Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Reflections on Kenya

Over a month ago I traveled for work to Kenya. My job was to shoot compelling HD footage for a television special to air around Christmas time on MyNetwork TV - called, "Eyes on Africa."

The premise sounds a bit thin - six "D-list" celebrities embark on a voyage of discovery, journeying deep into the heart of the slums of Nairobi as well as the wilds of the Masai Mara wildlife reserve. In the process, they help some kids and learn a lot about themselves.

Not exactly something I would go out of my way to watch, but I have to say - the footage we shot has a lot of potential. In much the way "Dancing With the Stars" became an unlikely hit by following people who barely have careers - I think this show, if cut correctly, can be entertaining, and just as compelling in it's own way. I'll post a link to the website when it goes up, which should be soon.

I also think because of who we are working with, that there is a good chance the program will be not only watchable, but worthwhile.

Our partner on this project is Feed The Children, a tremendous organization that is one of the largest food relief agencies in the world and one of the most transparent in terms of where the money is put to use.

The people that founded the organization, Larry and Francis Jones, along with their daughter Larry-Sue, are the real deal. They fly coach, they live in a home not much bigger than mine - they walk the walk. I consider it an honor to be associated with them.

We spent 7 out of the 11 days we were in Kenya in the slums of Nairobi.

I've seen extreme poverty of this nature before, in Calcutta and Mumbai (Bombay). It was just as overwhelming there. But in Nairobi, I wasn't just driving through it. I was getting out of the mini-van, meeting people, shooting them (with video) and really absorbing the situation.

Quite frankly, I decided before I even left, that when I came face to face with this poverty, I was going to shut myself down emotionally - so that I could do my job. It wasn't easy, but for the most part, I did it.

The first day we traveled with Lou Gossett Jr. to meet a woman and her children. They lived in a region called Dandora. The second largest slum in Nairobi, but still one of the largest in the world. Their home was a rusty tin shed, maybe six by ten feet at the most. The floor was dirt. No electricity, no water, but they did have open sewage at their doorstep.

The woman had six children, five of them were HIV positive. She had no job or husband, yet had to pay a warlord a monthly rent for her hovel. She was six months behind and faced imminent eviction. Thankfully, Lou and FTC were there to help her immediate needs.

We were informed ahead of time, not to give money directly to those in need. The woman's life would likely be in danger if I had given her what was in my pocket at the time - for her a life changing sum of about $200. We were allowed, and encouraged to give through FTC - and they would see that those we designated would get what we gave.

Lou and his handler each gave generously to the woman, and I have no doubt that her problems - at least for awhile, have been reduced dramatically.

Much of what we saw and did was of this nature - directly helping people and their immediate needs. Whether it was for a young lady who wanted to go to beautician school, or small children who literally had nothing to eat. It was such an overwhelming difference in the scale and scope of the problems we have in the US. And yet, somehow giving "hand-outs" in such an extreme environment, seemed like the very best thing to do, simply because the need was so urgent.

Another day we went to Kibera. The largest slum in Nairobi, and many say the largest slum in the world.

Kibera is basically, a massive garbage dump - that happens to have over 600,000 people living atop it. This was definitely Calcutta caliber poverty. The stench was overwhelming, and the despair was palpable.

I should mention, that in Nairobi, wherever we went, we had armed guards with us. When we went to Kibera and Dandora, we stopped at police stations to pick up extra security - intimidating officers with AK-47's.

Kibera was where we went to one of FTC's many schools -and literally fed the children. The celebs scooped out a rice and bean mixture from a giant tub to about a hundred kids, each with their own small plastic bowl. It was heart wrenching to see these beautiful little faces, who were basically coming to the school only because if they didn't, they wouldn't eat at all.

I noticed that many of the kids had lids to go with their bowls. These kids would sit and eat maybe a quarter of their bowl, and then put their lid on it. Larry informed us that's because they would take the food back to share with their families. It was pretty overwhelming to see kids who knew REAL hunger, still have the self discipline and pride to stop themselves and share. I know plenty of westerners, myself included, who were they in the same situation, would probably just wolf the food down.

These were tough days, but I was holding up pretty well - and very happy with the footage and stories that we were getting.

Logistically, I think it was a nightmare for the producers and planners. But I had a fantastic trip, in good and bad/sad ways - from beginning to end.

On our last day in Nairobi, we toured FTC's amazing Abandoned Baby Center. A first class facility, that goes a long way to ease the horrific phenomenon of baby abandonment in Nairobi. It was very moving to see how well the kids were taken care of, and to see that indeed, money donated was going directly to help combat a dire situation.

That afternoon, we went with Shannon Elizabeth and the Massey brothers (the former a fairly well known actress and the latter tv kids show stars) to a decrepit hospital in the heart of the city. We were there to literally rescue three abandoned babies from their situation. When we think of a hospital in the states, even the crummiest of county hospitals - we think of a sterile, relatively efficient place of healing run by clean and competent people. This place, this "hospital", was none of these things.

Dirty, grimy, understaffed, and over run with infected people - not to mention GSW (gunshot wound) victims. My fellow camera op informed me that on a previous trip he had seen dried bloody footprints upon entering the ER.

The babies, there were six in the sweltering hot room, are quite simply - neglected. They lie in canvas hammocks all day and all night. They are never picked up except to change and feed - they are only changed once in the morning and once at night. They lie in their own waste most of the time. Many are severely underdeveloped mentally. A six month old we saw was unable to sit up on her own.

It is, an outrage. And yet, there it is. A combination of lack of resources, and a lack of caring - combine to create this abominable situation.

And then there is Francis Jones and her Abandoned Baby Center. As often as she can, she relieves "hospitals" of the burden of "caring" for these castoffs - these innocent angels who have been left on trash heaps, deposited at police stations, or even been born at the "hospital" only to be discarded. Francis gives these babies a second chance - the ABC center is often able to repair the damage that has been done, giving the castoffs a real shot at a happy life.

I was there, and I saw this miracle. Shannon Elizabeth, who until this point had disengaged herself somewhat from the daily horrors (as had many of us, myself included), finally let down her wall. As she cradled an impossibly beautiful baby in her arms, and Francis described what the babies are subjected to, tears flowed down Shannon's face like a river. I confess, this is the moment that got to me as well. I kept composed and focused, but my face was a soaking mess.

The baby that Shannon held had immediately bonded with her - smiling, happy, wide and bright eyed; clearly this baby hadn't been neglected long. This child had a bright future, and it lit up that dingy room in a way that went beyond the physical realm. God was with her, and the rest of us, searing and unbelievably strong.

All three celebrities, each with a baby in their arms, took the "parade of joy" (as Larry called it) down the hall and got the hell out of that Godforsaken place. It was incredibly painful for Shannon to hand the baby over to the ABC staff, but she was finally able to - knowing that her angel was in good hands.

Shannon I know, wants to adopt the baby very much. But the government of Kenya, in it's infinite wisdom and compassion, requires a minimum residency of 6 months (which usually lasts 2 years or more) for prospective parents - and even then there are no guarantees. Impossible, is the situation.

Even Larry and Francis, who have adopted a baby boy named Daniel (who had half of his face chewed off by wild dogs as an infant) have had to clear incredible and potentially heartbreaking bureaucratic obstacles to finally get Daniel stateside.

Finally, we left Nairobi behind, and flew to the Masai Mara wildlife game reserve. It has long been a dream of mine to see the migration - and on this trip, I got to live it.

I spent the first few days shooting around the lodge, Roger Moore doing his host stand-ups, and finally the big celebrity interviews where they talked about the whole trip. All the other operators got to go on game drives every day. Ironic, seeing as how I have over five years experience at filming wildlife. But I knew the last day would be my chance. I arranged an early morning departure by jeep. Our destination - the Tanzania border, and the Serengeti. Unlike the other operators who had been tied to celebrities, and their penchant for short drives, short attention spans and long naps during the day - I got to travel with my best buddy Cali and my old boss JR, who was also a wildlife freak like me.

Awesome doesn't begin to describe the day. We first found two massive male lions - the first of the trip for anyone. Then we came across a baboon that had just killed a baby antelope. Awesome. Then we saw four giraffe, up to their necks crossing the Mara river. A first time for me, and for our guide who had been taking this trip for over 20 years. Finally, the Wildebeest.

With my own eyes, I saw the migration. Perhaps over half a million animals in front of me. To say I was awestruck, would be the understatement of the year.

The same could be said for the whole trip really - it changed me, as has Botswana, as has India and Indonesia, and Russia, and Egypt - and half a dozen other places. I have been uniquely blessed with more travel opportunities than anyone else I've ever met.

When I look back on my career choice, to work for a smaller production company that may at times seem a little less than the "big leagues" - I can confidently say I'M IN THE RIGHT PLACE.


Elizabeth said...

Thanks, Chris. What a trip for you--I'm so glad.

Nance said...

Yes, but have you ever really been to Manzoni? roar hah ha Seriously cuz you have bashed into the eternally cool mode. Great trip recap, thanks.

goooooood girl said...

So good......