Zambian Village Life – Friday Travel Photo

Faces of Zambia

This photo was taken along the Zambia/DRC border in Luapula Provice, northern Zambia. Connecting with my brother who is a Peace Corps Volunteer in the region we stopped at another volunteer’s village for lunch. As we got acquainted, listened to her amazing stories and were introduced to her neighbors and the local village kids life casually went on around us. It was a beautiful opportunity to observe and experience a taste of Zambian village life. The Zambians were incredibly warm, hospitable, and incredibly respectful. The children were curious, shy, and always beaming brilliant smiles.

While there is no doubt that they lack many of the common niceties we enjoy – running water, electricity and all the creature comforts that go with it – they had a lust for life, and a richness that most of us are sorely missing.

Would you like to see previous Friday Photos? View past travel pictures here. This photo was taken on a Canon T3i (600D) Camera using a Canon IS 55-250mm lens.

Face in the Falls – Friday’s Weekly Travel Photo

The Face - Victoria Falls - Zambia

Located in the midst of cascading sheets of water and behind a wall of thundering noise Victoria Falls boasts a variety of beautiful rock formations. A visit to the falls is never quite the same as everything from the water level to the gentle but constant erosion of the stone that supports the falls is ever present and forever shifting.  The falls have a reputation for majesty, for size, and for being truly memorable.  Most rank them as the greatest falls in the world and a natural wonder of the world often just ahead of Iguazu Falls in Argentina and Niagara Falls in the United States.   This reputation is well deserved and while I’m still torn on which is more captivating – Iguazu or Victoria – I know that Victoria ranks as one of the most spectacular natural wonders I’ve ever seen.

As I paused briefly, fighting a rainstorm of mist despite the day’s sunny weather, I noticed a face staring back at me.  A water spirit, one that emerged from the stone’s cliff face casually stared back across the ravine at me.  Can you see it?  Its large moss covered nose, voluptuous lips with gently upturned smile. Its pronounced chin jutting out of the water. The face stood there, brought to life by the water coursing over/past it and gave me pause. This was a special moment in a wondrous place.  A moment and place that the face demanded I take time to properly enjoy and reflect upon.

Victoria Falls is situated on the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe and is part of the Zambezi river. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is 355 feet at its highest point (drop).  It is also 5,600 feet wide which is incredible to think about, but even more spectacular to see in person!

Have you been to Victoria Falls?  Were you there in wet season or dry?  What did you think!?

Would you like to see previous Friday Photos? View past travel pictures here. This photo was taken on a Canon T3i (600D) Camera using a Canon IS 18-135mm lens.

Travel Fears: Africa – Disease, HIV and Light Hypochondria

Luapula Province, Zambia

I began this series of posts with a piece exploring the topic of race.  In this, the 2nd in the series, I will continue to share the concerns, uncertainties and revelations that led up to and culminated in my visit to Zambia.  I do this in the hope of helping many of you better understand  your own fears, paranoia  and to perhaps answer questions you might otherwise be uncomfortable asking or discussing.  The topics in this series are delicate ones, many of which are considered off-limits or too embarrassing to discuss openly.  As I seek to express, analyze and discuss them, please keep this in mind.   A more in-depth introduction can be found in the first post in this series: Travel Fears: Africa – Revelations as A White Traveler.

I don’t write about romance on the road much because…well…contrary to the stereotypes about hostel, backpacking, and study abroad life it’s not something I pursue actively while traveling and/or when it does occur, it’s not something I feel inclined to write about. One factor that shapes my more reserved approach to travel romance is what, for the sake of this post, I’ll call low-level hypochondria. This is a bit of a disservice to true hypochondriacs and their personal challenges as I’m not truly a hypochondriac but  better conveys the nature of some of the unfounded fears addressed in this post.  I have an overly developed fear/paranoia when it comes to STDs (sexually transmitted diseases) and TDs (transmitted diseases).  To the point that, despite being very empirical by nature and knowing the effectiveness rate of things like condoms they still do very little to alleviate my fears.  Fears which can be strong enough to alter my behavior or prevent me from enjoying opportunities.  For example,  I know how safe condoms and common sense are, but at the end of the day that knowledge is insufficient peace of mind and protection to allow me to pursue passing travel romances as opportunities arise.  From chlamydia to herpes to HIV/AIDs I have a deep seated fear, not just of exposure through sex, but of any form of exposure what-so-ever even if the risk is .0001%.  Add to that the TDs such as Cholera, Typhoid, Dysentery etc. and, well, there was a lot to worry about.

So, I – perhaps like many of you – was unsure what to make of Africa. In Europe and the US the media tends to focus on three topics when discussing sub-Saharan Africa.   Starvation, war, and HIV/AIDs. In Zambia, where multiple concurrent partners are a regular occurrence even among couples and a mixture of doctrine, urban myths, and lack of education are huge issues, HIV/AIDs infection levels are a massive concern. As I prepared for my three week trip, you can imagine some of the thoughts racing through my head … I was, about to go into the heart of the HIV/AIDS epidemic where the average life expectancy at birth is a mere 52 years up from ~38 a few years ago (vs 78 in the US) and the HIV infection rate in 2009 was 14%.  Down from 21% in 2001 and ranking it as the country with the 6th highest level of HIV/AIDs infection in the world. Every day more than 200 people are infected in Zambia alone.  Keeping in mind that these are the statistics for HIV/AIDs and not other STDs should highlight that there was absolutely zero-chance of me partaking in any, and I do mean any, type of romantic encounter during my visit. But, that didn’t mean I wasn’t extremely nervous about the HIV/AIDs issue when planning my trip – after all, you can catch certain types of STDs and TDs (HIV included) without sexual contact, right? Which brings me to the central focus of this post.

In the US where perhaps 1 in 300 people is HIV positive there’s not a lot of exposure to HIV or information.  HIV positive folks don’t advertise their illness, are well medicated, and generally invisible, productive, normal members of the population. A big difference from Zambia where even young children are dying of HIV/AIDs on a regular basis.  In the states there are HIV awareness campaigns and I’ve read numerous articles discussing the nearly non-existent risk of infection through casual social contact.  I know that HIV/AIDs cannot be spread outside of the exchange of sexual fluids, breast milk, or blood being passed between both bodies through fresh/bleeding cuts.  So, as I prepared to take my trip I knew at an intellectual level that short of a sexual encounter or blood transfusion I had absolutely nothing to fear. I planned to avoid any type of sexual contact and had no plans of ending up needing a blood transfusion. I had nothing to worry about.  Yet, at an emotional and irrational level I was still worried.  Knowing that 1 in 7 people was HIV positive … how would I react when expected to shake hands, share silverware, cook together or interact with young children with their myriad of scrapes and cuts knowing that many were likely HIV positive.

Zambian Children - Luapula

These fears are hard to quantify because they’re not the result of general ignorance.  I know that my level of risk from commonly shared surfaces, utensils, food, and social contact is effectively non-existent.  I also have read extensively in school and elsewhere about how brutal and isolating the impact of these types of unfounded fears are on people with diseases like HIV.  So, let me say it again.  I know and knew that these fears were bullshit … but that didn’t matter. It did little to overpower and abolish the mental image of having to shake a construction or farm worker’s cut, callused, and scabbed hand while unsure if they were HIV positive.  Or the thought of an HIV-infected child with the bloody cuts, scabs and snot covered cheeks that go with childhood reaching out and wanting to engage in the simple dignities of human touch. How would I respond?  Would I shun them?  Would I hold myself apart?  Would I embrace them?  Or when the time came, was this all mental gymnastics and would everything be the same?

So, as the wheels of our aircraft touched down at Lusaka International airport I felt a small knot in my stomach.  This was the moment I had been dreading.  Where I would come face to face with my uncertainty.  I shouldn’t have worried.  As I reflect on my behavior during my three-week visit, I know that I was slightly more controlled and reserved than I would have been in the US.  But only slightly.  When I washed my hands, it was out of general hygienic concerns, not out of a fear of HIV, STDs or TD infection.  I shook hands, interacted with kids, hugged the amazing people I met, ate nshima prepared lovingly by local’s hands, and interacted with the Zambians I met with the sincerity and dignity they deserve.  There were moments where I would catch myself hesitating, but these moments were slight and few and far between.  Oh, and yes – many of these individuals were HIV positive.

If, like me, you find yourself preparing for a trip to Africa and worrying over the HIV/AIDs and disease issue I hope this post A) lets you know that you’re not alone  B) that there’s nothing to truly worry about and C) that once on the ground it shouldn’t negatively impact your experience or be an issue.

 

A Photographer’s Late Night Musings

Zambia's Children

As I start this post it’s 2AM on a Friday night.  I’ve opted to stay in, distracted – or dare I confess lost in editing photos from my recent trip through Zambia.  I’ve got a half empty glass of 15 year old Scotch and find myself deeply effected by the faces staring back at me from the screen. Outside my 4th story window I can hear the sound of Danes diving headlong into the usual revelry and mayhem that marks a a carefree Friday evening here in Copenhagen. It’s an odd contrast to the scenes which slowly work their way across my computer screen.

It’s a strange thing really.  These photos, some of them strangely personal each tell a story.  Some may convey elements of that story more powerfully than others but each (at least when they’re in focus) is potent and resonates with me.  True, there’s the added impact knowing I was there and because of that I can recall bits and pieces of the context they were taken in, but those are only abstract, fragmented shards.

Obama Tshirt in Zambia

These were photos taken in passing. Some were quite literally snapped out of the window of a moving car.  Others such as those of young Zambian village children clowning for the camera were more personal and came with handshakes and exchanged smiles.  Even in these cases though I was still in a transient state.  In a few minutes, an hour, a day or two I’d be moving on once again to the next town, the next experience, and the next photo.  This transient and disconnected sense was magnified in part by the language barrier.  Though Zambia is technically an English speaking nation the children and adults in the villages where I took many of these shots only speak their local regional language, which in this case was Bemba.  Culture also plays a large role and unfortunately so does race.  As one of the only white people many of the children and some of the adults had ever met I was a novelty.  Something exotic. Something interesting, but also something different….a curiosity. It bridged some gaps by drawing them to me, but created others steeped in generations of racially bound class warfare, and the simpler and more innocent challenges that come with early interactions with people who seem somewhat alien and different from us.

Photo by David Berger

Still, as I think back on my time in Zambia language and race were not really the barrier.  Sure, it was a great excuse and granted it’s difficult to get someone’s name or a piece of their story from a moving car…but I wasn’t always in a car.  No, quite often I was there in the midst of a boiling group of Zambian youths eager for the excitement of interacting with a mzungu – a white man – and excited for the opportunity to see their photo on the camera after I had fired off a quick shot. Yet despite their openness, warmth, and glowing smiles I can only tell you a few names.  I can’t tell you much about their stories, or almost nothing about their dreams.  I can’t even tell you how old they were and tragically it’s quite possible that several of the wonderful, glorious people I met will die before the year winds to a close.

This was driven home recently by the following sorrowful message which my brother (who is a Peace Corps health volunteer and who we stayed with for several days) posted to facebook.  It hit me hard because it brought to mind so many of the wonderful children I had met during our visit.  The update noted,

“Well, Zambia wins the day again. 2 year old admitted to the clinic, who I saw this morning died this afternoon.
Dehydration from malaria infection that was treated too late. Another life claimed by poor transport and delay.”

This message came crashing home again tonight as I came to a photo of a young child.  David (my brother) had just finished showing us the spot along the local stream where water is collected.  We were walking back towards his hut when we came upon a small boy.  He was shy, dressed in a yellow hoodie, jeans and nice shoes.   In his hand he held a tattered piece of folded paper.  As we approach he smiled and waved.  We smiled, and waved saying “allo!” the local variation of hello.  My brother leaned down and gently took the piece of tattered paper the child held.  It turned out it was his health report card.  Basically a chart to document his weight and nutrition over time.  With a quick glance and a gesture he explained that though the child was doing much better now he was an orphan that had been taken in, and that when he was younger had suffered severe malnutrition and been terribly underweight which had stunted his growth.  At the age of 2 this young child had already suffered more than most westerners do in 20 years and yet there he stood sheepishly smiling at us with a childish grin.  It’s almost impossible to know as an outsider but I hope that based on the state and quality of what he was wearing (eg: the mere fact that he had shoes on), that he’s found a family to take care of him who can afford to get him the food and safe drinking water he needs.  Ultimately though, it’s impossible to know – and I can’t help fear that the two year old David wrote about might have been him.

A few photos later I sat staring at another shot.  This one was of a young child squatting in the dirt beside the road.  In the photo he’s in a tattered beige shirt, black shorts and sitting sideways in profile.  His right arm is resting on his knee and his left is lifted to his mouth chewing on something filthy.  What it might be given the dirty field he’s perched in the midst of, I dare not guess. There’s what’s likely dried snot on his cheek, and what looks like a fly resting just below his left eye. His gaze is piercing.  Powerful.  The whites of his eyes clearly visible as he looks my way, face partially obscured by his hand. The photo echoes hints of Kevin Carter’s crushing photo of a starving young child collapsed in a field and being stalked by a vulture in the midst of S. Sudan.  Carter’s photo rocked the world, but ultimately also embodied the suffering he had seen which eventually led to his suicide. Luckily the child in my photo and the photo itself is far less dire. Still, the photo resonates elements of that same bleakness and despair.  The air of tragedy that goes with it embodies the sense of injustice and internal tragedy that accompanies seeing young children facing profound threats, challenges and harm.  With this in mind and in light of the daily tragedies which mark life in many of these villages I find myself torn.  On the one hand I know it has the power to resonate with people….to convey the risk and tragedy of deaths like that of the two year old David wrote about.  On the other hand, I can’t help but feel it is also slightly disingenuous, insincere and a disservice to the wonderful Zambians I met to focus and convey almost exclusively these types of images.

You see, there were other moments – moments that I’m frustrated with myself for not capturing. These were wonderful moments which showed these same children at their very best.  These were the moments which were profoundly inspiring.  The moments when these kids would scrub away the caked on dust, set aside the tattered shirts and torn pants they had been wearing, and don their school outfits.   Dressed in their school finery, these kids will sometimes walk for miles without complaint all for the chance to attend somewhere between 1 to 3 hours of school….if, that is, the teacher decides to show up to class.  There’s a beauty to the way they carry themselves and their eagerness to learn.  There is a pride and dignity which is part of what makes the Zambians I met so wonderful.  It’s also a side of life in rural, impoverished Africa which you don’t usually get the chance to see when clicking through photos or reading reports from westerners discussing their visits.

At the end of the day it bothers me that I don’t know each person’s name or more about their story. It’s an odd feeling to know that even if I tried to seek out information about them, there’s no way I could find it.  I also wonder how they would feel and respond to the way I’ve captured and conveyed them. Would they appreciate it?  Enjoy it?  Be angered?  Embarrassed? I suppose what I’m really asking myself is, “how honest is this photo?”.  Then there’s the what if side of it.  What if I did learn their name, their story, and we spent days, weeks, or months together? At a certain level I’m not sure that’s an emotional weight I’m willing to bear and i’m still not sure if that’s a fact I am content to accept or if it’s something that shames me slightly.  Then again perhaps despite it all it is the interaction or the moment itself which is what is valuable and important.  I suppose in some ways it really is just enough to be there and to capture a moment which can be shared.  At the end of the day though, there’s also a certain responsibility  to be honest to the moment that comes with taking those photos.  It’s a responsibility which isn’t widely discussed – oh, sure people talk about model release forms and the how to cover their ass in case they want to sell or publish the photo – but that’s not what I’m talking about.  I’m talking about something beyond that.  Something far less certain.   I suppose I haven’t really answered any questions with this post but perhaps, just perhaps, it will help you to better understand my photos, travel photography, and I hope your own experience as a photographer abroad.

If you’ve got any insights, reflections, or personal thoughts to share – I’d love to hear your take.  For my part, the Scotch has run out and if I dally much longer I’ll be nose to nose with the rising sun.

You can read David’s blogs from Zambia at DavidBerger.net.