Leprosy Exhibition in London

Documentary, Leprosy, Photojournalism

Very excited to announce that I’m going to have an exhibition of the leprosy project at the Art Gallery in St Paul’s School in London on 30th September. If you’re able, I’d love you to come and see how six years work looks on the wall of a gallery. Some of the stuff you will have seen on the blog and my website (www.tom-bradley.com) and some has been newly shot this year.

Do RSVP (info@tom-bradley.com) if you’d like to make it. Many thanks

Here is the Press Release…

Tom Bradley Leprosy SPS Exhibition Press Release-page-001

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Gallery on the Guardian website

Asia, Leprosy, Nepal

Very pleased that the Guardian published a gallery of my photos on the Global Development section of their website this morning, to mark World Leprosy Day.

IMG_0892

The photos are a series I took while staying in Khokana leprosy colony just outside Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu. You can view the gallery here:

http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/gallery/2015/jan/25/life-laughter-loss-nepal-leprosy-colony-in-pictures

Feel free to share it on facebook, twitter etc. 🙂

www.isleprosyeliminated.com

Documentary, General comment, Leprosy

It’s been a while since my last blog post. I’ve been busy – though perhaps that’s no excuse. The product of this busyness is however something I can show. You may have guessed it by the title.

www.isleprosyeliminated.com

The official project name is now Leprosy Eliminated? and other stories. Though the Leprosy Eliminated? part/question of the title is an overriding theme (and in fact quite an expansive one), I’m not looking for a singular story. Part of the idea of this project is for record and that means it should encompass anything that’s interesting. Obviously that’s subjective – so it in fact encompasses anything I find interesting. Hopefully you will share my interest on at least some of the stories.

World Leprosy Map

You may ask why I’m doing this. Good question. There are a lot of reasons. You can find out more in the About section of the website.

Meanwhile here’s one of the reasons that I decided to pursue this documentary through to the end. It’s a note I received early on, having attended a church service at a leprosy colony in Nigeria. I was overwhelmed, slightly embarrassed and ultimately humbled to receive praise like this that I was not expecting and didn’t deserve. But the way that it referred to “us, the rejected”, made me realise just how important it can be to highlight the lives of some – even if it’s just a few.

I’m hoping to engage people in the project – educate about leprosy, show photographs, videos, stories of those who are and have been affected, those who have spent a lifetime committed to fighting the disease, and the various whys, hows and ways that leprosy can affect individuals and communities.

Please sign up to occasional updates on the project here. And meanwhile – explore the website.

www.isleprosyeliminated.com

LRA: Interview with a young abductee

Africa, Documentary, Lord's Resistance Army, LRA, Photojournalism

For the past three weeks I have been in Haut-Uele, Orientale province in the northeastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). It has been plagued by escapees of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) – a group of Ugandan rebels led by one Joseph Kony. Over 25 years ago this former choir boy formed the group with the plan of overtaking the Ugandan government and ruling by the 10 commandments.

Now dispersed across northern Uganda, the newly-independent South Sudan, Central African Republic  (CAR) and the DRC, they have been causing widespread destruction – massacres, rape, abductions, mutilations, lootings, and caused hundreds of thousands of people to flee within their own country – Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs).

Contact with them is impossible, there are three official armies after them (FARDC – Congolese Army, UPDF – Ugandan People’s Defence Force sent simply to kill/bring back Ugandan rebels, and MONUSCO troops – UN peacekeepers), and no one is even sure of the numbers. I recently spent time with the UPDF – I’ll be posting more about the military roles later, but I thought I’d quickly add a photo of myself with a group of their guys. Compared to the FARDC they were extraordinarily friendly and more than happy to be photographed.

There are a plethora of problems in the situation, many linked to denial by authorities and the general situation of the country, and I will be talking more about them in time, but for this post I will simply post a recent interview with a recent abductee.

His name is Faustin Mboligbihe, meaning “God has heard” in Kisande. He was with the LRA for over a year and is now back with his family in an IDP camp outside the large village of Doruma. I went with Pere Ernest, one of my guides, local experts in the situation and translators in the area. He was not at his hut and his grandmother told us he just goes off without telling anyone. We walked through the settlements for 10 minutes and found him not too far away, playing on his own with a stick.

He agreed to be interviewed and came back to his hut with us. He is eleven years old. He sat partly in the dark, in a ragged t-shirt, turning sharply every now and then to the clink of pots and pans outside. His eyes and face showed no emotion, and it was impossible to read how he felt about the situation.

Pere Ernest conducted the interview – I played no role other than filming and recording. Pere Ernest’s words are in italics, Mboligbihe’s are in bold unless stated otherwise. The translations are as close to literal as makes sense. It is also worth bearing in mind throughout the interview that Mboligbihe is just 11.

Pere Ernest: What’s your name?

Faustin: My name is Faustin Mboligbihe.

How old are you?

I don’t know my age.

Faustin’s mother (from outside the hut): You are eleven.

I am eleven years old.

How did the LRA abduct you?

They abducted me early in the morning, before light.

Where was it?

In the house.

Were you alone?

No we were two.

Did they go with all of you?

No they left the other one.

Which year was this?

The time of growing rice. They went with me and applied their medicine on me. Then we lived with them for a time and then we were attacked by the UPDF. We fought and then after that I stayed with them for a long time and afterwards I came out at Dunde.

Was it in Dunde that they captured you?

No they captured me in Bwere (Bangadi).

How long did you stay with them?

I stayed a long time, but I’ve come out recently.

When you were with them what did you see?

What I saw was they were just killing people.

How were they killing people?

With sticks (like clubs).

How did they do it?

They were hitting their heads with it.

Were other children also beating people’s heads?

Yes.

Since you have come out, what’s coming to your mind?

My head is getting angrier and angrier more often.

How does it get angrier?

When somebody tells me to do something, I just get angry at them.

Do you still do what they ask anyway?

Sometimes I do.

When you came out where did they take you to?

They took me to COOPI (Italian NGO) then they took me to the hospital.

How many weeks did you stay with COOPI?

I didn’t pass one week there.

What did they give you?

They gave me one shot and two t-shirts with a pair of sandals. After that nothing.

In the bush how were you living?

We were eating once a day and once at night.

Where were you getting the food from?

The food was looted.

Were you participating in looting too?

No, them they were looting, us, we were carrying.

Were they many?

I didn’t count them, they abducted me in one group and then to make numbers we joined another group. Another two groups joined us later – four groups. There were many.

You were just wandering in the bush?

Yes.

How were you sleeping?

In the evening we found a place to sleep and when the morning comes we would move on.

The witchcraft they put on you, where did they put it?

They put it on my forehead, in my palms and on my back.

They told you it was for what?

I don’t know.

They didn’t tell you?

Yes.

How did you come out?

I crept away at night.

How?

They had crossed the main road with me and we slept the other side of the road. Then I crept away and came back on the main road.

They didn’t follow you?

No they didn’t follow me because they knew soldiers were around.

As you came back to the main road what did you do?

I was following it Northwards, then I found the FARDC. They took me to Diagbio (a village) and said I should show them where I’d come from. So we went. I passed two days in Diagbio. Then they took me to the (Doruma) airport. I stayed there two days too then they took me to the hospital where I stayed for one week before going back home.

When you came back home do you see anything that you are not happy with?

Nothing.

What do you want to be done for you?

I don’t know.

Are you studying?

No.

Do you want to go back to school?

I would go.

In the bush with the LRA, were there a lot of children? What were they doing?

Just carrying things.

Were they just carrying things without carrying guns?

Some were carrying guns.

And you, were you carrying a gun?

No, just carrying things.

And the children, were they killing people?

Yes, they were killing people. They are telling you to kill, and if you don’t kill, then they will kill you.

How were they killing these people?

They were hitting their heads with the sticks.

And were you seeing it?

Yes, I was.

And you, did you kill?

They asked me to kill. And I killed. If I hadn’t they would have killed me.

<long pause>

They were speaking which language?

Acholi.

Do you understand Acholi?

Yes.

How did they say “good morning” in Acholi?

Tchi.

And “how are you”?

Seneeh.

How do you say “no problem”?

Tie Mabe.

Do you know to speak Acholi?

Yes, I do.

Are you afraid that they will come and kidnap you again?

Yes I am.

What makes you fear most?

When I hear about them I am scared.

Is there anything else you want to tell me?

<pause>

I don’t have soap to wash my clothes.

How much is it?

I don’t know.

OK, thank you for speaking to us.

(Pere Ernest gives him 1000CF – just over 1 USD – to buy soap).

It is also worth noting that Pere Ernest presses the point about speaking Acholi as that is the Ugandan language used by the LRA. You would only know it well (as Mboligbihe does – he can speak it almost fluently we discovered afterwards) if you had spent a good deal of time with them.

Mboligbihe’s family prepare dinner without him. He often just wanders off for long periods of time without saying anything.

Pere Ernest is worried: “He’s dangerous. He’s had no therapy and because he’s already killed at such a young age he needs help coming to terms with that. It needs to be dealt with properly, and at the moment he’s an angry young boy living in an IDP camp where tensions are often high due to their poor standard of living and being far from home. He’s a walking time-bomb, and there’s no-one around that will help him.”

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.

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.

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.

Living in Lomé

Documentary, General comment, Mercy Ships

On Sunday 15th the Africa Mercy left port for the sail to South Africa where it will spend the rest of the year in dock suffering ship repairs of one sort or another. I had originally planned on going to Liberia or Niger to photograph more leprosy in these next three weeks. However, I wasn’t able to get a response from the contacts I had in Liberia, and the TLM (Leprosy Mission) reps I knew of in Niger were all going on leave from the 16th. Naturally.

So I had a choice – pay an extra $500 plus £300 for three weeks additional ship fees and a flight home from Durban which lets me spend extra time to work on various photo projects in the office I’ve called home while crossing the equator on a Danish ferry-turned-hospital ship designed for journeys of no more than a few hours. Or stay in Lomé as a guest at the house of one of the day volunteers who I’d only just met, but who runs a charity that aims to help the street children of Lomé which I could photograph for. As much as I was burning to sail for three weeks and spend that little extra time with friends I know I may not see for a long time, I decided the opportunity to get to know Lomé as well as photograph for a local charity was too much to pass up.

One of the Mercy Ships longest serving volunteers waves goodbye for the last time.

The gangway is lifted up – the point of no return (for me at least).

So I waved goodbye to the Africa Mercy. It was a strange moment waving goodbye to 100 beaming, colourful, familiar faces, some of whom it was very painful to say goodbye to.  The port seemed bleak and empty without the blue and white branded hulk. I didn’t feel as though I was saying hello to a new adventure, just saying goodbye to the last one. It was like a huge vacuum had just been created in my life, ripping away all sense of comfort and routine that I had settled into over the past three months.

However I told myself I’d soon be experiencing what it is really like to live in an African capital city, away from luxuries like air conditioning and a dining hall with boiling water on tap. It would do me good.

There were about 12 or so of us left behind, many of whom were staying at the Team House (a rented complex where inland MS volunteers had been staying), one staying at a hotel for a week and myself who was meeting up with Raymond the day volunteer to go and stay with him, his wife, his puppy, and as it turned out his baby girl who was born the night before. I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d come at the wrong time. As I write this I unfortunately still have that feeling…

However, Raymond had insisted I stay with him. I believe it’s quite a nice house for this area of Lomé. Raymond has a spare room and his wife had already made my bed the week before the boat left by all accounts. He’s provided a mosquito net and curtain-come-sheet, but it’s so hot and humid that I need no more. The bathroom is two tiny cubicles – one with a toilet (I’ll spare details of cleanliness), and the other a tap with a bucket. It’s very cramped, and I don’t even mind that I’m washing out of a bucket. Trouble is I’m the only that uses toilet paper, the soap smells dodgy (I foolishly left my shower gel on the ship) and it doesn’t let in light, or have a working bulb.

My room.

For the first two nights his wife Vivienne and the baby stayed in hospital. His puppy, Joli was a month and old and very cute. It was nice to have a timid and totally clueless ball of dusty African fur to scratch and pay a bit of attention to for the first day. It stopped after that because the dog disappeared right before a day of solid rain. I’m guessing there’s 10 inches of lifeless pup-meat lying somewhere in the sewer ditch that runs past the back of the house, right outside my bedroom window. On top of this, calls from the hospital kept coming through that Raymond had to go and buy drugs for his wife and the baby, who had a fever for the first few days – a worrying time for any child in the developing world.

I made friends with quite a few day volunteers in my time with Mercy Ships. These are men and women from Togo who are paid expenses and a small (but not bad for Togo) wage to work on board the Africa Mercy in various positions in various departments, mainly as translators, but also as deck hands, cleaners, galley crew etc.

I will eventually post a blog about the day volunteers leaving party. It was a sombre time for most of them, who are going back to a life with no jobs. The same is for Raymond. He has his charity, UNICODES which was set up in 1999, but got all the official paperwork done in 2007. I’ll explain more about it in a few weeks, hopefully after I’ve taken some photos that describe what they do – essentially they are aiming to combat the problem of youth on the streets, many of whom have no home and are forced to resort to illegal activities like stealing and prostitution. He is hoping that UNICEF will fund the work the charity is doing and will allow him, as president, a small wage. He has a program written up, along with a number of staff that are willing to be trained and a comprehensive (apparently) budget. This will start next year if he gets funding.

Meanwhile, I went to and fro on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday trying to get a visa extension sorted (successfully thank goodness), having to get a new charger for my laptop to replace the one that didn’t work except for the occasions when it sent off sparks, and trying to figure out what it is that Raymond actually wants me to do for the charity.

I’d already offered to cover expenses for my stay, Raymond asked for some money up front to cover the next two weeks at least. This would cover all travel by zimi-jean (motorbike) as well as my portion of the food that I’d be eating with the family.

On the first night when it was just myself and Raymond, he showed me how to cook a gumbo (okra) and fish soup with Akumé (the pap similar in consistency to fufu, but with flour added as well). That lasted a few days until his wife and mother-in-law returned. The mother-in-law (which she was introduced to me as – I call her grandma) is a very sweet old lady, and between her and Vivienne, the food has been absolutely delicious. They haven’t so far cooked me anything that I haven’t loved. No ‘problems’ yet either (famous last words).

Looking out of my room one evening.

 

Grandma.

The baby under her mosquito net.

The baby, who has been named Robin (after Robin Harper if you’re reading this!) has hardly made a sound, except for when grandma was throwing her up in the air and catching her. Upside down.

Raymond at a UNICODES meeting in his house.

Those first few days were incredibly frustrating, but that gets easier once you realise Africa requires endless patience (I thought I’d vaguely learned this over the past three months when going off ship with Mercy Ships). I can safely say now that Mercy Ships perform miracles with what they are able to coordinate and achieve with the countries they work in. It’s still frustrating, but I’ve since learned just to roll with it.

I have been out on only two trips to photograph around town since I’ve been here, which has been disheartening, I must admit. I’d got the impression from Raymond on the ship that he’d already organised all the different places and people to photograph. However, this is Africa, and it’s never that simple. It seems that in these next few weeks we should work to build up a relationship with children to gain their trust before photographing them. I couldn’t agree more – I’d just assumed that Raymond had already done that with some of the children. In all fairness, it’s been hard to gauge all the facts about what the charity has done without appearing to be an interrogator. Raymond seems to have a lot of last minute meetings (political, church, family, anything…) that either overrun, or don’t start on time (usually both), that coincide with when we were supposed to go out and photograph, so I’ve been out twice to photograph street children. Once with Joseph, a friend of Raymond’s who is quite timid, and submissive (as Raymond put it), but who owns a zimi. Unfortunately, he didn’t seem to understand at all what I was supposed to be photographing (a general mystery it seems…) so I did my old bit of street photography through the market.

A naked mad man who some Mercy Shippers maybe recognize from the streets.

Selling pepper’s.

Muslim’s wash their feet before worship.

I went out the next day with Raymond, and got talking to a few street kids on the beach, finally getting one or two decent photos that could possible relevant to this project (whatever it turns out to be!). I won’t post them now, but here’s a few along the beach…

I was hoping to meet them again today to get to know them a bit better and gather some information as to the sort of lives they lead. They were for the most part very friendly and eager to be photographed. I will say one thing for Raymond, as I’m sure anyone who knew him on the Africa Mercy could vouch for: he is an excellent talker and gets along extremely well with children. If I knew that we could go out for 5 hours a day to meet and photograph children (as I had naively thought it might be) each day for two weeks, I’d be confident of creating a coherent and interesting photo essay about the street life of a child in Lomé. Maybe coming events will surprise me. I’m sure I will get an interesting series of photos that show life in Lomé, but it would be nice to make sure I go beyond that and actually get photos that a struggling local charity like UNICODES could use to improve its image – make it look that little bit more professional.

In all honesty, I do love it when we hop on a zimi and zip through town; the wind dusting my beard and blowing my hair into a jedwardesque hairstyle. I’ve travelled on zimi’s quite a lot in Lomé and I’ve only ever come across one that had working dials on the dashboard. It was also spotlessly clean. However that same guy had also angled both of his mirrors so he could see his face from both sides, and not behind him. Maybe that doesn’t matter too much, as most of the others didn’t seem to have mirrors on their zimis anyway. There’s something very liberating about hopping on the back of a motorbike and zipping in and out of traffic, experiencing the sights and smells of Togo. It is one thing I know I’ll miss about Togo.

It is exciting going out when the African rain hits. You wade through miniature street rapids and after the downfall the mud roads have changed; the meandering grooves that plague the taxi drivers and make life more fun for the zimi drivers deepen and form little ox-bows in the street. And in some areas the stench of human waste thickens in your nostrils until you simply accept that you can’t do anything about it. It helps squeeze the squeamish out of you.

I’m ashamed to say I have not made nearly as much effort with getting to grips with French as I should have. Having translators around has spoilt me. However I’m trying to learn as much Ewe (the local language) as I can – Raymond’s teaching me but I’m not the best learner. Bizarrely though he’s been taking me to a free Chinese language course in town for two hours day. I asked why we are going, to which Raymond grinned ‘because it is what I want very much to learn!’. Obviously.

So myself, Raymond, and two others can count (extremely slowly) to nine hundred and ninety nine million, nine hundred and ninety nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety nine in Chinese, as well as say the basics; how are you, I’m fine/have a body with no health etc.

Vivienne speaks a little bit of English, but Raymond is really the only person around that can translate for me and I can have a decent discussion with. He has a lot of energy and a good heart. Unfortunately on Saturday, when he was supposed to be at a political party meeting we got a call from him saying that the mild malaria he thought he’d had for the past two days had got much worse and he was in hospital.

Vivienne and I left straight away, leaving grandma and the baby behind. When we got there, Raymond was on a dirty table-bed, with no doctor in sight. He had tears in his eyes and was no longer able to talk or even open his mouth, and he kept pointing at his heart. What really makes me angry, and is the icing on the cake of why I’ve written this post is that his wife was given a prescription and told to go and buy the prescribed drugs for him, as well as glass slides and a tube to take a blood sample. If his wife had not been around, or if they didn’t live in Lomé there would be no one who could have got him any pain killers, or medication or anything.

Everything here is just so bloody inefficient.

I have given my last bit of cash on me (about $20 worth of CFA) to his wife that will hopefully cover the drugs. I did not hesitate in lending/giving money for his medication (as I’m sure any person in my position would have), but at the same time part of me didn’t want to – because what would happen if I wasn’t in Togo staying with Raymond? Would his wife have stood and watched him suffer pain until it went away, or perhaps it is not worth thinking about. I am thankful that I’m privileged to be in the tiny top percentile of the world that has as much money as I do, even if it does not seem that much to me. I am a white westerner. And the fact is that I am in Togo, I am staying with Raymond and I will do what I can to help without being too foolish.

Even speaking to those from the states on board the Africa Mercy I realise how lucky the UK is to have the NHS. I’ve had a number of operations in my time, and I’m sure if my parents had had to pay for them life wouldn’t have quite been the same. I don’t think I’m being overdramatic.

It turned out that it was malaria, and the IV medication, thankfully did help. He’s still resting, but feeling much better. I’m sure if it was me that got malaria I would not have recovered so quickly.

I’m experiencing the real Togo, and in this past week family life has been as colourful and chaotic as i could have imagined it. I am learning that the life of a local in Lomé is about enduring constant frustration, pain and crises, while learning that the best way is to just roll with it, trying to enjoy the occasional carefree feelings of freedom, and balance a careful mix of not planning ahead with planning too many things at the same time (not planning ahead seems to work better I think). And I am extremely thankful for where I come from, and where I will be returning to in 17 days. I am glad though that I chose to stay in Lomé and not sail. I’m sure I would be enjoying the sail thoroughly, but my desire is to live Africa, not the 51st state of America.

Meanwhile I can only hope things improve while I’m here, for Raymond, his family, myself and this slowly evolving project.

If you could spare any thoughts or prayers for Raymond and his family it would be greatly appreciated by them. Thanks, Tom

Black and white photos of life on the Africa Mercy

Documentary, General comment, Mercy Ships

This is a rather general blog; I thought I’d share some of the individual photos that don’t usually get made into stories. These were taken at a variety of times, usually when reporting on another story, or while I’m down on the wards taking medical photos. However the first photo is of myself and Claire (Bufe – the writer who pretty much gets all the information that I put in these posts) in our little office.

(Left to right) Missie, Dick and Marina inside the admissions tent (on the dock by the ship).

A toddler wandering around one of the wards where their mother’s bed is.

A cargo ship from Thailand on the dock next to us.

Painting the bow of the Africa Mercy.

A mother sits with her child while day volunteers and nurses sing and dance in ward devotions.

Mary, a ward nurse, takes stitches out of a patient post-operation.

Day volunteers singing during a VVF dress ceremony.

This is Kossi, a 5 day old baby sleeping next to his mother. He was born with a large tongue lesion that almost prevented him from breathing, and became one of Mercy Ships’ quickest admission patients (most are screened many months in advance).

Members of the fire team put on their gear at the start of a fire drill. There are two alarms, a first for the fire team, and a second for everyone else to assemble at the their muster stations on the dock. This ensures that the fire team aren’t blacked from getting to the fire by crowds of staff trying to get off the ship.

Having already been the first group in to fight the (simulated) fire Elliot (centre) and the rest of his fire team changes their oxygen supplies while another team goes in to continue fighting it.

Deck hands help secure a new tyre to the side of the dock. These help cushion the ship when hitting the dock as it sways in the water. New tyres creek very noisily, keeping many of the people in the cabins next to it awake during the following few nights.

Christina, a charge nurse, cheerily looking after an infant (that’s not so cheery).

Day volunteers and staff spontaneously form a band in the corner of Starbucks, keeping everyone entertained after the church meeting on Sunday evening.

(Centre to right) Theo, James and Cael entertain in the corner of the Strabucks cafe in Midship.

In the orthopaedics tent a mother breastfeeds her child while a day volunteer takes off the babies correcting shoes (for club foot) ready for a post-op photograph. Nick, the physical therapist makes notes in the background.

Anama (left), Nick (out of sight) and another day volunteer put the babies correcting shoes back on. They’re not particularly comfortable.

Eye patients sit outside the admissions tent on the dock.

Tracy (Ship Security Officer – centre) and the Gurkhas, who guard the ship: (left to right) Lok, Pradip, Tek, (Tracy,) Ganesh (head of security), Chitra and Min.

A VVF lady listens to a speech during her dress ceremony.

A day volunteer drums during a VVF dress ceremony.

Americans celebrate their independence on the fouth of July with a barbecue on the dock.

Amanda and Anouchka enjoy the dock barbecue on the fourth of July.

Above and below: Crew and members of the Academy throw an American football around on the dock.

Maaike, a charge nurse, tickles Irene, a patient, on a bed in a recently emptied ward.

Josee (centre) plays a card game with Claire and a couple of visitors.

Dr. Leo Cheng explains to Kakou the details of the operation he will perform on him later that day.

Dr. Cheng operating on Kakou later that day.

The port of Lomé from the Bridge.

A member of a vision trip from Texas pulls along a patient on a buggy.

Patients resting in the ward.

Deck workers take a moment to look out over the port of Lomé.

A nurse pushes a patient along on a tricycle.

Sassou’s Village

Documentary, Mercy Ships, Photojournalism, portrait, street photography

At the beginning of the week I went out to visit Agokpame, the village of the one of the patients that myself and Claire are following. Sassou was born with a growth behind his right eye that grew and grew over the last 13 years. He came to Mercy Ships after his teacher (among others) advised his father to take Sassou to a screening. His father, Efoe had already spent huge amounts of money on doctors previously, none of whom were able to help. The arrival of a ship with world-class surgeons who were happy to perform the operation for free can’t quite have seemed real.

The operation went successfully, but as expected he would never have been able to gain back vision in his left eye, so it was removed and sewn up. For Sassou it makes no difference to the life he is used to, except now he knows that it won’t take over the rest of his face. His father’s gratefulness was obvious when we went to see Sassou take his end of year exams (I was even allowed in to photograph him). What we didn’t expect was that everyone in the village knew of Mercy Ships removing the growth and Claire and I both received profuse thanks from those we were introduced to. That seemed a bit strange and we explained to the chief that we weren’t the doctors that performed the operation, but were in fact working in a department that gathers stories and photos such as Sassou’s so that people back in the Western World can see what the Mercy Ships do and donate money to keep the ‘dream’ alive.

These photos are a small sample from our very brief hour in the village and at Sassou’s school. If you’ve been to villages in Western Africa before you can note quite quickly that this is a relatively well-off one…

This is the photo taken before of Sassou at the Hospitality Centre (see previous post).

This is just by where I parked the Land Rover. The beach on the Benin/Togo border is just a few miles away.

Sassou is the fourth head in from the right. Click on it to see more clearly…

Children resting during the midday sun.

This is Sassou’s Grandma. The photos behind her are of her Father, Uncles and Grandfathers dating back several decades. These are the mark of a relatively well off family.

This scrawny tame Eagle was taking a rest on some machinery next door to the Chief’s house.

Some villagers were unaware that this child had club foot during the Africa Mercy’s screening several months ago and now it is unfortunately too late to operate on her. She will have to wait until the Africa Mercy returns to Togo in years to come. There was little we could do to help. We offered to take down her details and ask, but told her father and the chief that we were 95% sure that there was nothing we could do.

Children gather in front of the camera at Sassou’s school.

Sassou’s headteacher showed us around the new classrooms that have mainly been funded by Westerners, in this case a church from Germany.

Meza (our translator) and an outdoor blackboard with a basic diagram of the circulatory system.

On the other side of the classroom teachers gather around a black board with all the answers to Sassou’s test up on it so they can mark the papers as quickly as possible.

Sassou’s class. I offered to take a photograph of his class assuming they don’t usually get that opportunity. I’ll be sending a few prints back with Sassou when he visits the Africa Mercy for his final post-op.

Left to Right: Sassou’s Headteacher, Sassou and Efoe, his Father.

Off to Togo

Documentary

Tomorrow morning I leave my parents house in Gloucestershire, UK at 4am to drive to Heathrow and fly to Togo via Paris. There I’m beginning a three month stint as a photographer in the communications department aboard the Africa Mercy, a hospital ships run by 400 volunteers of the charity Mercy Ships.

Everyone on board has to pay basic fees of $650 per month not including flights etc. and though I’ve been working for the past four months to earn this amount I’m still some way off my target. To get a better idea of what I’m doing, why it’s essential in the promotion of the charity and to donate to my stay on board, please visit my Mercy Ships Crewmates page. Any donation, large or small is hugely appreciated.

All my posts for the next 4 months (I’m staying on in Western Africa for a month after) will be photographic updates on what I’m doing – they will also be my own views and opinions, and not necessarily those of the charity itself. You can donate to my crewmates page any time in the next three months.