On Motherhood & Sanity


Thursday, March 25, 2010

I shot the diva (part 2)

Finally I can share some of the shots. I hope they are Diva worthy.

These pictures were taken for CRAVE Amsterdam; "the most unique and stylish guidebook for Amsterdam living. It is a celebration of women entreprenesses that showcases some of the most creative, interesting, and gutsy proprietors throughout Amsterdam."

(me thinks the shoe fits)


I'd met Toma before by chance at a chat she was giving on social media. We only spoke a couple of minutes, (well, she spoke a lot longer since she was the speaker), so when I was asked to photograph her I knew well what I was getting myself into.



We got off to a late start cause.... we were too busy chatting. After the 2pm bubbly (it's a tough job, but someone's gotta do it), she took me on a mini-diva tour; down Denneweg and it's side streets, where old antiques shop mingle with trendy cafe's, beautiful architecture, and one of the few residential canals in The Hague (where big bird lives, more on that later).




She took me into little shops I'd walked by and never noticed before. Inside they were like a treasure chest, every corner filled with something magical.



Back at Hotel Des Indes She'd asked me if I liked antiques and I had to think about it before answering.


My parents have always loved antiques and have bought little tresures around the world, so I've grown up surrounded by them, but finally I had to admit that although I liked them, I personally never shop for them.


Well, famous last words, I nearly did my very first antiques shopping that same day. Good thing I was on the job and couldn't stray too much


If you have the chance to meet Toma, (and if you have the chance take it), you will understand within a nanosecond why her business took off like it did. Energy and enthusiasm bubble out of her (think champagne)


It was fun, and inspiring, and now I have to avoid Denneweg



Thursday, March 11, 2010

On how lucky we are and how much we take for granted

Gulu, North Uganda

I woke up to my hosts having a very civilized coffee in their nice pajamas in an actual home. A radical change from the crappy hotels I’ve been hanging out in for the last ten plus days. We all sat in the living room. I had tea. They smoked and drank coffee. All very civilized, until I started my relay runs to the toilet.

Today was meant to be my last field day. After a pretty good night Montezuma struck me again. So no more community visits for me.

I miss the world. I kept fantasizing about fresh tomatoes, even though I don’t really like tomatoes that much, but they are so beautiful, with their tight bright red skin. I thought about fresh mozzarella, and yogurt, and how we take these things for granted. These beautiful things. I also fantasized about snuggling my monkeys. Normally I would be travelling back by now, this is the longest trip I have done since they were born. Then Montezuma struck again, and since there is no running water in the office I went home.

We stopped to drop off my sample. How I got that sample I will leave to the imagination, but let me tell you, it was not pretty, (remember there is no running water in the office). A taxi took me to the super clinic everyone is raving about

They took my sample and proceeded to take my blood for the malaria swab. I was kind of paranoid I would end up with HIV, but I think everything was in order. Then they asked me to wait, and thirty minutes later my results were ready, which kind of makes me wonder why they take days in the west. I watched the guy handle my stuff (which totally grossed me out), and then put it under the microscope, (which totally impressed me) and then painfully slowly write up my report. All done by the same guy!

Fortunately I do not have malaria and it’s just some nasty bacteria, so I can eat whatever I want. Since the medicine is starting to have an effect my apetite is coming back, and by dinner time I was starving.

We had a lovely (loooovely) plate of pasta bathed in olive oil and sun dried tomatoes, a delicacy brought in from Kampala. Then we had a long lazy chat in the outdoor hut under the moonlight about books and exotic travels in exotic places, things that belong to worlds now far from mine. I kept thinking about the fact that many children die of what I just had. Most of the deaths in Africa, specially in the case of small children, are due to diarrhea. Really, what I just had, which is easily fixed if you can get your hands on a set of these pills, (mine cost less than 4 bucks). I kept wondering what it must feel like to be a mother, and have your child sick, and have to watch your baby wither away slowly, unable to do anything to stop it. Or even as an adult, to be as sick as I was, feel like I was feeling, and have it carry on and on.

When we were in Cambodia we decided to give all the staff in the compound de-worming medicine. They were none too happy. The pills were quite strong and giving them all sorts of stomach problems. They came to ask if instead of two pills a day they could just take one. I guess they saw it as a kind of compromise. Of course I had to say no because one pill a day would have achieved nothing. A few weeks later they confessed they were feeling much better. They'd probably had worms for such a long time they were used to the side effects. Again, we are so fortunate.

Spoke to the monkeys. I miss them. Its so hard trying to speak with them, they don’t make any sense and most of the times I don’t even know who I am talking to because they both have this silly baby voice which is still genderless. Only when they make references to cars or princesses can I be sure who it is. (Although today O told A off in such a tone that I had no doubt who I was talking to.)

Only a few days more and I’ll be home with them and my fresh red tomatoes.

Monday, March 8, 2010

I don't think the spider and the cockroach are related

Kitgum, North Uganda

There's a spider that has decided to move into my bathroom (not too far from the dead cockroach actually, but I don't think they are related).

Maybe it's prejudice, but she looks too darn large to be harmless. So now my night visits (my many and regular night visits) are that much more interesting.

We sit there, we two, in the silence of the night. I hold my flashlight (which I have to use to make sure I don't step on my new friend.... for my sake), keep our eyes fixed on each other, and avoid any sudden moves.

Some stories cannot be told

I’ve had two realizations today; The first is that I seem to have a very different perception of the people here now. It seems like at some point I stopped seeing them as “exotic Africans.” It sounds bad but let me explain. Before I would see the women on the road carrying heavy loads of firewood on their heads and just accept it as the African reality. Now I empathize with the heavy burden they have to carry, with the kilometers they walk under the sun, with their small heavy children wrapped tight to their bodies, who are probably covered in sweat. Can all this heat cause brain damage?

Another breakthrough I had is the realization that I don’t need to win the field staff over. I generally go out of my way to come across as approachable and prove myself somehow worthy, but today I realized that if they think I am a stuck up European, as long as I do my job, it really doesn’t matter. We are not going to be long life friends, and really where I can make a difference is if I manage to add some value. The rest is nice and fine, but it should not get in the way of my job, which I think it was beginning to as they were interpreting it as them being able to push me around.

Health wise I am better. But still cannot eat much, although the toilet and me have broken our engagement off.

I met a girl that was the African version of a Spanish friend of mine. My friend is pale white, with big blue eyes and long wavy hair. This girl was very black with brown eyes and short hair, but for some reason they were the same. Same expressions, same laugh, even the same voice. A very strange thing indeed, I had to laugh and take a picture of her. We became friends. Which essentially means I gave her my email. At some point she started going on about money, but when I insisted on clarification she did not repeat it. A few people have either given me their email or asked for mine. I feel like it takes so little effort on my part to write to them, this new e-world that they are so excited about, but fear that soon it might turn into effectively begging. I guess with email it would be easy enough to cut it off. I told her I would send her the photo.


I also interviewed an ex-combatant. He told me about the day he was abducted. He told me all the details, what he had for breakfast and everything he did that day until he came back home for dinner, which is when the abduction happened. It was completely irrelevant for my purposes, but of course I let him speak. He told me how he was made to abduct 10 to 20 boys ten years of age or older from every village, and if he failed to do this he was a ‘lost case. ’ In case anyone needs clarification, that means he would be killed. He was 19 years old at the time.

The funny thing is that I had noticed him during the focus group session. He came in late with another friend about the same age. He is strong and handsome and had an air about him which made me think of him as a hard man, and made me imagine that he and his friend might have been one of the many boy-men that committed some of the atrocities during the war. He stayed a bit and then stood up and left after whispering something to another boy. He seemed to disregard the fact that a meeting was taking place. I thought of him as cocky.

To my surprise he came back, and then volunteered to speak. He said that before joining the project he was not very comfortable around people. He was now more open and could tolerate backstabbing and was also able to reach to others to help them. I was flabbergasted. Not by what he said, which seemed to be a pretty consistent response amongst those that took part in that activity, but by his voice. This strong, smart looking and handsome man had the voice of a child, a shy child, almost too feminine for his age.

Later on when we were alone he told me about the ambush that freed him when the rebels met with the army. He run and six army men went after him.

“Six just on me,” he repeated slowly, “but I managed to escape and hide. I could see them, I had ammunition, I could kill them all”

but he felt he had been reborn and decided to give himself up. Walked out of his hiding place with his hands in the air, and offered his soul to god assuming he was about to die.

He nearly did, what saved him was that some of the men in the army were Acholi, his people, so they brought him back to his village.

He has not told the people in his community what he did.

“the people here have lost sisters, mothers, they would not understand”

He himself had lost his mother and father. I took his picture but am reticent to post it, in case it ever goes back to him I do not want to be the one who outed him.

Back at the hotel the hot water is gone, and although I miss it, the cold shower was also bliss. My brain is putty. The cleaning lady comes and goes but the dead cockroach in my shower remains. Going to bed at 9pm with a wet towel on my head. My forehead is burning up.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

the revenge of Montezuma is upon me! (the plot thickens)

Sunday 7 (oscar night, NOT for me)

The revenge of Montezuma is upon me! Which in case you are wondering is how Mexicans call it when you have serious stomach trouble. I had a night from hell. Thank god I’m in a hotel with running water, my intimate relationship with the toilet would not have been sustainable otherwise. It was hardly sustainable as it is.

Yesterday we were having an interview with a local partner under a traditional Ugandan hut, round structure in mud and wooden planks holding the thatched roof, when it hit and I had to make a run for it. My first ever in a toilet-less toilet. At least it was clean and not too smelly. We finished the interview but I went back to the hotel while C carried on with the next focus group discussion.

We had moved hotels since the previous had no running water, and thank god. This place is so much nicer. Large rooms, veranda, posters to hang the mosquitoe nets from. A four star according to sign in their reception, although I am uncertain as to where this certification comes from….

I joined them again in the afternoon and interviewed a girl who had been abducted by the LRA, while C interviewed a guy who had been orphaned by them and was hoping one of us would sponsor his schooling.


Back at the hotel I spoke to my babies who were unintelligible. There was a lot of crying and “but I cant see mama!” Because of course it was not skype and they think that all phones have a video camera and all cameras are digital.

As it was the weekend the hotel became quite lively with lots of people coming to swim in the pool and hang at the bar, both local and expats. I did not have the energy to join them. I sat on the varanda to do some work. It was lovely, windy and cool. The hotel mutt insisted on staying by my side even though I can’t touch him because I am allergic. You could smell the rain in the air.

But for the most part, it was me lying on my bed trying and failing to sleep. I hope (HOPE) that my needs for a toilet are finished as it may otherwise become quite a challenge tomorrow…..

Monday march 8 (woman’s day)

Breakfast: 1 black tea, 1 coke, 1 toast with a dab of honey, 1 extra strong vitamin, 1 advil, 2 immodium.

Here’s to hoping.

Friday, March 5, 2010

It’s a sad state of affairs. Reporting from the field

It was a rather surreal day.


It started off on a very sad note; a social worker brought into the office a three year old baby that looked no older than 15 months. Severe malnutrition was the prognosis, (although nothing as bad as the photographs that we have gotten used to seeing coming out of Africa). You could tell something was wrong with the picture because the child’s coordination as she ate her bread bun did not correspond with her size. I tried to play with her, make her smile, as did the other staff, but it was as if she could not even see us. She sat there focused, slowly and purposefully eating her bun. The other girl in the office was nine and had been brought in because she had been defiled, which is what Ugandan’s call it when a minor is raped. She stood quiet in the garden with her sad face.


Our first stop was Apala District where we met with a local district official. It was making my blood boil to have this man sitting there blaming everyone, when his community had been handed over a building and computers and they had done nothing with it.


We then waited for beneficiaries to come. It is planting season so we have been warned that they are working the fields, but slowly they drifted in and we were able to do our focus group discussion. It was particularly hard to get the girls to talk, especially a small girl in a red and blue dress called Vicky. In the end we succeeded and that made me very happy. It’s the little victories sometimes. I hope she went home proud that she had participated in this big meeting with all these foreigners.


They complained they did not have footballs to play with, while those donated to them laid in a closet collecting dust next to the unused computers. It kills me.

We took off again to another village to find more beneficiaries. This time we were joined by three chickens.


At the business center put together by a youth association they told us how the chairman was appropriating funds and claiming that the place was his. Again a speech had to be made about how they needed to take matters in their own hands and learn how to solve their problems, that they could be supported, but it had to be their initiative. Too much too soon? This people have only recently left life in the IDP (internally displaced persons) camps, where their entire existence was passive and depended on hand outs. 15 months seems way too short to attempt to change that.


The roads were harsh and full of pot holes from the rainy season which is just now coming to and end. The sky was like a surrealistic painting, filled with small and perfect clouds over a bright blue sky. I could not stop photographing it. We arrived at our third and last meeting of the day (still with no lunch in sight) to find that one of the chickens had laid an egg. I tried to photograph the egg too but felt rather silly. The meeting went ahead without significant events.


After a further hours’ drive (and still no lunch) we arrived to our final destination in Kitgum and headed to our new hotel.


Now, I had been warned about this hotel. The Hotel Boma is owned by the ministers of energy, a wealthy man with connections, and I was told to expect it to be run down. Run down was the over statement of the year. The place is a dump. There was no one at reception, it is dirty, the bathroom filled with yellow marks, and the window cracks covered with newspapers. Additionally there was no water. I had a go at the poor receptionist. I would never in my dreams have behaved like that in a normal situation, assuming that all was due to poverty, but in this case I knew it was greed and disregard on behalf of someone wealthy and powerful and it made my blood boil.


I had to wash my hair. I had not done it in Kampala hoping to get better shower, I had not done it in Lira because it did not have hot water, so I ended up washing my hair with (cold) water from a jerry can with the help of a panga. It was not easy, I could barely lift the jerry can , but it needed to be done.


PS I now officially love the too-cool-for-your-shoes officer, who has this very African skill of dealing with those less fortunate in a very stern, straight forward and at the same time kind manner which somehow denotes a great amount of respect for them

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

What's in a face? (and african public toilets)

Finally, my enthusiasm is back!

Today I finally felt like the old me, excited about the things I was seeing, eager to learn, to take pictures. We went first to Barr, and on the way I only cared about what was outside the car. It was nice to feel like that way again.

We spoke with a couple of kids who had changed their lives around through the project, going from out of school youth to having a job, one even had two jobs (one with the government which I guess doesn’t really take up too much of his time) because they could now use computers. They were now paying school fees for their siblings, and one of them was hoping to save enough money to go back to school herself.

Not one to be able to hold back for too long, and as we will be on the road for two weeks, I am also familiarizing myself with the local toilets. And let me tell you, it’s a steep learning curve. I keep thinking of movies like Slumdog Millionaire where people jump into the communal ‘dump’ in order to overcome a hurdle or reach something, and squatting over them I pray that I will never know the kind of desperation that would lead you to do such a thing.

One thing that I still find very frustrating and that I am loosing patience with is the constant expectation of hand outs. Of course they always want more, we all do really...

We met with local officials, teachers, and youth from several districts. There was one group in particular that caught my attention. There were four girls who looked downright traumatized. I kept looking into their eyes and trying to compare them to those of girls much younger in the group who would perhaps not have lived through the thick of it to see if I could recognize what was different. I could not, but their faces –to me- told a different story.


Back at the-hotel-of-the-day the walls were so thin I could hear my neighbor do his ablations and all other sorts of things that no one should have to share with a complete stranger

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

In Kampala. Reporting on indie movies and places to hide dead bodies

My first day in Kampala was mostly boring and I was tired. You go over the basics of the project, some of the problems, the tools. My local counterpart arrived late and the field officer generally looked like we were wasting her time and cramping her style.

We stopped for lunch and I was able to go through stuff at the local supermarket, which I love doing. A will be my guide and reference throughout this trip. She is not much older than me and beautiful, although you can tell from her face and voice that she smokes way too much. This place seems like a nice place to live. Her boys go to an international school that has 40% Ugandans and another 20% east Africans. The office and my hotel are located outside the city center, high on hill which overlooks the city and the Lake. It is very residential with large houses (referred to as compounds) and run down roads with holes you could hide a dead body in. There are things I am jealous of (fruit trees in the backyard anyone?) and others that make me really grateful that I am now based in Europe.

My hotel looks like its been taken out of an indie movie where someone gets killed towards the end. It’s a run down and very sixties labyrinth. It feels abandoned. There is no wireless and (this is rather shocking) my room does not have a plug, (not one), a detail which not even an indie director could have come up with. There’s a pool that I will never try, both for lack of time and fear, and a shirtless guy that insists on keeping his door open and greeting me every time I pass by his room.

The next morning we got straight in the car and took the road heading north, which is the main artery that connects the port of Mombasa in Kenya to Sudan. On the road we crossed the river Nile in its full glory. It’s rainy season. The river was gorgeous, full, fast and angry, but we were not allowed to photograph it, something to do with back in the days when the conflict was in full force and this was a key strategic point. Now a days there is really no ongoing conflict, and if Joseph Cony wanted to cross the river, he could easily find it’s location on the internet or the Lonely Planet guide, so not really sure what that was all about. There were some baboons further up, a small reminder that I am in Africa, the ultimate nature reserve. The river was also the border of the conflict. It never crossed south from there, which makes me wonder why all the northeners did not just cross it and get the whole thing over with, (of course, it's never that simple.)

In the car it was me, A, the too-cool-for-my-shoes officer, (who I’m warming up to), C my national counterpart, (who entertains us all with stories of Ugandan customs and culture) and another musungo visiting from headquarters. The roads were much better than I would have expected. Definitely better than the Nairobi - Mombassa part of the road which I have had the misfortune of experiencing first hand, and which I am sure is the inspiration for most speed and dodge video games.

The landscape kept reminding me more of Cambodia than of Kenya. But what shocked me most was my lack of enthusiasm. Usually when I travel I am like a puppy, sticking my head and tongue (in my case camera) out of the window, eager to smell and see everything. I felt so jaded, nothing surprised me, nothing excited me. In hind sight, it was different things that caught my attention. Like the young boys and girls, some probably no more than four years old, walking home from school, some times in groups, but some times all alone on these long empty roads. It made me think how I would feel sending Mila off to school or to fetch water for a one hour walk on her own. I also saw many people filling up lines of water bottles at water pumps (imagine the arms by the end of the day!) I guess really I was surprised and focused on different things then when I lived here before.

We did a couple of pitt stops. The first was to eat on a small restaurant frequented by truck drivers and aid workers. I had a rollex (chapatti with egg omelet rolled up) and a coke. The second stop was to have a meeting with the country director. She was on her way back to Kampala as we made our way north, so they coordinated and stopped at a small town in the middle. We pulled our pens and papers out and held a meeting by the side of the road (we considered of doing it under a tree… in a very African way indeed). It was rather surreal.

Our last stop was to exchange cars, what they call a kiss. The musungo took a car to Gulu, we took a smaller car to Lira, and our lovely van drove home. During this stop I got to see a girl not much older than Mila carrying her younger brother on her back. These things that I have seen so many times before, now that I have a reference of my own do strike me. Another mother came to sell us limes with her own child on her back. I tried to make the baby smile but she looked rather limp. It made me sad.

Overall it took us seven hours to get to our new home.

Monday, March 1, 2010

I’ve called in the cavalry



I’m at Jomo Kenyatta airport in Nairobi, and the next leg of my flight to Entebbe is delayed.

It’s my first time back in Kenya since I lived here back in 2004. After landing I headed straight for the Java house coffee shop. It’s still right where I left it. On my way I passed by the old shops selling the same stuff; Tusker beer t-shirts, kikuyus, dyed bone trinkets. Everything looked nice and fresh to me. I kept seeing Barbie and spiderman shaped junk, and fighting my impulse to buy it all. I miss my babies, each time I fly I miss them a little bit more. The first job I took I had not been away from them ever, not really. I was excited by the prospect of being the old me again. I looked forward to my one day off in order to sleep in, (which of course I could not), and almost felt the time to return arrived too soon. Now I start missing them already at the airport. This will be the longest trip yet, two full weeks. I’ve called in the cavalry; my mother in law arrives this evening, my parents in 6 days to take over and distract them further. I trust they will be adequately distracted and spoilt by their grandparents.

The flight here felt short, one of the benefits of having lived in the far east is that anything below 20 hrs feels short, and it was without a doubt the most hostile environment over 3000ft I have been in, starting with a Kenyan nun who had issues with me opening her head compartment to see if I could fit my stuff in

Nun- ‘I put a laptop in there’

Me- ‘I’ve got a laptop to put in too’

Nun- ‘its full’

Me- ‘they are all full’ (I had tried four other compartments before hers)

I move to the next compartment, which is effectively emptier, and begin putting my things in

Nun- ‘can you close my compartment’ (no question mark as it was not a question)

Me- ignore

Nun- ‘can you close my compartment!’

Me- slam compartment shut (that’ll show her!)

Then I got hassled by an airhostess because I wanted to pee even thought the seatbelt sign was on, like I am going to pee on myself over some minor turbulence. I think she took it as a personal affront to her authority. She held a grudge but got over it eventually. Then another guy had a go at me because I held the bathroom door open as he exited. There is something about the rich in third world countries. The “haves” amongst the poorest tend to be the most petulant and arrogant. They are accustomed to being above the law and respected (or feared) and expect to be treated with deference. That I do not miss.

On the transfer line I saw how each person in front of me was being rescheduled to another flight the following day. When my turn arrived they tried to convince me that I was on standby, which I was not. I huffed and I puffed and got my seat, (after I got my coffee).

We landed around midnight, and had to do another hour drive from Entebbe to Kampala. It was dark so I could barely see, but I could hear the crickets, the loud African crickets that were almost noisier than the car itself, and somehow that made me feel at home. I struggled to stay awake, with the windows down I could feel the fresh crisp air on my skin. It felt nice to have it freed from the winter gear.

I got to the hotel around 2am and went straight to bed. It was only the next morning when I looked out the window that I realized the hotel was perched on a hill overlooking lake Victoria. Kampala looked beautiful and green in the misty morning light. Unfortunately, that was the highlight of the day.