A Culture of Giving

Burma, Documentary, Leprosy, Myanmar, portrait, travel

While I was on assignment photographing leprosy in Myanmar last year I visited the aforementioned Ma Yan Chaung Leprosy Resettlement Village near Yangon. Frustratingly, due to Myanmar still being a very carefully controlled state, I was only allowed to visit for a few hours, when I would have liked to have stayed there for a week or more.

The area was made up of a leprosy hospital, a church with houses for selected vulnerable former/current leprosy patients, a village made up predominantly of people affected by leprosy and their families, and two dormitories.

The dormitories had about 30 beds each, all of which were occupied, and in which lived individuals affected by leprosy. It wasn’t a hospital, but a community. They all had duties, some of them even had jobs. There was a strict routine each day, getting up early, eating together at specific times and going to bed early. There was little privacy as each dormitory was just one long room with beds facing each other. Some people had been there for many years, others quite recently.

On the face of it, it appeared to be a charitable situation; though there are several social enterprises in place to keep the dormitories going, it still relies on donations of various forms. I know this to be a very simplistic view, and though I wasn’t allowed much time to observe the complexities of this relationship I wanted to turn this view on it’s head somehow.

So I asked them each to think of when they last gave something to someone else – an intrinsic part of the Burmese Buddhist culture. Then I took just one or two shots of them on their bed. I didn’t direct them at all, I just wanted to show them, with their worldly possessions around them, and their quote that makes them the donor, and not the beneficiary. I’m going to try and expand this concept in my long-term project Leprosy Eliminated?.

Ma Yan Chaung Resettlement Village - Dormitories - Daw Lone Tin

“10 days ago I gave rice to a teacher in a remote village.” Daw Lone Tin

Ma Yan Chaung Resettlement Village - Dormitories - Daw Mya Sein

“Last week I donated some food to a monk living in the forest.” Daw Mya Sein

Ma Yan Chaung Resettlement Village - Dormitories - Daw Sun Tint

“Yesterday, on 2nd December I gave some noodles to a monk.” Daw Sun Tint

Ma Yan Chaung Resettlement Village - Dormitories - Daw Than Khin

“2 months ago I gave a longyi to one of the people affected by leprosy.” Daw Than Khin

Ma Yan Chaung Resettlement Village - Dormitories - Daw Tin Shwe

“On the 15th November I gave a longyi and some noodles and other food to a poor patient.” Daw Tin Shwe

Ma Yan Chaung Resettlement Village - Dormitories - U Thein Han

“10 days ago I was given an extra blanket which I felt I didn’t need, so I gave it to someone who needed it more.” U Thein Han

Ma Yan Chaung Resettlement Village - Dormitories - Ko Mya Oo

“15 days ago I gave some longyis to some local people.” U Ko Mya Oo

Ma Yan Chaung Resettlement Village - Dormitories - U Mg Mg Khin

“I donated a thermoplast to a monk on 19th November” U Mg Mg Khin

Ma Yan Chaung Resettlement Village - Dormitories - U Tao

“Last Saturday I donated packs of noodles to a monk.” U Tao

Ma Yan Chaung Resettlement Village - Dormitories - U Tin Khaing

“10 days ago I gave one shirt and one longyi to a person in the village here.” U Tin Khaing


A Puppy in Myanmar

Asia, Documentary, General comment, Leprosy, Myanmar, portrait

Last year a doctor specialising in leprosy told me that one aspect of the disease that people don’t necessarily think about is not the pain you can’t feel (as a result of paralysed nerves – which can lead to the damage, such as this woman has on her hands), but the pleasing touches you can no longer feel.

When this woman picked up this puppy it made think of what that doctor told me, and I wondered if she could feel the softness of the puppies hair, or it’s paws scratching her hands.


Woman with puppy, Ma Yan Chaung Leprosy Resettlement Village. Myanmar 2013

Don Tiger: Freetown’s Kung-Fu Master

Africa, General comment, Photojournalism, portrait

OK, so I’m not sure he’s a Kung-Fu master. I have no idea what sort of status he is, but from my amateur eye (although I have watched a lot of Jackie Chan) he was very good. Don Tiger (probably not his real name unless he has kick-ass parents) is a Nigerian martial artist who I met in Freetown, Sierra Leone. He’s also shot a few amateur Kung-Fu movies in Nigeria and South Africa during his time; that’s right, in my book I’m mates with a Kung-Fu Movie Star.

When I met him he was head of security at Dubai’s, a watering hole I frequented every now and then, and a club that used to have one of the worst reputations on Freetown’s Eastside in terms of drugs and stabbings. There was a huge gang culture there. That is until Don ‘The Super Don’ Tiger arrived.

Within a year or so he had kicked out (quite literally at times according to the barman) a number of troublemakers and slowly the place lost it’s rep as the bad boy bar it once was. Back in April I went along with a mate of mine, Lewis Swann to one of Don’s workout sessions.

“You should have seen him the first time I came,” said Lewis in his slurred Texas twang, “he spent like half an hour making sure his ‘fro was perfect before training”. Lewis was taking part. I wasn’t. I got a bit of exercise from dodging out of the way from his kicks, twirls and unannounced roundhouses. He was fashionably late (preening his locks possibly) so I photographed Lewis warming up with couple of Don’s budding pupils.

My neck certainly doesn’t look like that…

Don then arrived to show them how a warm-up is done by a Kung-Fu movie star.

That’s Don, in the foreground with a really serious looking face. If there’s one thing Don is, it’s serious. I think the painting of him at the back of his work-out spot particularly picks up on this fact too. The artist really nailed the serious look.

Don demonstrates his flexibility. He can go further to touch his face on the ground.


Flying knee-kick (apologies if this is the incorrect term – they tend not to mention what moves are in the movies, they just do them).

He really is the Super Don.

Don held this position perfectly still for about a minute. Apparently it’s really hard.

That punch bag is in for a treat…

Don knocks Lewis’ gloved hand aside with a roundhouse about 7 foot high.

Lewis’ rather scared face is because Don managed to roundhouse kick his sparring glove off his raised hand. I didn’t even realise it had gone until it landed on my head. True story.

Unfortunately this mini-character photo essay from a brief sparring session doesn’t have a fairytale ending. I saw Don a number of times, had a few beers with him and a few chats about where he came from and where he wanted to go. Perhaps he had the potential to become a kung-fu movie star… he certainly had the moves and the look, but when I came back to Freetown after three months away Don was no longer at Dubai’s. He’d beaten up the bar owner with a metal pole after an argument (I should say Don was always in a good mood each time I saw him). The bar owner survived without permanent damage, but Don was arrested. As far as I know, he’s still in prison. I imagine he’ll survive ok in there, better than anyone that crosses him at least, but Freetown’s prisons are certainly the wrong place to start if you want to kick ass on the silver screen.

Maria and Jamie

Music, portrait

Maria Camahort and Jamie McCreadie are both extremely talented guitarists and with differing backgrounds in classical spanish and jazz guitar respectively. They met a few years ago while both attending the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. I recently met up with them at King’s Cross St Pancras for a photo shoot for their new up and coming website. Here’s just a few black and white shots I took that morning. You can hear a bit of Jamie’s stuff on his website, and no doubt some of the duo’s stuff will be up very soon…

An Autumnal Wye Valley and a few others since Africa

General comment, Landscape, portrait

Well I’ve been relatively busy with various events and PR shoots (mainly in London) since I returned from Togo mid September. However when I’ve not been on jobs in London, I’ve been living with my family down in Gloucestershire. So I thought I’d exhibit a few photos I’d taken in my spare time around home. There are just a couple of colour photos in the peak of Autumn, but most are of family and friends, with a few family portraits I did for a friend in London.

Uncle Dennis and Uncle Jem sit in the mid-September sun.

A few landscapes taken on a local walk.

Uncle Dennis on his 89th birthday outing to Weobley.

Flowers on a rock wall.

Uncle Jem photographs Uncle Dennis’ meal.

Uncle Jem and Uncle Dennis.

Mum, Uncle Dennis and Uncle Jem in Weobley.

These next three are three portraits I did of my friend Caroline’s family.

Dad and Uncle Richard in discussion after lunch.

Lost on a family walk.

Colour at last. The above and below shots are of the trees just outside my house. They’ve not been photoshopped. Those are the actually colours in the mid-afternoon sun. The above swirl effect is done simply by rotating the camera hand held on a low shutter speed (1/10th of a second I think it was).

Dad takes a break after lunch to read the paper.

This last week or so I had two very good friends from the Africa Mercy visit me. Two walks in eight days isn’t that bad…

Christina and Maaike (you may have seen a previous blog about them messing around on the ship) relax in the dining room. Maaike will be returning to Sierra Leone with Mercy Ships in January, and I’ll be following shortly afterwards. Christina’s adventures are as yet unplanned…

Meanwhile I’m looking to move down to London until mid-February, so if you know of a room or a house I can lodge at then please get in touch. Cheers, Tom.

Three stories of palliative care

Documentary, Mercy Ships, Photojournalism, portrait

In June I posted about Ayabavi, one of the terminally ill cancer patients that Mercy Ships was looking after. In August myself and Claire visited her along with Harriet and Alex on their last visit. The two weeks previous I also tagged along with the palliative care team visiting two other patients; Lucie and Eklou. The following are very briefs accounts of the effects that the cancer and Mercy Ships has had on their lives, followed by a series of portraits and stills showing where and how they live.

Lucie Amedji

When she first noticed the lump in March earlier this year she felt fine, she was selling second hand clothes on the roadside. It soon got very painful, and she realised her sight was diminishing. As it grew larger her sight went completely. The doctor gave her some eyedrops, but didn’t even mention removing it. She carried on working.

On a visit to Aneho to pick up more of the eyedrops they had another look and told her they couldn’t do anything, sending her to the general hospital in Lomé. They informed her they could do surgery, but the cost was far more than she could afford.

Lucie lives at the Auberge du Lac, a backpackers on the beach of Lake Togo, owned by her Uncle who lives in Germany. He came back to see her and got in touch with Mercy Ships, arranging for her to go to one of their screenings.

She learned about the cancerous nature of the tumour from the doctor on board the ship.

Each week Harriet and Alex bring her painkillers, bandage dressings and fruit. They counsel her, and try to help her cope with her short future. I’ve mentioned before that they often read through the bible with their patients, suggesting areas that may provide comfort. The three patients I’ve photographed in this post are all Christian, and all expressed to me their appreciation for the palliative care team for reading through the bible with them and the prayers they share.

Lucie gets visits from her pastor and members of her church each week. She is grateful for the moral support and friendship they’ve shown. The pain relief the drugs have provided have made an enormous difference in her life. It is this that concerns her most about the Africa Mercy’s Togo field service ending. Without them she is in constant agony, totally immobile and would surely not live long. While she can carry on taking them she has been able to resume her job selling clothes. Without the pain she has been out and about more of recent, and has a certain joy she hasn’t felt in a while.

The supply of drugs that the palliative care team provides will run out a couple of months after their last visit (which was the beginning of August). The cocktail of painkillers she requires costs in the region of $60 a month. Her church community cannot help her financially. She earns an average of about $1 a day.


Lucie and her father.

Looking through Lucie’s front door.

Lucie’s house.

Lucie talks to her cousin.

Lucie and her niece.

Lucie waits for her father.

Electricity cables above the TV.

A bar stool keeps the tap closed.

Fisherman fold their netting after their morning catch outside Lucie’s house.

Eklou Gnakou

He’s had a tumour on the right side of his face for many years now. It’s been operated on twice, both times by Dr. Amaglo, a local surgeon that has worked on the Africa Mercy before.

He owns a plot of land which he used to farm and sell the produce. He carried on working after the first operation, but after the tumour grew back and was removed a second time he was too weak, and had to stop farming.

He heard about Mercy Ships and went to a screening where he was told that he couldn’t be operated on again – it was malignant. He still asked to be operated on even then, but after talking with Harriet he understood, and realised it was futile.

He is extremely grateful to Mercy Ships for a number of obvious reasons, but partly because he would have paid for a third operation which he now knows wouldn’t have got rid of the cancer. He’d like to take the hospital he was operated on to court, partly because they should have told him the operation wasn’t enough, partly because they waited a year before he got the results of the operation.

Money has been an issue for him since he stopped working on his plot of land. He has seven children, four of which live at home. At the moment he is able to feed them all and send them to school, but his eldest son Kofa, 14 works constantly in their garden to make sure food is growing. Kofa tries not to think about his father’s illness. He says that he feels sad when he does, and he doesn’t want to think about who might provide for the family after his Dad has gone. At the moment he can see that his father’s in much less pain than he used to be, and they’re managing at the present.

Though Eklou is more able to work with the drugs that the palliative care team provides, he does not have the money to start up the plot of land he farmed on before. He owns it still, but cannot afford to use it. He needs help from a microfinance organisation, but because of his cancer will almost certainly get turned down.

In an understandable attempt to get rid of the cancer a rich Uncle is paying for him to have radiotherapy in Ghana. Radiotherapy usually shrinks the tumour quite quickly, but if there’s any trace left it will grow back rapidly. There is little chance that the radiotherapy will work, but Eklou is hopeful. – the doctors there have told him that after treatment his cancer will be gone forever.

Eklou talks to the palliative care team.

Eklou’s children leave their toys in the yard.

Eklou explains his concerns for his families welfare after he’s gone.

Alex listens with concern.

Eklou with some of his children.

Kofa and his younger sister.

Harriet’s medical kit.

A blackboard that Eklou’s children use at home.

A stopped clock in Eklou’s bedroom. Despite being Christian, his wife is obsessed with voodoo.

The patch of land in Eklou’s yard that he and his son Kofa maintain.

Ayabavi Fiodegbekou

Before she attended a Mercy Ships screening Ayabavi was pushed around various health clinics, having tests and examinations delayed. Her tumour was very painful, and it was bleeding to the point where she was feinting. Eating was getting harder and the situation was clearly getting desperate. Her daughter heard about Mercy Ships screenings taking place in Aneho; they examined her, taking her to the Africa Mercy to get her tumour scanned. She was told that it was inoperable, but they could provide a palliative care team to help here deal with the pain and help her live the end of her life with dignity.

Before they started visiting she was treated as somewhat of an outcast due to the smell that the tumour was causing. She was weak, barely strong enough to walk 20 metres. She had needed a lot of help just to make it up the gangway on the ship.

The drugs, painkillers and dressings have helped enormously, stopping the smell, and giving her strength and her appetite back. Harriet, Alex and their translator (for the first few months) Sylvie have all become good friends of hers.

Her daughters are grown up and help look after her, changing her dressings when needed, and making sure she’s happy. She spends lots of time with her grandchildren, and will sit down and chat to other people in her village now that the tumour doesn’t smell. She’s taken Harriet’s advice about the best diet to have, but making sure your diet has plenty of vitamins is no comparison to the drugs and painkillers the palliative care team provides. Like Lucie and Eklou, these will run out a few months after the Africa Mercy has left, and she doesn’t know where she will be able to acquire more.


Ayabavi’s daughter Tante dries her eyes behind her mother, as the palliative care team talk about life after the Africa Mercy leaves Togo.

Harriet and Ayabavi’s daughters change the dressing on her tumour.

Alex plays with Ayabvai’s granddaughter.

Below three: Stalls at Ayabavi’s daughter’s shop where the palliative care team meet her each week.

Ayabavi prays with Harriet, Alex and Sylvie.

Ayabavi in her house.

Ayabavi’s room.

Ayabavi with a photo I took of her on my previous visit.

Ayabavi leaves the complex of houses where her home is.

The palliative care team in Togo was Harriet Molyneux, Alex Williams, and their translator Sylvie, then Komlan. They provide counselling and advice on how to live the remainder of their life, and are willing to pray and read the bible if the patient wishes. They can provide drugs and painkillers for as long as the ship is in dock and a few months more. The ship’s primary function is to provide surgical care in the areas of Africa where it is needed most. It left Togo to undergo five months of repairs and maintenance in South Africa, extending its service for another 30 years. Mercy Ships can’t help everyone, and leaving an area like Togo where they could clearly carry on working around the clock for many years will always be painful. However Togo is not the only country in need of their services, and once the ship is finished (hopefully in February), it will be going up to Sierra Leone to start a 10 month field service. I’m hoping to join them for a month or two out there.

One can only hope that Lucie, Eklou and Ayabavi leave this world without pain and with dignity.

(L-R): Komlan, Claire, a grandson, Harriet, Ayabavi, a grandson, Sylvie, Alex, Tante and a granddaughter.

Central Togo: The Koloware Health Post

Documentary, Photojournalism, portrait, street photography, travel

The trip up to Sokode went as far as I was concerned pretty smoothly. Dodji and I left the house at 6 in the morning and went straight to the bus station where I bought us tickets up north to Sokode. I’d travelled on plenty of local buses in various part of Africa before, so wasn’t surprised that we had to wait for over an hour for the bus to leave at 7.30am. I also wasn’t surprised that it didn’t in fact leave until 8.30am. In fact I was pretty happy it was only delayed an hour. In Zambia I once had to wait 8 hours for a bus to leave after its scheduled departure. Naturally we were crammed into the bus, 20 in a 14-seater bus. Raymond (having lived in Sokode for three years) had promised the journey would be about three hours. I remember smiling to him as he said this and suggesting that perhaps it would be therefore more like five or six hours. I received a hurt look in return and bit my tongue from explaining the western take on time in Africa.

Regretting my smugness we arrived in Sokode at 4pm. There weren’t even long delays, we stopped every now and then for travellers to answer nature’s call and satisfy their snack cravings as well as allowing a poor young mother on the bench behind me to clean her vomit from her and her baby’s clothes. Malaria apparently.

After directions from a pastor-friend of Raymond’s to Koloware, where the Catholic Mission Leprosy Centre-turned Health Centre is located, we hopped on zimis for the pleasant journey through beautiful lush-green Togolese countryside. The villages were beautiful, with noticeably less rubbish than near the cities and stop-off points on the journey up. The wind blowing in my face was warm but not to humid, the clouds ranging from bright white to thick black, divided with crackled lines, a sky that had Ride of the Valkyries as its soundtrack. Raindrops fell lightly and sporadically bringing the temperature down perfectly.

Koloware Catholic Mission

A cyclist scoots through Koloware village among houses for the 'lepers'

Approaching Koloware

We arrived at a Health Centre that looked luxurious – spacious, clean simple buildings that were not nearly as old as I had expected from a leprosy mission that had no ties with NGO or government funding.

We briefly saw the director, Sister Antonietta, who was extremely busy, but greeted us with a beaming, surprised smile. It was through a friend of Raymond’s who worked in Health that I had heard about Koloware. When I asked for the number to call ahead and ask if we could stay, he said it was not a problem – it was run by Catholic sisters and they had a dormitory. We could turn up, explain my project and stay there with no problem at all. I’m not sure the frightfully busy Sister Antonietta quite appreciated his casual attitude. Explaining that she’d been given no warning, she informed us of the lack of beds they had at Koloware – even all the hospital ones were full. We’d have to put ourselves up in hotel in Sokode. Well I was not able to afford the daily commute to Koloware for the next couple of days let alone accommodation at a hotel – even basic accommodation was not within my budget for the trip.

With nowhere to stay, Dodji and I stood crestfallen at the side of the road – the formerly pleasant light rain now soaking through our clothes and spirits. He explained our situation to two passing elderly gentlemen. They sympathised and led us two minutes walk away into a little hamlet of huts. There we were introduced to Reda, who immediately with the fussiness of a grandmother who had just had the Queen turn up on her doorstep took my extremely heavy camera bag and sped across a courtyard over to a room while excitedly beckoning us to follow. In less than five minutes, with barely a word from Dodji or I she had cleared the room, put in a hefty mattress made with rice bags for myself, a mat for Dodji (he insisted on sleeping on that rather than the mattress), clean sheets and a table for all our things. We thanked her constantly, but she just said ‘non non non non non’ waving it away.

This is Reda's courtyard. Our room is the centre one with the door open. The man on the right is brewing beer.

Mine and Dodji's room.

Reda cooks our Akume and Soup by torchlight. Electricty went down 3 months ago in this area from a lightning strike. It hasn't been fixed since. Only the hospital has it's own generator.

Half an hour later, we were clean (I’m surprised at how I’m now so used to washing with cold water from a bucket) and sitting down in the dark to akume (a mashed pulp of cassava and flour) and kodoro (a northern Togolese soup made with leaves from baobab trees). I really couldn’t have asked for more.

Sister Antonietta in her office. She has lived in Koloware as a missionary for eight years.

A patient waits for dressing changes at 7.30 in the morning.

A 6.40am rise and we went straight to the health centre where Sister Antonietta pointed us in the direction of the leprosy clinic. There were already 15 gathered together, ready and waiting for wound care and dressing changes by the nurse Tchedre Wallakosona. It took a little while to find someone who spoke French well enough to translate into the local language of Kotokoli.

Kufou, the thirteen year old pharmacists son and our translator form French to Kotokoli.

Eventually it was Kufou, the pharmacist’s son who was shyly pushed forward. With two translators, especially when one is 13 and only speaks the French he’s learned from school, it’s not always easy to get the answers to the questions you asked originally. Still, I managed to talk to a couple of patients for a while, gathering their stories.

Dodji speaks to Mahammoud, a blind Beninoise leprosy patient that has lived here for over forty years.

The rain was thick in the morning, getting to torrential-standard for the UK, but simply averagely-heavy rain for here.

Patients crowd under the porch away from the heavy rains at Koloware Health Centre.

Rain in Koloware.

A decent rest at lunch time and a quick charge of my laptop at Tchedre’s house made for a relaxing afternoon before more photography. I got a chance to chat with the spritely, enthusiatic Tchedre, who proved to be extremely helpful and informative about the health centre and the area. He’s worked here since 1967, and despite the fact that he officially stopped working 5 years ago, still works with the leprosy patients in the hospital three days a week. I’ll follow up more on this in my next blog, specifically about the leprosy work being done here.

A leprosy patient sitting in his doorway in Koloware village.

The Togolese people further north in the country are, like many western African countries, predominantly Muslim, and I attended my first ever Islamic event in the evening. The Imam allowed me to go into the Mosque and photograph. Embarrassingly I know very little about the religion, so I was cautious and hovered at the back, photographing in the spacious, well-used room, the light blues and drab browns lit by just a couple of bulbs. It lasted just a few intense minutes, with the Imam praying out loud at the front. Each time they bowed in silent worship I’d take a photo, aware of the echo of my near silent shutter in the holy temple.

Muslim men pray in the Mosque.

Muslim women pray in a separate section at the back of the Mosque.

I nipped round the back to photograph the women’s entrance. They have a separate area at the back where they pray. I’ve always wanted to find out more about Islam, preferably not from reading the Daily Mail, so if anyone has any recommendations for a book about it I’m all ears.

Koloware Mosque.

Dodji and I got back to our room in the dark to find a mouse in my mosquito net and droppings all over my bed. I’m not particularly bothered about such things, but Dodji had a little fit trying to stamp on the mouse which promptly disappeared into the corner of the concrete room without a trace. A half kalabasse bowl was posted outside Reda’s, informing passers-by her homebrew was for sale. I tried a bit with my Akume, it smelt like rotten vegetables, but tasted more like very yeasty liquid bread dowsed in something strong and tesco-value. I declined a second bowl.

The half-kalabasse outside Reda's indicating her home brew is ready for consumption.

Reda and her daughter make her homebrew.

My wash in the square walled drainage area across from the little courtyard was shared with a spider the size of my palm, pulling itself up into the tree above on its slivery thread, glinting in the light of my headtorch, and unwavering in the warm still air. The yellow markings on its back glared at me, just daring me to have a reaction. I’ve barely seen the stars since being in Togo, a result of spending most of my time among city lights, but they are clear up here deeper into the country, peaking through the branches above my head. Venus shone out like a pearl among salt granules, with the dim orange hue of mars not too far. I saw several shooting stars, and not a single satellite. For the first time in three weeks, I wished I could stay here a bit longer. This is the Africa I’d like to live in. We went to bed early, to the laughs of men outside drinking Reda’s homemade beer.

Tchedre shows us the numerous leprosy patients in the village, translating from Kotokoli to French.

A leprosy patient relaxes in the afternoon out of the sun.

Tchedre introduced us to the chief and his two wives. He did have three, but one died recently.

Saturday was market day. The market only started to get under way at about midday so Tchedre showed us around several houses in the morning, asking many of the leprosy patients if I could photograph them. I spent two hours with them, as well as photographing a few around the market. I’d already established from Tchedre that despite Koloware having a large concentration of leprosy since the late forties, and the town also being educated in the fact that none of them can pass on the disease (as none of them are carrying the bacterium) there was still a large stigma attached to having leprosy. Almost all the ‘lepers’ get children or relatives to sell their produce in the market to avoid being seen; it is only a few that venture out to brave shuns and revilement.

Vendors outside the Mosque.

Selling pork at the market.

I had the idea in the afternoon of photographing Mahammoud, one of the patients I had spoken to the previous morning. He agreed to stand without his sunglasses or prosthetic limb wearing just his shorts. I photographed different parts of his body in sections. I’ve exhibited my leprosy work before, and am always looking for new exhibition ideas, and a montage of close ups of this man’s frail, weathered body, numb from leprosy, still healing from wounds well over a decade after he went blind I’m sure will provoke a response from the audience.

Myself and Mahammoud in his room.

He was more than compliant about posing, and I helped him put his prosthetic limb back on afterwards. He’d mentioned the day before that of the five people living in the housing block, he was the only one who had no relatives or friends to visit him. Usually I don’t give money to those I photograph, especially just one person, but since it was beer season, I gave him 200CFA (40 cents) to get a bowl from where everyone else was on this swelteringly hot market day. A big grin broke out on his face, one that you might expect from an old man at the end of his years who’s just been given the opportunity to spend a hot afternoon with a kalabasse of strong yeasty-red beer. Who can blame him? Being blind, disabled, very forgetful, going deaf and with no relatives to visit him, there’s little else left in this world for him.

On my last night there it rained. This time the rain was torrential. It started around midnight and carried on through the morning. For about half an hour it was truly deafening. I was awake anyway when it started, and heard the first few dull thuds like small balls of putty falling from a great height. This developed in a matter of seconds into a barrage of paintballs fired from the heavens targeting Dodji and myself. Within ten minutes it seemed like waves were hitting the house, the Atlantic Ocean emptying itself onto our doorstep. The corrugated iron roof amplifies the sound five-fold and I spoke just to see if Dodji could hear me. I could barely hear me. With the exception of slight cracks around the wooden door and window shutter, the room was sealed, yet I could feel the spray through my mosquito net. I’ve always loved storms, but this one never subsided, and when my alarm went off seven hours later I realised it may be a wet journey to Sokode.

Tchedre with his wife and granddaughter. Tchedre has worked in Koloware since he was 17.

I’d planned to say goodbye to Tchedre, but with the rain like it was I’m sure he’d understand that we’d have got drenched going to his house. Luckily there was a car by the bar down the road that said it had two spaces. It’s not so much hitch-hiking, as anyone can be a taxi, so we agreed about $2 for the both of us to Sokode and hopped in a car that was in poor condition even by African standards. The windscreen resembling a crazy-paved patio is a norm and not something to write home about (he says writing home about it). The front seats looked like they had been attacked by a starved Rottweiler on crack and the back of the rear bench looked half melted. Dodji’s door had to be tied and untied in order to get in and out of it, and mine kept swinging open. Luckily this wasn’t too dangerous as we couldn’t go much faster than 20 mph, partly due to the 100kg of charcoal propping up the back seats, and partly to do with the ancient engine that had a break to smoke every 20 minutes (the driver kept pouring something into the bonnet to put out whatever fires lurked underneath). It had taken us 25 minutes to get to Koloware, but over an hour to get back to Sokode.

The trip home was lengthy (we had to wait 4 hours for the bus to show up this time), but being on a large (prebooked) coach, it was much more comfortable. I got home at 8.30pm to Raymond welcoming me with open arms, like I was the prodigal son. After Koloware, Raymond’s house seems very modern and comfortable. Just goes to show everything in this life is relative.

This year’s adventures in Africa have come to a close now. Raymond, his family and Dodji and the other people who have introduced me to life in Togo have been extremely kind to me and I will make every effort to stay in touch with them in years to come. The last three weeks will stay with me for the rest of my life as very strange but essential time in getting to understand a bit more about how most of the world lives. Yet I don’t consider the wildly poor (compared to back in England) houses I’ve stayed at as places of poverty in terms of the other things I’ve seen here. Perhaps next time I’ll have a go sleeping on the streets.

The barber in Koloware asked if he could shave off my beard. I allowed a quick trim.

Markets, Sleeping on Streets and African Dancing

General comment, Photojournalism, portrait, street photography

Well it’s been another varied week or so here in Lomé. Like I finished in my last post, I’ve continued rolling with the punches and taking the daily frustrations as part of life and so learned to accept them. That doesn’t mean they’re not there though, and I don’t feel I’ve got coherent photo essay, let alone a complete set of photos for Raymond’s street children organisation. I’ve been photographing around the area in part, but I haven’t yet accomplished anything special image-wise – something that is naturally very important to me in progressing as a photographer.

Raymond still feels peaky from the malaria – we just had a sprite together at “Obama Bar” at the end of his road, which he promptly filled with salt to help with his fever. Having tasted salt water before, I had no real inclining to ruin the cool sweetness on my panting tongue, surprisingly dry in the humidity. It sounded like a useful hangover cure or something to down just before you go to bed after a night out – a hangover preventative by purging the system perhaps? But when in Africa… it tasted like sprite with a strong aftertaste of salt. Don’t bother.

Raymond has been disappearing every now and then, trying to organise anything from UNICODES meetings to baby Robin’s naming ceremony. Meanwhile when I’ve not been out photographing I’ve been passing my time reading the last few books I brought with me (I must admit, I never actually thought I’d be reading ‘Ships of Mercy’ by Don Stephens), watching Prison Break in French over Vivienne’s shoulder, and answering emails from home and friends; some bringing upsetting news, some asking for photographic services on my return, even some wanting advice about belief in God (God help them if they’re asking me).

I’ve found that in keeping those western elements in my life I sadly haven’t been able to truly get to know Lomé. I can’t seem to let go of them for more than a day at a time. But it’s those times when they’re not present – visiting Raymond’s sister for lunch, playing goalvi football (4-a-side teams using miniature goals) with Dodzi (one of the day volunteers, currently a law student), popping out to the woman on the corner to get water sachets (because of my yovo stomach) while chatting with Raymond about his childhood on the streets, eating fresh pineapple skilfully diced up into a black plastic bag by a woman ambling along the street with them on her head, walking along the beach and through Adidogome and various market places, chatting to Dodzi’s brother before realising he’s deaf and the other elements of life here where I don’t feel the need to compensate with American TV programmes, or facebook, or even this blog. Here’s a few of those moments taken with my western camera…

Fisherman preparing to fold their nets.

A baby clings on to his mother who as a single parent is the bread winner, bringing in 500CFA a day ($1.00).

A young mechanic takes the seats out of a car.

Kids in Adidogome

A roadside butchers in Adidogome

If anyone wants to move to Togo...

A graveyard near the Ghana border

Brother and sister at Adidogome coal market

Mother and child at Adidogome coal market

Dodzi's deaf brother (far right) at his cobblers workshop

So these last few days have been a last ditch attempt to get photographs for Raymond’s street children project. Part of the problem has been getting natural shots. People are very suspicious of cameras – perhaps more so than back home – and I found out yesterday that in Togo you are in fact not allowed to photograph anyone in public without their permission. Oops. I’m still not sure how I can verify this. Anyone know? This is very different from UK laws; which is how the paparazzi get away with everything. It’s always helpful to find this out at the end of a project about the life on the city streets…

Monday night was an odd one. Plenty of times in the past three or so months I have been to the big market that stretches towards the port from the Palm Beach hotel. However I have never been there after dark, and the transformation from the bright, bustling bodies and businesses of the day time is a stark contrast to the eerie (yet unempty) shadows, filled by the occasional argument, sleeping bodies in doorways, young girls crouching in the nearest puddle to relieve themselves etc.

The plan was to photograph some street children at 5pm that a journalist friend of Raymond’s had agreed to take us too, but his phone ran out of battery, so at 6.15 so to cut a long story short we found ourselves wandering back through the market, as dusk began to steal away the beautiful golden African sun. A short, mama selling fresh, silver foot-long fish called out to me: “Yovo, o fon yureah?” (excuse the spelling if you speak Ewe). “Eee, mefon dadanye. Ocho o fon yureah?” I replied, widening the beaming smile underneath the childhood-etched voodoo scores on her cheeks. She shouted out to the other women in the stalls next to her, revelling in this white man that responded in her native tongue. I stopped. “Donna vegbe vidividi” – “I speak a little Ewe”.

Raymond immediately saw this as an opportunity, taking over from my limited lingual abilities to explain who I was, that I had worked for Mercy Ships, and that I was now working for/with him to photograph children that live on the streets. I have met very few people in Lomé that don’t know of the Africa Mercy, and one of the women’s sister-in-law had had both of her eyes successfully operated on a few months ago.

Raymond talked excitedly with them. They were very helpful, explaining the problem of children sleeping on the streets in the evening. Of course it’s not just the children; many of the adult street vendors come to the city on Sunday night, sell their produce throughout the week until Friday, then go back home at the weekend. Unable to afford the daily commute, they sleep on the streets, occasionally under mosquito nets if they have one. Their children help during the holidays, and some are too valuable on the stall to afford school after holidays are over… mainly the girls.

We were told to come back around 9ish that evening, when people would start settling down to sleep. Raymond arranged for a policeman friend of his to meet us in town, for a bit of extra security, and we munched on spicy bean, tomato, avocado, onion and potato salad sandwiches made freshly (trying not to look at everything been stuffed in the baguette by bare hands) to order on the street.

So at around 8pm I stood on the same street looking at a very different scene. Rubbish was strewn everywhere, the last few vendors packing up under the orange cast from the concrete lamps parked sparsely at long intervals. Raymond went round the corner to ‘prepare the field’. By this time I had given up questioning his method, it only prolonged the inevitable. So I waited with Martin the policeman, attempting to try out my French and Ewe. In trying to search for the word ‘flag’ he showed me a photo on his phone of a flag – I noticed with amusement that he had to skip past about 10 photos of naked white women and a photo of Christ on the cross to get to it.

I was very much aware of the eyes of those passing being planted on this yovo with a £3000 camera in the bag he gripped tightly to his chest. A nearby boy was cleaning out the dust from a pile of handbags. “Madeo photoa?” I asked. He stared at me, unresponsive (so much for my vegbe pronunciation). A group of passing youths stopped at the sight of my camera. They asked me something in French I could only guess at. Then “you take his photo, you dash him something” they said. “Ah no, I don’t give money” I tried to explain. Five minutes of poor communication ensued where I learned that they were in fact Nigerian. Mentioning that I travelled through Niger, Kwara and Kogi state there for 5 weeks last year did the world of good, and suddenly I was their best friend. For the next half hour or so we talked about Nigeria, football (well we listed clubs) and taking them back to England with me. It’s never entirely a joke when they mention the latter to you.

The market streets late in the evening

Myself and the Nigerian guys

Meanwhile Raymond had come back and was chatting to a security guard who was looking after the surrounding area. At first he wasn’t too pleased at me photographing so I stopped, but Raymond once again turned the situation round to his favour, and he was soon showing us the areas where people slept. It wasn’t hard to find. Walking down the street perpendicular to ours for about 100 metres I must have passed 50 or so people sleeping outdoors. Maybe 5 or so were lucky enough to have mosquito nets.

Vendors sleeping on Lomé's streets

Vendors sleeping on Lomé's streets

Vendors sleeping on Lomé's streets

'Vendors sleeping on Lomé's streets

Walking around the block I was glad for the protection of Jules the security guard and Martin the policeman. Without them I would almost have certainly got mugged, quite possibly worse. When you walk through the market during the day you don’t really look at the buildings behind the stalls, but now they rose out of the loom, creating darkness below the faint glow of the clouds.

Lomé at night

Lomé at night

Lomé at night

The woozy whiff of weed ran in ribbons across the air, creeping out of some dark corner. We approached the distant glow of a meth lamp lighting up a street vendor’s delicacy of meats. The night ended nibbling on a bit of slow-cooked pepper-dusted beef. I declined (unusually for me and food) the stuffed large intestines.

A vendor slow cooking beef and intestines

Yesterday was not quite so surreal. We had planned to photograph at a street children’s charity at 9am, at 2pm meet up with Jules again to photograph the same places we saw last night in day time, and at 4pm meet with the girls from the beach.

Not one of those things actually happened.

Well we went to the charity – Terre des Hommes – run by a helpful Frenchman called Gerôme, who did point out that as well not knowing we were coming, there are of course many child-protection policies in place, so photographing the children – only a few of whom stay at their facility – at a moment’s notice is not really possible, and they weren’t in fact street children anyway, but abused children in need of mental healthcare. So that didn’t quite go to plan. However he did put us in contact with a man called Souleman who works with former street kids, and is running a rehearsal (of some sort) at 5pm that we could go to.

Jules wasn’t at the home number he’d given Raymond, and when we went to meet the beach girls by the independence building, they weren’t there. So a good few more hours of the day were taken up migrating through the streets with Raymond.

Children playing by the Independence building with the largest hotel in Lomé in the background

Luckily Gerôme had come up trumps and at Nyekonakpoe, I gave my index finger a good exercise photographing (mainly former) street children rehearsing their traditional African drumming and dancing performance set. The breakneck rhythm and sheer volume of the percussive sounds was enough to energise even the weariest of souls. The exhilarating dancing was gone about with certain menace and fierce pride in what they were doing, every part of their bodies streaming with sweat and throats hardened to the hoarseness from years of experience.

The Amagan drumming crew

Amagan dancers

Amagan dancers and their founder Souleman (far left)

Souleman, who is now 28 started living on the streets at the age of 10 after his father died. He befriended mainly wood carvers, his father having been one, who helped him find money by giving wood carvings to him to sell. He soon became skilled himself, and over 10 years the money he earned from selling these crafts helped him get off the streets. With the money he’d saved up he wanted to go travelling to Europe, but was swindled by men claiming to sell visas. So he moved in with his grandmother. Feeling empathy for many of the street children, he employed a few at his workshop and let them eat at his grandmothers, soon letting them sleep on the floor there as well. Soon 15 children were staying there.

The children were allowed to come and go as they pleased. Unfortunately this meant that often they would stay out all night and sleep at work the next morning. Souleman decided to encourage drumming sessions in the evening. This way they would be tired, sleep all night and be awake for work the next morning. Except many of the children turned out to be very talented at drumming and dancing, so Souleman sent them to get properly trained by a professional. Soon they were performing at events and functions all over Lomé allowing Souleman to build up various shops and workshops in different places. The money collated from them and the performances was shared with all the kids and youths involved.

Amagan dancers

Amagan dancers

Amagan Dancers

About 100 people have been through his organisation Amagan, and about 30 youths are currently employed by him. They no longer have a place to shelter, but many of them can afford to rent, and the few that can’t sleep in the workshop/bar/training area where these photos were taken. Amagan has never had any financial sponsorship. In all honesty I’m quite in awe of Souleman, having built up his organisation pretty much from scratch without outside help in a city where he found himself living on the streets at the age of 10. It’s a dog-eat-dog world on the streets, and it is only the smartest that survive.

A group of street children in Lomé

I’ve got less than a week until I leave now. I’m off to Sokode tomorrow morning – a town up towards northern Togo where there’s a leprosy settlement run by catholic sisters. I haven’t been able to contact them, but hopefully I’ll have two days there to continue my ongoing leprosy project. No doubt I’ll see; it will be nice to be able to get out of the city at least.

A Mental Health Workshop

Documentary, Mercy Ships, portrait
Unfortunately towards the end of the field service you discover that there are aspects of the work that Mercy Ships does that are seldom reported and that you haven’t had time to cover properly. I was asked to photograph the last day of a Mental Health Workshop and in researching what the Mental Health Program was about found the summary of the objectives of the team from 6 months ago.
I think it’s a very interesting aspect of healthcare contrasting with the very obvious removals of benign tumours and other physical operations that Mercy Ships is primarily there for.
Here is the executive summary:
“Togo is listed among the world’s poorest countries, but continues to improve developmentally.The country of six million people currently ranks 159 out of 182 countries, according to the 2009 UN Human Development Index. Poverty remains a problem as almost 70% of the population lives on less than $2 a day. Access to quality health care is still limited for most citizens. There are only 225 physicians in the country, or less than one per 10,000 people. Comparatively, in the U.S., there are 26 doctors for every 10,000 people. Specialty care, such as mental health, is even more limited.
Togo is currently striving to improve the mental health care capacity. Mercy Ships intends to assist in this improvement through partnerships with the National Mental Health Coordinator and two Togolese neuropsychiatrists. The mental health team plans to utilize existing primary health care services and community organizations to increase capacity to assist the mental health needs of adults, children, and families.
In collaboration with Professor Grunitzky, Dr. Gaba, and Dr. Dassa, Mercy Ships will provide a mental health nurse/trainer and an interpreter during its service in Togo from February through August 2010. The Mercy Ships trainer will train 30 health care workers during the six-month field service. The primary training will occur over ten days of training, one day a week for ten weeks. Mercy Ships will also train a total of 60 health care professionals from hospitals and clinics in Lome and the surrounding provinces in two separate three-day seminars. The goal is to increase awareness of mental health diseases, and improve diagnosis and treatment of mental illness and counselling skills. Additional activities will include patient assessment and referrals for severe cases.
These cases include those patients requiring more than basic counselling, changes in life skills or social support, and/or medication. Training for a total of 60 church leaders will take place in two separate workshops (30 participants each). The sessions will take place two days a week over a period of two months (18 days) to increase proficiency at recognition, support, and proper patient referral. The sessions also include instruction in training of trainers so that the indigenous leaders can multiply the model.
Additionally, the mental health team will offer two distinct workshops for 50 teachers and 50 social workers. During each three-day event, the goal will be to improve awareness and identification of, and counselling/treatment for mental health diseases and problems. These participants will also learn how to refer severe cases to appropriate medical facilities. Counselling and training for 50 corrections officers and prison workers and 50 military leaders will take place during two three-day workshops.
The goal is to increase awareness of mental health and illness, and anger and stress management training. The workshops will help participants better understand, identify, and be sensitive towards mental health sufferers. In addition, due to high levels of stress accompanying these positions, the mental health team is prepared to provide training for prison workers and corrections officers in partnership with Pastor Martin Anani, the President of Prison Fellowship, Togo.
The training for military leaders is being developed at the request of Dr. Dassa, a well-qualified, critical incident stress management provider, and in collaboration with Colonel Baton Bineh. Many children can benefit from trauma healing; not just children impacted by war.
Mercy Ships mental health team will offer a five-day children’s camp to provide counselling for 50 children and training for childcare workers. This camp lays the groundwork for children to know how to express and heal their emotions in a safe environment, and to educate them on basic abuse and neglect.”
These photographs are the children on the last day of the camp. Many come from broken homes and have suffered abuse in one form or another.

If I ever come back to work with Mercy Ships in the future, then I think this is something I’d like to explore more. I have no doubt many of these children have interesting and probably disturbing stories to tell…

Medical Portraits

Mercy Ships, portrait

Here are a few more medical portraits. I took hardly any in June because it was mainly VVF patients and for obvious reasons they are not photographed. So I was back on call taking pre and post operation photos this week. These are a mix of post-op photos from the PT (Physical Therapy – these are predominantly fixed bow-legs or club feet) tent and pre-ops of various sorts including maxillofacial tumours and cleft lips. I haven’t included information with them – I think we these sorts of photographs it’s best to see what aspects of their personality you can learn from them – though of course it’s more evident in some than others (you can try and figure out what the person is feeling from their feet if you like). If you would like to know specifics about their condition do email me the link to the photo and I’ll get back to you with details of the condition.