AIDS Orphans

For our Electronic Photojournalism course, we had to critique a multimedia piece on a news organization’s website. I chose the project AIDS Orphans on the website of the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., based newspaper Sun Sentinel. It is a comprehensive piece in several chapters dealing on the AIDS epidemic in Haiti and its consequences for the entire society of the small Caribbean island state.

Copyright 2006 Sun Sentinel

AIDS Orphans is a piece of epic dimensions. After the pre-loader with a short introductory text, the viewer is taken to the main menu where he can choose between four chapters. The first three chapters each explore one aspect of the AIDS epidemic in Haiti while the fourth one tells the story of a Haiti native who died of AIDS at age 18 in Florida. Each chapter is again divided up in several parts, consisting of audio slideshows, interactive info graphics and links to related articles in the Sun Sentinel. At the bottom of each chapter’s submenu is a scrollbar with portraits that introduce on click the featured children with a short audio track.

The audio slideshows are very comprehensive in nature and provide rich explanations of the issues addressed in light of the social and cultural context. Detailed, interactive info graphics provide further information related to the topic and each chapter contains a link list to related articles in the Sun Sentinel. In two chapters (Houses of Hope and A Future With HIV), 360 degree panoramics introduce the viewer to the places featured in the slideshows and the people living in these places. The producers of this project did a great job in creating a multi-layered, interactive and comprehensive piece of journalism.

On a technical level, there is little to criticize. The menus are well thought of and intuitive, and the design is plain, simple and beautiful, without any distracting and unnecessary elements. The only thing that disturbed me while I was working my way through this piece was the music that accompanies the menus. It is the generic, depressive piano music that is featured in almost every other multimedia piece on difficult issues nowadays. I think that the piece could easily do without it. Also, it is very difficult to navigate to the piece from the main website of the newspaper, and even though I knew that it was there, it took me about ten minutes to find it. For someone who doesn’t know that it’s there, it is pretty much impossible to find. Apart from these two issues however, I think that AIDS Orphans is an outstanding piece of journalism that pushes the limits of multimedia.

October 18, 2009


Finally, after far too much time, my last article about my encounters in Zimbabwe. I’m truly sorry that it took so long, but right after coming back from Zimbabwe, I was really not in the mood to write, and the last weeks were consumed by the preparations for my work in India. This article is the most important to me; I don’t want to say anything else, because I think it’s self-explanatory.

During the last four weeks in Zimbabwe, I started working with HIV positive people in Mbare. As promised, Natasha found some affected people who were ready to meet me and help me with my project. The Sunday after the barbecue, we met in Mbare to visit the first two of them. Siman’gliso accompanied us on our walk through the ghetto, and on the way I was terribly nervous. How do you ask people who suffer from a fatal disease, if you can join them a bit on their way to the grave to make pictures? How do you talk about how it feels to know that you are dying? How do you get them to tell about their everyday problems without being rude and insensitive?

With a dull feeling in my stomach, I enter Anna’s house (I changed the people’s names on their request) and we take a seat in her living room. The house is big, eight rooms, and the living room well furnished, with sofas, a couch table, two TVs (one of them, however, without sound), and a vitrine with all sorts of stuff. On the wall above the fire place there are some pictures of Anna’s family and an image of Jesus, in vivid colors and with a metallic shimmer. Next to it, made of plastic in bronze look, a copy of Dürer’s praying hands. Natasha speaks some sentences with her in Shona, then suddenly she turns to me and tells me that I can now ask Anna anything I like. I didn’t expect to take over the conversation that abruptly. Frankly speaking, I don’t know what I expected at all; maybe I figured on Anna talking all by herself, or on Natasha doing the interview, so that I could hide somewhere in the sofa. Completely unprepared, I begin to stammer some questions that are crossing my mind. Of course, this does not contribute to diminishing my nervousness and I start moving around anxiously on my seat and fumbling my fingers. Anna is princely amused and laughs about my incertitude, and if at the end I was as relaxed as she was, then it was definitely not my merit.

Anna is 43 years old, has three children aged between 11 and 24 and has been knowing about her infection since last year in June. Several times while we are talking, she breaks into a heavy cough. She is just recovering from a pneumonia that bound her to the house during the last few weeks. So far, one side is fine now, but the other one still troubles her. She talks about the days when she found out that she is HIV positive. With the beginning of last year, she started feeling not well. She fell sick regularly and lost weight increasingly, but at the beginning she didn’t want to believe that it could be something serious. Finally, in June 2005, she decided to make the test, and when she got the result, her world fell apart. Yet at the same time, it was also a step ahead. Anna accepted her destiny, she took it as granted and began to fight. In her opinion, most of the people don’t die from AIDS, but from denial. Emilia for example, who was a close friend of Anna’s daughter Theresa, never could accept the fact that she was infected with the HI virus. When she finally did, it was already too late. With proper treatment, she could have lived some more years, could have seen her daughter grow up.

Instantly, Anna signed up for the CD4 count. The CD4 T-cells are a special kind of lymphocytes that coordinate the immune reaction in the human body. The HI virus affects these CD4 cells and contaminates them with its own genotype, so that the infected cell – rather than observe its function in the immune reaction – starts producing new HI viruses before it finally dies. Although the body tries to compensate this by producing more CD4 cells, in most of the cases the loss outweighs the production and the total number sinks continuously. Thus, an immune deficiency arises, and infections, that usually pose no problem whatsoever for the body, become invincible, dangerous enemies (see Netdoktor). Counting the CD4 cells in the blood is necessary to coordinate the ARV treatment and thus of course to start it in the first place. In Zimbabwe, there are currently 1.8 million people living with HIV/AIDS (that’s a 2003 estimation according to the Center For Disease Control). Since most of these people belong to the poor half of the population, they cannot afford to get the CD4 count in one of the expensive private chambers, which results in a hopeless overload of the few public hospitals.

Anna belongs to this group of people who cannot bring up the money for the luxury of an instant blood analysis. She signed up for the CD4 test on 10th of June, 2005. Her appointment is on 12th of June, 2006. When she looks to the calendar on the wall behind me, her eyes speak of the desperation with which she hopes to survive until that day. But even if she makes it till then, how will she finance the test? Currently it costs 1.6 million ZIM dollars (about 16 US$), huge money for someone who doesn’t have an income in times of inflation. Usually she sells soft drinks in her house – Coke, Fanta and so on. But just a few days ago, Coke shut down its Harare branch because due to the inflation it wasn’t profitable enough anymore. All that earns her some money now is the sale of Maputi, salted popcorn for 10,000 ZIM dollars a bag.

Anna’s family knows about her infection and she says that they cope quite well with it. When I ask her how she comes along with it, she shrugs her shoulders and says that she cannot change her situation. She is just making the best out of it. What bothers her most is the continuous up and down. One day she feels wonderful, then she takes off the curtains, washes them along with the rest of the laundry, irons everything and hangs them up again. The other day, she is in such terrible pain that she can hardly stand up in the morning. She tries her best to hide her condition from the neighbors. If you have AIDS, you are treated like a leper. People point at you with their fingers and make jokes about you.

After about one hour in Anna’s living room, Natasha softly pushes me to leave. We want to see yet another family and the Sunday workshop, in which she is participating, too, starts at one. I write down Anna’s phone number and promise to call her soon, then we say good bye and leave. After a short walk, we reach the house of Sarah and her brother Joseph. Natasha knocks at the door and we step inside, into a small, narrow living room. We take a seat on a ragged couch and Natasha introduces me again. The difference between Anna’s house and this one couldn’t be bigger. The whole building is as big as Anna’s living room and it’s divided into four rooms. Attached to the room we are sitting in is a kitchen and two sleeping rooms. Apart from the moss green couch set, there isn’t much more than a small shelf with a tiny black and white TV and a little table with some plastic fruits in a wrought iron basket on it. Sarah is sitting next to me on a seat, holding a plastic bottle, and opposite of me, Joseph sits on a chair which he got from the kitchen. Both have been knowing about their HIV infection for some years. Sarah instantly signed up for a program called DART (Development of Anti-Retroviral Therapy), a study of some western nations that supplies 3300 HIV positive people in Uganda and Zimbabwe with drugs. The program guarantees her five years of treatment with ARVs. Joseph was less lucky. When he was tested, the program was already running and didn’t admit anymore people. Just like Anna, he’s now waiting for a miracle to be able to pay for the CD4 count.

Sarah tells me about her disease. Recently, she had a heavy meningitis and therefore, she’s currently taking antibiotics on top of her ARVs. Since no one in her family has an income, she has to swallow more than 15 pills a day on an empty stomach. She is turning the bottle in her hands that she sips from occasionally. It contains a milky substance, consisting of maize flour, water and some other ingredients. This is her only meal today, 500 ml diluted maize porridge, and she has to share it with her brother Joseph. She looks at me wearily and smiles. Her eyes are warm and kind. The medication doesn’t work properly when it is taken on an empty stomach, she explains to me.

During the whole conversation, Joseph sits relatively silent on his chair, saying only a few sentences every now and then. While Natasha is talking to him, Sarah takes my hand and leads me into one of the rooms attached to the living room. She rummages through a mess of blankets, bags and other stuff on her bed and finally produces a transparent plastic bag. It contains two small, white containers with red lids and a folded piece of paper. It’s her DART “membership card” and her drugs. Sarah hands me the paper and I unfold it. Written in a printed table are dates, in four week periods. Those are the days when she gets checked up, and more than three quarters of the table are already filled up. When I ask her what happens when the table is full, she shrugs her shoulders and answers – a bit hopeless – that she will then be referred to the government. We look into each other’s eyes for a while – silently, but meaningful. The government won’t do much for people like Sarah. In this moment, Natasha enters the room and informs me that we have to leave. The workshop has already begun half an hour ago.

I spend the next days mainly with Anna, since it is easier for me to reach her and make an appointment. In her family, two people have a mobile. I don’t know why, but encounters in foreign cultures often become intensive more quickly than normally. At home, it often takes months or even years until you trust each other enough to open up completely. When traveling, this process only takes weeks, days or sometimes even hours. Is it because you know that the time you spend together is limited? Or is it because you know that the other will soon be thousands of miles away, taking his knowledge about yourself with him? Whatever it is, for me it’s one of the reasons to go out into the world again and again and again and search for new encounters. With the people of Mbare it was the same, and after a few days, Anna and me were as familiar as if we had known each other for years. Sometimes, when I was at her home, we just sat there silently and looked at each other, something that is very uncomfortable for people who don’t know each other very well. Saba and me came to have lunch with her, and we went to church together. From the very first day, our relationship didn’t have anything to do with work, it was never stiff or constrained. Although I always carried my camera with me and used it a lot, neither Anna nor me ever felt uncomfortable with it.

After a few days, Anna introduced me to a friend. Her name is Noma, she is in her early forties and has a nineteen-year-old daughter called Mariah. Both are HIV positive and have been knowing it for about four years. Of Noma’s six siblings, five have already died from AIDS; only her elder sister is not affected by the epidemic – that is, if you do not consider it as affected that she is caring for the nineteen children her siblings left behind.

Noma and Mariah’s father were divorced, but they still had a friendly relationship and he regularly came to see his daughter. Then, four years ago, he suddenly became sick and died after a short time. The symptoms clearly indicated AIDS. Then fifteen-year-old Mariah, who had always been a sickly child, convinced her mother to do the HIV test. They went to the hospital where they were separated by the nurses and led into two different rooms. Blood samples were taken from both of them and their status confirmed in an instant test. The doctors asked them to appoint a trusted person who could be notified in case of emergency, and both named each other. When they met again on the hall, with tears in their eyes, they threw their arms around each other and promised to accept their destiny and to give each other strength on their shared way.

Four years later, we are sitting together in their living room, in front of us a glass of Fanta – Coke still doesn’t produce cola – and they tell me this story. The fan blows a slight breeze into the blazing heat of the noon. The more I get to know these two women during the next few days, the more my respect and my esteem for them grows. They support each other in such a unique way, they radiate such a confidence and contentedness, that I have difficulties to believe that they suffer from a fatal disease. Their shared destiny raised the relationship between this mother and her daughter on a completely new level, and together with Anna and some other people that I meet in these days, they teach me a unique lesson in hope and joy of life.

During the next days, I’m coming to Mbare almost daily now and spend my time with Anna, Noma and Mariah. We watch TV together, we go on a walk through the ghetto together, we drink Fanta together and talk about all the world, his brother and AIDS. After about three weeks, I’m going to see Sarah and Joseph again. I feel bad because I didn’t get in touch with them for such a long time. When I enter the small living room, Sarah welcomes me with sorrowful eyes, and when I turn to Joseph, who sits in a seat with the back to the door, I understand why. The whole left half of Joseph’s face is disfigured by a devastating infection that literally eats the flesh from his bones. Joseph tells me that it all started completely harmless with a pimple on his left cheek, just three days ago. While we are talking, he takes a sip of tea from his mug on the table in front of him. He trembles so heavily that only with big effort he can avoid spilling. I watch as he drinks slowly and then puts the mug carefully back on the table, and I realize that Joseph doesn’t have much longer to live if he doesn’t get treatment soon. I ask his sister Sarah if she has time to go to the hospital with Joseph and me to get his face treated and his CD4 cells counted. I’d rather go now, since the infection spreads rapidly, but it is Friday afternoon and all the hospitals are closed. We have to wait for two days.

The next Monday at ten in the morning, Saba and me come to Joseph’s place. Sarah isn’t there, yet, so we wait in front of the house in the shadow. The infection in Joseph’s face spread indeed, but not as bad as I was afraid it would. When Sarah finally arrives, we hit the road to the hospital. There again we have to wait, more than one hour, until a nurse tells us that we are in the wrong place. The blood is tested here indeed, however the sample is taken in another hospital. Again we set off. After half an hour, we reach the Mbare polyclinic. In front of the entrance there are some benches under a canopy top and we take a seat, just shortly, because some workers are cleaning the roof and after I got a full load of leaves and dust swept into my collar, we decide to rather wait inside.

Joseph disappears into a treating room, a nurse examines his face and prescribes some antibiotics and an antiseptic cream. When he comes back out in the waiting room, it is one and the doctors and nurses have lunch break. Again we have to wait for an hour, and we use the time to take some food and get the prescribed drugs. At two o clock sharp, we are back and Joseph goes straight into the treating room where his blood sample is taken. However it is not for the CD4 count, but to define his blood values and liver functions, which is also necessary for the ARV treatment. The nurse hands him over the phials and tells him to bring them to the other hospital as quickly as possible, as long as the blood is still fresh. To get the CD4 count, we have to go to a third place, a private laboratory which opens only after two days. Tired, but satisfied we make our way back to Sarah’s and Joseph’s house. The CD4 count on Wednesday is a matter of two hours, and then there is nothing left between Joseph and his ARV treatment. The fact that the laboratory conducts the CD4 count instantly, for the same price as a public hospital, is also a great relief to Anna. Unfortunately, Saba and me cannot witness the beginning and the first results of Joseph’s and Anna’s treatment, since one week later we are already sitting in our plane back to the UK.

The encounters that I was allowed to have in Mbare opened a completely new view of the things to me. The strength, the endurance, the joy of life and the dignity with which Anna, Sarah, Joseph, Noma and Mariah faced their destiny, put us to shame who always complain about the slightest problems. Through the way they handled their disease, these people showed me the true priorities in life. Vice versa, through my friendship and impartiality in a society that treats HIV positive people like lepers, I had the feeling that I also gave them something back. All the more difficult it was when Saba and me had to leave Zimbabwe. Sarah wasn’t in Harare at this time, so we couldn’t even tell her good bye in person.

Two days before we are leaving, we meet Anna, Noma and Mariah in town and invite them for lunch. They put on their best Sunday dresses and they look absolutely gorgeous. Saba has her diary with her in which she lets the people she meets write some personal words. We sit together, eat grilled chicken and talk about the time we spent together. When it is time for us to leave, we all take each other’s hands and Noma says a prayer in Shona. I don’t understand a single word, but the emotion and the fervency she prays with don’t need any translation. When she has finished, we just sit there, silently, and hold each other’s hands. After some time, we finally let go and prepare for leaving. Before going, Saba and me promise to come back as soon as possible. Noma looks into our eyes, smiling, and replies: “That is, if we are still alive then…”

May 22, 2006

The funeral

Note: Apart from the first one, all pictures in this post are made by Brian (In the first picture on the very right)

Emilia was 22 years old when she died from AIDS. Her daughter, aged 4, was infected with the virus during birth. She will never get the chance to protect herself from the disease; she was already born with it. Within two years, Emilia’s father lost his wife, his daughter and his sister in law, the first to breast cancer, the latter two to the virus.

Emilia was the sunshine of Mbare and everyone here loved her. She was a trusted friend to many and she was up for everything. Just four months ago, Emilia was well on her feet and roamed around with her friends, having a beer in that bar in Beatrice Cottages or a walk through the roads of Mbare. Then, all of a sudden, she started feeling sick. She kept telling her friends that she didn’t feel good. The virus had begun to take down her immune system. She had to go to the hospital and her condition grew rapidly worse. Just a few days ago, the doctors told her family that she would die if she didn’t get proper medication. But drugs are expensive. Where to get drugs when you can’t pay for them? After all, there are no license free imitations; the big Parma companies defend their patents like castles. Those who cannot pay simply have to bite the bullet.

But Emilia’s family managed to collect the money for her treatment. They flipped every penny and collected among the more distant relatives. A cousin sent 2000 Rand from South Africa. But it’s too late. On February, 22nd, the day the money is finally scratched together, the girl died. And once again the people of Mbare gathered for the obsequies.

Nokhutula and her brothers were close friends of Emilia, they grew up together and to them, Emilia was the kind of person you sleep together with in one bed and share the most intimate secrets with. They invite us to take part in both the obsequies and the burial one day later. We go to Mbare and meet at Siman’gliso’s house. Together with Shela and Nyaradzi we walk to the place, just about two hundred meters away. At that time I don’t know yet how close my friends from Mbare were to Emilia; I get to know all that I’ve written above in these two days. On our way to Emilia’s house, Shela teaches me some Shona. Trukfamba mu’Mbare, trukando conamo – We are walking through Mbare, on the way to a funeral. I had a different idea of my first sentence in Shona.

The obsequies have already begun when we arrive. Even before we turn into the road, we can hear the singing. It’s not somber or sad, nothing that you would expect for a funeral when you are European. In the first moments I relate it to a birthday party or something of that kind. We reach the house, where the men are all gathered in the shadow under a tree across the street, while the women stand in a semicircle in the garden, clapping and singing. They seem relaxed, they laugh and kid around and only a few, elder women sit aside and watch with somber faces. Shela grabs me on the sleeve, whispers that we should not go there now and drags me towards the men. Brian, another friend of the group, is there, too. We sit down, smoke, and listen to the singing. Brian, Shela and Siman’gliso tell me about Emilia.

Eventually, a pick-up truck comes, with the coffin on the load floor, and backs into the garden. The guys stand up and approach the car. Together, they lift the wooden coffin from the trunk and carry it over the small veranda into the house where the body is to be laid out. Now the men and the women mix again and I, too, go into the yard and join Saba and Andree. A small boy sits in the corner of the garden and cries his heart out. Emilia’s relatives and friends get in a line and, one after the other, go into the house, take a look at their dead girl and walk out through the back door. It is now, that – apart from the small boy – I can see and hear people crying for the first time. Siman’gliso and the others are in the row, too, and beckon me to join. They want me to pass the coffin with them. Inside the house it’s cool and dim, just a little light casts in through the open door. The front end of the coffin is uncovered and there lays Emilia, all but her face covered in white cloth. She looks peaceful.

After everyone has walked past the dead, Emilia’s friends carry the coffin back out onto the load floor of the pick-up truck. They cover it and the car leaves for Seke, the village of Emilia’s family. The obsequies is over and the people gradually leave for their way home. We walk back to Siman’gliso’s house and sit together in his living room with a glass of Sprite, gossiping.

The next morning, we raise early, drive to Mbare and gather in front of Emilia’s place. The day before, Nokhutula bought 60 liters of petrol to fuel enough cars. Emilia’s friends all wanted to go to the burial, but didn’t know how to get to the village. After everyone has arrived and yet another car is organized for all the people, we leave for Seke, the village where the burial will take place. Together with the guys, I take a seat on the back of Nokhutula’s pick-up truck. We’re about fifteen people on the small load floor, but neither of us is reserved and we hold on to each other harmoniously. We aren’t even around the first corner when the guys start singing. It sounds similar to what I heard yesterday at the obsequies. Happy, but sincere. One of them sings the verses, the others join in for the refrain and I don’t understand anything since it is all in Shona. But I clap, I wave back and forth and I stomp my foot on the ground along with them, and sometimes, when they repeat the refrain over and over again and when I can make out the words, I even sing with them. The guys now really gather momentum, every now and then one of them whistles or screams while clapping his hand onto his mouth, sounding somewhat like a loud Rididididi. I join in and start screaming, whistling and clapping together with them.

At some point we stop and Brian buys some rum. They cut open a plastic bottle, mix the rum with water and hand it around. After about two hours, we reach Seke. The farm consists of a house, not very big, and face to face of it a round hut made of clay with a roof of straw. On the top end of the courtyard there is a third building under construction, but obviously no one has worked on it for a long time. It sprawles green out of every door and window opening. Some trees cast welcome shadow and everywhere around the farm grows maize. We descend from the pick-up and go to every single person on the yard to greet them. Nyaradzi tells me to say nematambudzko every time I shake someone’s hand. That means I’m sorry. On the way here, I had a bad conscience because I neither knew Emilia nor anyone of her family and still I would come to her funeral. Nokhutula asked me to take the camera and so I felt like a vulture, like one of these yellow press photographers who get their stories out of others’ misery. But the way I was accepted by Emilia’s family quickly took away those feeling. They welcomed me like a brother and her aunty Messa told me that this farm is also my farm and that I should make myself at home. If I had any problem I should tell her. It was her, who later asked me to take pictures and she was next to me when I went into the round hut where Emilia’s body was laid out to photograph the wake. I never felt as an intruder.

After we had greeted everyone but the women who were singing in the hut, we went to the grave that was being prepared for the burial. The men who had dug it out were just laying the bricks of the side walls. Emilia’s father and grandfather were with us, and on the way, her father told me about how painful it was for him that his daughter was not around anymore. But life would go on, he said, and never have I heard this sentence spoken with so much conviction. This man radiated an admirable peace and hope. Then he thanked me for everything I had done for their family, and I felt embarrassed. I hadn’t done anything for this family; I just came for the funeral of their daughter. In the opposite, these people did so much for me by sharing this difficult moment with me and thus let me take part in their culture in such a unique way, and I told him that.

After we got back to the farm, Siman’gliso and his friend brought out two big drums and we began singing again. It was the same songs we had sung on the car and I understood now that it hadn’t been just for fun but to rehearse the songs before they performed them here. We grouped around the drummers and danced and clapped, and soon the women around began to dance the jiti. For this traditional dance they bend over and vigorously swing their hips and backside towards a person or the drum or whatever they dance at. Some pulled out some bank notes and threw them in the crowd and Kugi would pick them up and collect them. The dancers were rewarded for their performance. The singing went on for about two hours, with brakes, since the sun burnt down mercilessly and everyone was drenched in sweat. Eventually we went into the round hut and continued there, with the women dancing the jiti at Emilia’s coffin and everyone taking up her picture, holding it above the head while dancing and passing it on to the next person. Once more, Emilia celebrated with her friends.

Then it became silent. The people went outside and took their lunch. Only the closest relatives remained in the hut and silently sat on the floor in front of the coffin. Messa went inside with me and asked me to photograph. There was a sacral atmosphere in the room and I tried to move as silent as possible. I was in the hut for about half an hour when the coffin was opened and moved to the center of the room. Messa asked me to take a picture of her and her sister with their dead niece. Then, one after the other, the people came inside to say good bye. They circled Emilia’s coffin, some would stop briefly to touch or kiss her, and many cried. I pressed myself to the wall and I really felt being in the wrong place now. It was very, very intimate. But I didn’t want to disturb by just standing up and leaving, either. So I made myself as small as possible and huddled further to the wall. When Siman’gliso and his friends came in and I saw the pain in their eyes, when Brian bent down to kiss his dead friend, I couldn’t stand it any longer. I broke into tears and left the hut together with them. I was relieved to finally be outside since I really felt trapped between the urge not to disturb the intimacy and the fear to break it through the slightest motion.

After everyone was at Emilia’s body, the coffin was taken outside on the courtyard, and a priest spoke some words in Shona; probably a prayer, but I don’t know and I didn’t want to ask, either. Then Siman’gliso and his friends hauled the coffin to the load floor of a pick-up, the grandmothers and the aunties took a seat next to it and the whole crowd moved to the cemetery. Emilia was bedded on the pile of earth next to the grave and everyone sat down on the floor. The priest spoke again, this time passionately and vigorously, and he walked up and down on the open grave like a tiger in a cage so that I was afraid that he might fall into it any minute. After he had ended, single people stood up and held speeches of which unfortunately I didn’t understand anything. Every time when a person finished speaking and sat down again, the women cheered stridently and clapped. After the coffin was finally lowered into the grave, they put a heavy iron slab on it and fixed it with concrete. The concrete was prepared with water which had been in a jar under Emilia’s coffin all the time. Then some wooden sticks were put on the concrete and finally the earth was shoveled in the hole. The people at the grave grabbed the spade from each other and poured the soil in the opening as fast as possible. It almost looked like a contest and the people rooted for each other. I don’t know yet about the meaning of the water, the wood and the common shoveling, but Nokhutula promised to find it out and I will write it later in another post. Suddenly, a man came with a bucket full of water and spilled it over two of the women standing on the grave. Everyone laughed and cheered and then the three started a wild chase through the maize fields while the others started singing and dancing again. Two men were drumming, and the women danced the jiti at Emilia one last time. The last song was quiet and melancholic but still happy. I didn’t understand much, but the refrain was always the same: Bye bye, Emilia…

After the song had ended, the people spread out. Some went back to the farm, others started their way home. The sky was overcast now and the first raindrops started falling. Bolts flashed in the clouds and somewhere in the distance, the thunder growled. We hopped on the pick-up and left for Harare. It began to rain heavily now. We moved closer together on the load board, put our arms around each other and covered our heads with jackets and sweaters. It was nice, back there in the rain. And then we started singing again. Bye bye Emilia…

2 Comments February 27, 2006

First Steps

Last Saturday we had our barbecue in Mbare. Being an hour late, all the people had already gone back home to go about their daily business. On our way to Mbare we stopped at the supermarket to buy the stuff for the barbecue, and at the police station to tell about the party. The authorities in Zimbabwe are very sensitive about any kind of gathering; whatever assemblage is not reported and permitted will be split up since it could be a political one. While we were sitting in the garden, waiting for the participants of the project to gradually come back, Si-man’gliso and Nyaradzi took care of the fire. After about half an hour, the place was virtually packed and all the people came to introduce themselves to us. I wondered how the hell I should remember all these names and soon gave up even trying it.

When Nokhutula opened the meeting, they all sat down in a circle in the grass and explained why they were here and what they expected from participating in the pro-ject. The three women didn’t tell anything about their intention to work on HIV/AIDS in advance since they didn’t want to influence the people. They should decide on their own what’s important to them and what they want to work on. But it soon became obvious that the majority of the present people tended towards the HIV/AIDS issue. In a country with meanwhile an estimated 30 percent infection rate (I heard this num-ber several times this day; however I did not yet do any research to confirm it!) it is a huge challenge for the young generation to get this plague under control. The passion-ate motivation to face this challenge was tangible in the air on this afternoon in Si-man’gliso’s garden.

The project was outlined briefly and a rough schedule set up and afterwards the peo-ple spread in the garden, with plates full of roasted chicken, sausages and salad in their hands. Andree and I stand in the shadow in front of the house together with three girls who tell us that they made a video on the life in the ghetto. They promise to bring it for the next meeting to show it to the group. Natasha, one of the three girls, brings the conversation back to HIV/AIDS and begins a passionate and convinced speech about the challenge of her generation. The girl is only twenty but the way she stands there and talks make her appear a lot more mature. While she speaks everyone around listens in spellbound silence. Later, after we all finished eating, I ask Natasha if she personally knows any families who are struck by the plague. I explain that I want to shoot a documentary on the disease and its impact on the community and that therefore I want to deal on a very close and personal basis with people who are di-rectly and indirectly affected. She answers me that this might be a difficult goal to achieve, since those who carry the virus often deny it – not only to others but most of all to themselves. Yet she promises to let me know by next week and she sounds very confident about finding families who will be willing to work with me.

Meanwhile it had become late afternoon. Some clouds had come up and took away some of the sun’s merciless intensity and the people gradually hit the road from Si-man’gliso’s garden to their homes. We left with Bianca who invited us on a walk through Mbare. She led us to a small double house where she lived with her family. A fence divided the ground it was built on in two equal parts. Two women sat gossiping on the doorstep of the neighbouring house and when they saw Bianca they greeted her friendly.

We ducked inside the hut through the small door. It was dim, and in here I realised that Mbare isn’t just a nice little neighbourhood with nice little gardens. The interior was depleted, almost nothing, and a worn out rug covered the floor. Bianca led us on into a small room where a man and a woman sat at a tiny table situated in front of a bed. On the bed there was nothing but a ragged woollen blanket. The two at the table, Bianca’s uncle and aunty, welcomed us cordially. There was a bowl with Sadza on the bed and they just took their dinner. Some light shed through a small window on the opposite wall, otherwise it was dark. With the table, the bed and the two people on their chairs, the room was so packed that we could barely move beyond the door. Back outside, we walked around the house in the backyard. Bianca’s Aunt Heather sat there on a wooden bench and wove extensions into the hair of her niece Gay. Aside, there was a toy car wrought of wire. Gay turned out to be a real joker who wouldn’t stop talking and making fun until we left. When we turned to go, she shouted after us not to forget to send them hard currency. We went to a few other houses afterwards and the circumstances some people lived in were shocking. While some living rooms were equipped with TVs, surround speakers, computers with internet access, stereo systems, glass tables and fancy sofas, others held nothing but a few, shabby seats.

On this afternoon I realised that, in spite of my first, positive impression, bitter pov-erty holds a tight grip around Mbare, although compared to the slums I saw in Bang-ladesh it still offers bearable conditions – at least everyone here has a small garden to grow the most essential such as maize and cabbage. But at the same time I felt a won-derful sense of community among the people of Mbare that fuelled my desire to work with them.

On Monday we finally managed to meet the staff of J. F. Kapnet Trust, the NGO that the three girls want to do their drama project in Zyimba with. Craig, the director of the organisation, picked us up at the reception and led us over the premise to a small building that served as conference room. We took our seats and waited for four other members of the NGO to come and join the meeting. A dense curtain of gigantic, moist leaves with shafts thick like arms screened the window and a smooth green light flooded the conference room. Two ceiling fans sucked the scent of fresh cut grass through the open door and spread it in the room.

After a few minutes, two men and two women entered, introduced themselves and sat down at the table. Marc and Trust, the two men, were rather silent during the meeting and listened while Craig, Hazel and Hazvinei briefly explained the projects and the aims of J. F. Kapnet Trust. The NGO works with HIV/AIDS infected women and children in the slums of Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Zambia. Their main purpose is to create awareness among the people and to offer the children an exit from the spiral of poverty through proper education.

Nokhutula, Andree und Saba explained to them how they plan to support the work of the NGO with their drama project, and the people from J. F. Kapnet Trust seemed fas-cinated by their approaches. Hazvinei then came straight to the point and asked us, what we expect from them. We told them that for the girls’ project as well as for mine it is essential to fall back on already existing infrastructures, especially when there is only three months time. Furthermore, that we need financial support for fuel and ac-commodation and – in my case – material. In exchange, Saba, Nokhutula and Andree would teach interested people from the NGO and leave them copies of their working diaries and I would provide them my pictures. It was a fair deal for everyone and we agreed on soon arranging a first trip to Zyimba to get an impression of the situation there.

1 Comment February 23, 2006

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