Peace and Hope in Latin America

This past week has been one of those “hyper Latino” weeks I have from time to time.

Yesterday, for instance, I spent the afternoon in a farm somewhere in Reading, helping my friends at Latin Link with the orientation weekend for the batch of (mostly young) people heading out in short-term teams to various Latin American countries over the summer. I myself was once a fresh-faced ‘Stepper’ (exactly ten years ago, as it happens) – one of a team of 10 sent to work at a home for Aids orphans in Santo Domingo de los Colorados in Ecuador.

Earlier on in the week, I was looking forward to interview the merengue “leg end” Juan-Luis Guerra, who had his first ever London gig at the Apollo in Hammersmith. Sadly, JLG wasn’t doing any press, so that didn’t happen (and the ticket prices were slightly out of reach, so I didn’t go to the gig).

However, not being able to go to the JLG gig worked in my favour, because I ended up at Church.co.uk on Wednesday evening, at the launch of the UK branch of Paz Y Esperanza (Peace and Hope). Paz y Esperanza is a Christian human rights organisation dedicated to defending and promoting justice on behalf of persons and communities living in poverty or affected by different forms of injustice.

I met two key members of Paz y Esperanza at the launch. Here’s my interview with the founder of the organisation – Alfonso Weiland (pictured above), a human rights lawyer from Peru:

And here I am in conversation with Loida Carriel, who heads up Paz y Esperanza’s operations in Ecuador. Here, their main issue is women’s rights and combating domestic violence and its effects on women.

Throw in Friday evening’s salsa classes (at which I finally managed to master the dreaded ‘Setenta’) and it’s been a right old semana hyper-Latina. And now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll just go and put on my bamba “100% Discoteck” reggaeton CD…

Africa Oyé!

Africa Oyé 2011
Sefton Park, Liverpool, 18-19 June

Liverpool’s African music festival has become a key event in my calendar. It’s a chance for me not only to hear great music and gather material for the Sounds of Africa show I produce, but also an opportunity to socialise and hang out with a few other World Music media types who’ve become friends of mine over the years we’ve all been attending the festival: people such as Geli Berg (a radio broadcaster and organiser of the Cultural Collage World Music festival in Manchester), and Maya Mitter of One Latin Culture. Sure enough, there were hugs all round when we caught up with each other.

Mariem Hassan

On Saturday afternoon I arrived at Sefton Park just as the first act of the day was being introduced. Mariem Hassan is incredible singer from the Western Sahara, accompanied by a pair of guitarists who played the blues with an unbelievable passion. Mariem was my first interviewee of the day, and set the pattern for how most of the rest of the day’s interviews would go; after agonising between her manager/interpreter (who’s German) and myself, I discovered that she spoke fluent Spanish and so I ended up interviewing her en Español. As Saturday progressed, language barriers proved to be more a source of amusement than a hindrance – especially when Maya, Geli and I did an interview en masse with the Ganbgé Brass Band.

the Ganbgé Brass Band in action

The band had a couple of members who spoke English, and at least one of us doing the interviewing spoke French. The ensuing interview was hilarious – but definitely gave you a sense of how the guys had become brothers purely by having played together for years and years. Questions and answers in English and French flew back and forth. The band talked to us about playing in the Shrine in Nigeria (they’re all big Fela fans, and covered his song ‘Shakara’ during their set). When Maya suggested to one band member that the easiest way for him to learn English would be for him to get an English girlfriend, the tent erupted with laughter.

Bonga

The legendary Angolan singer Bonga was also good fun. Again, we agonised over how to do the interview – and suddenly we discovered that one of the women on the Africa Oyé team was Brazilian and spoke perfect Portuguese! Problem solved! Maya and I were able to have a good chat with Bonga about what happens when the worlds of Angolan culture and politics clash – as they often do.

Amkoullel teaches some kids (and a few adults) how to rap at one of his workshops

Amkoullel (aka “the Fula Child”) is an upcoming young rapper from Mali, who uses traditional Malian instruments in his music. A very profound guy and a great interview. He did some workshops on the Saturday and performed on the Sunday.

This year’s Africa Oyé featured quite a few of the female singers (young and not-so-young) who are championing the cause of African women through song, and winning loads of friends and admirers with the

Kareyce Fotso

charm and humour with which they do it. The Cameroonian singer Kareyce Fotso was one such person. Embracing her acoustic guitar and playing a variety of percussion instruments, she charmed the crowd in no time. When Maya and I interviewed her afterwards, she told us the heartbreaking story of her elder sister’s forced marriage – one of the many issues she talks about in her songs.

Fatoumata Diawara: now she's on the ground...

Fatoumata Diawarafrom Mali was another one. I’d already seen her twice before – first as support for Staff Benda Bilili’s London gig, then at a showcase in an Islington pub called the Slaughtered Lamb (I kid you not!). On both those occasions, it had been just her with her guitar. This time she was with a band (and without the green tights that have kind of become her trademark),

... and now she's airborne! Watch her go!

and it was a whole different dynamic. She danced, she spun, she jumped… the energy coming off the stage could power a small city for a week. When I interviewed Fatoumata afterwards, she told me how Nick Gold (her producer – the man responsible for such World Music classics as the Buena Vista Social Club) had said he wanted the public to see all her different sides. Fatoumata (a former actress and one-time backing singer for Oumou Sangare) is another young African woman dealing with some of the heavy issues that affect African women, but doing so in a manner that invites people to join in with her.

It’s always a gamble recording interviews during Africa Oyé, as quiet locations for interviewing are very hard to come by. Listening to my recorded interviews later, I was glad to see that my “keep the record level low and the mike very close to the subject” strategy had worked – especially with Fatoumata’s interview, which we did whilst Marcia Griffiths‘ extremely loud band were on. We could hardly hear ourselves while we were doing the interview. But on the recording, Fatoumata came through crystal clear while the booming reggae basslines were distant enough not to be a problem. Yay for technology…

"Yo Liverpool, how you feeling?"

There was one point on Saturday afternoon when thought we were going to get washed out. But the very brief drizzle over Sefton Park was just nature messing with our heads (naughty nature!). The weather on Sunday held up even better than the previous day, give or take the odd occasion earlier on when the temperature dropped slightly and it got a bit windy. My first interview of the day was with Damily from Madagascar (with the help of a French interpreter), while the first act to perform was Steven Sogo from Burundi, with his band Hope Street. I interviewed Steve after his set, and he told me how some church musicians had taught him how to play guitar and bass. He’s only been making music a few years, but has already won an armful of awards from all over Africa.

Steven Sogo

The unscheduled interview of the day happened while I was watching (and occasionally photographing) the Ethiopian singer Zewditu Yohanes from the photographers’ pit in front of the mainstage. The set ended, and this lady who’d been standing next to me and simultaneously shooting the gig on a camera and a smartphone handed me a card as she walked past towards the backstage area. It read, “Princess Emmanuelle: the first Egyptian female rapper.” I wasn’t going to let anyone with such a claim to fame slip away, so I followed her and asked if she’d do a quick interview. Turns out she’d remembered my face from years ago, when she was on the performance poetry circuit and doing gigs with Soul artists such as the Escoffery Sisters. She was here as part of Zewditu’s team, and promised to help me get an interview with her if I was having any trouble. Funnily enough, so much stuff happened during the day, I ended up not being able to interview Zewditu – which was a shame, because she and her band and dancers put on an awesome show. But never mind…

The other act I didn’t see as much of as I should have was Khaira Arby from Mali. The little I did see of her set was amazing, though; another strong woman roaring on behalf of African women.

After interviewing him yesterday, this afternoon I got to see Amkoullel in action twice – performing on stage, and teaching a hip hop workshop. The audience at the workshop was made up mostly of young children who’d clearly taken to heart Amkoullel’s advice to rap about their lives and what was important to them; one little lad came up with the rhyme “Sometimes I wear a hoodie. But I’m not a baddie; I’m a goodie.”

Meeting the Sierra Leone Refugee All-Stars was definitely the high point of the second day for me. It was like a family reunion – even though we’d never met before! I interviewed two of the band members, Reuben Koroma and Ashade Pearce; between the three of us, we set all Sierra Leone’s problems to rights (as you do!); we discussed music, education, development and a million other issues, and I finally got some concrete answers to a question I’d been burning with since my trip to Freetown two months earlier: why had the All-Stars (easily the biggest band to come out of Sierra Leone in the last 10 or so years) not been a part of the 50th independence anniversary celebrations? (Let’s just say it wasn’t because they hadn’t wanted to take part). I missed their set because I had to catch a train back to London (the train I’m on right now, writing this). But phone numbers and email addresses have been exchanged, so I’ll be updated whenever the guys are in London.

"Me en mi fambul dem," Sierra Leone's Refugee All-Stars

And that was Africa Oyé 2011: a glorious two days of colour, vibrancy and brilliant artistry. Next year, the festival celebrates its 20th birthday. I can hardly wait…

Review: “The Man Who Committed Thought”

You’d have to be seriously brave (or just mental) to try to set all Africa’s issues straight in two hours. But that’s basically what Patrice Naimbana sets out to do in the one man show which won him an Edinburgh Fringe First award (on tonight in London’s Cockpit Theatre, as part of the Pentecost Festival).

The Man Who Committed Thought is utterly compelling. Playing multiple characters (a poor man whose cow is stolen from him; the corrupt politician responsible for stealing the poor man’s cow and more; the rebel who seizes power and the honest but flawed lawyer referred to in the show’s title, to whom the poor man turns in his quest for justice), Patrice talks us through the troubled history of a fictional African nation called Lion Mountain.

Well, I say fictional. The handful of Sierra Leoneans in the Cockpit Theatre knew all too well whose stories were being told here. The rest of the audience weren’t left out, either; the beauty of Patrice’s series of monologues is the way he keeps it topical and fresh by absorbing so much of what’s current and relevant to wherever he might be performing. so tonight there are references to everything from Bin Laden to Britain’s Got Talent.

Underneath all that, there are bigger questions being asked. Naimbana challenges his audience to look at all the grey there is in issues of social justice. There is a tension at the heart of the show; between the righteous anger at the Europeans who brought “Gonorrhoea and Jesus” to Africa (to quote Fela Kuti) and a respectful acceptance of the message of good news to the poor and dispossessed that that Jesus preached. Patrice packs enough humour into the show to ensure that it never gets preachy or sounds like an “angry brother” having a rant.

After the show, Patrice spent another half hour answering questions from the audience, during which time he told us about his father – a lawyer who took on many poor people’s cases for no pay, and whose stories were the inspiration for the show’s lead character. That was every bit as engaging as the show itself, and continued in the bar afterwards.

My Road Trip/Hanging Out With the Women of Hope

All the years I lived in Sierra Leone, I was a spoilt city boy who rarely ventured out of Freetown. We had an uncle who worked as an air traffic controller at Lungi Airport, whose family we visited frequently, and my mum worked at the hospital there for a while, so we would always go and see her. But that was about sum total of my trips “upline” (Sierra Leoneans’ technical term for just about anywhere outside Freetown).

I probably wouldn’t have ventured out of Freetown this time round either, were it not for an email from a friend in the USA. I’ve known Paul Neeley for a few years now; we met initially via World Beat (the world music show I used to present on UCB). Paul emailed me to ask if I’d take some time out of my trip to go and visit the headquarters of Women of Hope International – a charity he’s involved with, based in Makeni.

Sierra Leone is divided into four provinces, although it’s only the northern, southern and eastern ones that are called provinces. The western one (where Freetown is located) is known simply as the ‘Western Area’ – but then it is tiny compared to the other three. Makeni is situated about 110 miles east of Freetown (well, most of Sierra Leone is east of Freetown. It’s that ‘Western Area’ thing). It’s Sierra Leone’s fifth largest city, and the capital of Bombali District in the Northern Province.

My old flatmate was the first to reassure me that the trip was easily doable. “You can do it in a day. It’s just three hours’ drive there and three hours back.” Another friend, Valerie (see next blog post), also egged me on to go when I was wavering. Finally, I emailed Kelsey Martin (Women of Hope’s US Programme Assistant, whom Paul had linked me up with) and said I’d try to come up to Makeni on Wednesday, the only free day I had left. The crucial thing for me was that I had to be there and back in a day. However, the Sierra Leone Road Transport Corporation only runs one bus there a day – at 6.00am. I could get there, but would have to wait until the following morning before I could come back. I did have an invitation to stay the night at Women of Hope’s guesthouse, so that wasn’t a problem. But nobody could tell me what time the bus back to Freetown was.

I left home just before five on Wednesday morning, and walked to the SLRTC’s bus station. It was still dark, and rather disconcerting to see the streets of Freetown so empty. Still, empty streets meant that this ‘JC’ could walk without being stopped every 10 seconds and asked if he had any £ or $ he wanted to change, so I made the most of it.

Getting a bus proved to be a total fiasco. According to signs posted all over the bus station, a ticket to Makeni costs 13,000 Leones. None of the buses terminate there, so you have to get the Kabala bus and get off at Makeni. Cool – but when I went to buy a ticket, I was told I had to pay the full Kabala fare (27,000 Leones)! Then when I tried to do that, I was told that there were no tickets and the bus was full. All this after waiting over an hour for the thing to arrive!

While waiting for the bus, I’d been talking to a couple of fellow travellers – in particular this one old man with two white plastic buckets in his hand, who was also waiting for the Kabala bus. After failing to get on the bus, I was ready to pack it in and go back home. The old man wasn’t having it. “Don’t worry,” he said encouragingly. “There are loads of vehicles we can get a ride with; we just need to go to Shell. Come on!” So I walked with him, having completely forgotten where “Shell” was! The old man was a brisk walker; before I knew it, we were at the East End Police station, where we hopped onto a poda-poda headed for Wellington.

We got off the poda-poda at the Shell petrol station in Kissy where, true to the old man’s word, minibus drivers were packing in passengers for journeys out to the provinces. I thanked the old man and signalled to the first person I heard calling for passengers to Makeni. A tall guy in a T-shirt came along and ushered me towards the front seat of a gold Chrysler Voyager.

We set off for Makeni at around 7.30am; me in the front seat with a lady and a little toddler on her lap seated between the driver and myself, an assortment of men, women and children in the back, and Beyonce, Rihanna and several random generic ‘urban’ acts repeated endlessly on the Voyager’s auto-reverse cassette player. The journey was smooth for the most part. However, our driver had seen fit to take more passengers than the number he was legally allowed to, and so he was stopped (and subsequently relieved of a few thousand Leones) at every single Police checkpoint we came to. Shortly after we reached Lunsar (the halfway point of the trip), my Comium mobile rang. It was Kelsey, asking if I had decided to come to Makeni. I told her I was on my way, and we arranged for her to collect me when I arrived.

Shortly after 10.00am, we arrived in Makeni. The vehicles that do this trip use the first NP petrol station as their terminal point, but our driver continued past it, further into town. I was looking for a suitable landmark at which to disembark when a white van with the Women of Hope logo drove in the opposite direction and stopped. I got off and took out my mobile to tell Kelsey she’d just driven past me. We had one of those “Hey! I can see you; I’m over here! I’m the one waving!” conversations; she drove up to where I was; I got into the van and she explained that one of their employees had also just arrived from Freetown and she’d come to collect her. Turns out the lady who’d been sitting next to me in the Chrysler Voyager worked for the very people I was going to meet! Her name was Rebecca and she had been in Freetown with her grandchildren for a few days, attending a family wedding. She does general housekeeping at the guest house, and wasted no time getting lunch ready whilst Kelsey told me all about herself and Women of Hope’s work.

Kelsey is originally from Seattle but recently relocated to Memphis (Women of Hope’s base back in the US is in the South). She’s spent quite some time in Sierra Leone getting things off the ground, and says she’s started to think of Makeni as home. Women of Hope was started by a group of American women who had links to Sierra Leone in one form or other, led by Kim Kargbo, a missionary kid who’s now a missionary herself and married to a Sierra Leonean. Kim had set up three NGOs in Sierra Leone prior to Women of Hope; the idea for Women of Hope came about out of the realisation that most of the NGO/charity work catering for people with disabilities in Sierra Leone tended to focus on men.

“Our goal is to support women with disabilities – spiritually, physically, emotionally, socially and economically,” Kelsey says. “We try to do that in the most grassroots way possible.” They had a period of consultation with local women, at which the women said their three biggest needs were shelter, education for their children, and money for food and business.

Women of Hope act more as facilitators, gathering women together and training them in health & sanitation and income generation. They also give women grants to start small businesses, and run support groups for mothers of disabled children. Right at the heart of their work are a team of local women who have been trained as ‘community health evangelists’ – basically social workers who pass on the training they’ve received to others around them.

Some of Women of Hope’s staff have disabilities themselves. Adama Conteh (their Logistics Officer) is blind, and one of Kelsey’s reasons for wanting to be involved in disability-related work stems from the fact that she was born with one arm. “I do this job to show others that disability doesn’t have to stop you getting on in life,” says Fatmata, Programme Assistant and Field Officer, who has walking difficulties.

Field Workers Fatmata (left) and Melvina (right) at work.

After lunch, Kelsey and I went out on the road with Fatmata and Melvina, the two Field Officers, as they visited women in one of the areas the charity covers. For logistics purposes, Women of Hope have split Makeni up into three geographical areas. The area we went to visit today covered Stocco Road and ‘Oslo’ – a residential area for amputees and disabled people, funded by the Norwegian Government.

'The Chief' holds court.

It was evident from the reception Fatmata and Melvina got that the local women appreciate the work Women of Hope do. They took me to meet Fatu (sorry, I mean ‘Mammy Fatu’), the matriarch of a compound just outside Stocco Road. Mammy Fatu is a larger-than-life bundle of laughs who everyone calls ‘the Chief’. As she joked about with Kelsey and I, little children mucked about and Sama (another older lady) sat making gari.

Field trip over, we headed for the office where I met Ruth Kamara, Women of Hope’s Programme Manager. Ruth used to work for another NGO committed to fighting human trafficking (another area Women of Hope is involved in). She decided to join Women of Hope because of its faith-based ethos, being a Christian herself. Also in the office was Adama, the Logistics Officer. I’d been in Freetown over a week and not had the “So why haven’t you found a wife and fathered a tribe of your own yet?” interrogation from some uncle or aunt. That lucky streak ended in Makeni, thanks to Adama…

After a nice dinner back at the guesthouse, Kelsey dropped me off at the NP station to find a ride home. The back seat of the minivan that took me back to Freetown was nowhere near as comfortable as the Chrysler Voyager had been. But not even that could put a damper on what had been a great day out.

The Women of Hope International staff. (L to R): Fatmata, Melvina, Patricia, Adama, Ruth and Kelsey.

Total ‘small ting’ expenditure on trip: Le 15k (actually, make that 5k. I did give the old man 10 grand, but he never asked for anything; I gave it to him because he genuinely helped me and I wanted to thank him).

In Conversation: Watcha Clan

Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of hanging out with Sista K, Supreme Clem and Nassim – three members of the Marseille based ‘global fusion’ band Watcha Clan. Their fifth album, Radio Babel, comes out in April and it’s simply the most awesome take-everything-you-can-get-hold-of-and-shake-it-all-about concoction I’ve ever heard; a mix that includes dubstep, drum & bass, rai, and folk music from Europe and the Middle East, underpinned by a strong sense of social justice. The band were as much fun to talk to as their album was to listen to. But don’t just take my word for it; have a listen for yourself…

 

Shahbaz Bhatti: A Tribute

I’ve interviewed hundreds of people in my time – both the very famous and the nowhere-near-as-famous-as-they-think. Some of them have been on the receiving end of threats (mostly those involved in campaigning for the human rights of others); some have even been attacked once or twice. But this week was the first time that someone I’ve interviewed has been murdered because of the stance he took. I am still in shock, even though it’s been eight years since I last spoke to him.

I met Shahbaz Bhatti (Pakistan’s Minister for Minority Affairs, who was assassinated on Wednesday) in February 2003, when he was Chairman of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance. He was also Executive Director of Pakistan Council for Human Rights and Democracy and Founder/President of the Christian Liberation Front of Pakistan (CLF). George W Bush and Tony Blair were warming up for their war on Iraq, and Shahbaz was on a tour of Western countries, basically to explain to those in power what sort of nasty backlash Pakistan’s non-Muslim minorities would suffer if the war went ahead.

“I’ve met many policy-makers in Europe, and discussed this issue at length with them,” he told me. “People have shown deep concern towards the situation in Pakistan, and I think that at their own levels, they are taking up this issue and showing solidarity with us.”

Shahbaz was a Christian, but his fight wasn’t exclusively on behalf of Pakistan’s Christian population; he also championed the rights of Hindus, Sikhs, Balmeeks, Bheels, Maingwals, Zoarstrians, Kelashes and all the other groups the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance stood for. All he wanted was to see Pakistan’s non-Muslim communities able to live without fear of harassment – and an end to the blasphemy law which is routinely abused by unscrupulous people; often used to persecute minorities and to steal people’s property by accusing them of blasphemy so as to get rid of them.

The CLF’s job, Shahbaz said, was to protect and defend minorities who are persecuted because of their faith, or through discriminatory laws such as the blasphemy law. The organisation had over 50,000 members, and branch offices in 90 of the 106 districts in Pakistan. Its free legal aid cell provided legal aid and assistance to those unjustly imprisoned victims of blasphemy and other discriminatory legislations. They also provided shelter and material support to victims’ families.

To quote an often-used cliché, Shahbaz was a voice for the voiceless in Pakistan. May he rest in peace.

Click here to hear me in conversation with Shahbaz in 2003.

Crimea: Day 1

Oh crap, it’s cold…

When Operation Christmas Child (the charity that mobilises schoolkids across the UK to fill shoeboxes with gifts for kids in poorer countries) asked me to accompany a team of theirs on a trip abroad, I jumped at the chance. Well, why wouldn’t I? The last time they did, I’d ended up spending ten days in Swaziland, so what’s not to like? Well, maybe the fact that this time round, we weren’t going to Africa but somewhere distinctly less sunny: the Ukraine.

Well, at least I got some sunshine on the way here, thanks to the 20-minute change of plane in Istanbul. But as soon as we touched down in Simferopol (in Crimea), it was back to brass monkeys again.

Anyway, that was yesterday. It’s now Monday – the first day of a short trip for which I’m on story-gathering duty. From our base in Simferopol, we headed south to Bahchisaray – the six of us who flew in from London the day before, plus Sergei, Irina (Ira for short) and Marina, our three translators.

It got less snowy (but not necessarily warmer) the further we drove out of Simferopol. The first thing that caught my attention as we neared Bahchisaray was the huge mountain range in front of us: a stunning row of what looked like enormous limestone cliffs, on which several centuries’ worth of erosion had done some awesome sculpting.

Our first stop was Sakalina, a village on the road that leads to Bahchisaray, and further on to Yalta (where Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin famously met in 1945 to plan Hitler’s final defeat). ”It’s the last village in this area,” says Igor, the church pastor who’s coordinating the gift distributions we’re observing today. “Many years ago, there were a lot of different nations living here.

“People are very poor here. On the way here, you see lots of empty fields, all bare. As far as prospects for young people go, in this village there’s probably tourism – that is, if young people are prepared to stay here and work at it. There’s a great canyon that you can see as you travel on your way here; there’s also a waterfall and other mountains. These are all places we could bring tourists to; young people could earn money that way. For the most part, young people here tend to stay here. Those who have rich parents who can pay for them to be educated in big cities leave and go to either Sevastopol or Simferopol to be educated.”

In Sakalina we visited an ‘internat’ (a sort of cross between a boarding school and an orphanage) which caters for both orphans and children from dysfunctional families. On arrival, we were greeted by Alexandria (the assistant director of the internat) and Sergei, the student president. Alexandria’s been working here 20 years (“We don’t work here,” she informs us. “We live here.”). The school celebrated its 50th anniversary last year. The kids are very hands-on in the running of the place.

Out in the playground, David (our photographer) and I are accosted by a handful of young lads aged between 11 and 15. they’re all keen on footy; some support local Crimean teams, a few of them like Dynamo Kiev – but as far as Premiership teams go, there’s a lone Arsenal fan and not much else (in fact, there’s a big thumbs down when Man U is mentioned!). They’re also big fans of hip hop music. Eminem gets quite a few name checks.

The assembly hall resembles a small cinema (folding cinema seats tend to crop up in all the places we visit). We’ve brought 19 big boxes with us – each of which contains 10 shoeboxes. In the assembly hall, Alexandra introduces us, Trevor talks about why we’re here, and then Igor addresses the kids, and they’re shown a puppet show telling the Christmas story. Then the gifts are handed out, to much jubilation. A couple of kids are up for chatting after getting their shoeboxes, so we chat.

Kirill (left) is twelve and loves Dynamo Kiev and Barcelona. He’ll be leaving school in four years time, and ultimately wants to study medicine. “I want to be the man who gives presents like these to other children.” he says.

I then made friends with 14-year-old Gena (pronounced “gee-yana”). He’d opened his shoebox and found a set of juggling balls inside – and, it turns out, was quite a skilled juggler! “My big brother taught me,” he said, then proceeded to help me brush up on my crap juggling skills. “It’s all in the hands. Put two of them in one hand and just start throwing – like this.”

It’s kind of a cliché for people who travel a lot to say “Aw, people in poor countries; they don’t have much, but they’re so giving.” But it’s a cliché because it’s true… and I was about to get a reminder of that from Gena. After spending a few minutes trying unsuccessfully to get me to juggle properly, he handed me the balls and said they were his gift to me. He then disappeared for a few minutes and returned with a notebook. Since he’d already told me earlier that he liked writing poems, I reckoned that it was his poetry notebook and he wanted my autograph. Wrong – he was giving it to me as another gift! Part of me feels like I’m robbing the kid!

After lunch, then set off for the second distribution of the day, in a village called Verhorechye (“the village on the end of the line”). This is one of many places in Eastern Europe that got left behind when Glasnost happened. In the days of the old regime, the village thrived. It was a huge tobacco growing area; it also produced lots of fruit and a thriving bee-keeping industry. All that went into steady decline from 1991 onwards. (“We were okay for about nine years after that, but now there’s nothing here.”) These days, the village’s only employer is a military storage centre. The mum in the last house we visit works there as a book keeper – but, she tells us, the word is that centre is set to close soon.

The apartment buildings we visit resemble a run-down council estate. An extremely manky run-down council estate (that’s “the projects” for any Americans reading this). The apartments have back gardens, but even these look bleak. I see a watering can tree in one of the back gardens; two floors up, I can see an old bathtub abandoned in someone’s veranda. The place looks grim. Later on, I ask Igor why he chooses to stay and work in such a place with no prospects. His answer is simple: “God has called me to be here.”

We visited a couple of homes and met a few of the families whose kids will receive shoeboxes when they’re handed out in the nearby cultural centre later in the afternoon. Yaroslava (“Call me Slava; everyone does”) invited us into her home and introduced us to her three kids: Maxim (14), Natasha (10) and Andrez (12).

Slava and her family only moved into their two-bedroom flat a month ago. Her husband Nikolai made all their furniture (he works as a security guard, and was at work during our visit). In the kitchen, one burner on the gas cooker had been left on to help warm the flat up a bit. An accordion and a balalaika took pride of place in the front room – along with Kesha, a beautiful karella (a bird similar to a cockatoo) with a yellow head, a grey back, and a little orange blob on either side of her little face. Kesha sat quietly in her cage, not saying a word. I wasn’t sure whether that was because she doesn’t talk to strangers, or if there was some beef between her and Murchik, the family’s rather enormous grey cat.

The second distribution of the day takes place in the cultural centre, which was built in 1984 and is used for a variety of community events. Nikolai (the director of the centre) gives me a guided tour of the centre, which kind of symbolises the village’s decline. On the wall there are pictures of what it was like in the old days, and of the orchards, tobacco plantations and bee-keepers who once lived and worked here. When I visit the gents’, I find that they’re using old books as loo paper. I can’t read Russian, so I don’t know how important the books are. But all the same, something about that level of desperation just feels wrong.

The guys give out 240 shoeboxes this visit. After they’re done, I chat with a couple of young mums, including Marina (one of about 500 Marinas I encounter on this trip – including the Marina who’s been translating for me). She’s married to a fireman and brought her 18-month-old baby girl along (“She’s always hungry, my little girl. She’s the first child in our family.”)

“You know,” Marina says with a smile, “it’s very important for our village that you people came, because our children here don’t get to meet many people, and don’t get much from people round here. This is a big support for us. It’s a big help. It shows our kids that there’s something more than what they have here.”

Photographs here were taken by David Lund. Check out his art an’ ting here.