Sunday, May 06, 2007

Zimbabwe Refugee Crisis

"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.


Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day, 2007. I spent the morning listening to the horrific first hand accounts of survivors who lived through the most heinous, morally repugnant regime known to man. I spent the afternoon at the Central Methodist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa, listening to first hand accounts that sounded eerily similar to the stories of the Holocaust. Stories of ruthless beatings, senseless killings, homes destroyed, and hunger pains. Stories of families ripped apart, motherless children, torture, and a fear that you can see in the whites of eyes. What is happening right now in Zimbabwe deserves your utmost attention. The country is in a state of political and economic despair due to a corrupt and evil dictator named Robert Mugabe. People are fleeing Zimbabwe either because they fear for their lives or because they seek food for their families. They are refugees in the truest sense of the word. If you live in America, you should write to your Congressman asking why they deposed a ruthless tyrant in Iraq but not in Zimbabwe. If you live in another country, write to your UN delegates asking why they continue to allow the Mugabe regime a seat in the United Nations. Largely due to the policies of one man, over 4 million refugees have left Zimbabwe with nothing. 3 million alone are estimated to be in South Africa. Such injustice has no place in the world today, and until the world does something to stop it everywhere and anywhere, the ghosts of the Holocaust will not sleep.

My story on the plight of the Zimbabwean refugees in Johannesburg will be on Current TV soon. I spent most of my time filming at the Central Methodist Church, where Bishop Paul Verryn has opened his doors to anyone who needs a roof over their heads. There are about 1000 refugees there from all over Africa, the vast majority from Zimbabwe. The place is so crowded people resort to sleeping on top of one another, on staircases, or next to wretched piles of garbage. Food they must find on their own. For many, this is a challenge. I met a young man named Kennedy who really touched my heart. He is studying electrical engineering at Wits University but is struggling to pay for tuition and books and school supplies and food for himself. He confessed to me that he sometimes goes days without eating. He studies on the stairs of the Church when he can but has trouble concentrating in this crowded refugee camp environment. He needs money desperately or else he will have to drop out of school. If you would like to help Kennedy or the Central Methodist Church, please contact me.


Kennedy trying to study on stairs

Lesotho Power

The sun shines even on a dog’s ass some days. And today every K9 in Lesotho could bask its behind in the warm goodness of an immaculately cloudless Autumn day. I had been waiting patiently for even a glimpse of sun in Bethel (not to be confused with the Israeli West Bank settlement over looking Ramallah) for a few days and was beginning to get itchy feet. Perhaps that was due to the fact that my shower time was reduced to about 45 seconds due to the lack of hot water in our solar water heater on overcast days, but I digress.

I am writing from the tiny village of Bethel (population 200) in the tiny country of Lesotho (population 2,000,000), where I have been filming a group of MIT students who are creating a system that uses solar thermal energy to generate electricity using nothing more than old car parts. Today I witnessed a science experiment that far surpassed my 6th grade entry into the Science Fair when I dropped a shoe and a quarter from my roof to see if they fell at the same rate. This experiment was far more complicated and isn’t something that one could do in a day, or even a year. The solar turbine group from MIT has created a prototype that converts solar thermal energy into usable electricity using nothing but old car parts, liquids, and a few other odds and ends. I won’t bore you with the technical details, but basically it works. Its not as efficient or as cost effective as it needs to be since it is still in the prototype phase, but this system, or something similar, may one day be the answer to the 3rd world’s power problems. Something like this would be particularly beneficial to Lesotho, where only 15 percent of the population receives electricity from the national grid. The electrical cables in Lesotho run basically alongside the main paved road so if you’re not near this road, you’re pretty much in the dark. As local engineer Tumelo says, “there is basically one highway in Lesotho” and its true. The lack of roads and infrastructure mean that running electrical wires to rural areas of Lesotho would be a logistical nightmare, and also extremely expensive for one of the poorest countries in the world. I’m convinced that the answers for powering the 3rd world are to be found in that big bright ball in the sky that makes you squint when you look into it. Our star, the sun, is renewable daily, sustainable for another 5 billion years, perfectly clean for the environment, free to use, and cannot be controlled by despots from the Middle East.


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Me and the Solar Turbine Group in front of a solar oven. The cinnamon rolls that came out of this thing were really delicious.

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Bethel Church


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While waiting for the sunshine, I did some hiking and exploring.

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I met some people


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I saw some ancient San bushman art


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And some modern art






My experiences trying to get out of Bethel, Lesotho should illustrate why this is such an important project:

Electrical cables haven’t yet reached this area. The nearest paved road is either: Option A: 4 hours driving along a really bad dirt road or Option B: 30 minute boat rip across a river plus a 30 minute taxi ride on another bad road. I took Option A on the way in so I figured I’d go for Option B on the way out, plus it seemed shorter. Big Mistake. They piled so many people on this dinky rowboat that it started sinking halfway across the river. My backpack and half the passengers were completely submerged. I was holding my video camera over my head so that it would at least remain dry. We paddled back to the original side, which I couldn’t comprehend since we were already halfway across. We unloaded half the passengers, dumped out all the water, and tried again. This time there was just a small thumb-sized puncture in the boat that spouted a refreshing fountain of water on all the passengers. We made it across and I thought I was lucky that I was not amongst the passengers who were unloaded, because now I would get on the first minibus out. Wrong Again. In Africa, public transport doesn’t leave until its full of full sized humans, chickens, screaming babies, and/or grains. So we waited for the boat to go back to the other side, pick up more people, return, go back to the other side, pick up some screaming babies, and then return. The whole ordeal took hours. In the meantime, a girl asked me to be her pen pal and I realized I still had a box of Passover matzoh that I picked up in Joburg to snack on, so I shared it with my new friends. They actually loved it, or at least pretended to. Finally, there were enough bodies to fill up the entire bed of the pickup truck and we were on our way.



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I wasn't the only one excited to get off the boat







This is the scene just before I got on the doomed rowboat.



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Matzoh Party Lesotho Style


We got to the small town of Mount Morosi, where I transferred to another bus, which, after filling up completely, took me to the medium sized town of Quthing. An hour later I got on another bus, which after filling up completely, took me in the direction of the capital city, Maseru. I heard that there was an express bus and a commuter bus so I wanted to make sure I got on the express bus. I asked the driver if we went straight to Maseru and he said “yes.” To make sure he understood the question and wasn’t just saying the only word he knew in English, I rephrased the question: Do we stop or do we go straight to Maseru? He said, “Straight, straight to Maseru.” I realized after a few minutes that the driver lied to me. I was on the commuter bus, which stopped every kilometer to pick up and drop off passengers. I sat in the front seat, right next to the driver, and every time we stopped I just looked at him and smiled at the chutzpah that he would lie to me knowing he was going to be caught out in the lie minutes later. He was a really bad driver who couldn’t seem to drive straight while typing SMS’s. He also blasted heavy bass techno to the point that the car was shaking and the speaker was conveniently located right above my head. Night fell and I wasn’t even half way to Maseru.





Just as I was drifting to sleep in my new travel pillow that I bought just for such torturous African transportation, I saw a pedestrian in the road ahead of us. Our driver was looking at his cell phone at the time and we nailed the guy just as I finished screaming “Careful!!” There was a loud bang of a bumper hitting bones. We were going at least 100 kilometers per hour and the dude flew about 10 meters to the side of the car. I ran out of the bus wondering if I would give first aid in the most AIDS ridden region of the world. Miraculously, by the time I reached him the dude had gotten off the floor and continued walking as if nothing had happened. Meanwhile our front bumper was loose and our side mirror had been knocked off. We spent a half hour looking for the mirror near the scene of the accident. We found the mirror and we finally made it to Maseru, I at 9 at night.



I ate some burnt corn and then took another minibus from Maseru to the South African border. I crossed through the Lesotho side easily. There was not a single soul on line. I greeted the official, “Hotso” (Sotho for Peace). He said I must come back soon to Lesotho, wished me a good trip, and stamped my passport. Just as I was thinking my luck was changing, I saw a scene I’ll never forget. Thousands upon thousands of people lined up at the South African border, a huddled mass of humanity, camouflaged by the blackness of night. I realized my mistake immediately. Most of Lesotho’s workforce actually works in South Africa due to the job shortage in Lesotho. I was crossing from Lesotho to South Africa the Tuesday after Easter, when every migrant worker was heading back to work. I observed the line for about 10 minutes. It didn’t move an inch. I figured I had two options: Option A was to get in the back of the line and most likely wait about 48 hours to cross the border. Option B was to play the white card and try to finagle my way across the border. I went for Option B and just began walking towards South Africa. I walked to the gate with an African on my right and left. Officials stopped them both while I walked straight through. Nobody stopped me, said anything, or stamped my passport. I was in South Africa.



Then when I saw the lines for taxis to Johannesburg I realized the hardships these workers face. It was even longer than the line at the border. These people must wait days until they can get back to work. I decided I would hitchhike and at the very least just sleep on the side of the road. I figured there was no point even waiting in these lines that don’t move. So I stuck my thumb out and within 30 seconds a 6-wheel truck stopped and offered me a lift. Abraham and Daniel were their “Christian” names. They were two employees of a furniture company in Lesotho doing their weekly supply run to pick up wood in Joburg. I sat in between them in the front of the rig and we made small talk the entire five-hour trip to Joburg. They were great guys. I bought them beers and gave them a small tip after we made it in to Soweto at 2 AM. From there I took a cab to and made it to the Northern Suburbs of Johannesburg at 3AM. I had made it out of Africa.

Mozying Around Mozambique

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Mozambique has the slowest pace of any place I’ve ever been to. I realized why. There you have a combination of African and Latin culture. In both cases, time is a precious delicacy to be enjoyed and savored, not fast food to be devoured. Time moves so slowly here it doesn’t seem to exist at all. I meant to spend 5 days here and I am now on my ninth day and I’m wondering if I’ll ever leave, or if I’m actually
trapped in time.

I was hoping to do a story on illegal shark fishing, which I heard was going on off the coast, by various environmentalists. First I interviewed the head of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Mozambique, and a number of other people who alleged that there are Asian long line fishing vessels stationed permanently off the coast of Mozambique, catching sharks, cutting off their fins, and then throwing them back to sea. They act like modern day pirates, shooting at anybody who comes near them, including the Mozambican Navy. So I took a bus from Maputo to Inhambane and tried to hire out boats from the local Scuba dive outfits to go looking for the pirates, but nobody was willing to do it for less than a thousand dollars. They said it wasn’t worth getting shot at, and they’re probably right. So after a few frustrating days of begging and pleading to take me out to sea to look for the pirates, I went up the coast where there were reports of local fishermen catching sharks and selling their fins to Chinese buyers. At least at the beach that I went to, there didn’t appear to be any shark catching or any shady Chinese pirate types. I took a gamble on this story and it didn’t work out. I know that if I had more resources, such as helicopters or boats or thousands of dollars, I could have produced an amazing story, but so it goes. At least I was in Tofo, a quaint little beach town in Mozambique with unparalled beauty and a nice wave. It is also home to large populations of whale sharks and manta rays. I did a short piece on Simon Pierce, a whale shark researcher there. I originally interviewed him for the shark-finning story, but then I decided to just do a piece on him and his job. It was really cool snorkeling with a 15-foot fish and learning all about them. I also got to ride some nice waves at the world-class break at Tofinho.

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The Vasco de Gama Bungalow was my home for a week

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Not a bad view

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Despite having a nice time in Tofo, I felt frustrated that the shark finning story didn’t work out because Mozambique is a country with so many problems; one of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS in the world, cyclone devastated villages, poverty, and more malaria deaths per capita than anywhere else on earth. I could have done something on one of these topics. I am not disillusioned about the actual degree of influence my stories have on the world, but nevertheless I have this horrible sinking feeling that I potentially could have helped people by doing a story on one of these topics and that by not doing so I am neglecting them. This is how I’ve felt since arriving in Africa, that there are too many problems and I want to show all of them but I cant because I am just one person. It’s so frustrating. I urge any other filmmakers to go to Mozambique and highlight one or all of these issues. Malaria, AIDS, poverty can all be alleviated over time, and the first step is raising awareness.

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Pumping water from a well while stranded in Morongulos, Mozambique. I came to this village to investigate whether fishermen were selling shark to Chinese. Not only did I not find any evidence of this occurring, but I was stranded there with nowhere to stay. I had just enough money to get back to Tofo, about 4 hours down the coat, but the minibuses had stopped running for the day. Night was falling and I didn't know what to do. I asked a local if he knew a really cheap place to stay. He said he'd talk to his boss, a white Zimbabwean refugee running a beachside hostel, who came and offered me a room in his own house, a hot shower, and a meal, all for free. I told him I was based in Israel and it turned out he had lived on a Kibbutz for a while studying agriculture. We had a lot to talk about and stayed up late discussing the Middle East and the crisis in Zimbabwe. I felt so fortunate to have a roof over my head that night.

Swaziland

Worst Ten Countries by Life Expectancy:

1. Swaziland: 32.63
2. Botswana: 33.74
3. Lesotho: 34.40
4. Zimbabwe: 39.29
5. Liberia: 39.65
6. Mozambique: 39.82
7. Zambia: 40.03
8. Sierra Leone: 40.22
9. Malawi: 41.70
10. South Africa: 42.73

Not coincidentally, Swaziland also has the highest percentage of people infected with HIV or AIDS in the world. Almost 4 out of 10 Swazis are infected.


I was happy to get out of the racially tense South Africa and breathe the fresh air of Swaziland, a tiny landlocked country wedged between South Africa and Mozambique. Swaziland is mountainous and beautiful, with the nicest people on earth. My story was on a school for vulnerable and troubled youth and one schoolgirl in particular, a 9-year-old girl with full-blown AIDS, no parents, and a caretaker who refused to take her to a hospital for treatment. I chose this story not for its uniqueness, but for its ordinariness. Nodogoze’s story is all too common in Sub Saharan Africa. An American volunteer at the Moyeni school named Amy Paderta took a personal interest in the child, convinced her caretaker that AIDS cannot be cured by traditional medicine, and took Nodogoze to the hospital where she is receiving Anti Retroviral Treatment. Hopefully it will not be too late and she will respond to the treatment. I interviewed her doctor who revealed too me that Swazis only get two ARV treatments and if they don’t respond to either, then there is nothing that can be done. AIDS patients in the West have many more options available if the two rounds of ARV treatments are ineffective. I also interviewed Khombe Nkonde, who enlightened me on the cultural obstacles to AIDS awareness in Swaziland and Sub-Saharan Africa. It was a fascinating interview, and it should make for a great piece for Current TV. I’m excited to edit it, and I hope and pray that Nodogoze is responding to treatment. Despite her illness, she was the happiest child and with the most infectious smile.



Once the piece is edited, I will put a link here.



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I stayed in a Mabuda dairy farm in the highveld of Eastern Swaziland. Mabuda means “place of Dreams” and it is. I loved it there because I had a huge cottage all to myself and fresh cow milk every morning for my granola.

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I also stayed at Sondzela Backpackers, which was awesomely situated inside a game park. I hiked around there a bit and saw some animals.

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Ostrich drinking from a local watering hole


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Unfortunately I couldn't bring my catapult


I loved Swaziland and went back there a second time. This time I interviewed a Sangoma, a traditional Swazi with doctor and also filmed at the King’s birthday. No stills from this unfortunately but the video I'm now editing will be really cool!! I walk around asking people how many wives the king has and nobody is quite sure. (Answers range from 7-15.)


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Swazi Sunset

My Trip to South Africa

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I am writing from the tiny village of Bethel (population 200) in the tiny country of Lesotho (population 2,000,000). I have been filming a group of MIT students who are trying to develop a system that uses solar thermal energy to generate electricity using nothing more than old car parts. Unfortunately, the one flaw in any solar energy system has reared its ugly head, bad weather. I am waiting to see their machine in action, but storm clouds have now lingered for the second day in a row, so I am confined to be indoors with plenty of time on my hands.

This is a refreshing change from the frantic pace with which I have been storming through Southern Africa. My journey started in Johannesburg, where I visited the Apartheid museum. It’s a fascinating museum, which attempts to personalize the absurdity of racial separation by grouping visitors as either whites or non-whites upon entering. I received a non-white ID tag, which meant that I had to enter door number two. The museum left me completely repulsed and sharpened my eye to the post-Apartheid remnants that linger today in South Africa.

I then drove myself to Soweto, which I had imagined to be quite a scary place. Soweto is short for South West Townships, and was the main shantytown outside of Johannesburg that supplied the cheap black labor required to toil in the city’s gold mines, estates, and industries. I had only head stories of violent crime about Soweto and was admittedly nervous driving in there by myself. With my map in one hand and my other hand alternating between the wheel and the stick shift, I must have been driving pretty erratically when I got pulled over by the Soweto police. They came to my car window and asked me if I was drunk. Considering the fact that it was 11 AM on a Wednesday, I must have been driving worse that I thought. I said that I was not drunk and that I was simply lost and looking for Nelson Mandela’s old house, which has become a tourist attraction. They laughed and asked me where I was from. I said that I was American and they asked why I wasn’t on a tour bus. I told them that tour buses are for old people, and they laughed harder this time and I now had two important allies in Soweto. They became my police escorts for the day, showing me the way to Nelson’s old house, and then to my final destination, Kliptown.

I was surprised by the size of Soweto. It has millions of residents and fills up a large geographical area. I was particularly astonished by the disparate levels of wealth inside the township. In certain neighborhoods, you can see decadent two story houses, BMW’s ripping down paved roads, black men teeing off at the Soweto Country Club, and power lines providing electricity to thousands. In other areas, you can see corrugated iron roofs, sewage-filled streets, paraffin lighting, and the shameful frowns of poverty. Kliptown falls into the latter category.

It is as destitute as it gets in South Africa, with all the familiar symptoms of poverty; high levels of unemployment, HIV/AIDS, crime, prostitution, and illiteracy. I went there to film a guy named Thulani, who runs an after school program designed to teach Kliptown’s teenagers positive values. He was quite the character. The kids poured into his classroom and you could see why. Thulani’s enthusiasm and passion was contagious. He asked the kids what the topic of the day should be; one girl answered teen pregnancy. So that is what they spoke about for an hour. Thulani would ask provocative questions such as, “If a man offered you 200 rand for sex, would you accept?” Some girls said yes. “If a man said he would give you an extra 100 rand to not use a condom, would you accept?” Some of the same girls said yes. I was taken a back at how cheaply these girls would give their lives away. The girls made it clear that they knew the consequences of AIDS, but that they would rather die of AIDS in 20 years than of hunger today. Thulani couldn’t argue with that logic, but he did emphasize that they should strive for abstinence and protected sex.

Then Thulani turned the tables on me. It was time for the kids to ask the American filmmaker questions. About 15 inquisitive kids raised their hands with some very interesting questions for me. “Is there racism in America?” “How do you feel about the war in Iraq?” “Do you have a girlfriend?” “Do you have a car?” “What do you think about South Africa?” I answered most of the questions honestly and gracefully, but after an hour in the hot seat, I was glad to be whisked away to a gumboot dance performance by the younger kids.


Then I drove out of Soweto and back to the upper middle class neighborhood where I am staying. The brave woman who has so generously put me up for a few weeks is the only house on the block without 10 foot walls and electric fences. Due to the high levels of violent crime that has plagued Johannesburg, the more affluent, typically white communities lives in a state of fear. They have no faith in the police and have resorted to hiring their own armed security forces to protect themselves. These seemingly tranquil neighborhoods even have mobile tactical units that drive around in armored vehicles and loaded AK-47s in case some mayhem should erupt. More and more civilians are taking self-defense courses and carrying around pistols. Some people are afraid to go out at night. Johannesburg is a tense place.

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Kliptown After School Program



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Me and Thulani


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African children are so photogenic and they know it. They love being in pictures. Everywhere you walk with a camera, the kids shout, "Shoot me, Shoot me!"