Writing

A Short, Hot Journey Into The Desert, Burkina Faso

A Tuareg man is the first person to greet me.

A Tuareg man is the first person to greet me.

IN THE FIELD WITH REFUGE POINT AND THE UNHCR, LOOKING DEEPER INTO THE REFUGEE EXPERIENCE THROUGH THE LENS OF CHILDREN’S PLAY

 

They say it’s 107° south of here in Ouagadougou, so I’m guessing it’s hotter now in Dori, being closer to the Niger border and the Sahara Desert. In Ouaga they at least have trees to soften the sand-blasting furnace, though when I got off the plane from Paris Monday night my “runway experience” was a gulp of thick haze weighted by smoke and heat — weirdly like the worst of California wild fires- though this is not a fluke. The water flows hot from the cold tap as you wash the red clay off your face, and the towels themselves feel strangely hot. This is standard spring fare for West African desert cities.

I am at Goudouba Refugee Camp shooting for the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission on Refugees) and RefugePoint, a US-based refugee organization that helps refugees move into approved refugee spots for immigration to countries like the US. This camp is one of two in Burkina Faso, established in 2012 to address the families fleeing jihadi violence in Mali. Two years ago the international community chased the terrorists out of Timbuktu and into the desert, but the threat of violence simmers with the heat. This is the smaller of the refugee camps with 10,000 people, mostly nomads and shepherds- the Tuaregs who are tall, heavily turbaned, light-skinned, and brightly dressed and the Peul, who are dark- skinned, and smaller, wearing glittering jewelry and carefully cover their mouth when they smile.

A Peul woman being interviewed for possible resettlement

A Peul woman being interviewed for possible resettlement

children at play with push toys

children at play with push toys

 

The refugees here are peripatetic desert-dwellers, so picking up home and moving has been practiced for thousands of years, and they are not particularly interested in settling down in a foreign land like the US. Their dream is to go home, to Mali. They’re willing to wait out the violence, as long as they are able to simply raise their families in peace. The bonus is the school access, especially for the girls, and nutrition supplements for the babies; these kids will be forever changed.

The heat doesn’t bother them at all.

 
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The kids showing me the things they play with, from old motorcycle tires to shoes which are used to replace balls in a game very like Botchi.

The kids showing me the things they play with, from old motorcycle tires to shoes which are used to replace balls in a game very like Botchi.

 

Because I’m American, they intensify the security convoy for our “Mission”. We bounce along the red-earth road in a white UNHCR SUV under a bright blue sky eating the dust of the pickup truck we’re following with six guys in camouflage with AK47s. I’m glad they are there, at first. Then I understand that they will follow me around the refugee camp as I photograph the refugee experience through the eyes of the children and their play, making it pretty hard for me to lay low. Wonderfully, the refugees themselves seem open to all kinds of experiences, and simply ask to be photographed more.

 
Diallo

Diallo

I met Diallo who, at 15 years old, has a face decoratively scarred in the Peul tradition; whose eyes light up when she tells me how exciting it is to learn to write computations. As a nomad in Mali, she never had exposure to education.

I met a beautiful young woman from Italy who works for RefugePoint, who at 29 years old could be doing anything, but she chooses to work with vulnerable populations in remote desert regions, trying to help them access new opportunities. I am hugely inspired, and realize that it’s time to stop complaining about the heat.

 

A Tuareg woman and man, not related, except by nationality and style.

A Tuareg woman and man, not related, except by nationality and style.

Meanwhile, I become obsessed with two things- “aircon” spaces, like the UNHCR SUV which patiently idles with the air conditioner blasting as I move in and out of various tents, and water, which I hoard zealously, only at the end giving away my precious plastic water bottles to kids who re-imagine them as pull toys. I quickly discover that the coolest place, both physically and socially, is sitting under a tent on thick carpets, kicking my shoes off to drink hot, heavily sugared, mint tea while goats, chicks and small children move in and out the raised flaps following the breeze off the boiling landscape. Ah, the “oasis-effect” dawns on me as completely logical, though it is ancient wisdom for everyone around me. A lot of things begin to make sense.

Along with the sweat and the dry lips, I try to hold these experiences lightly on my skin, grateful for the window into a very different world, and mindful of the intimacy and trust that is offered as people invite you into their tents, and into their families. They let you photograph their kids, and laugh easily as we communicate through two or three translators (English to French to Tuareg). With mutual curiousity we try to discover what kind of person we are meeting; so different, so strange. Not everyone is open, but most are, just like anywhere, everywhere in the world.

The magnificent baobab trees of Burkina Faso

The magnificent baobab trees of Burkina Faso

Compose and Wait: Learning Sports and Values in Mexico City

Student at Educacion Para Compartir program, Mexico City

Student at Educacion Para Compartir program, Mexico City

As I was growing up in the rural South in the 70s, my father used to gather us kids, all seven of us, in the den “for Family Talks”. He would line us up on the sofa, and talk to us about what he called Core American Values: hard work, respect, and social responsibility–the values that pointed directly to dignity, truth, and fairness which had formed the backbone of his Depression-era childhood and war experience. He called it “doing what one man can.”

We would wiggle and pinch, feeling tortured, impatient for release. But the power of the imprint was my father’s actions–the daily modeling of living within a framework of values allowing him to take business risks with integrity, to lead workforce integration with tolerance and respect, and to raise seven rowdy kids with a balance of firmness and tolerance. I often think about those sessions on the sofa, and especially lately.

Imagine you live in the Netherlands….

Imagine you live in the Netherlands….

I wonder who teaches values to our children now. I find it fascinating to learn that evolutionarily storytelling, in the way of my father, is deemed vital for human survival, passing down wisdom and values from parent to child, neighbor to neighbor. In our frenetic and disparate world today, where is the touchstone that reminds us all to be honest, generous, and tolerant?

Learning to be tolerant

Learning to be tolerant

t used to be the church or temple shaped human values–prompting by admonishment and instruction a sense of right and wrong generally shared by all of the world’s religions. Tolerance was right; violence was wrong; to be loving was to be good. Today the great storytelling of our time is dominated by commercial media and gaming, and the church’s message is diffuse–sometimes inclusive, filling gaps in social programming left open by the state; sometimes exclusive, fearful of those who practice God differently

It used to be communities and families enforced a common value framework–teaching respect, compassion, and social responsibility. Today these groupings can seem deeply riven by political ideology, social breakdown, and a strange and isolating fear.

It used to be that the government created standards and policies that enforce fairness, and the rule of law, establishing a shared understanding that it’s in society’s best interest to care for those less fortunate. Today, well, it’s hard to know what will be left standing after the presidency of Donald Trump.

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On November 9th, I flew with a heavy heart to a photo shoot in Mexico City, shamed and angered by the U.S. election, with maybe an overly romantic notion of American moral leadership crumbling around me. On day three of the photo shoot in an elementary school, an eleven-year-old asked me if this U.S. election meant that we’d have another world war– my worries, exactly.

And then I spent a week photographing children being taught to care.

Educacion Para Compartir (EPC) is a Mexican social agency that uses games and play to instill values such as respect, inclusion, and gender equality with the goal of creating better citizens. Their programming targets the universal things that all parents worry about: apathy, tribalism, violence, and corruption.

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The games seem happy and organic, though they are actually developed very carefully to align with the UN Millennial Development Goals: imparting teamwork, respect, tolerance, and the simple joy of play. EPC has now served half a million kids in Mexico and five other countries. Fortunately, they are now coming to the U.S.

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A game of tolerance is a soccer game–lots of space, goal posts, and jockeying for teams. However, one boy stuffs a balloon under his shirt and is “pregnant,” so he can not run; another girl is blindfolded and can’t see, so she needs someone to help her at all times; another has asthma, so though you can’t see any impairment, the child has limited mobility to run on the field; another hops around on one leg.

How do you form a winning team? What does “winning” even mean in this context? The Reflection Time afterwards is led by a trained teacher who elicits conversation about inclusion, compassion, and respect. I remembered being back on that sofa, and my naïve assumptions that American core values were somehow unique , and I’m now relieved to be reminded, again, that they are not.

Recently, I took a workshop from renowned photographer Sam Abell. His photographic practice throughout his life has been “compose and wait.” Compositionally, you control the things you can, keeping the elements clear and simple. Then you wait, fully prepared for anything that comes along; life is about surprises, and you never quite know what will enter your frame.

“Compose and wait” seems to be a metaphor that flows in and out of my life with direction and calm–the instruction to compose my values, keeping it clear and simple, because we can never quite know what will enter our frame: a health issue; a challenging relationship; a democracy gone awry.

Again, I am back on that sofa composing my core values, holding on to what is most important as I move through a world full of surprises and challenges. Maybe that too is the lesson of Educacion Para Compartir: compose your values, and wait, fully prepared for life’s surprises.

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With gratitude for editorial help by Anne Whittaker

For more about Educacion Para Compartir visit http://educacionparacompartir.org/

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