Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Kenya: video documentary

[You can play a short, 6 min, version of the FACES documentary here. Viva YouTube!]

It feels good to be doing creative work again. I’m excited to spend my time brainstorming about sequences, soundtracks, what clips to take out of the 10 hours of raw footage I have to work with. The process is amazing in itself: to be able to ask people probing questions about why they do the difficult work they do, to discover the intricacies of the community in which we work, to have a large group of children climbing over you to see what your filming, to climb the rocks of an island and battle thick swarms of lake flies to take footage no one else has. People are also generally excited to be filmed; it helps them feel appreciated and important for the work they do. Then I get to take all of this and turn it into a narrative that tells a story, constructed to emote what I want.

Rose-colored glasses aside, I also have to deal with the very frustrating aspects of being in Sub-Saharan Africa: the only equipment I have to work with is the stuff I brought with me, on my back. Don’t get me wrong: it’s crazy in itself that I own and carry all of the equipment I need and am producing this documentary, from start to finish by myself and with my own money. I’m proud I can do this (though I wouldn’t mind some help, especially with funding!) Still, I need to deal with some crazy situations, which make the adventure… well, more of an adventure. While on the islands, I had to make sure my batteries didn’t run out (no electricity) and that nothing fell into the water, since we spent 4 hours on leaky wooden boats every day. When the kids climb on me, I need to make sure that the camera doesn’t get dropped or otherwise broken. There is no one but me to fix it. And after digitizing only a small fraction of the clips I think I might use, m hard drive ran out of memory. All 100 gigabyes have been used, which leaves me no room to render or export the sequences I create. So I spend excruciatingly long hours digitizing, then backing up to DVDs, which I run out of. There are no blank DVD-recordable discs to be bought readily in Western Kenya. (Though I bet I can pay some of the guys who pirate DVD movies to get some blank discs… I know where to find them.) Everything has to be planned out just right so that I have the clips I need on the hard drive to make the sequence. All these challenges are time-consuming, but in the end they add to my experience and help me plan for the next time (i.e. bring a damn external hard drive!).

As is inevitable with documentaries involving NGOs and health care workers, people’s speaking skills are highly variable. There is very little of the interviews that looks good or sounds good on screen. I can probably only use 10% of what was filmed, and even then I need to cut out a ton of um’s and stutters and repeated statements. While doing the interviews, which are fun in themselves, you can tell who the good speakers are: Reson gives clear but long and comprehensive narratives; Steve can eloquently describe the touchy-feely philosophy of the organization, and Kwaro, given some time to prep, can give a succinct speech with the stats and facts that you need. All without stuttering. And with a decently loud voice. A few aspects of Kenyan culture don’t mix well with these interviews: people speak with very soft voices and tend to talk in overly formal circles, saying the same thing several times in only slightly different ways. I think that this is why Kenyan meetings are long and boring. And why a lot of my interviews are long and boring. And why Kenyans often complain that amerikans are too loud and direct.

Fortunately, Kenyans like to sing, especially at FACES. So to make up for the soft voices that speak in circular statements, I have some great footage of staff meeting songs and Kids Club chants. Good music, good singing, beautiful scenary, interesting work: this is what is saving the documentary from being ordinary.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Kenya to London to SF: the shock

[left: "Sony Store" of Kisumu, Kenya. Not exactly the Metreon.]

Imagine this: plugging in your laptop at London Heathrow airport (i.e. the upscale mall that also has international flights) while facing HMV and Dixon’s electronics shops, and finding your keyboard filled with dead insect carcasses that you have to clear out before typing. After a shady-scammy taxi ride in a stolen vehicle and a driver without a license (arranged by the FACES staff!), a nauseating small plane flight from Kisumu, a 4 hour layover in Nairobi, and a 9 hour flight from Nairobi to London, I arrived in the opposite place: a completely engineered, artificial land. Looking out of the window, even the trees and grass and flowers are completely engineered and unnatural.

Imagine this: Just one week ago I was in the back of a truck (posing as a matatu) with a Kenyan woman next to me. She was wearing a ratty t-shirt proclaiming some little league team, and a kanga as her skirt. She was clutching a live chicken by its feet in one hand, a baby in the other arm, and a large sack of vegetables were at her feet. She has been carryng it on her head earlier, since her hands were full. She stared at me the whole trip. Now, on the plane from London to San Francisco, I am next to a white woman who is wearing a fleece top, velour bottoms, typing an email into her blackberry, and frantically chewing gum. Her well-dressed obese husband next to her is reading some glossy European business magazine. Side by side, these experiences seem absurd in comparison. But they are both integral parts of my life experience. How do I bridge them?

It’s different from the feeling you have when you are on vacation in a remote place and then travel back to modern, hyper developed life. Because when you are on vacation, you already have a mental separation in your head with these two places. But when you live and work in a community not as a tourist but as a honorary member of the community, you feel the shock more deeply. How I can navigate these worlds without artificially compartmentalizing them remains a challenge. The Buddhist principle of compassion for all helps me approach it, though this too is challenging to do fully.

Kenya: psyche of the global health worker

What makes someone want to come to Kenya? Someone not from here, not black, with no family members nearby, with no connection to the people and community aside from work?

For those of us who struggle with having meaning in life, global health work can feel like an answer. The US (and I imagine most of the developed world) has a work culture that constantly forces you to prove your worth and to compete with many others who have comparable skills. In these settings, it’s hard to feel like you are adding unique value to your community. They are supersaturated with a ridiculous amount of (maldistributed) resources and highly skilled, highly educated people (also maldistributed). The developing world is saturated with people but not with resources and not with education. As a result, there are a lot of people eager to become skilled and educated to do good work but not enough resources or educators to train them. That’s where we can step in and be useful. That’s where I can do good work.

It’s a combination of the Robin Hood principle and a Chinese proverb: take from the rich, give to the poor; if you give a woman a fish, she’ll eat for a day, if you teach a woman to fish, she’ll eat for a lifetime. Cheezy but practical – and real and meaningful.

Kenya: rawness of living

[left: pus drained out of a client's lungs by straight IV into the only drainage bag we could find on the island

below: our backyard in Sena: straight up cornfields]

Someone should tell the folks at San Francisco General Hospital that they’re wrong about something. San Francisco General Hospital is not “As Real as It Gets.” Sub-Saharan Africa is.

I wake up to the sound of twittering birds intermixed with roaring diesel engines without mufflers. I walk 4 km to work on a dirt path next to the highway, hopping over sewage, chickens and walking wide paths around cows and goats. In the mornings, I dodge boda bodas, regular bikes, slow pedestrians, tuk tuks, speed-demon matatus that swerve like crazy, giant buses and trucks spewing out black clouds of exhaust into my face. When I get to work, I thank all the higher beings in the world for sparing my life.

My sweat has dried, making the dust and dirt cling onto my skin for the rest of the day. The sun has already darkened my nose; the rest of my body is covered in the usual conservative Kenyan wanna-be Western attire. The blisters of my sandal-clad feet have already turned into calluses.

I then spend the day working with clinical officers and nurses who haven’t been paid for 2 months because their payor in Nairobi is slow, and it take 5-7 days for salary checks to clear at the local bank. I see clients (patients) who had to sell their family goat in order to have enough money to travel from their rural home to our clinic monthly. I see people who have obviously been ill for many years, but they wait till their disease is too advanced for them to handle at home. So there’s the mama who left her deep wound till her next scheduled visit. And the kid who came in with a giant mass in her neck, most likely a lymphoma. And the skeletal man, skin taut over his bony body with deeply sunken cheeks and eye sockets, who got tested only now, and said that he’d been previously “fine.” Somehow I doubted that.

Even the rain here is RAIN. It’s not the mealy half-hearted foggy drizzles that we get in San Francisco. It’s BAM! Late afternoon, and all the hydrogen in the sky collides with all the oxygen in the sky and falls on us. It beats us into submission. The entire insect world comes into your house for shelter, so you are covered in bug carcasses within a half-hour of the rain. And then it’s done. The sun comes back, the water dries up, and the land is ready for another storm the next day.

Life here is raw. There is little protection from the earth, creatures of all types, the dirt of industrialism. There is no shield from the scammers and the neediest in the world. Most non-black folk here in Kenya try to hide from these elements. They buy cars and ridiculously large houses. They hire black Kenyans to do their housework and take care of their children but treat them poorly to further mark the difference (and thus to hide even more). But people who do that aren’t living fully.

It feels good to live more raw. It’s harder in many ways, but so is truly living.