Boy, that was some expensive underwear…

(but it was in a good cause)

Last night I became the owner (note that I didn’t say “the proud owner”) of a piece of Hollywood memorabilia.

Some guys pay tens of thousands for a Batmobile, or for an Italian Job Mini Cooper. Others shell out equally ludicrous sums for the privilege of having Captain Kirk’s chair (or some other piece of furniture from the USS Enterprise) in their front room. Me – I paid a little over a hundred quid for… Borat’s ‘Mankini’ (signed by the man himself, I hasten to add).

No, I won’t be wearing it (and trust me, I have had loads of requests). And no, I didn’t particularly want it either. But rather than looking at this as a crazy impulse purchase, I prefer to see it as a donation to charity – which, actually, is what it was. I bought it at ‘Bidding for Hope’ – a charity auction in aid of the UCH Macmillan Cancer Centre.

The auction was organised by Dina Lazarus, a former workmate of mine. When I started at my current job, I was initially covering for Dina while she was off sick, having cancer treatment. When her sick leave ended, we both shared the job for a while. She decided she wanted to do something for the hospital where she’d had her treatment, and organised the auction with help from a few other people in the office.

Quite a few other showbizzy things went under the hammer at Foyles Gallery last night, including a day on the set of New Tricks, and Rod Stewart’s platinum disc for his Tonight I’m Yours album. For film buffs, there were a couple of autographed film posters: one of Black Swan (signed by Natalie Portman) and one of Never Let Me Go (signed by Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan and the author of the book, Kazuo Ishiguro). For the more sporty bidders, there was a Nike tennis cap signed by John McEnroe, and a Tottenham shirt signed by the entire team. A £425 voucher for creative writing classes at the Faber Academy went for just under £300. If you’d rather be written about in a book than write one, you could have placed a bid to have the ‘chick lit’ author Freya North include you as a character in her next novel. I was tempted, but very quickly outbid – as opposed to when Lot #14 went under the hammer, and everybody mysteriously stopped bidding after the third bid…  (which is how I ended up with you-know-what)

But hey, it was for a good cause. And even as I write, Mr. Baron Cohen is in LA somewhere, autographing the lime green undergarment which will soon be on its way to me. Altogether the auction raised £11,750 – £8,200 in sales of the auctioned items, and the rest in donations. Another small financial victory in the ongoing battle to kick cancer’s butt. Now, that can hardly be a bad thing…

…and no, I will NOT be posting any pictures of me wearing it. I’ve already said that a million times since last night…

POSTSCRIPT

Saturday 29 June 2013, 4.22pm

On Monday morning, we received the sad news that Dina passed away on Sunday. A handful of us from work attended the funeral on Tuesday afternoon.

In the last few months of her life, Dina would occasionally pop into the office. Now if you look at the comments at the end of this blog post, you’ll see that an old friend of Dina’s came across this post by chance (nearly two years after I wrote it!) and asked me to help her get back in touch with her again, which I did. The last time I saw Dina alive was the last time she popped into the office. She told me how this lady was an old friend of hers, and thanked me for helping her get back in touch with her. And those were the last words she said to me.

Rest easy, Dina. I only knew you for a short time, but that was long enough to see that you were a really loving, caring person.

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…

 

Live review: Baaba Maal presents “In Praise of the Female Voice”

Baaba Maal presents “In Praise of the Female Voice”
Royal Festival Hall, 12 March

The last few Baaba Maal gigs I’ve seen were all collaborative efforts. There was the marathon Africa Express show up in Liverpool, where he rocked out with the likes of Franz Ferdinand and Hard Fi – and following that, a Meltdown show at the Royal festival Hall, at which he shared the stage with long-time collaborator Mansoor Seck and Brit rappers Kano and Bashy. Tonight’s gig was a similar joint effort; this time round Baaba played host to a string of female vocalists from Africa and the UK: Eska, Krystle Warren, Annie Flore Batchiellilys, Speech Debelle and VV Brown.

Baaba has been singing the praises of African women in an honorary feminist style for some time now (as he was the last time I spoke to him), and this gig was, in effect, him taking that further. Sure enough, the track ‘A Song for Women’ (from his last album, Television) had an airing – done as a beautiful duet with VV Brown. But I’m running ahead of myself…

Eska was the first lady to take the stage after Baaba and his band had got things started (actually, the first lady to take the stage was host Andrea Oliver, larger than life and rocking a ‘baldhead’ look as only she can). I’m one person for whom Eska can do no wrong, and she was on brilliant form – both as a vocalist and as a multi-instrumentalist. The first of Eska’s two songs was a reworking of Odyssey’s ‘Inside Out’ (of late, she’s been taking old 70s and 80s disco-pop tunes and reinterpreting them in a quirky jazz style). For her second song, ‘Rock of Ages’, Eska emerged from behind the keyboards and accompanied herself on a violin.

Annie Flore Batchielys was definitely the surprise act of the night – or at least the one with the most unusual entrance. Having been led onstage arm in arm by Baaba, she proceeded to back-track her way out of the band’s little circle, and stayed out of it for nearly all of the song she was supposed to be accompanying Baaba on. When she did start singing, however, she was electrifying. She did a couple of songs on her own while the band took a short break. I didn’t catch all of what she said while she was talking to us (Note to self: might be time to start listening to those French podcasts again), but everyone caught the profuse thanks to Baaba Maal in the closing lines of her last song.

For my money, Krystle Warren was the most intriguing of the other guests, but you kind of got the impression that she’d been added on to the bill at the last minute (especially when she didn’t appear in the grand finale). VV Brown was dignified and elegant while Speech tried to play up to the “rappers are rebellious” stereotype by declaring that she was going to take up more time than she’d been allocated for her set. But there was plenty of love in the house – as the founder of the South Bank’s Women of the World season (of which this gig was a part) discovered when she chatted to Andrea about the advances that have been made by women in the 100 years since the first International Women’s Day was observed. It was only at that point that I realised there was supposed to be a feminist angle to the whole event – but I’m sure I speak for all the blokes in the house when I say that it never felt exclusive or “girls only.”

I left the RFH nodding my head along to the opening track of Annie Nightingale‘s post-gig DJ set. As I stepped out of the venue, I wondered what Kwame Kwei Armah and Paul Gambaccini had to say about their feminist sides, and contemplated coming along on Sunday to hear them speak. In the end, I didn’t.


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 2

Breakfast at seven? Flippin’ ‘eck! I thought this was a… oh yes, I get it: we’re abroad, but it’s not a holiday. It’s work. Alrighty then, 7.00am breakfast it is…

Today, the action’s taking place in Saki – a town in the north of Crimea. We’d originally been scheduled to depart at 8.00am to make the first distribution (in a school) on time. But yesterday, we’d received a phone call asking if we could arrive half an hour early, as the school was being a bit inflexible with their timetable – which meant that we had to do breakfast half an hour earlier. And so we did… only to receive a phone call as we were driving up to Saki, informing us that the school had now decided to go with our original time slot. These people – don’t they realise that us writers need our beauty sleep if we’re going to do our jobs properly?

The morning started off just wet back down in Simferopol. The further north we drove, however, the colder it got – and when we arrived in Saki, it was freezing. We pulled up in front of the ‘school for Christ’ church where we were warmly welcomed by Alexander, the pastor (who’s coordinating the gift distributions in this area).

Once indoors, we gathered round a huge table. Alexander wasted no time giving us the lowdown on the area and the work the church was doing there. His youth pastor sat in a corner, strumming away at his guitar. We were served tea, coffee and chunky biscuits by an older blonde lady who, we were told, had been a drug addict for 20 years before she joined the church. She popped her head in from the kitchen and said “hello” and “I love you” to us, whilst the youth pastor laid down some Nile Rodgers grooves in the background. It’s real coffee – hot, strong and made without the use of a filter or cafetiere. I let all the grainy stuff settle before I drink it, occasionally wiping it away from the edge of the mug before taking a swig. It’s good coffee, though.

Alexander used the extra time to fill us in a bit more on the history of the area, and we got given a longer history of the place as we drove round. Saki is home to 30,000 people, including many Tatar people who had returned from forced exile (In 1944, 200,000 Crimean Tatars were forcibly exiled in 24 hours, after Stalin accused them of collaborating with the Nazis. 46% of them perished on their way to Central Asia). Saki is famous for its lake, which has an extremely high salt content. People from all over the former Soviet Union come here for its spas and mud treatments – as do people generally who have orthopaedic problems they need treatment for. “In the summer, it’s not uncommon to see more people in wheelchairs than walking normally,” our guide tells us. Nearly all the shops have wheelchair access, and there are over 100 health resorts in the area.

Our first distribution is in the imaginatively named Secondary School No. 4. This school is 300 years old and is the oldest school in the Crimea (which makes you wonder why it isn’t Secondary School No. 1 – but hey, I don’t make the names). I amble about the school’s reception area and am immediately accosted by a handful of girls who want to have their picture taken with me. We take pictures, the school bell rings, and we’re all carted off into a classroom where a handful of kids are given pressies.

I had a brief interview with one girl who loves skipping has found a skipping rope in her shoe box. She told me her name was Lyuda (pronounced “loo-dah”), which immediately reminded me of “Ludachristmas”. But I’m sure she won’t get the 30 Rock reference, so I don’t share the joke. I interview another girl who’s been learning English for a few years and wants to have a practise. That went well… Before we leave, we are warmly thanked by the school principal.

On our way to our next visit, we stopped for a brief wander around the market. An elderly lady in a purple coat sat behind one stall selling stuff; she stopped me and asked where I was from. Thankfully, Marina was close by to help me communicate with her.

“Where are you from?” she enquired.
“England.”
“Oh – so you’re not Nigerian, then?”

She asked if I went to church, and told me proudly that she was a Protestant. Marina explained to her what we were doing in Saki, and she gave us a brief… well, she basically gave us a sermon.

“If you’re doing this for God, and you’re doing it with love, it will be great for this place,” she said. “Do it in God’s honour – not your own. It’s not enough just to give people things; you have to tell them about God’s son and what he did for all of us. You need to tell people that they need to have salvation through Jesus Christ. People need to see Jesus in your lives.”

Sermon over, we got into the van and headed to where the second distribution of the day was due to take place. On this leg of the journey, we had the honour of having the head of the village as our guide. He got into our van and gave us guided tour as we drove – very slowly – through the winding roads of the village. He told us about the slave markets there used to be in this part of the Crimea, and of the various people groups who lived here, including the Karaim and the Tatars.

We had to drive slowly; the Tatars who had built the old town had deliberately constructed the roads in such a way that any invading enemies couldn’t just go charging through them, especially if they were in big vehicles (a strategy which, in my opinion, is a lot more effective than speed bumps). En route to the second distribution (due to take place in the village’s cultural centre), we stopped for lunch and visited a couple of kids and their families: a little girl who has Down’s Syndrome, and another who’s being treated for leukaemia.

Only a couple of us did those visits, as we figured it would be too overwhelming for the girls if the whole team walked in on them. While the rest of us waited outside the girls’ homes, the village head talked excitedly about some new developments due to happen in the village. It’s been chosen as the site for a new Formula 1 track – complete with a little airport to accommodate all the rich people who will be flying in on private jets to watch the races that will be held there when it’s done. He told us to take some ‘before’ pictures of the place as it is now, especially of the road in the potholes.

We arrived at the cultural centre to find a flamboyant Technicolour massive waiting to greet us. School children were dressed in their respective ethnic group’s traditional costumes: Tatars, Gypsies, and several others. A large, round, sugary loaf of bread is presented to us – a Crimean custom for welcoming guests. The loaf is passed round and we all break off a piece and eat it, some choosing to dip it in the little bowl of salt that accompanies it. The loaf is the same sort of bread Sierra Leoneans commonly refer to as “sweet bread” (that is, until they move to England and get a nasty shock when they discover what “sweet bread” means over there. Ew!).

The very schoolmarmy-looking lady who welcomed us at the door MC’ed the reception that followed, at which we were treated to traditional dances from the various people groups present in the village (and Brazil, for some weird, unexplained reason – unless someone can prove to me that Samba has Ukrainian roots!). It’s a great atmosphere; I had a particularly fun time playing with one kid who took a shine to my specs (as babies often do). With so many people packed into a not-very-large venue, this distribution felt a bit shambolic – but still went well.

With two distributions and a couple of home visits done, there was still more work to do before wrapping up today’s packed schedule. On to another internat we went. Again, the sweet bread got passed round as we watched some more singing and dancing… and then off to our fourth and final distribution of the day, in another orphanage nearby. This one looked as if it had recently had some work done on it. We sat in the library/IT room and met with a group of kids there; another group of kids from another orphanage close by were bussed in to meet with us and receive gifts. Today’s “Aww” moment came when one little girl who had always dreamt of having her own Slinky spring opened up her shoebox and found one inside.

We ended an extremely full day with dinner back down at our home base in Simferopol. On the way home from dinner, we bumped into some blokes who thought I was Mike Tyson, for some unfathomable reason. Is it cos I is black, I ask myself?

Pictures taken by David Lund. Check out his official website here.

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.

Greenbelt 2010: Why I’m Excited…

And we’re off…

The 09:48 1st Great Western to Cheltenham Spa has just pulled out of Paddington. In about two and a half hours’ time, I should be searching for a nice accessible spot on Cheltenham Racecourse on which to pitch a tent. I’m still pondering whether to go and socialise or just lie in it and sleep once it’s up.

The tent will be home for the next few days while I’m at the Greenbelt festival. I hadn’t realised it before, but this is actually my 20th Greenbelt! All of a sudden, my DJ set tomorrow evening has a whole new meaning.

It’s been an interesting 20 years – in which I’ve gone from being the unsure rookie punter whose borrowed tent fell in on him on his first night in it, to a virtual resident of the press room. These days, I even get to inflict my choice of music on the other punters! Nice…

There’s a lot I love about Greenbelt. Back at the start of the 90s (and the start of me dabbling in this writing thingy), the writing workshops held at Greenbelt’s London HQ were key to my early development as a writer (thanks a lot to guys like Dave Roberts and Martin Wroe, who used to share their insights and expertise with us). The more I went, the more I realised there was more to Greenbelt than music. I’ve discovered an array of writers and thinkers (Caesar Molebatsi, Robert Beckford, Jim Wallis, Phillip Yancey and the late Mike Yaconelli, to name a few), and made lots of friends through my annual pilgrimage to Cheltenham (and to Castle Ashby and Deene Park before that). And of course, I’ve heard more great bands and singers than I care to remember.

On the Greenbelt blog (see my blogroll), there’s a series of “Why I’m Excited” posts, in which people associated with the festival have been talking about what (or who) they’re looking forward to the most. Here’s my “Why I’m Excited” list:

Jars of Clay are playing! So too are Brownmusic, Gil Scott-Heron, Ty, Beverley Knight, Foy Vance, Courtney Pine and Greenjade. Just a few of the acts I don’t want to miss.

They’re screening Africa United on Sunday afternoon (check back here for a review soon after).

A couple of ‘must go’ workshops and panel discussions – including one on storytelling and one on the relationship between music and activism.

The comedy line-up’s brilliant: I have to see Jude Simpson, Milton Jones and Andy Kind (he’s recently been featured on Channel 4’s 4thought.tv – top bloke).

And did I mention that I was Djing? 7Pm on Saturday in the Blue Nun wine bar. Drop by just before Shed Seven on Mainstage…

Asha: Bringing hope to Delhi’s slum dwellers (Part 2)

Here’s the second part of my interview with Dr Kiran Martin, founder of Delhi’s Asha project.

 

One of Asha’s big success stories last year was persuading India’s banks to give loans to slum dwellers. How did it come about?

Being a paediatrician, my first effort was in the area of healthcare. But I realised very early on that unless and until the socio-economic status of families improves, they’re not going to be able to pay for healthcare.

As far as India’s banks were concerned, there was no relationship between them and the slum dwellers. They had nothing to do with each other. Slum dwellers only had access to money from loan sharks – and those guys know how to extract money by muscle power. Their interest rates were 10 percent a month: 120% per annum! Slum dwellers took loans from them only for emergencies; not to improve their lives. It would be cases such as there being an illness in the family, for which you immediately need money for hospital expenses. Or your daughter’s getting married; in India, parents have to spend a lot on a girl’s wedding.

I had the good pleasure of inviting India’s finance minister to Asha in 2007. He was amazed to find that not a single slum dweller had a bank account. He asked me how come there was such a big gap, and I said that was because banks are so far removed from the lives of slum dwellers. Not physically, because geographically they were only a few yards away from a lot of the slums. But they had nothing to do with each other. Slum dwellers wouldn’t ever enter banks.

We said to the finance minister, ‘Look – these slum dwellers have been trained by Asha. They’re honourable people. So many years of relationship exist, and what we should do is give them direct access to banks. Get rid of all the middlemen in between, and let them enjoy the banking services that you and I enjoy.’  We then tailored a scheme for provision of credit and other banking services to the urban poor. The rates of interest were a little lower because they were so poor. We did a pilot and  had a 99% repayment rate – much higher than the normal average, which is 93%. So many loans go bad. People don’t give money because they think that the banks will stop bothering them after some time. And big companies are the biggest defaulters! If there’s a recession in the market, they just say, ‘my company’s doing really badly. We have no money.’

The banks were earning money just by people opening accounts, and the slum dwellers paid back so well and so honourably. It was a commercial proposition for banks. The scheme became so popular that it then got expanded to the whole city. There were big announcements made nationally that banks would be willing to lend to the urban poor through mechanisms that would ensure that these people would return the money back.

What sort of things have these loans financed?

Some very, very interesting businesses. Expansion of existing business too. For example, if you were working for a courier company, you’d decide you wanted your own goods carrier and run your own courier business instead of working for someone else. That suddenly enhanced the that person’s income by seven or eight times, because he was no longer working for a company.

There were people who expanded barbershops; people who have grocery stores, and people who had home improvement loans; people whom I’d initially helped to get land to build their own houses.

And of course, Asha’s big success story last year was seeing over 100 slum kids going to university…

Kiran having a chat with some children from on eof the slums

It’s just amazing, because up until two years ago we never even thought something like this would even be possible.

We worked very hard with these kids. We taught them how to tackle A Level exams; how to complete their papers on time; we gave them lots of extra books and resources… we motivated them a lot. We told them, ‘You might be the very first child going to university from your whole slum. Just think about it – if you got there, you would really have a passport out of poverty and become something in life. It would be a dream fulfilled in your lifetime; it would be so amazing.’ All of this motivation meant that these kids then faced the A Level exams with a lot more confidence. When we looked at the results, we saw that they were good enough for them to find places at Delhi University – and it’s not easy to find a place in Delhi University; it’s very competitive!

We faced lots of obstacles. Parents weren’t willing; they thought it would be very expensive, and I had to do a lot of fund raising to ensure that we could pay for their college tuition, their clothes and everything else they’d need in order to be able to live life in college. It was a very big challenge.

Not only was it a celebration for this group, but the celebration of those tall ivory towers having fallen. And for so many doors of opportunity having been opened for these children and many many hundreds and thousands of children to follow. Now there’s nothing stopping the youngsters. There’s a very big knowledge pool in the slums now, that exists to guide and mentor the kids who are following.

An Asha staff member teaches basic hygiene to children

Asha’s very big on women being empowered. Why is that important?

In India, it’s basically a male-dominated society. It’s a feudal, patriarchal society. And that is very old Indian tradition, coming down through hundreds and hundreds of years.

You find that same expression in a slum, where the woman has no voice of any sort. They’re always in trouble – right from even before they’re born. Abortions are very common so the sex ratio is skewed; in Delhi you have 875 girls to 1,000 boys because the moment they find out that it’s a girl, they get the foetus aborted. If they escape that, then there’s the possibility of female infanticide. And then later on in life you find that girls are always given worse treatment than boys.

A slum dweller trained by Asha gives first aid to another slum dweller.

Whatever it was, it seemed to be the woman doing all this work and suffering the most. And so we felt it was very important to help the women to understand that they could be a force to be reckoned with if we began to train them. We formed these women’s groups in all the slums. It was very hard at first, because they were all so inhibited – so shy, lacking in confidence. But with the passage of time, we trained them; we helped them to see a little bit of success that got them excited, and they understood the power of their unity, and what they could achieve.

By and by, they began to lobby politicians. They realised that the politicians were responding, and they started getting clean water; they started getting drains; they started getting electricity (legally); they started getting roads paved, toilets constructed… and they were just thrilled! They realised they had so much power. The  local politicians had to listen to them, because with all this knowledge and power they had, the politicians would not be welcome in the slums if they didn’t respond.

Where does does Asha get its financial support from?

As far as money goes, most of ours comes from outside India. That’s a choice we’ve made because we want to be watchdogs. We don’t want to become a stooge or an arm of the Government; otherwise we wouldn’t be able to tell them what they’re doing wrong. Neither would we be able to hold them accountable, nor would we be able to create democratic structures in a slum, or gently challenge the authorities if slum dwellers were being exploited.

In terms of the breakdown, the UK is our biggest funder. Then we have the Netherlands; we also have Ireland, the USA… in all these countries and others, we have generous supporters who believe in what we do, who share our vision, who stand in solidarity with us, support us and help us in our work.

You mentioned your faith earlier on. What part does it play in all this?

Well, it’s the reason why I do what I do. I feel that as a Christian, my faith drives me to want to help people who live in so much poverty. And in fact, because I come from a Hindu background, it would make no sense for me to be a disciple of Christ and then completely have a dichotomous life where what I did with my life had nothing to do with my faith.

I do feel very strongly that the Bible has a lot to say on social justice. It has a lot to say about systemic poverty and how we as Christians should be at the forefront of social change. That is what I feel I’ve been called to do, and I try to do it to the best of my ability.