Uko Fiti

Florence lives in the bad part of Mukuru.  The good part, across the other side of the Ngong River, has the usual problems of urban slums on every continent.  Overcrowding, sexual abuse, non-existent sewerage, criminal violence, tuberculosis, malnourishment and HIV infection. The bad part known as Viwandani, has all these issues and one more.  If it rains for a couple of days in a row, a thin slurry rises from the ground and flows over the doorsteps of the residents and into their 3m x3m corrugated iron homes. The slurry has a shiny, bubbly green-blue film and is partly human sewage, partly chemical waste, and partly just mud from the swamp on which this part of Mukuru is built. 

Florence has just finished emptying her home of the latest inflow with a bucket and a rag.  She is a striking woman with a shock of hair flying back off her high forehead and an elegant angular face. She lives here in the slum with her three children, a baby girl and older twins. (twins are rare in Mukuru as they often don’t survive infancy, let alone childbirth.)  There is no mention of a husband.  She looks into the camera with an unexpected confidence. I suppose she has nothing left to hide.

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The air is filled with the smell of faeces, burning plastic and the sound of booming Kenyan reggae from the next-door home, but still she pays 15000 Kenyan Shillings (about $21 AUD) a month rent for her nine square meters of dirt. It’s not really clear where this money goes but it’s certainly not to a official agency . If you’re two days late with your rent, your possessions, meagre though they are, will be carted off and sold and fresh lock put on the door until the shack is re-rented. That doesn’t take long as there is always a waiting list.

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1n the 1960’s Mukuru (meaning “Valley” in Kikuyu) was unoccupied land adjacent to four huge quarries. The two hundred acres were home to wild animals until the quarry workers began to erect tin huts on the vacant ground and start small subsistence farms and so the slum was born.  Nowadays, it stretches along the Ngong River wedged between an industrial area, the Airport Road and Mombasa Road. It’s not the biggest slum in Nairobi. Kibera, less than 10kms away almost proudly, claims to be “The Biggest Slum in Africa”.  And with that notoriety comes a level of global awareness and media coverage that Mukuru with only around 300,000 residents will never see.

The muddy road through the slum to The Ruben Centre has no obvious name.  It’s deeply potholed and lined by wooden stalls selling new hairstyles, prepaid mobile deals, mandazi (a simple fried bread) and short-term sexual satisfaction for the young men of Mukuru.  Rusty heavy iron gates, topped with spikes are hand painted with the words “Ruben Centre, Empowering the Mukuru Community”, and a additional A4 laminated sign saying, “Maternity Clinic Open”. There is a small pedestrian gate to the side and in and out flow a constant stream of mothers with babies tightly strapped to their backs using a rectangular piece of woven cloth called a Kanga. Once inside the centre the overbearing tension of the slum outside dissipates and is replaced by an atmosphere of purposeful activity.

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The Ruben Centre is a school, (approximately 2700 students) a medical centre, a Maternity Clinic, (1000 births a year) a sustainable urban gardening program, a vocational training centre, (weaving, computer skills, tailoring) a special needs centre, a family planning clinic, an HIV clinic, a child care facility, a 24 hour radio station and a  solitary beacon of hope for the residents of the slum.

 But this list doesn’t begin to explain the value of the thousands of everyday human interactions between the people that pass through its doors each day. 

On a long bench outside the maternity clinic mothers sit nervously cradling their babies waiting to be called in for their three-monthly check-ups. They smile at the mzungu with the camera and are happy to be photographed. Once inside the calm and efficient staff carefully record measurements of weight, height and arm circumference providing peace of mind for the healthy ones and advice and treatment for those who need nutritional or medical help.

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A hundred meters away on a patch of red dirt that is the school playground, around 100 boys and girls play eight soccer matches concurrently. The imaginary pitches intersect and right angles creating a sporting chaos only intelligible to the participants. The balls are often made of bundles of rags which begin to disintegrate as the game goes on trailing streamers of cloth through the dust. Players often remove the shoe from their kicking foot to avoid damage to a precious item of clothing and presumably the wrath of their mothers when they get home.

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In a classroom above the playground, 60 primary school boys and girls are wedged shoulder to shoulder into benches attached to rickety desks. The dust is thick on the floor and the posters are peeling off the wall, but they listen intently as a young female teacher explains the UN convention on the rights of the child…… “The Right to Clean Water, Electrical Power and a Safe Environment”……“The Right to be Protected from Abuse and Neglect”….. “The Right to Dignity and Freedom…… “The Right to a Quality Education”. They seem to understand and are completely engaged by the lesson, but this is so far removed from their reality that I wonder if it seems like a dream.

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At lunch time each child places an empty plastic bowl on the dusty floor at the foot of the teacher’s desk at the front of the classroom. Two students carry a steaming 40 litre bucket of githeri, a bland mixture of corn and red beans, up three flights of stairs from the kitchen. Meat of any description is not an option.  Not for western reason of conscience, religion or perceived health benefits, but because it costs too much. The teacher carefully shares the soup between the 60 bowls and suddenly there is as stampede as the children run to grab their bowls. Unsurprisingly, given the guarantee of full stomach at lunchtime attendance records are high.

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Later on that afternoon, a group of students stand around a tall Muslim man in a kofia called Musa Juma. He is a local expert on urban gardens and his plot at Ruben is a green oasis within the brown oasis of the centre. Here he teaches the children small scale sustainable urban farming. They love it! Running back and forward with buckets from open tanks, watering the plants, collecting eggs, feeding rabbits and fish. But today Musa is standing in his garden holding up a papaya like a jewel. The children stare with wide eyes as he segments the fruit with a large knife called a panga. It’s the first papaya harvested and a new experience for the students. He carefully hands round a segment on the end of his panga to each of the group. They taste….and smile.  A simple shared pleasure in a place where pleasure is rare.

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Florence’s twins attend the school. It’s not perfect. It’s dirty and noisy and sometimes out of control. The curriculum occasionally seems ridiculous and the toilets stink. But amid the desperation that is her life in the slum, she must take some comfort in knowing that they get a decent meal each lunchtime and the small distant hope that the education her children receive at the Ruben Centre could provide a way out of Mukuru one day.


The Ruben Centre receives substantial funding from The Edmund Rice Foundation Australia

www.erf.org.au www.rubencentre.org


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Kibera, Women and Change.

On the edge of the megalithic slum that is Kibera, a small organisation operates two very specific programs to attempt change in what must be one of the hardest places on earth to eke out a meaningful life. The first offers education funding to 100 clever, but severely disadvantaged children from the slum, that will take them through secondary school and university if they continue to work hard. The second initiative funds around 50 women to start very small businesses. It’s micro-finance at its most basic. All the women are unsupported by partners and many are HIV positive. With encouragement, advice and very small amounts of cash, most have gone on to create a steady income, allowing them to pay for education, healthcare, and good nutrition for their often extensive families.

By providing these services they have nailed two of the most basic tenets of aid provision.

  1. Education…then education…then more education.

  2. Get the money into a woman’s hands.

The organisation is called “Mirror of Hope” and it receives funding from the Edmund Rice Foundation here in Australia. https://erf.org.au

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"Liberating Lives Through Education....."

I’ve always wanted the chance to take photographs that make a difference, not just to a company’s bottom line, or to sell more widgets, or enhance a personal profile, but to change the lives of a few people who desperately need an opportunity. The Edmund Rice Foundation has given me that chance by appreciating the value of good imagery, and then using it extensively to promote, fundraise and increase awareness for the 29 programs they run in 10 different countries. Seeing first hand the work they support in Kenya, PNG, East Timor and the Philippines has been a privilege.

Next month I’m going back to East Africa to photograph for ERFA, to Uganda, Tanzania and the Turkana Province of Kenya, up on the Sudanese boarder where Kakuma refugee camp hosts around 185,000 people, mostly refugees from the civil war in South Sudan https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kakuma

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Isolation

‘Man's greatest actions are performed in minor struggles. Life, misfortune, isolation, abandonment and poverty are battlefields which have their heroes - obscure heroes who are at times greater than illustrious heroes.’ Victor Hugo

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Sculpture at Elgee Park

It’s a strange business photographing sculpture; to constantly remind yourself that you are there to record authentically, not interpret and certainly not attempt to enhance. The light, the environment, the weather and the seasons are your only tools. If a reader leafs through the book and thinks only of the sculptures and never the imagery then the photographer has been successful. The Third Edition of “Sculpture at Elgee Park” has just been published. It’s been a privilege to record and admire this incredible collection over the sixteen years since the first publication in 2004.

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

“That, more or less, is the short answer to the supposedly incredibly complicated and confusing question of what we humans should eat in order to be maximally healthy. A little meat won’t kill you, though it’s better approached as a side dish than as a main. And you’re much better off eating whole fresh foods than processed food products. That’s what I mean by the recommendation to eat “food.” Once, food was all you could eat, but today there are lots of other edible foodlike substances in the supermarket. These novel products of food science often come in packages festooned with health claims, which brings me to a related rule of thumb: if you’re concerned about your health, you should probably avoid food products that make health claims. Why? Because a health claim on a food product is a good indication that it’s not really food, and food is what you want to eat.”

Michael Pollan from “Food Rules”

The End, The Beginning

Being proud of the achievements of your offspring is a tricky business. Objectivity tends to leave the room…..

But two days on the set of “The End, the Beginning” has been a bracing antidote to any cynicism I might have ever had about the 20 something generation. If the world ends up in these people’s hands then things just might be alright! Congratulations Alicia Easaw-Mamutil (Producer), Samuel Herriman (Writer) and Archie Chew (Director) and the 40 other members of the amazing crew!

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Cultural Expectations for the Lunar New Year from a Hotel Lobby Somewhere in Asia.

Amy Chua was in a restaurant, celebrating her birthday with her husband and daughters, Sophia, seven, and Lulu, four. "Lulu handed me her 'surprise', which turned out to be a card," writes Chua in her memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. "More accurately, it was a piece of paper folded crookedly in half, with a big happy face on the front. Inside, 'Happy Birthday, Mummy! Love, Lulu' was scrawled in crayon above another happy face. I gave the card back to Lulu. 'I don't want this,' I said. 'I want a better one – one that you've put some thought and effort into. I have a special box, where I keep all my cards from you and Sophia, and this one can't go in there.' I grabbed the card again and flipped it over. I pulled out a pen and scrawled 'Happy Birthday Lulu Whoopee!' I added a big sour face. … 'I reject this.'"

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PM2.5

From BBC News today….

“Thailand's capital city is experiencing some of its worst-ever air pollution levels, caused by ultra-fine dust particles known as PM2.5. Traffic exhaust, construction works, burning crops and pollution from factories are blamed for the haze. Specialist respirator masks to filter the particles have quickly sold out. The government has tried seeding rain clouds, reducing traffic, and hosing down streets, with little impact. Those celebrating the Lunar New Year holidays next week have been asked not to burn incense or light fireworks.”

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Layering

Three young Vietnamese girls are transformed into an Indian Kushti wrestler.

New photograph by Archie Chew

Timor Leste

Sometimes it all seems a bit hopeless.  In one small valley, in one province of one small developing country, children play in the dust without wiping the snot from their noses.

A scene repeated all over the world. The shining goals of education, healthcare and human rights, sparkle a little less brightly when seen from inside of a cinder block, windowless home, buzzed by dengue carrying mosquitoes, where the little cash you might earn from selling an excess crop goes on topping up a 1990’s mobile phone, or buying antiseptic cream to hopefully stop the infected cut becoming an amputation.

But that’s not a reason to stop trying.

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Oro and Rabaul

“Everyone has the right to life. Hurting or killing someone because you think they are a sorcerer or a witch is against the law.”

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Yuasa

The concrete fighter plane has lost the fight as the children now play on the padded climbing frames across the harbour.

The warehouses have become the colour of a soy sauce stain, ironically, as this is where soy sauce was invented.….. and the Chuo factory is closed….although no one seems to know what used to be made there.

I don’t think Cosmo sells diesel anymore.

The train from Osaka stops less often, but the sushi rice still grows nicely beside the tracks.

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Cellar Bar

Some books I’m more proud of than others…. This one is up there with my favourites. It’s a privilege to work with with this family. Guy, Loredana, Carlo and Liz are the hardest working, most generous, most creative, most trusting clients around. Thank you to them and the extended team at Grossi Restaurants. And if you ever need the best book designer in the business….have a chat with Daniel New. It’s published by Penguin/ Lantern and out in October.

Sông Hậu

Crossing the Hậu River, the Mekong Delta.
Red broth-like water flows strongly under the flat-bottomed barge.
Did the river rust the barge or did the rust colour the river?
The water comes from the Tibetan Plateau, 2000 miles away
or Laos
or Thailand
or Cambodia
or Vietnam
or from the thick damp clouds that burst overhead.
Every afternoon. Like an outpouring of grief.
The Buddha will prevent a car crash.
The father will love his daughter for ever.
The clear plastic cape will keep the rain off.
The thing you dread may never happen.
And of course, you will win the lottery.

 

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"An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow" by Les Murray

The word goes round Repins,
the murmur goes round Lorenzinis,
at Tattersalls, men look up from sheets of numbers,
the Stock Exchange scribblers forget the chalk in their hands
and men with bread in their pockets leave the Greek Club:
There's a fellow crying in Martin Place. They can't stop him.

The traffic in George Street is banked up for half a mile
and drained of motion. The crowds are edgy with talk
and more crowds come hurrying. Many run in the back streets
which minutes ago were busy main streets, pointing:
There's a fellow weeping down there. No one can stop him.

The man we surround, the man no one approaches
simply weeps, and does not cover it, weeps
not like a child, not like the wind, like a man
and does not declaim it, nor beat his breast, nor even
sob very loudly - yet the dignity of his weeping

holds us back from his space, the hollow he makes about him
in the midday light, in his pentagram of sorrow,
and uniforms back in the crowd who tried to seize him
stare out at him, and feel, with amazement, their minds
longing for tears as children for a rainbow.

Some will say, in the years to come, a halo
or force stood around him. There is no such thing.
Some will say they were shocked and would have stopped him
but they will not have been there. The fiercest manhood,
the toughest reserve, the slickest wit amongst us

trembles with silence, and burns with unexpected
judgements of peace. Some in the concourse scream
who thought themselves happy. Only the smallest children
and such as look out of Paradise come near him
and sit at his feet, with dogs and dusty pigeons.

Ridiculous, says a man near me, and stops
his mouth with his hands, as if it uttered vomit - 
and I see a woman, shining, stretch her hand
and shake as she receives the gift of weeping;
as many as follow her also receive it

and many weep for sheer acceptance, and more
refuse to weep for fear of all acceptance,
but the weeping man, like the earth, requires nothing,
the man who weeps ignores us, and cries out
of his writhen face and ordinary body

not words, but grief, not messages, but sorrow,
hard as the earth, sheer, present as the sea -
and when he stops, he simply walks between us
mopping his face with the dignity of one
man who has wept, and now has finished weeping.

Evading believers, he hurries off down Pitt Street. 

Les Murray

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Formosa

In 2016 Vietnam suffered its worst maritime pollution disaster when over 100 tonnes of fish carcasses washed up on the beaches in Hà Tĩnh, Quảng Bình, Quảng Trị and Thừa Thiên–Huế provinces.  Formosa Ha Tinh Steel, a steel plant built by the Taiwanese corporation Formosa Plastics, discharged toxic industrial waste illegally into the ocean through drainage pipes.  After denying responsibility for months, Formosa accepted responsibility for the fish deaths on June 30, 2016.

The disaster disrupted the livelihood of fishermen in four provinces in the central coast of Vietnam. On 4th May 2016, the Vietnamese government announced a ban of processing and selling seafood caught within 20 nautical miles of the central Vietnam provinces, just one day after the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment had claimed that the seafood in the region met safety standards.

According to the local government of Quảng Bình, the fishermen of this province had already lost $5.2 million; in addition, the disaster also heavily impacted the tourism industry as nearly 30% of tourists cancelled their planned tours to the affected provinces for the national holiday season starting on 30th April.

The Vietnamese government has cracked down on peaceful protests and civic action from affected fishermen, including arresting Nguyễn Văn Hoá, a citizen journalist who covered the Formosa protests. He was charged for "conducting propaganda against the state" under Article 88 of the Vietnamese Penal Code and sentenced to seven years prison.  Lê Đình Lượng, another environmental activist who campaigned for just compensation for affected fishermen was arrested for "activities attempting to overthrow the state" in July 2017.

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Hòa

About 20 years ago Trần Văn Hòa built this single class room on his own land in a small fishing village, in Thừa Thiên-Huế Province, Vietnam. He runs two classes at the same time, with the Grade 1 and 2 pupils facing east and the Grade 3 and 4 pupils facing west. For the last 15 years his small salary has been funded by Hands for Hope, allowing him to continue his vocation, changing the lives of the village children. Many of the pupils who have attended this school over the years have also received scholarships from Hands for Hope. Recently, two of them completed their bachelor degrees, having been sponsored since Grade 2. Small stories that make a huge difference to individual lives.

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