Karen’s Blog

Thoughts on a changing profession and life

Archive for December 2013

Complexities of a Simple Weapon

with 3 comments

I was arrested in Zaire moments after taking this picture of a woman helping her grandson. Both were refugees, returning to their home country of Zaire after fleeing to Tanzania.

I was arrested in Zaire moments after taking this picture of a woman helping her grandson. Both were refugees, returning to their home country of Zaire after fleeing to Tanzania.

The death this week of Mikhail Kalashnikov, creator of the AK-47, which the Washington Post calls “the world’s most omnipresent weapon, used by national armies, terrorists, drug gangs, bank robbers, revolutionaries and Jihadists” made me think about my own three encounters with this gun.

The last time I saw an AK-47 it was pointed at me.

It was the late 1990s. I was in Zaire for National Geographic and I was getting arrested. I was accompanying a group of Zairian refugees who were being repatriated to their homeland (Zaire is now called Congo). The writer, his wife and I were on a UN ship traveling from Tanzania. We carried papers signed by the proper authorities. But as white journalists we stood out like sore thumbs. The ship docked, we walked ashore and Zairian soldiers, all carrying AK-47s, surrounded us.

The soldier performing the arrest was not a large person. But he suffered from what I call the “small man with big gun” syndrome. I see that affliction not only in Africa but also here in the United States. It affects people who feel insecure. They use guns to show the world how big they are. In some situations this behavior might seem pitiful or even ridiculous. This wasn’t that kind of situation—I was facing a small and agitated man who was yelling at me in a language I didn’t understand and waving what looked like a well-used automatic weapon in my face.

Actually, that was the second time I’d had an AK-47 pointed at me. A few years earlier, in 1993, I was working in Sierra Leone on a story about Lassa Fever. I was traveling with a medical team when our vehicle reached a checkpoint. This one happened to be in a beautiful location offering an incredible view of nearby mountains. One of the staffers suggested that I take a picture. I’m not sure why I agreed. At checkpoints, it’s always a bad idea to take pictures. But moving in a kind of idiotic trance I raised my camera. Within seconds, I had the barrel of a gun in my face and I was arrested, along with the two medical staffers. We drove to police headquarters with the solider arresting us—another small man—sitting in the back seat. I stole occasional glances behind me and could see him alternately pointing his AK-47 at the back of my head or the back of the driver’s head. Thankfully as we bounced along the rough dirt road he kept his finger off the trigger. At the police station he marched us before his commander, eager to show off his prize. Luckily for my two African colleagues and me his commander was not interested in us. As in Zaire, we were eventually released, grateful that we had literally dodged the bullet.

In Vietnam I fired one shot from an AK-47 at a tourist attraction operated by the Vietnamese Army.

In Vietnam I fired one shot from an AK-47 at a tourist attraction operated by the Vietnamese Army.

My third AK-47 encounter fell between the two frightening African episodes. In 1994 I was in Saigon, photographing a story on the Vietnamese economy, which at the time was just opening up to foreign investment. The Vietnamese Army held a fundraiser. For $1.00 per bullet, foreigners could fire an AK-47. I bought one bullet. Under the watchful of a soldier I shouldered the weapon aiming at the target. I lightly squeezed the trigger. There was a loud bang and a slight kick to my shoulder. I missed the target.

Of course, most AK-47s aren’t used for fundraisers. More that 100 million of these automatic weapons have been built in countries around the world since Mikhail Kalashnikov first developed it in the 1940s for the Russian Army.  With only eight moving parts, the Kalashnikov earned a reputation for simplicity and effectiveness, offering the fully automatic fire of a machine gun and requiring minimal care. The North Vietnamese used AK-47s like the one I fired when they fought US troops in the Vietnam War. It was considered a more reliable weapon than the M-16s issued to Americans.

Yet while it is an impressive feat of military engineering, I have to believe that easy access to cheap, reliable and extremely deadly weapons like the AK-47 is a big contributor to the decades-long conflicts plaguing the developing world.  It’s ironic that Mr. Kalashnikov made a sturdy easy to use weapon to help the soldiers of his Russian homeland, but in the end, that became the weapon of choice for warring parties in underdeveloped countries. Would post-Cold War conflicts scattered around the globe continue as long, with casualties as high if efficient killing devices like the AK-47 were complex, unreliable and expensive?

In the South Sudan village of Palotaka, Jonas James who is a nurse, hopes for peace, so that a priest might return to the village church.

In the South Sudan village of Palotaka, Mr. Jade, the church caretaker, hopes for peace, so that a priest might return to the village church.

Sadly, another developing world conflict is unfolding right now in South Sudan. Almost three years ago, shortly before the vote that established South Sudan as a country, Catholic Relief Services sent me there to photograph peace. The assignment was both simple and complicated. Could I show “What does peace look like in South Sudan?”

Kindergardeners happily greet visitors to their school in Magwi, a village in South Sudan.

Kindergardeners happily greet visitors to their school in Magwi, a village in South Sudan.

It was one of the best assignments I ever had, not because it produced award-winning photos (though several did win awards), but because I had the opportunity to capture the lives of people who hoped they could finally live in peace once the new country of South Sudan was created. It was a wonderful and exciting time to be there. People felt that fear of conflict was finally behind them. Refugees were returning to reclaim their lands and restart their lives. I met some of the nicest people I have ever photographed, warm and open to my camera. Being there seemed like a gift from God. I felt transformed.

So during this holiday season of peace and good will, to hear that South Sudan is again falling into conflict and bloodshed is highly distressing. What will happen to the many wonderful people I met?  The young boy helping his mother wash clothes in a roadside ditch. Little Sandy whose mother is learning how to sew so she can support the family. The female community leader helping her village recover from the last conflict. The laughing girls getting water from the village pump without fear of being brutalized. The kindergarten children who warmly greet visitors while drinking their morning tea.

Sandy and her mother at day care in Avumadrici village.  Sandy's mother had hoped that peace would allow her to continue classes at a technical school where she was learning to sew.

Sandy and her mother at day care in Avumadrici village. Sandy’s mother had hoped that peace would allow her to continue classes at a technical school where she was learning to sew.

Of course, the causes of conflicts are complex and rooted in many issues, but again I can’t help but think that if Mr. Kalashnikov had not invented that sturdy, cheap and reliable weapon of choice of poor armies and rogue groups, these types of conflicts would be slower to start and harder to carry out. Mr. Kalashnikov once said if there had not been a war at the time he invented his legendary gun, he might have gone on to improve farm equipment. I wonder how the world might be different had he done that. At the end of the Washington Post article he says, “I created a weapon…it’s not my fault that it was sometimes used where it should have not have been. That is the fault of politicians.” That same tired old line that “guns don’t kill—people do.” Humans have always found ways to kill each other. But can you imagine how the dynamics of warfare in places like South Sudan would be if people only had hoes or clubs rather than a weapon that reliably fires and kills multiple times within seconds.

Written by kasmauski

December 27, 2013 at 5:51 pm

Philomena’s Gift

with 2 comments

Nurse Philomena helps a client bring fresh water into their home.

Nurse Philomena helps a client bring fresh water into their home.

Black Friday was bad enough.

But now that day has expanded to “shop local” Saturday and (sounding like an out-of-date tech convention) Cyber Monday. It’s bloated into a five-day buying spree that starts as soon as dinner ends on Thanksgiving Day. Our society has turned a holiday of giving thanks, honoring family, home and hearth into an obscene frenzy of acquiring stuff.

For me (ignoring for a moment that the pilgrims took this land from the native Americans), Thanksgiving has always been one of those pure holidays where people came home to have a great meal and share stories with friends and family. For years Thanksgiving was barely a blip on the radar screen of merchants because the only thing people bought was food.

But a few years back, I started noticing Christmas decorations popping up before Thanksgiving and hype growing about “Black Friday.” I can see why. Glittering lights, red poinsettias and jolly men in red suits trump the pilgrims in their drab clothes, black hats and large brown turkeys. This year many major department stores decided to forego Thanksgiving altogether, either staying open all day or opening before leftovers could be taken away from the Thanksgiving table. A few grudgingly allowed their employees time off for dinner.

I think the thing that bothered me the most was a commercial where the lyrics for “Jingle Bells” were replaced with “shop, shop, shop.” I hated, it but the trouble was the new version was kind of catchy and I couldn’t get the song out of my head.

Nearly every open space throughout Kiambiu in Nariobi, Kenya is often covered with trash.

Nearly every open space throughout Kiambiu in Nariobi, Kenya is often covered with trash.

What is our obsession with stuff? Most of us don’t own anything of real value. What we have is stuff. Sure, some has sentimental value; reminding us of places or people we love. Yet in those cases, its not really the item—its the experience or emotion the item evokes. In the United States, most of us have more stuff in our homes than we could ever use. I bet that the closets of most households in the US could clothe an entire village in the developing world. I’m certainly guilty of overstuffing my life. I have books I haven’t read, clothes I haven’t worn and shoes with showroom-clean soles. I have more pans than I can cook with, more food than I can eat and more dishes than I can put on my table.

Philomena squeezes through the maze of pathways through the slum to get to her clients.

Philomena squeezes through the maze of pathways through the slum to get to her clients.

By contrast, when I visit villages in certain parts of Africa, I can walk into cleanly swept huts and see one battered tin bowl, a wooden spoon, a small stool and few cheap plastic plates. The people are wearing the only clothes they own. I feel like an overly bloated creature, dirtying the ground on which I walk.

Three years ago when my father died, my mother quickly cleaned out his closet putting all his clothing, belts, shoes and coats into large black plastic bags for Goodwill to pick up. My father was a marketer’s nightmare. He hardly ever bought clothing. Actually, he hardly ever bought anything. A child of the depression, he owned pieces of clothing for decades. Most of what he had was cheap, “I got it from Sears on sale” types of clothing. But seeing all those black plastic bags packed with what my father did own, I wondered why we do keep accumulating stuff. At the end, doesn’t most of it just end up in black plastic bags, carted off to Goodwill?

A few years ago I gained a different perspective on the matter of how much stuff matters. I was working on a project about nursing for Emory University. In the course of that I met many heroic women. But one who most impressed me was a nurse who left a comfortable life to work with HIV patients in some of Africa’s worst slums.

Philomena checks a client who is pregnant and lives in a one room shack.

Philomena checks a client who is pregnant and lives in a one room shack.

Nurse Philomena Omwakw does community outreach in the Kiambiu slums. All of her clients have HIV. She was a hospital nurse who worked for the Kenyan government. But she took early retirement so she could spend her time helping those in greatest need. For them, Philomena is a life raft. Not only does she bring vital medications, but she also makes sure they have food, clean water and that their children attend school. She is often the only person who visits them.

When I’m photographing, I carry gear worth more than what most of Philomena’s clients will see in their lifetime.  As I walked with her through one of Kenya’s worst slums, I asked if I should be concerned. Her response was quite confident. “No, you’re with me,” she said. Even those who didn’t directly benefit from her recognized her good work. People lit up when we arrived at their modest huts. She brought medication and sometimes bags of food. Yet I could see that the greatest gift that she brought was her time. People just wanted to talk to her, expressing their fears and concerns. Philomena offered a human connection that validated the existence of those living in a very harsh place. A day with her was truly a day for giving thanks.

That was Philomena’s lesson for me—her gift really. In our frenzied, relentlessly marketed and digitally saturated world, human connections often seem under assault. By contrast, Philomena knew that the way to maintain those connections lay in taking the time to talk and listen—the things that Thanksgiving is supposed to honor.

We could all take a lesson from Philomena. Rather than borrowing money we probably don’t have to buy stuff we probably don’t need, a better choice of spending might be on time with people we care about. We can take the money we would have spent and give it to the charity of our choice. That would be a wonderful way to spend this holiday season.

Philomena delivers donated food.  The client was home so she dropped it through the bars covering the window.

Philomena delivers donated food. The client was home so she dropped it through the bars covering the window.

Written by kasmauski

December 5, 2013 at 1:13 pm