Posts Tagged ‘Africa’

This March 22 is World Water Day, reminding us of the 1 billion people on Earth who lack easy access to the water most of us take for granted. This week, our first ever piece to broadcast on TV, CLP’s “Water Wars,” will air on PBS’ Foreign Exchange. It was a really profound experience work on this project and to discover how global climate change is leading to increasing drought and drying wells, threatening an ancient way of life and fueling conflict. Check it out on PBS’s Foreign Exchange all week; and on the CLP Web site and YouTube any time.

Also, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and 1H20.org is featuring a series of other multimedia stories by the Common Language Project group. For more details, check out CLPmag.org.

Cheers to the release of all these new stories, and Happy Easter!

Read Full Post »

“I will never, never take water for granted again.”

I repeat this mantra to myself as I stand in the shower, somewhat awkwardly. Shampoo is still lathered in my hair and is slowly dripping into my eyes. The water has stopped pouring from the spout again. It just ran out. It does that here. The irony of course is that the CLP came here to report on water scarcity issues, some of which we are experiencing first hand.

Talk about immersion journalism. Sarah walked for 2 miles with a woman from the remote village of Dillo just to fetch water for her community. Now, I’m learning to anticipate such situations, and more than ever before, have begun to appreciate the true value of water. Who ever thought water was a luxury? For many in Ethiopia, it is just that, and it’s still taking me time to fully understand how such an essential resource has become as much a source of conflict and hardship as oil. Water should be a basic human right.

Woman washing clothes
In Addis Ababa, this women walks miles from her home along with hundreds of others to bathe and wash clothes at the springs at the top of Mt. Entoto, where the Italians had left water points during WWII.
A few hours later, I repeat another mantra I’ve grown used to repeating:

“I will never, never take internet for granted again.”

I’m sitting at the internet cafe hoping to connect with family and friends. But the blog-page has frozen, e-mail won’t send, and the photos are too large to upload. This hasn’t been the first time, so I brought a book to keep me busy while the pages load. There’s a couple interesting reasons for the dragging internet. One – the Ethiopian government holds a monopoly on internet by owning the only internet service provider in the entire country. Lack of competition and restricted freedoms (it’s impossible to start a blog from Ethiopia. They have them blocked), have made internet a rare commodity limited to the rich. And two – just a few weeks ago an underwater break in the fiber optic cables caused an “internet blackout” that swept Eastern and Northern Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia.

Thus, the lack of working internet has been an issue for the CLP group since we arrived here. But this comes with the terrain when you are an international journalist, especially when you’re dealing with online, multimedia journalism.

The circumstances have been a blessing and a curse. We have learned to live spontaneously, to expect the unexpected, to go days without a shower or e-mail, and to revel in the chaos of a city like Addis Ababa, or the fragility of the remote villages of Oromia. It is frustrating, but frankly, sometimes I love it. Every day has brought something new, and despite the failing internet or the lack of water infrastructure, I will miss this country desperately when I leave. But before I return, please do me a favor. Take a warm shower. Surf the speedy internet. Revel in its rare luxury, it’s blessed comfort. Don’t take it for granted. Although I’ll miss Africa, I’m relieved it will be waiting for me when I return.


My colleague Ernest and our interpreter Ali visit an internet cafe in the town of Awassa during our 3-day long journey to Kenya. Ernest said the internet was so slow we couldn’t open e-mail, so we decided to hit the road.

Read Full Post »

Doing the video thing at the Dubluck wells. By Julia Marino

The white Toyota Hilux glowed as it pulled up in the middle of the unrecognizable night to what was the small, destined village of Arero. In my comatose daze, I was astounded by the reality of our arrival, our minds and bodies unscathed, curious, and ready for a warm bed and an Aspirin. At that moment, I realized that part of me believed we would navigate the nebulous, jarring road forever, the truck jerking to and fro rapturously, repeatedly, sending our bags up in the air before stopping urgently to change another bald tire. Such an experience erases all consciousness of time, all understanding of place. Yet, once the moment sinks in, its unfamiliarity can create a sense of peace even amid chaos.

Outside of Arero (photo by Alex Stonehill)In the darkness, I was led to a place where I could sleep. The room was a shadow cast by a single candle that dripped wax onto a makeshift chair wobbling on the dirt. Dawn must have been approaching, for as I finally began to fall back into sleep, the first beams of sunrise streamed through the holes of the wooden door, casting fingers of thin light onto the walls. Outside, a rooster called steadily. Dogs howled, and the hum of insects harmonized with the abrupt sound of men as they yelled in their native language of Oromifa.

I gave up on the prospect of sleep as the orchestra of sounds invaded my consciousness.

Unrefreshed, I found Ernest, Alex and Salihu in a similar room across the compound. We began an early breakfast of roasted goat tibs in a broth over a coal-fed fire. It was then time to talk about our goals, our ethics and our hopes as researchers, storytellers and journalists.

Salihu had been immensely helpful to us, and I respected his knowledge, compassion and eagerness to assist us in our work. Without his generosity, we all knew we wouldn’t be traversing the remote villages of Borena. He had led us to invaluable information and insight, helping us gain access to others who could inform us further. But after hundreds of kilometers from Addis, and many adventures lived already, we knew it was time to seek out the best location to do our reporting on our own. So, it was decided we would have to part ways so we could travel to Yabello, a central location for researching the lives of pastoralists and water-walkers.

Traveling Through the Bush and the Brave Borena Woman

Before we left for Yabello, we set up a spot in the dirt pathway to interview Habiba Boru Gutu, an internally displaced Borena woman the Red Cross truck had picked up in Negele. While we roamed the rocky road to Arero the previous day, I joined her in the back of the truck, at the protest of Salihu who couldn’t understand why I would possibly give up my warm seat in the back of the truck.

Habiba Boru Guto (photo by Julia Marino)

“But it might be too cold! You’ll be more comfortable up front!”

I insisted that it would be fun, that I wanted to get to know the lone woman, and wanted to feel the cold wind on my face.

He eventually relented, and I found a spot on top of the dusty, green tarp covering our many bags next to Habiba, who like many Borena women, wore a brightly colored scarf around her hair that draped onto her shoulders. The truck took off on the road and jerked us toward the back of the cab as the sunset began to set, the trail behind us narrowing until it disappeared into the horizon.

Despite a rather large language barrier, Habiba and I communicated with hand gestures and facial expressions, her unidentifiable locution lingering in the air. She spoke several dialects of Oromifa, as well as Kiswahili and Amharic. I, on the other hand, only knew only a couple words in Amharic: Sulamn, ishi, ah may say ganalo.

I later discovered that she had lived in Nairobi for a few months, and so could distinguish a Kenyan any day. She and Ernest soon struck up a connection, where he learned details about her life I couldn’t grasp in the back of the truck.

Now in the dirt hallway of the humble inn, Alex and I set up and handled the video camera while Ernest interviewed her in his native tongue. Ernest explained how she had to flee her home once the Guji people massacred her village, mainly made up of Borena people, because of conflict over resource scarcity. I learned that she had once a very productive business, and was able to afford to fly her children from Kenya to Ethiopia. After the massacre, she said that she lost everything – all her wealth, the basic necessities she needed to help support her family, and her home.

Despite being internally displaced and dealing with the harsh consequences of such conflict, Habiba spoke calmly, as if the experience had forced her to strengthen and placidly overcome the challenges around her. I knew at that moment, that I had a lot to learn from her bravery.

Mirages and the Governor’s Clothes

Outside of Dubluck (photo by Alex Stonehill)After we interviewed Habiba we said our goodbyes. We promised to see Salihu again in Addis, and he and Habiba gave us warm hugs. We hopped in the back of a Red Cross Ambulance, another Borena woman sat in the back next to us, offering us a sip of the cursed, curdled milk that we tried the other other night.

As we drove, we came across tiny villages with thatched huts. The women wore distinct, ebony braid, and children carried large sticks, spears, sometimes even guns to help protect their cattle. Dust whirled into clouds as we passed the staring natives. The truck drove precariously in a gust, infinity ahead of us.

And just when we thought our flat-tire days were over, the truck came to a sudden stop again. Our sixth stop in the middle of the bush; the scene appeared to us like a mirage. After all, the earth stretched as far as the eye could see on all sides, the sun coating our every breath. Only dust, a couple thorn bushes and two trees were within sight. All speculations aside though, we were all happy to know we had a functioning spare tire. We learned the hard way that you can never have enough spare tires in southern Ethiopia.

The changing of the tires was now clockwork, and before we knew it we were on the road again. Not too long afterward, what seemed to be another pseudo-mirage approached us. It was a paved road! The bumpy surface we were so used to bearing was now a calm, smooth pathway leading to Yabello. But about six feet before the truck hit the pavement, the car thumped again, and we were almost sure we had lost another tire, despite our relief. At that moment, we held our breath so tight that as soon as we made it across the paved road, we all let out a sigh so immense, the truck almost tipped over.

Next stop would be finding the Provincial Commissioner for all of Oromia- Abdulqadir Abdii.

“PCs in Africa have so much power,” Ernest said, matter-of-factly. Our driver stepped out of the car asking random people if they knew where Abduliqadir was – that’s how small of a town Yabello was.

We finally found his home and sat down on small wooden stools near his front yard. We discussed our plans for the next day, where he agreed to help us find a driver and translator to take us to the town of Dubluck, a small pastoralist village famous for its singing wells about 70 km away. Another area we were planning on reporting in was an even smaller village around 200 km away named Dillo, an area with the most dire water scarcity in the entire region.

The Motel and The Buzzing Commissioner

Singing Well at Leh (photo by Sarah Stuteville)After being stranded in the middle of the elusive bush, and experiencing the morning nap in the dusty room in Arero, we were all fantasizing about a clean bed, and more importantly — a shower. Hot, warm, frozen, it wouldn’t matter. At the advice of our handy Lonely Planet, we pulled into the Yabello Motel, a place the book described as “clean and comfortable.” Although the toilet and the shower were outside, it was nice to finally find a place to unpack and unwind.

The next day, we had a scheduled meeting with the Province Commissioner to discuss plans to visit pastoralists in Dubluck and women who carry water long distances around the area of Dillo. He picked us up at the motel, sunglasses glistening, shoes polished, his face with a serious look that meant business. As the PC approached our table, the waiters stared, the manager gawked, the birds chirped curiously from the tree branches, and the receptionist from that day forward became mysteriously more polite.

We entered Abduliqadir’s office to find it adorned in polished wood, shiny leather, and an assortment of documents stacked in his bookcase. The room smelled of cleaner and cologne. We sat in the conference area, his overstuffed, black leather chair asserting the head of the table. The ironical juxtaposition of his luxurious office to the thatched huts and outdoor toilets in the town made me a little dizzy. Although Abduliqadir was a generous man, this dichotomy showed the extreme gap between the wealthy and the poor, those with power and those without.

Between different phone calls, the PC would hang up his phone and then assertively press a giant button on his desk.

“buzz. buzz.”

The sound was piercing.

His secretary would then peak her head in the doorway, nod her head as he spoke and close the door again.

Two minutes passed. “Buzz, buzz.” The secretary peaked her head in again, nodded, closed the door. “Buzz, buzz.” The same would repeat.

He told us he would find us a driver and interpreter to help us in our reporting in the region. However, finding an interpreter might not be an easy task, he said.

“English is a problem in Ethiopia, not like in Kenya,” he said smiling at Ernest. Ernest let out a loud guffaw, the kind of laugh he makes when he’s both amused and speculative at the same time.

But at the last buzz, we were on our way out, accompanied by the PC’s personal assistant Atanach Tolcha, who would interpret for us in the pastoralist village of Dubluck.

Cattle, Camels and Pebbles In My Sandals

The drive to Dubluck was rather short in comparison to our other treks, the truck letting out a large puff of dust with every bump in the earth.

As we approached the village, we observed a wide dirt road lined with mud homes serving as the center. As we opened the doors to the truck, little kids with no pants and snotty noses approached us wildly, pointing their fingers at my face and exclaiming, “you, you, you, you, you, you!”

We found the deputy chief Galgalo Dida at this center, and he guided us to the desert-like pastures and singing wells.

The ground was as dry and expansive as a deserted planet, with layered sand stretching for miles on all sides. A thin layer of dust grazed the surface of the ground as hundreds of cattle, goats and camels dotted the landscape. Cattle were being herded toward us and behind us and by our side toward a trough for a drink of water, or toward the horizon to graze or to the town to make fresh milk.

After a short interview, the chief led us to one of the traditional wells — its deep walls resonating with the low chanting of men, their beaming baritone steadily bouncing off of the well walls an into ears with each approaching step. The men’s singing is a ritual dating back centuries that helps them endure hours of long, laborious work under the scorching sky. The singing men bent down and then reached forward with such ease and steady deliberation, never missing a beat or a refrain.

At the “hauuuyauuuh!” of a pastoralist, the cattle stampeded down toward the well to drink water, scattering the ground with dung and mud at every step of their hooves. Women and men rotated buckets back and forth as they poured fresh water from the earth into a canal of water.

As Alex and I handled the video cameras, taking turns experimenting with new shots and angles, Ernest worked his interviewer-magic. The chief and a dozen pastoralists surrounded us as he asked about the struggles of the community to maintain a healthy livestock and livelihood in such a resource-scarce region. They talked about the importance of the wells in order for the cattle and the people to survive, especially during the dry season when it would cease to rain.

I began to imagine harmonizing with them in a hand-dug well, strengthening every muscle as I scooped out more cold, refreshing water. I tried to picture myself exerting hours of labor each day just to receive enough water for my family to live on. Of course, it was somewhat a difficult task to fully realize a life lived in a village in Dubluck – a place so distant from my own sprinkler-running, Aquafina-drinking environment. But now that I have come to know the beauty and struggle of these pastoralists, I am certain that water will never again taste the same.

With the approaching sound of the next cattle stampede, I was snapped me out of my thoughts and motioned back toward the truck. As I walked away from the well, I could hear the distant echo of the men singing, the water splashing, the pastoralist shouting, and the cattle mooing – its distinct rhythm and unfamiliar pattern, somehow, resembling a peaceful chaos.

Photos by Alex Stonehill, Sarah Stuteville and Julia Marino

© 2008 The Common Language Project

Read Full Post »

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

Read Full Post »

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

Read Full Post »

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

Read Full Post »

As I sit here in my drafty college apartment in Athens, Ohio, I begin to recollect a few remarkable moments in my life. Moments I like to call “a-ha! moments,” that have not only stirred inspiration in me, but have shaped what I am about to experience in the approaching months – a multimedia reporting trip to eastern Africa with the independent, nonprofit news magazines The Common Language Project and Afrikanews.org.

One of my first “a-ha! moment” occurred as an idealistic 17-year-old foreign correspondent/ columnist for my high school paper while living in Cochabamba, Bolivia. For six months I explored the issues ranging from carnival, coca eradication, globalization and poverty. It was there along the Andean valleys that I realized what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I saw stories all around me that were just waiting to be illuminated, and I wanted to uncover them.

Five years later in a snazzy Hilton conference room during an annual Online News Association conference in D.C. the smell of dry-cleaning and potpourri poured through the halls as hundreds of journalists from various news organization discussed the future of online journalism. Amid some tedious talk of money-making and business, the three founders of the Common Language Project stood up and delivered what was the most refreshing presentation of the weekend. They defended our generation as not one that cares about merely money, celebrities and gadgets – but one eager to learn about issues facing people around the world and looking for a more human approach to storytelling.

The group showed everyone a picture of the CLP office – a comfy spot on the ground in a distant country, reminding everyone that journalism isn’t about glamor, but uncovering the untold or underreported. As they talked about their travels, obstacles and freedoms as independent journalists, I was instantly reminded of why I had decided to be an international journalist in the first place – to create awareness and give a voice to people who need it the most.The eastern Africa team hangs out at a park in Seattle.

Last spring, I met the CLP founders for the second time at Ohio University where I received a degree in journalism and am now pursuing a master’s in interactive multimedia. It was Scripps’ annual Journalism Day and the CLP were chosen to speak on media consolidation and reform conference, especially as it applies to international journalism. That same day I was awarded the Scripps’ international reporting scholarship to intern with the CLP as part of the Eastern Africa Initiative.

The distant dream of reporting abroad again was now becoming a close reality. I soon met journalist Ernest Waititu, a native of Kenya and fellow graduate of Scripps’ School of Journalism, who has also become part of the project team. Together we began research on eastern Africa, planned benefits and meetings, and even experienced a whirlwind visit to Seattle to meet with the three founders. There, Ernest gave us all Kenyan names – Sarah was named Atieno, Jessica was named Asha, and Alex – Kilonzo, and I was given the name Shiku – short for Wanjiku.

My most recent awe-inspiring moment occurred this November at the Kent Stark campus in North Canton, Ohio. The room resonated with a message of perseverance and perspective as John Dau – one of the thousands of ‘Lost Boys’ who had escaped murder, starvation, disease and hungry lions during the on-going genocide in Sudan, and director Christopher Quinn of the documentary “God Grew Tired of Us” spoke to a large crowd.

Dau began with his story.

“Sudan is the largest country in Africa, but it has the problem of fighting each other all the time,” he said.

He then described his earlier childhood years before the violence started as being like ‘milk and honey.'”

But that goodness didn’t stay, he continued.

“Right in the middle of the night, guns woke us up,” he said. “I heard my mother say, ‘children! children! come out!'”

Dau described how he and other young boys escaped his village – forced to leave their families behind. They traveled east toward Ethiopia without any food, water or clothing. The boys lived on anything they could find such as leaves and grass as the days increased to months.

“I remember my body turning white, and I was crying, but no tears were coming from my eyes,” he said. “By this time, some of the boys had died. Some didn’t want to keep going. They wanted to stay and die there.”

By the time they were forced to leave Ethiopia and travel to Kenya, more than 9,000 boys had been killed throughout the treacherous journey – some from disease or starvation, others by guns or hungry crocodiles and lions.

In 1992, Dau’s group finally arrived at the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, where they started school. Soon afterward, the first Americans came to the camp, said Dau. “They spoke with their noses, and I couldn’t understand them,” he said chuckling.

The Americans began to talk to the boys about bringing them to the U.S. “I remember distinctly that the day that they came I was wearing a T-shirt that said U.S.A, but I pronounced it “ooosuh.”

I smiled at his sad and endearing story, trying to comprehend how someone who had underwent so much tragedy had such an incredible humor about him.

“The one thing I always share with people is the idea of “perseverance,” Dau said at the end of the speech.”If you want to succeed, you can’t give up. I didn’t give up, and that’s why I’m here today.”

When Dau arrived in the U.S., he has founded a number of nonprofit organizations including American Care for Sudan Foundation and the John Dau Sudan Foundation, which raise funds to build the Duk Lost Boys Clinic, the first medical clinic in Duk County where Dau lived as a boy. With the help of other ‘Lost Boys’ and related organizations, these projects are improving health care and education in southern Sudan as well as educating ‘Lost Boys’ in Africa.

Dau’s message was not one of anger or sorrow, but one of hope even in the face of war and loss. In that moment, his message of perseverance and perspective touched a very strong chord. Although I could not begin to fully imagine the pain that Dau had undergone while traveling so many miles and losing so many loved ones, it was easy to see how perseverance would be integral to our reporting trip to eastern Africa.

As journalists and even as students we have an understanding of perseverance – albeit a much less significant understanding than those who have struggled such as Dau. Nevertheless, we learn to whittle away at work for hours, staring at a computer screen and sifting through notes and notes on endless sheets of scrap paper. Perseverance is pushing forward even when it’s scary. It’s finishing something especially when it’s scary.

For our upcoming trip, perseverance will include adjusting to a new culture, learning new technologies and asking tough questions. Facing such stories head-on will allow us to challenge our inner-presumptions of what it means to persevere, introduce fresh perspective in storytelling, and like in the words of one of my favorite poets William Blake, “…see a world in a grain of sand, and a heaven in a wild flower. Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, and eternity in an hour…”

As we continue to prepare ourselves for the adventure ahead, I hear Dau’s voice in my head calling me to persevere and keep life in perspective. I remember those moments that have inspired visions of voices being set free in Africa, and I am reminded of times abroad and at home that have reminded me to appreciate every new experience that awaits us.

© 2007 The Common Language Project

Read Full Post »