Thursday 6 August 2015

Elixir, Surrealism & Dada - Are We Homogenised Mindsoup?

Last night Indil-cat and I went to the Melbourne International Film Festival to see a brilliant Australian-Berlin collaboration by a brave new director Brodie Higgs called 'Elixir', a working title with no particular meaning and for which no 'better' name was ever found. 
The surrealists from the 1920's are alive and (more or less) well in modern day Berlin living in a communal warehouse studio called the Glasshouse, named after André Bretons actual Parisian house where he hosted his troublesome friends. André and his friends are reeling after the death of Jacques Vaché (who died of an opium overdose in real life). A new comer to the house André picks up in the streets, Bohemian Lexie, a writer who expresses herself as a graffiti artist, becomes the catalyst for exposing the souls of each of the Glasshouses's residents. 
Tristan Tzara, one of the founders of the Dada art movement, hatches a wild plot to sabotage Malcom MacLaren's (father of punk fashion which Brodie says is just a rip off of Dadaism) Art Week fashion show in a way that reminded me totally of our children's CAD fashion design performances that were often surrealist and involved shooting the audience with guns in a way which in hindsight was perfectly Dadaist. 
India d'Scarlett CAD 2009

India d'Scarlett CAD 2009
Savannah d'Scarlett CAD 2012
The movie is richly surreal and satisfying in its commentary on the commercialism of art close to my heart - one of my pet hates is the propensity of people to purchase art 'to match their decor' reducing it to mere 'decoration' rather than for the art itself. 

Surrealism evolved out of the DADA art movement. During the war, André Breton, who had trained in medicine and psychiatry, served in a neurological hospital where he used Freud's psychoanalytic methods with soldiers suffering from shell-shock. He met writer Jacques Vaché and admired his anti-social attitude and disdain for established artistic tradition.
Back in Paris, Breton joined in Dada activities and started the literary journal Littérature. He began experimenting with automatic writing- spontaneously writing without censoring the thoughts—and published the writings, as well as accounts of dreams, in the magazine.
With two others he began to attract more artists and writers; they came to believe that automatism was a better tactic for societal change than the Dada attack on existing societal  values. 
Freud's work with free association, dream analysis, and the unconscious held great importance to the Surrealists in developing methods to liberate imagination. They embraced idiosyncrasy while rejecting the idea of an underlying madness. Salvador Dali, arguably the most well known surrealist, later proclaimed, "There is only one difference between a madman and me. I am not mad." (A line that gets used in the movie btw).
Salvador Dali 'The Persistence of Memory' 1931
I still think Dada is one of the more intellectually interesting art movements. Dadaists called it anti-art because it represented the opposite of everything which art stood for. Where art was concerned with traditional aesthetics, Dada ignored aesthetics - it was intended to offend. The movement was a protest against the bourgeois cultural and intellectual conformity—in art and more broadly in society—that surrounded the outbreak of WWI. They expressed their rejection of that ideology in artistic expression that appeared to reject logic and embrace chaos and irrationality.
Hugo Ball - one of the Dadaists said "For us, art is not an end in itself ... but it is an opportunity for the true perception of the times we live in'.
A reviewer from the American Arts Review journal said at the time that "Dada philosophy is the sickest, most paralyzing and most destructive thing that has ever originated from the brain of man." 
The Dadaists would meet at soirées at a Zurich nightclub called Cabaret Voltaire (the fantastic alternative band in the 80's was named after this) where performances or 'happenings' of spoken word, dance and music happened. These soirees were raucous forums for new forms of performance, such as sound poetry and simultaneous poetry that mirrored the maelstrom of World War I raging around it.
I love the fact that one of Tzara's writings, a melody called bizarrely  Vaseline symphonique, required ten or twenty people to shout "cra" and "cri" on a rising scale when it was performed. 
Tzara was hilariously subversive in performing Kokoschka's short play 'The Sphinx and Strohmann' . Performed in total darkness, the actors in masks that covered their whole bodies and Tzara had the part of the parrot and proceeded to ruin the performance by making thunder and lightning sounds in all the wrong places and maintaining that this subversion was a deliberate part of the Dada anti-establishment intent.I think we need more performance art that extends the dimensionality of static visual art and inspires us to feel on all levels.
Oscar Kokoschka's 'The Bride of the Wind' 1914
Kokoschka by the way painted the famous abstract expressionist painting 'The Bride of the Wind' a self portrait with his lover Alma Mahler, wife of Occy's favourite composer Gustav Mahler.  By the way a film was made of Alma's life called 'The Bride of the Wind' and check out the poster art for it - they used Gustav Klimt artwork stylisation for it! The inhumanity of it!
In terms of painting art George Grosz evolved from the nihilistic protest of Dada to a more focused expression of his disgust at the cruelty and decadence of the bourgeoisie. He exposed the hypocrisy of the politicians, the press, the army, the ruling classes and their corrupt clergy that the DADAISTS hated. Grosz wrote, "Man has created an insidious system - a top and a bottom. A very few earn millions, while thousands upon thousands are on the verge of starvation. But what has this to do with art? Precisely this, that many painters and writers, in a word, all the so-called 'intellectuals' still tolerate this state of affairs without taking a stand against it......To help shake this belief and to show the oppressed the true faces of their masters is the purpose of my work".
George Grosz 'The Pillars of Society' 1926

'The Pillars of Society' by  George Grosz 1926 shows a group portrait that manages to portray 'all the true faces of their masters' in one room.  
The German officer wearing a monocle and a swastika, duelling scars on his cheek and a thin slit of a mouth aggressively exposing his teeth, the glass of beer and sabre exposing him as a drunken warmonger. The delusional thoughts coming out of his head show his lack of self awareness.
Behind him on the left is a portrait of press baron Alfred Hugenberg, wearing a chamber pot engraved with an Iron Cross as a hat symbolising the bias of his newspapers and Grosz's opinion of them. His blood stained palm is the bloody consequences of his newspapers' propaganda (symbolized by the pencil)
Behind him on the right is a portrait of Friedrich Ebert, the leader of the Social Democratic Party and the first President of Germany from 1919-1925. His leaflet reads, "Socialism is Working" and a flag of the Weimar Republic. Grosz gives him a pile of steaming faeces for brains.
In the background  is a clergyman whose sanctimonious face is flushed with the long term effects of alcohol. With closed eyes he preaches from the safety of his room, blind to the reality of the burning city outside his window and ignoring the brutality of the civil war that unfolds behind his back.
Raoul Haussmann 'Spirit of Our Times' 1920
Early Dada anti-art is probably best portrayed in Raoul Haussmann's 1920 ‘Spirit of Our Time’. It is a satirical illustration for his statement that the average supporter of what he considered to be a corrupt society “has no more capabilities than those which chance has glued to the outside of his skull; his brain remains empty”.  
Maybe we'd do well to reflect on this in today's society. Cat Girl's housemates, Dutch, German and Japanese, recently commented that their Australian workmates 'could be so draining sometimes - all they talk about is the weather and trivial stuff' - how many people you know have shut themselves off in the less dangerous position of intellectual muteness? What gets sacrificed in this numb social mindsoup is creativity and passion - is being safe because we fear embarrassment and humiliation for standing out worth it?

Monday 19 January 2015

False Vampires – Bats and Doctors: The Dirt on The Isa

Aerial view of the Mt Isa Mines as we flew in.

Mission – two weeks in the outback at Mt Isa hospital E.D.; side-kick – moi; code names Doc and The Mrs. Modus operandi, go incognito: Doc - jeans and check shirts –check; moi- I think I  got away with the usual – red lipstick – well, it’s kind of camouflage, there’s a lot of red dust here I’ll have you know, therefore I’ll give that a check! We flew over the mine site, a massive 5km sprawl with a huge open cut scarring the surface and landed in what locals affectionately call The Isa. Red dust, spinifex, tin roofs of mineside and townside homes, separated by the Leichhardt River, the giant lead chimney stack and the smaller red and white stripped copper stack that constantly spews forth sulphur dioxide gas dominate the town from any aspect. Fork-tailed kites soar the thermals and at night ghost gums are silhouetted in the moonlight.

It happened to be raining as we drove to our mineside house the hospital had given us at Soldiers Hill and after a three year drought, nek minnit, the river was flooded and all but one of the roads crossing into town and the hospital were impassable.
Road over the Leichhardt River flooded at sunset
Bloody big road trains with not just two, not three, but FOUR trailers thundered past us carrying goods to and from the coast. At the house they had thoughtfully supplied us with fresh ground coffee but nothing to make it in. Luckily I had brought our trusty Vietnamese coffee filters - #1 travel tip, always travel with trusty Vietnamese coffee filters!

Overnight everything around us turned green. That wasn’t the only thing that was green. It turned out The Isa was a perfect location for viewing the comet Lovejoy as it continued on its trajectory north between Andromeda and Perseus. Well it would have to be wouldn’t it, being in the MFN (middle of f*cking nowhere) and therefore having minimal light pollution. Occy captured the comet with his camera.

The comet was discovered last August (2014) by Australian amateur astronomer Terry Lovejoy – actually it’s his fifth discovery so total brownie points to him. Oh, and did I mention it’s green?  The green glow comes from molecules of diatomic carbon (C2) fluorescing in ultraviolet sunlight in the near-vacuum of space. (Cyanogen (CN) can add some violet to the green, but our eyes are fairly insensitive to violet light, which is a shame because it makes it sound really exotic.) The gaseous tail of the comet points directly away from the Sun and is tinted blue from fluorescing carbon monoxide ions (CO+) but unfortunately we couldn’t see that either which is a total poo!
Occy went off to work the next day and we regrouped in the evening for a debriefing at ‘the Local’, the Barkly hotel, where they did a very decent roast of the day for ten bucks. It was roast pork and veg. In fact it turns out it was roast pork and veg every day. Occy asked for the crackling and the cooky-boy said, ‘Sure, if the staff hasn’t eaten it all.’ 
I thought to complete our incognito cover we should order beers, you know, when in Rome and all that. I think I might have blown our cover though when Occy asked me at the bar which one I’d like and I said, ‘Oooo, I’ll have the one with the cute Tasmanian Devil on it?’ The barman asked me, ‘Would you like a pint or a schooner, luv?’ Schooner? I thought that was a ship!  ‘Just a glass is fine,’ I replied.

‘Well,’ I asked Occy over a mouthful of pork, ‘how was the first day?’
He squirmed a bit in his seat and said ‘I felt like Frank Abernathy in ‘Catch me if you can’ playing Dr Conners.’
‘Really?’ I asked, ‘Why on earth was that?’
‘Well, you know how we thought there were only three doctors here? Well there are only three senior doctors here, and there’s a whole load of younger doctors – PHOs, registrars, interns and medical students.’
‘Oh and what’s wrong with that?’
‘Well I’m one of the three senior doctors and I’ve got this whole team of doctors (this said with an almost horrified look on his face) that have to report their cases to me and check that they’re doing the correct treatments and so on so I really had to step up and look like I knew what I was doing, which I did, it was fine, but I almost felt like asking them ‘So do you concur?’’
I just laughed my head off! Yes, it’s a bit different to being the sole doctor in the ED department of Manji, but to his credit it only took a few days for him to slip quite comfortably into his new role and realise that he did actually have quite a lot of experience and knowledge. 
 At the back of the hospital we discovered Australia’s only Underground Hospital. The first hospital in Mount Isa had been nothing more than a row of tents operated by the mining company. In fact most of the early houses in the Isa were tent houses and apparently they were far better that the tin roofed houses that followed them because at least you could water the canvas down and the tent would be cooled by evaporation.
Mount Isa Mines eventually opened a 40 bed Community Hospital mineside in 1929 and that was latter replaced with the current state hospital townside. 
Actually as it turns out the Isa is bit of a big sneaky because it was also the catalyst for the Royal Flying Doctor Service being set up. What happened was, in 1927, one Dr George Simpson accompanied a Qantas flight to transport an injured Mount Isa miner to the hospital in Cloncurry. The dramatic rescue highlighted the dangers and struggles faced by the pioneers of the outback who didn’t have sufficient access to medical care, and clearly demonstrated the need for an urgent response medical service that could access these remote regions of the west, ergo the Australian Inland Mission’s Aerial Medical Service   was set up in 1928, now known as the iconic Royal Flying Doctor Service. And, that’s not the only thing born in the big sneaky Isa. Pat Rafter and Greg Norman were also born here, not to mention my girlfriend Christina Callaghan!
Abyssinia Cafe
By the end of the week, having sampled a few of the local eating and watering holes, (the strangest being the Abyssinian Café – I know right, who would have thought in the middle of the outback you’d find an Ethiopian restaurant – but surprise, surprise, they did a very good wat, the traditional Ethiopian curry) we took up an invitation to dine at the Irish Club with one of the other SMO’s Peter, John the anaesthetist and his wife Pam who were from Ireland/Scotland, and chief medical director Uli and his wife Sabina who were from Germany and subsequently ran the hospital like a jolly friendly but firm WWII U-boat captain – no mucking around, initiate strategy to 4 hour end targets at all times or the self-destruct and eject will be deployed, ja! At 8pm the glasses rattled as the nightly scheduled mine detonation went off and no one batted an eyelid.
The following week we had dinner at ‘The Isa’ hotel with a bunch of nurses, doctors and med students for one of the PHO’s who was leaving. (I asked Occy what that stood for and he said ‘not sure what the P is, something House Officer, so I decided it was ‘Pet House Officer’) Occy had studiously omitted to mention any females whenever he recounted his work adventures so you can imagine I was somewhat surprised to find myself surrounded by afore not mentioned females. One of them, Sarah (who was not averse to telling a tall tale or two herself), expressed surprise that I followed Occy around (causing the med students to glibly comment that that’s what they did all day too):
‘Because a lot of the SMO’s that come out here don’t seem to have very happy home lives or relationships, you know, they come in drenched in aftershave...’ she explained as if that was the marker for ‘I’m available’.
I gave Occy the death stare because he ALWAYS goes in drenched in aftershave! This of course meant I immediately went into high alert status and hoped Occy would enjoy his lunch the next day - and every other day we were in the Isa - lovingly prepared by moi with a mother lode of vampire warding off garlic. You're welcome!
Me with Bowie about to get all down in our crib an' all
 Anyways, when I wasn’t studying I spent my time romping around the town digging up the dirt on the Isa. I went on an underground tour of the mine, into the belly of the beast so to speak, which was hot, noisy and interesting. Our guide Bowie had worked the mine for 36 years, was partially deaf as a result, but full of amusing tales. I can actually say, in my best black gangster voice of course, that ‘I got all up in ma crib an’ all!” because we finished off in the ‘Crib Room’ where we had coffee & biscuits, watched over by a vintage poster board of the Phantom reminding miners to turn on switch #247, whatever that was. 
The 'Crib'
False vampire bats ghost bats
Carnivorous bats of the Riversleigh area
In one of my romps I stumbled across some fascinating information on my favourite thing – bats, and not just any bats, CARNIVOROUS BATS!! Not that far away from here lie the Riversleigh fossil deposits and you’ll absolutely never guess what they found there! The false vampire bat from the Middle Miocene Gotham City site (how Batman is that!). These prehistoric bats were about the same size as the living Ghost Bat found in caves around here today. The Gotham City deposit appears to have been the floor of an ancient cave. The remains of their prey have been found in the limestone of the cave floor - frogs, fish, skinks, birds, bandicoots, and a very small koala – wholly crap man, these bats were totally carnivorous! What’s more, the modern day ghost bats that we thought only ate insects? Wrongo! They are also totally carnivorous as in a big way. In fact, one was found dead with the remains of a cane toad in its guts and scientists are now speculating that it’s this habit of snacking on the old toxic toad that could be leading to a decline in their numbers!
Of course there were other weird fossils also discovered, dating back 25 million years, like giant, toothed platypuses, leopard-sized carnivorous lions that looked a bit like over-sized wombats, giant plant-eating marsupials as big as a rhinoceros, a couple of mammals SO bizarre that no existing names could be applied to them and they became known among the researchers as Thingodonta and Weirdodonta, giant long-armed flesh-eating kangaroos dubbed "Fangaroo" (Ekaltadeta ima), who came equipped with a set of dagger-like canines. Its skull was found in the imaginatively-named “Camel Sputum” rock - how did they think that one up? Imagine if town planners cottoned on to that, then we might be sayig 'Oh yes, I live in Rhinoceros Rectum Road!' I mean seriusly?! They also found a giant sperm of some mollusc thing and the sperm was longer than the male’s entire body, but tightly coiled up inside the sexual organs,  and kindly preserved by the droppings of thousands of my Gotham city bat friends. You're welcome!
Top: Finnish grave at the Sunset cemetery. Bottom: Traditional Finnish wedding circa 1930
 We had promised one of the lovely nurses in Manjimup, Karen, that we would visit the cemetery and try to locate the graves of her grandparents who were tragically killed in the early 70’s travelling thru the Isa when their caravan caught fire. Walking into the cemetry between an avenue of tall tress I was delighted to find them full of roosting flying foxes - my favourite bats! The hunt for the graves proved an impossible feat. Even though we scoured all the headstones they must have been laid to rest in unmarked graves, of which there were A LOT! We noticed that many of the headstones belonged to Fins and this was because of the influx of post-war immigrants, in particular a very large Irish and Finnish contingency, in the early 50s. Today their descendants, Pekkas and Paddys, compete in their iconic Akubra hats at the annual infamous rodeo. The main street, Rodeo Drive, which boasts a monument to old Milesy who founded Mt Isa (his ashes are buried under it), has plaques in the pavement, Hollywood style, commemorating rodeo greats through the years. 
Left: John Campbell Miles monument. Top: Rodeo Drive plaques. Bottom: Locals in their Akubra hats
  So how did the Isa come to be here? Well as usual there’s a nice story mixed in with a dirty tale of sordid and violent colonialism. In 1923, lone prospector John Campbell Miles, while travelling on a gold prospecting trip to the Northern Territory with his trusty steed Hard Times, that the mine was first named after, camped by the banks of the Leichhardt River. Sampling a nearby rock outcrop, he realised that it was heavily mineralised – well this is the brochure story anyways. What really happened was that he was taken to the deposits by a young aboriginal man by the name of Kabalulumana of the local Kalkadoon tribe.
Anyways, on with the story – turns out old Milesy had stumbled on to one of the world's richest copper, silver, lead and zinc ore bodies. In a fit of great imaginative creativity (I am being sarcastic here) he decided to call his discovery "Mount Isa" after the stories he’d heard of the Mount Ida goldfield in Western Australia and the mine was born.

On the left: John Campbell Miles with the first staff of the Mt Isa Mines
 All very nice you might say. Well it was particularly nice of Kabalulumana because he could have quite righteously ignored old Milesy after what the whites had done to his people back in 1883. You see all of this land belonged to the Kalkadoons but of course that wasn’t acknowledged back then, or today really. So as it transpires there was this new hotshot Sub-Inspector of Native Police that had been appointed in nearby Cloncurry; twenty-five year old Frederick Charles Urquhart. The power obviously went to the little shit’s head because the first thing he did was round up all the scattered horses in the area and buy or commandeer (read steal) more. He drilled the Native Police troopers ‘with all the vehemence of a Prussian Sergeant-Major’, moving their camp twenty-five miles out of town to maintain discipline.  The Kalkadoon leader Mahoni made the mistake of challenging him to come out into the hills, saying they would finish him off. Urquhart wasn’t going to let his ultimate authorita be questioned and was obviously just waiting for an excuse to get down and nasty, because when James Powell, was speared to death while mustering cattle on his station, co-owner Alexander Kennedy joined forces with Urquhart and trapped the  Kalkadoon war party who had gotten wind of Urquharts intentions in a gorge. The Kalkadoons fought hard but seriously, when you’re facing a carbine and all you've got is your best boomerang and spear, you really don’t have a hope in hell do you? One eyewitness said that ‘men, women and children were killed, but mainly men’.
The event which led to the final battle of the Kalkadoons was the murder of a Chinese shepherd on the Granada Station. Worried about his stock, the station's owner, Hopkins, gathered a large body of men to augment Urquhart's Native Police. Pastoralists and farmhands came from all over the surrounding area to take part in the in what became known as the Battle Mountain massacre. Observing this large body of whites gathering, messages quickly went through the Kalkadoon network for the warriors to assemble.
Urquhart tracked the Kalkadoons, now 600 strong and led by a man wearing a headdress of white down, and a ‘thick possum-string hanging around his neck and attached to another string passing around his waist’ to a spot atop a boulder-studded hill. It was an excellent tactical manoeuvre, overlooking the plain below and the Kalkadoons had laid in large stocks of spears and boomerangs for just such a siege.
Sub-Inspector Urquhart started the battle in typical ‘the sun never sets on the British Empire’ fashion by ordering the assembled warriors to ‘Stand in the Queen's name’. The Kalkadoons, who probably didn’t give a hoot about the lady in the funny headdress, replied with a hail of rocks and missiles and a ‘roar of defiance’.
Urquhart then ordered the now famous cavalry charge that finally led to the deaths of 200 of the finest Kalkadoon warriors. Not happy with the slaughter - well they didn't get all 600 did they! - Urquhart and his troopers, who would have been right at home with the KKK, continued their ‘cleaning up’ operations for several days.
Top: Kalkadoon tribe Bottom left: Kalkadoons were famous for their stone axes which were traded all over the country Bottom right: Cave paintings at the intitiation site at Sun Rock for Kalkadoon boys
Even in 1960 it was noted that ‘for decades, the hill was littered with the bleached bones of
warriors, gins and piccaninnies’.  An anthropologist in 1890  said of the Kalkadoons in the area ‘I saw men and women, their faces sunken in, their bodies so shrunken, and eyes so small and far back in their heads that at first sight they appeared like mummies of centuries
gone by walking about the camps.... Lake Nash has some bad cases and white travellers do their very best to disease the black gins. I saw one poor child not 12 years that had syphilis for 12 months or more, can anything be more horrible than this, it is bad enough to know how they have been shot down without allowing these things to continue'.
But things did continue like this for a long time, look at this excerpt by the American birth control campaigner Margaret Sanger who quite casually wrote in her papers What Every Girl Should Know (1920): "The aboriginal Australian, the lowest known species of the human family, just a step higher than the chimpanzee in brain development, has so little sexual control that police authority alone prevents him from obtaining sexual satisfaction on the streets". 

So, what did I learn from this jaunt to 'The Isa"?

  1. Always travel with #1 travel tip, Vietnamese coffee filters
  2. Buy plenty of garlic to ward of potential vampires #1 WAGs tip
  3. A schooner is not necessarily a ship! 
  4. A crib is a tea room - next time I hear some homie rapping about 'gettin' all up in ma crib' I'll know he's talking about having a nice cup of tea 
  5. Gotham City is real and if I ever see a bat from there I can get out my best Twilight line and say 'I see you brought a little snack!'
  6. Terrorism isn't just a modern issue
  7. Margaret Sanger was a bitch!

Monday 23 June 2014

The Long Way to the Fistula Hospital

In which we make our way to the Fistula Hospital with a suitcase full of bras:-
Having had many previous experiences with shipping packages to Mother Teresa’s Leprosarium on the outskirts of Calcutta (Kolkata) and mysteriously disappearing to line the pockets of customs officials, I thought I would employ a strategic move and bring my ‘package’ with me for the Fistula Hospital in Addis Ababa. The ‘package’ consisted of a suitcase full of bras kindly donated by the lovely women of Cairns for the wondeful women attending the Fistula Hospital. Bras you might ask? Isn’t that the wrong end of the body? Well, after the women afflicted with a fistula have been successfully operated on and recovered they are usually able to return to their villages and take up normal lives and relationships. The Fistula Hospital encourages these women to return to the hospital if and when they are ready to give birth to their first child in order to be safely delivered and avoid any risk of a second fistula through obstructed labour. These women will sometimes have breast/nipple issues that require dressings and hence the need for bras to keep them in place easily.
Anyways, Occy and I had arrived in Addis on a cold afternoon and managed to nearly get ourselves evicted before even stepping foot outside the airport. At the security screening we put our suitcases and bags thru the x-ray machine and the heavily armed security officer started gesticulating wildly to Occy and demanding to see inside his camera bag. Occy unzipped the bag and the officer said, ‘What is this? What is this?’ pointing to his super doper telescopic lens – you know, the sort men get when they reach a mid-life crisis but are in denial about it, yet you can tell because they start buying stuff that symbolises the enormity of their penises.
‘Well that’s just my camera gear, you know for photographs,’ says Occy to the officer. The officer points an accusing finger at him and states, doesn’t suggest or ask mind you, but states as if it’s an obvious known fact, ‘You are a photojournalist, this is not allowed to come in, I must take this!’ Uh oh! This could end badly, I was thinking to myself – I’ve seen Occy in challenging confrontations with pseudo-authority figures before and he doesn’t take too well to it. To my utter astonishment in a rare turn of events Occy actually decided to try being diplomatic instead of incensed. ‘No, no, no,’ he said to the officer, ‘I’m not a photojournalist, I’m a doctor, this is just for taking holiday photos!’
‘Doctor?’ the officer asks, ‘Which hospital are you working at, where is your work visa?’
Oh dear! ‘No, no, no,’ replies Occy, ‘I am not working here, I work in Australia, I am just here for a holiday.’ ‘Huh!’ the officer grunted then rounded on me. ‘This is your suitcase?’ he asked me, pointing to a large red suitcase.
‘Yes,’ I replied.
‘There are many things in here shaped like this,’ he said, drawing a U-shaped curve in the air with his finger. ‘What are they?’
‘Oh, they’re bras for the Fistula Hospital,’ I replied.
‘Bras? What is ‘bras’,’ he asked in a voice that implied that it was clear to him that we were both up to no good and I was probably carrying a shipment of secret weapons. I cupped my breasts with my hands and jiggled them up and down at which I’m sad to report that he got completely the wrong idea and eyes nearly popping out of his head, screamed, ‘What! What is this you do?’
I quickly flicked the bra strap out from under my shirt and showed him that instead, repeating, ‘Bra!’
Recognition finally dawned on him and he looked at both of us disgustedly and waved his hands, shooing us away with a ‘Go, just go!’ We scampered out of there as fast as we could, astonished that we had managed to retain both the camera equipment and the offending suitcase full of bras.
On the appointed day that we were to visit the Fistula Hospital we lugged the suitcase full of bras into our 4WD and directed the driver to proceed to the Fistula Hospital.
‘First I must show you something,’ he cried, ‘then we will go to the Fistula Hospital!’ The something turned out to be Emperor Haile Selassie’s cathedral and tomb which Lion-boy was keen to see. Having travelled thru many Muslim countries, we had heard what we took to be the usual call to prayer by the muezzin, but it in fact turned out to be the call to prayer for the Christian church, the method of worship blurring the lines between the two distinct religions.  Magnificent stained glass windows depict scenes from the Old and New Testament. - an Adam and Eve stand under an apple tree accompanied by an ostrich and a lion – how quintessentially African!

Adam & Eve with a lion and ostrichWomen in white muslin dresses and shawls floated in through the ‘women’s’ door like so many ethereal beings in search of a pew from which to worship.

A black garbed Coptic priest presented himself to us, offering for us to take his photo then promptly presented his hand for payment. Outside in the sunshine men kneel and pray, then rise and kiss the wall of the cathedral before prostrating themselves again. A mention of the Rastafarians triggers my memory – there was a connection with Emperor Haile Selassie but I couldn’t quite remember what it was. Later Indil-cat recounted that the Rastafari movement had started in Jamaica in the 1930’s revering Haile Selassie as the returned messiah largely due to the fact that he was crowned Emperor shortly after Marcus Garvey’s prophecy ‘Look to Africa where a black king shall be crowned, he shall be the redeemer.’  The Rastafarians believed that God himself was black as stated in Jeremiah 8:21 ‘For the hurt of the daughter of my people am I hurt; I am black; as astonishment hath taken hold of me.’
Emperor Haile Selassie
 Haile Selassie’s lineage can be traced back to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. When he was crowned, the King of England, considered by many to be the most powerful and important man in the world, could not attend but sent instead the Duke of Gloucester who, upon meeting the emperor bowed to him revealing that the new emperor was more important than the most important man in the world!We finally left the historic cathedral and thought we would now proceed to the hospital. Well, that’s what thought did! Our driver had other ideas and insisted he take us to the National Museum where an anthropologist took it upon himself to show us through to the archaeological digs section and where the original ‘Lucy’ bones discovered by Leakey are housed. A collection of skulls dating back some 5 million years revealed excessively flat molars, the reason? Even back then they chewed chat or khat! I’d recently watched the film Captain Phillips so I knew that khat was a flowering plant native to the Horn of Africa that was chewed by the Somali pirates. Khat causes excitement, loss of appetite (god, I should have been chewing it!) and euphoria and gives the pirates false courage for a raid. We did later manage to get hold of some for curiosity’s sake as we descended into the Omo Valley and it was being sold by the roadside but can’t really say we noticed much of anything, probably due to the fact that it tends to work on a slightly cumulative basis. By the time we were finished with our anthropology lessons at the National Museum we were starting to wonder whether we’d ever get to Fistula Hospital and we were in fact getting quite desperate and paranoid even. Did the driver have something against the Fistula Hospital? Did he know something we didn’t? Was he deliberately trying to keep us away from the hospital? In the end it turned out that he just didn’t know where the Fistula Hospital was and was embarrassed to say! We wound our way up and down cobbled streets, in and out of the merkato thru goats and donkeys and people and back around the way we’d come until eventually we arrived at the gates of the Fistula Hospital. We almost cried with relief we were so happy to see it. Big signs and the presence of security officers at the gate warned that the taking of photos was strictly prohibited so there would only be verbal documentation of our visit. It also stated visiting hours were strictly Tuesdays and Saturday 1-2pm only with no exceptions! It was a Friday. Undeterred Occy put on his best ‘doctor persona’ (you know, the one where they exhibit signs of a God-complex and act all omniscient & omnipotent and basically bluff their way into getting whatever they want) He wound down his window and said imperiously to the security as if he would brook no argument, ‘I’m Doctor Russell d’Scarlett, this is my family, we have come all the way from Australia and we are carrying supplies for the hospital’ – thankfully failing to mention the ‘supplies’ were a suitcase full of bras! Nek Minnit we were issued security lanyards and ushered through to see matron. We had missed Catherine Hamlin by a few days; she had had to go to England on family matters so we had an appointment with the 2CEO. The grounds were beautiful, most of the gardens having been planted by Catherine Hamlin herself over the years, they were lush and green and cool.
We passed a group of women waiting outside a clinic and even though we had spoken to the children about fistulas and what the consequences of a fistula was (leaking urine and or faces uncontrollably) Lion-boy suddenly gasped at the strong odour and exclaimed, ‘What’s that smell?!’ Horrified, both Occy and I squeaked out, ‘Shhh! It’s the smell of urine because the poor girls have no control over their urine leaking – they are probably waiting to be assessed for operations to fix that.’
We eventually found our way into matron’s office and spent the rest of the afternoon at the hospital with her discussing the success, evolution and current needs of the hospital. It now had a staff of 500 that included 5 outreach hospitals each with 5 satellite clinics lying close to the Ethiopian borders. Each clinic had a trained fistula midwife excepting 8 of the clinics that were still waiting for specialised midwives to be trained. Because of the difficulties caused by having 83 different languages spoken within Ethiopia, midwives were chosen from the region in which they would be deployed to in the future. The hospital trains many doctors from all around the world in the fistula repair techniques developed by the Hamlin’s and the matron offered for Occy to return in some years and be trained so he could do voluntary work in the outlying hospitals where they were short-staffed. We agreed this would be a splendid idea.
Matron took us on a tour of the surgical ward where 4 surgeries can be performed simultaneously in an open operating theatre. The recovery ward was full of women recovering from their surgeries. The hospital had relied heavily on funding from AusAid but with the new Abbott government,  AusAid had been disbanded and funding to the hospital downsized. I would really urge you to help the women of the Fistula Hospital by heading directly to the hospitals official donation page where you can also purchase gifts, many of them made by the women themselves, the proceeds going to fund the hospitals surgical, rehabilitation, midwifery and maternity programmes.

Tuesday 27 May 2014

Into the Wild Omo Valley

Sunrise over Lake Chomo
We rose early in our tukuls (huts) so we could observe the sun rising over the Rift Valley. Golden fingers of light broached the mountain top across the valley floor in front of us as we sipped on steaming cups of Ethiopian coffee, gradually bringing the dark green floor of the valley to life. Baboons screeched nearby and a few eagles soared, catching thermals in ever decreasing circles as they descended over the valley.  The girls and I had to pee so we walked into a natural circle formed by some trees. As we squatted there I suddenly had the feeling someone was watching us. ‘Look up in the trees – baboons!’ 
Monkeybuns said. These baboons had the most astonishing blue balls and peered at us maliciously. We scampered out of there as soon as we were finished our business to find a few military police in their blue camo grinning at us. They were there to patrol the shore perimeter and clearly took their job quite seriously, sitting in the shade of an Acacia tree with their AK-47’s resting across their laps, smoking.

We bolted down some hot omelette and drove down to the shore of Lake Chomo.
A rickety tin boat with an outboard took us onto the lake to spot its famous array of birdlife, crocodiles and hippos. Enormous herons, pelicans and fish eagles were everywhere. The pelicans worked in teams forming a circle in which they could herd the fish. India was particularly delighted at the ‘pink’ hippos. Local fisherman calmly stood waist deep water fishing, paying no mind to the potential dangers of the enormous crocs and wandering hippos.

We drove on to the town of Konso where the women’s skirts took on an unusual peplum design. We stopped to take lunch of wat and injera at a lookout over another section of the Rift Valley. There were a few Italian travellers here and everyone, even the twins partook of the strong black Ethiopian coffee.
Occy & India eating injera & wat
 After lunch we drove on til we hit dirt – 83kms of hell to get to Turmi, the Hamer tribe town sitting close to the border with the Sudan.  The closer we got the redder the earth, the more naked the people, carrying machetes, Kalashnikovs, spears and always their headrests that doubled as stools. Their distinctive red coloured hair was braided and dressed with a combination of animal fat and red mud.
A Hamer man holding a headrest

Hamer woman along road with yellow water container
We eventually turned into our lodge not long before sunset. It was literally in the MFN as my dad would say – the ‘middle of fuckin’ nowhere’! Small rooms built by the tribe to accommodate curious travellers such as ourselves. We left our gear and walked a kilometre up a track toward a kopi (small collection of boulders forming a hillock) where the ‘restaurant’ was. We found our dinner companions were half a dozen shirtless Russian men, having already noted the presence of a ‘bar’ with a selection of about 5 different Russian vodkas and various Ethiopian beers. This Hamer tribe was quite enterprising then!
Room sign

Lion boys photo of India taking a photo of Monkeybuns on the walk up to the restaurant hidden by the kopi