The trees were frosty and a light snow had dusted the trail to Chimney Tops, where I hiked for about half an hour — just long enough to see some beautiful river scenes and to meet a little moss-haired snow man standing on a log.
This week, I worked on two videos currently playing on the nytimes.com website.
The first is about a City Harvest program that reimburses farmers for the cost of picking and preparing fresh produce, so they can provide it to needy families in New York City.
The second, is a demonstration of one method to get the most meat off the turkey at Thanksgiving dinner. Ray Venezia, the director of the meat department at New York’s Fairway markets, offers his expert advice for our cameras. His key point: don’t try to carve the turkey at the table. Cut the meat off in large pieces first, then slice them, and arrange the slices on a serving tray. But Ray says it — and shows it — much better. Read Julia Moskin’s story about Ray in the Times’s Dining section here.
And, while editing the turkey carving piece, it occurred to me that the traditional Thanksgiving song “We Gather Together” is the same tune as “you can tell by my outfit that I am a cowboy,” a parody song my dad used to sing.
When I’m shooting for a documentary, my main focus is the video camera. But I love taking stills, so I find myself snapping a few quick shots as I’m leaving, getting into the van to head to the next location.
These photos were taken of school children at a little village outside Bujumbura, Burundi. Workers were constructing a new school building, and the principal had come out — at my request — to keep the kids from getting in the shots while I gathered footage of the construction site.
But when I pulled out my still camera, and hung out with the kids to take some photos of them, I forgot to tell the principal it was okay for the kids to pose. While I was taking pictures, he came over with a switch and whacked the kids and they scattered. But not before I caught one little boy wearing a cup on his head, and snapped a few shots of the other kids who had swarmed around me as we prepared to leave.
“They have a dog AND a pony,” I remarked — a little cynically — to one of the people in our tour. He was as tired as I was of seeing another presentation of well-intentioned humanitarian assistance — another nicely constructed clinic without patients (the doctor care is free, but because no one can afford to pay for medications, none of them stay long).
People have the best intentions when they present a dog and pony show. They want to put their best foot forward, and show you what they’ve accomplished (a much needed clinic, for instance), often against the odds and in an otherwise dismal place. But the group I was following (as a videographer on hand to document their journey) was in Burundi to assess immediate needs. And to do that, to more fully understand this country’s plight, they needed to see the worst that people are going through.
And that was what we were heading to see as the 4×4 bounced on rough roads up the mountaintop, with Mr. Eli, a member of a church that has taken on a huge humanitarian mission in this region, at the wheel. He was taking us to visit a village of Batwa, the pygmies of Burundi, who are very much a disadvantaged minority — only a tiny sliver of population compared to the 80% of the country who are from the Hutu tribe and 19% or more Tutsi.
The hundred or so villagers in Ngendo have the least desirable land in the area: high on the mountain, with rocky soil and steep slopes. Their homes have thatched roofs that are no match for the gusts of wind that tear over the hillside.
The children’s clothes are threadbare, and the adults have to work in the fields for others in the valley in order to earn a living. One woman we spoke to says she walks a couple of hours over a mountain to work for a landowner, who doesn’t always have work for her. On those days she has to make the two hour walk back empty handed and break the news to her family. When she does work, she said she gets paid in corn meal, the equivalent of about 10 cents for a day’s work, with which she feeds her children and a few others who belong to another villager who had to go away for some months to find work elsewhere.
She said she and her family hadn’t eaten in two days.
After a video interview, when I was making sure — to keep the lawyers away — to ask permission on camera from the woman to use her image and voice in a potential broadcast, she said something that we often hear when we work in poor and disadvantaged areas and countries, and it always breaks my heart: “yes, it’s okay, I suppose. But even if people respond by sending help because they saw it on tv, the money and help never make it to us.”
We like to think, as journalists, filmmakers and messengers, that we’re doing some good in the world by exposing some of the harsher truths to our audience or readers. But she had a point. We can’t guarantee that anything we do will make a difference to the people on the ground.
So I was relieved to be among people who actually do rather than document. The team sprang into action and decided to help these people — both in the long term and short term. First, they would make sure the hungry got fed. The next day, they would come back, with a bags of corn and beans for each of the families. It would feed them for half a week. They also promised blankets for the windy, chilly nights. I could see a commitment building among the group, who seemed to be relieved to have found a way to help, after a week spent among so many dogs and ponies.
Before we left, I could hear singing in the village church. I entered to find children belting out with adorable voices, a little hymn welcoming the guests to the village. Though it had the melody of a western tune, the rhythms (on a Burundian drum) harmonies and pitches were distinctly pygmy. It had that haunting and angelic sound co-opted by so many new age composers since the Deep Forest album first incorporated it into synth tracks in the early 1990s.
I wanted to stay and listen (and continue to shoot video). But the sun was setting. And when darkness falls, the shadowy elements of Burundi emerge and it’s dangerous for guys who look like me, riding in expensive vehicles, to be on the roads.
The next morning, we would get up before dawn and come back.
Monuments can be incredibly moving just by their presence alone. Think of the simple, polished black granite of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, or the stately and austere white rows of crosses across the expanses of grass at Arlington National Cemetery.
But others evoke greater power because of the story behind them.
In southern Burundi, two rows of white-tiled coffin shapes, adorned with red crosses, mark the spot where some 40 students were slaughtered after defying a group of well-armed attackers when they besieged the Catholic seminary there in April 1997. According to witnesses who escaped, the students, all boys ranging in age from 11 to 19, were shocked awake in their dormitory with gunshots. The gunmen ordered them to divide themselves along tribal lines: those from one tribe would be conscripted into the attackers’ forces; those from the other would be killed on the spot. The boys refused to separate, saying they were all Burundians.
The soldiers were given an order to kill them all, and they opened fire.
It was a tragedy that shocked the conscience of the nation, and now serves as a powerful symbol for reconciliation as Burundi emerges from more than 12 years of civil war and ethnic violence between rival Hutus and Tutsis.
Inside a chapel at the memorial site, a painting on the wall shows the forty young men at the feet of Jesus. The portraits were painted using photos as models, so the faces are full of life. The young men all look directly at you, smiling, their hands clasped in prayer. It is haunting. Moving. Simple and profound.
As a visiting pastor seeing it for the first time said through tears: “I hope God can forgive us for what we’ve done to each other.”
* * *
Another simple monument in Burundi — this one marking a happier occasion — stands about 8 miles from the capital city of Bujumbura. It is a large rock with incised carving of two names and a date: Livingstone; Stanley; 25-XI-1871.
It is a place where explorer and missionary Dr. David Livingstone and the journalist/explorer who “found” him, Henry Morton Stanley, spent a few days as they traveled in the region together. It is not, as some will tell you, the place where Stanley first discovered Livingstone and uttered the famous line presuming his mission accomplished. That, according to Stanley’s book about the subject, happened in Tanzania.
But Burundi does take pride in its connection to the famous pair. And the large rock sits in a beautiful spot, overlooking a stream that flows into Lake Tanganyika, the banks of which are about a hundred yards away.
When I was there as the sun was getting lower in the sky, a few teenage boys climbed on top of the rock, showing off for a foreigner with the camera.
Caught you living on stone, I presume?
Even the most unwelcome detour can have its bright moments. On Sunday, I agreed to what I thought was going to be a short drive to Burbera village, a mountain enclave in an area that saw intense fighting during Burundi’s 12-year civil war. I was told there are still visible signs of warfare, including homes yet to be rebuilt — the owners may have fled and had no money to rebuild when they returned.
But what I wasn’t told was to get there, it’s a bone-jarring hour’s drive (though only 12 kilometers) off the main road into the mountains on rough tracks. In our packed schedule, this was time that would have been better spent elsewhere. But, like everywhere in Burundi, we were greeted with so many smiles and warmth that it melted away any frustrations of the journey.
It’s easy to be lulled into a false sense of security here as you are greeted with such a welcome, but there is danger lurking in many places in this country, still grappling with racial and political violence, which most often shows its face at night.
As we drove around the switchbacks, dodging potholes and washouts, men on bicycles would shout out “iron sheets,” asking for corrugated metal roofing materials, the hottest commodity in this rain-soaked and desperately poor country.
In between video shoots, I snapped a few photos of the folks who had gathered to see why the foreigners in the 4x4s had come here. It was just after Sunday church services, so many were wearing their best clothing.
One thing you notice in many parts of Africa is the logos on t-shirts and hats. The donated clothes, which get shipped by the container load to this continent, often mean people who don’t read English can be unaware of the message their shirts exclaim.
Notice the woman here wearing a Spice Girls shirt.
Eminem is another popular figure on shirts here, though some of the young people I saw wearing them may have a clue of who that is and they could very well be fans.
Shirt vendors at major sporting events like the Super Bowl or a down-to-the-wire World Series will hedge their bets by having shirts printed for both teams, so they can be sure to have merchandise of the winning team for excited fans to buy immediately after the game. Though they’re officially supposed to destroy any merchandise for the losing team, that doesn’t always happen, and the shirts are often shipped off to the poorer areas of the world. So it’s not a surprise to see someone in deepest Africa or Asia wearing a shirt that calls a losing team “world champions.” It’s a kind of bizarro world where most of the teams I’ve rooted for in my life would be much happier.
But, sometimes the messages on shirts can make you do a double take (like I do whenever I see someone wearing an French Connection UK shirt in any part of the world). In another area of Burundi, I saw a woman on the roadside wearing a shirt with the superman “S” insignia… but below the symbol were the words “Super Bitch.” I know she had no idea what she was wearing, and I doubt the woman, who spends much of her day toiling in the fields, has much time to bitch.
Though have to think — in the humbling perspective that a place like Africa provides — the woman most likely has a lot more to bitch about than the original owner of the shirt.