little further, perhaps a kilometer or so up the road. Good Heavens, I have never been more scared in my life!

The Fire

Some more silence, and then a refreshing thought came to my mind. “How about making some fire?” I asked. The Borena man made a quick cracking fire from the dry woods that littered the bush nearby. While growing up, I had been taught that fire was a good way to scare away wild animals. I hoped to myself that the wisdom of my people would ring true even here in the bush of Ethiopia.Ernest Waititu with traveling companion and Salihu Sultan

The fire was a good idea but in our tiredness we soon got fed up with it, and some of my colleagues retired to sleep in the car. We were right in the middle of the bush – more than 30 kilometers each side to the nearest town. There was no way anyone was going to walk to seek help. Our one hope, Salihu told us, was a vehicle coming from the direction we had come, which could help us ferry the tire to Arero for repair. In Arero, we could get a Red Cross ambulance to ferry the tire back to where we had been trapped. For a long time we kept looking up the bushes for signs of beams of light from an oncoming car.

Presently, our Borena friend being more in tune with the bush way of life started clearing up a spot on the ground and conveniently retired for the night. Unlike me, he was a seasoned bush traveler who had chosen to be more practical in the face of the current realities.

In the back of my mind the thought of the lion showing up when I slept would not leave. In a split of a second, I thought the whole attack through, even picturing what the headlines in the Kenyan newspapers would say: Kenyan Reporter Killed in Ethiopian Bush, or even better: Kenyan Journalist Mauled by Lion.

Buffalion Dream

We looked for ways to get ourselves comfortable in the bed of the truck, foregoing the security of the enclosed cab, which came along with tremendous discomfort. At this time, after having slept a maximum of three hours the previous night and after being out in a turbulent car most of the day, not even the fear of the lion could stop me from falling asleep. I was tired. Soon after getting at the back of the open truck, I fell fast asleep.

And then, the buffalo came. It looked more like a lion than a buffalo: mid-sized, brownish and aggressive. Alex and I jumped of the back of the car and broke twigs from the dry branches as we desperately tried to repulse the buffalion. It was such a scary task, we had to do it to survive. Our desperate and frantic attacks from both ends seemed to bear fruit momentarily. With his long swinging hands, Alex was doing a better job of attacking the monster than I was. I had to try harder. The beast would retreat fleetingly before charging. And just in one of those moments when I was huffing and puffing from the charging beast, Alex shook me from my sleep. It was just one of those rare dreams that brings you as close to reality as you can ever get. It was 3:30 in the morning. We were still sprawled in the bed of the truck. But our driver had just returned with the mended tire.

Finally, we were set to begin the last leg of the journey to Arero.

Fifteen hours, 250 miles, and two flat tires after Negele, we arrived in Arero. Salihu booked us what was supposed to be the best hotel in town – a line of mud-walled rooms each with a bed at the edge. Its state not withstanding, my bed that morning was the one bed I had appreciated most in my life. It was 6.am. and I had to make maximum use of the precious bed. In two-hours time, Salihu would be waking us up to start our next trip through the wilderness.

Photos by Alex Stonehill

© 2008 The Common Language Project

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After a week-long excursion in the southern Oromo region of Ethiopia to report on water scarcity and how it affects on the lives of “water walkers” and pastoralists, my four colleagues had a lot to soak in. Our minds were full with stories, both light and serious, of our various adventures and the people we met along the way. Thus, we decided that it was our journalist and creative duty to document the behind-the-scenes story of our travels. The following is a five-part series titled “Heading South,” with each of us focusing on the story of one day (In my case two days). We start with Day 1: A Night on the Road told by CLP founder and lead photojournalist Alex Stonehill:

Alex Stonehill

By Alex Stonehill

We stood in the pre-dawn glow of the street lamps, greeted by intoxicated heckles from the previous night’s most diligent drinkers. A battered, extended cab Toyota Hilux pickup pulled up, carrying a mound of mysterious goods under a green tarp and bearing faded Ethiopian Red Cross decals on its doors. Seeing that there were already three passengers inside, I almost threw in the towel right there and sent my colleagues Ernest and Julia on without me, motivated as much by the practicalities of fitting so many people into such a tiny space as I was by the thought of my still warm bed waiting for me just down the block.

I’m still not sure I made the right decision in allowing my backpack to be haphazardly strapped to the top of the green mountain, and folding my legs practically against my chest so as to wedge myself into the cab.

Though I’d never met any of them before, I knew the man seated directly in front of me — who’s heavy briefcase was now wedged under my arm — to be Salihu Sultan, a regional director for the Red Cross, who’d offered to take us on a quick tour of the water issues in the South on his way to distribute medical supplies in a remote region called Arero. The driver and middle passenger hadn’t been introduced, adding to the enigmatic feel of our 3am departure, though they were later revealed to be Salihu’s two brothers.

At first my sleepiness got the better of me and I settled in almost comfortably, but even before the asphalt road disintegrated just past Awasa, the pressure of six bodies, five bags and an inexplicable electronic keyboard inside the Hilux began to take its toll on me.

Camels cross the road on our way to Negele Borena. Luckily, I soon had plenty of time to stretch my legs as we changed two punctured tires in rapid succession, the second requiring Salihu and his younger brother to venture ahead on the bus to the next town to get the tubes repaired, while we waited, sharing awkward smiles with the locals who lived there along the road.

We ate “lunch” in Hagere Selam, though it was already close to sunset, and as we drove on up the winding, verdant road, it started to sink in just how far away from anything recognizable, and how powerless over my own situation I was. I felt a gnawing panic. When, and where would we finally arrive, and how would we eventually retrace the mounting kilometers of jagged roadway leading back to Addis?

Salihu had informed us that it was at least another 200km to Negele, which was the nearest place we could spend the night if he was to make it on to Arero in time to start his screenings and distribution of supplies the next day. My faith in the Hilux and its four worn tires had been deteriorating in step with the road conditions, especially after watching a teenage mechanic back in Hagere Selam stuff three or four scraps of old rubber tubing inside one of them as padding.

Inside the HiluxThe fear slowly eased out of me as the sun set, blazing an orange trail of clouds across the horizon, past the expansive lowlands spread out below us.

I woke up to a frantic moaning from the front seat. We’d stopped, and Salihu’s brother was beating his own forehead with a closed fist, as a group of wailing, shrouded figures pulled him from the car.

We were parked in the moonlight facing a large dimly lit tent between two rows of mud buildings. As the silhouettes outside the cab embraced, I recalled Salihu mentioning earlier that his grandfather, who lived in Adolla, was very ill. He must have died just before we arrived; all of the hurrying, the driving through the night hours and the rushed meals along the way that had seemed so uncharacteristic of Ethiopian culture as I knew it started to make sense.

Ernest, Julia and I just sat frozen in the back seat of the truck in the darkness, not wanting to make a burden of ourselves as guests in the middle of the crisis. We began contemplating how Salihu and his brothers has put on such a show of hospitality and friendliness for us over the last 18 hours, even with the imminent death looming over them.

In our culture, a family emergency is the ultimate excuse to disengage from obligations. But here Salihu had insisted on honoring his commitment to bring us with him even though he had no responsibility to help us in the first place, other than a cultural sense of hospitality that seems to overcome the good sense of most Ethiopians.

After a time, he emerged again and hurried us inside the tent. A dozen men in keffiyehs and robes were reclining on mats at the far side of a tent, surrounded by scattered, leafy branches.

Even through my exhaustion, it didn’t take long to realize that I was finally laying eyes on the plant that I’d heard so many rumors about as we’d researched the East Africa project back in the States. In recent years, the DEA has declared khat illegal in the US and they’ve deported several of Somalis from the Seattle area for importing it from East Africa. I’d also heard many Somali’s bemoan the financial drain that the drug is on their country, as it is hugely popular there, but only grown in neighboring countries like Ethiopia.

KhatWe were invited to sit with the men, and before long I was chewing away at my first mouthful of the fresh shoots from the top of the branch I’d been handed. The taste was bitter and tannic enough that a swallow of water washing it down tasted as sweet as Coke by contrast. It seems to me that that psychotropic effects of khat have been overstated, although the mere fact that I was able to remain conscious at that point may be a testament to its potency as a stimulant.

Despite everything, Salihu remained anxious to cover the final 100km in order to reach Negele that night, so I filled my pockets with some of the remaining leaves, and we piled back into the cab.

Somehow the mood in the Hilux lightened once we left, as if the hour of intense public mourning between Salihu’s family had been enough to acknowledge the death of the patriarch, who at about 65 years had lived a long life by Ethiopian standards.

It was 3am again before we finally reached Negele. Contemplation of the cultural differences in mourning practices quickly gave way to weary frustration at the growing welt on my shoulder as it was methodically beaten against the truck door, and fantasies of the warm bed and shower that might await our arrival.

We arrived to a town much smaller than I’d guessed from the glow of its lights on the horizon, and a hotel where the taps had all run dry. Still, a full 24 hours and 600km after we’d departed, it was hard to think about much more than sleep.

Photos by Julia Marino and Alex Stonehill

© 2008 The Common Language Project

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Despite the threat of being chased down by Ethiopian police, I’ve still managed to take some photos while here in Addis:

From top to bottom:

Mother of Mt. Entoto, Priest of the Italian Spicket, and Mother of the Kabenna River (We are following the Kabenna River for our piece on water scarcity and sanitation in Addis)

Woman of Mt. Entoto

Priest of Mt. Entoto

Mother of Kabenna River

© 2008 The Common Language Project

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Christmas Baby

I awoke Christmas morning to a phone call from Daniela. Her voice was excited, relieved, a little shaky. She had just given birth to her second Christmas baby.


I didn’t believe her when she told me. I had just seen her at St. Bernard’s midnight Christmas mass just hours ago. And she was not due until February 2nd. We were not only celebrating Christmas, but also Mia’s 2nd birthday (Daniela’s first born baby and my goddaughter), as I stood with the family outside the stone cathedral. When I lifted Mia up in the air, she immediately gave me a quick peck on the lips. She had never done this before. She smiled and said, “Hello” but it sounded more like “heeewooo.” She pointed to all the glowing lights on the trees and exclaimed, “Luz! luz!”

The next morning, Mia’s wide eyes were struck with curiosity and fascination as she looked at her new baby sister Victoria. As she pointed to her “Tori,” as she likes to call her, she said “yuckkkeeee.” But she was anything but yucky…she was the smallest, most delicate baby I had ever seen. Born about six weeks early, she weighs a little more than 3 1bs. Mia had been born 5 weeks early, and weighed a little more than 4 1bs. Fortunately, both Christmas babies are healthy. The miracle that is birth amazes me!


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