© Photos by Leslie Alsheimer
Joining together with grassroots relief organizations such as those linked below, I spent two months in rural villages of Uganda photographing people and some of their extraordinaryand inspiring efforts. The experiences will forever change my life and the way I see the world.
Creating Works That Matter
As part of a documentary photography workshop teaching photographers about working with non-governmental organizations (NGO's) in Kampala, I went to spend ten days in Uganda. After traveling the region and finding some very special places, I decided to stay for over two months-documenting life in association with relief projects in rural villages within the region. The experiences will forever change my life and the way I see the world.
As I prepared to leave for Uganda, my friends and family expressed their concerns; "be careful," "I'll be worrying about you." They offered safety and security tips for me as a woman traveling alone and on how to fake out thieves. As I left my home, I feared what I was getting into: famine, disease, poverty, war, political unrest, orphans with bloated bellies, fly covered children. Does any good news ever come out of Africa?
I transcended my fears by focusing on the opportunity to give something back to a world that has given so much to me. I collected ten donated cameras to initiate a photography program for an NGO that offers shelter and vocational training to exploited street children in Kampala, and I planned on donating my own photos to relief projects in the region for use in fundraising and promotional development.
Uganda is a land of contradiction. Despite the disease, famine, war, and severe lack of infrastructure - it is a tropical country of abundant beauty with peaceful villages and a real sense of community. As I overcame my misconceptions about Uganda, I began to fall in love with a truly remarkable place.
Landlocked by Kenya to the east, the Sudan to the north, the Congo on the west, and Tanzania to the South, Uganda is not as well known as its neighbors. The central part of Uganda is situated on the shores of lake Victoria, a.k.a. lake Nalubaale (as the locals called it before the arrival of the British), the source of the mighty White Nile River. The Ugandan people are inexhaustibly friendly and welcoming and they absolutely adore visitors. They are some of the most gentle and kind-hearted people in the world, filled with extraordinary generosity and kindness. They are soft-spoken, courteous, honest, infiinitely patient and full of integrity. Considering Uganda’s recent history of nasty dictators (Obote and Idi Amin) who murdered more than 400,000 civilians, the devastation of AIDS (that orphans hundreds of thousands of children), and a rebel war ravaging the north (the Lords Resistance Army claiming child soldiers and innumerable victims in its wake), it is all the more impressive that Ugandans themselves are among the friendliest people of the world.
The people are the essence of Uganda, and in spite of it all they thrive. They welcome anyone with open arms and adoring smiles. In Swahali and Luganda, two of the numerous tribal languages commonly spoken, I am “Muzungu” which translates “white person or foreigner”. With enormous smiles and beaming faces, the children cheer at the sight of muzungus, chasing them with welcoming waves of enjoyment as they scream, "Muzungo, how are you? I am fine!” Like rock n’ roll stars they rush to greet us, touch us and shake our hands. In every village I visited, from Rakai to Bujagali Falls, the Ugandan people (young and old) offered greetings with the kindest and most sincere invitation “you are most welcome,” spoken in perfect English.
The first week, workshop participants took a trip out of Kampala to the village of Rakai, where we were to spend four days documenting a single family, taking photographs, and discussing the ethics surrounding that process. I worked with a mother of four, Agenina Nakanyike, a 36-year-old woman with an infectious smile who had lost her husband to HIV / AIDS. Her children, Joshua (5) , Molly (7), Penina (3), and Fiyona (2) were delightfully curious, playful and full of laughter. While touring the village, many in our group grew excited thinking about the amazing images they were going to collect for their portfolios. At that moment, my excitement shifted as I became overwhelmed with feelings of sorrow, disgust, anger, and guilt. The emotions were overbearing, and I could not hold back my tears. What was I doing taking photographs? All I could see was their poverty and our affluence. I felt like such a jerk thinking I could do anything with my camera that might help these people. These people seemingly needed clothing, food, school fees, and the fundamental necessities to sustain life and the quality of life, more than any imagery could bring. I felt defeated. The amount of money I spent on my camera and gear could have supported this entire village for more than a year... maybe even neighboring villages as well. What about my plane ticket and new suitcase? That money could have been spent on cows, chickens, seeds, and clothing - but I was going to help by taking photographs? It was like thinking I could hold back the ocean with a broom.
After much soul searching, I decided to go my host family and open myself to learn what they had to teach me. I realized that I had compared their lives to my own, judging the quality of their lives by the standards I had learned in my world. Such egocentric judgments. Although it took me a few days to recognize it, the family was actually fairly affluent in the village, she had a bean farm and grew bananas that she was able to sell in a small shack store on the roadside near her home. She was a very proud woman and worked tirelessly from sun up to sun down, sweeping the dirt that defined the ‘yard” area in front of her home, hoeing beans in the fields, and preparing Matoke, a mashed form of green bananas eaten as a staple food in most of the region. She and her family were honored by my visit, and asked nothing from me - even though my comparitive wealth was inescapable. They wanted to learn about me and they offered me gifts of things they had made. They were so welcoming and full of love and life that I almost felt jealous. They taught me that material things don’t make a house a home, nor do they bring love, happiness, or define success. When I first approached them, all I saw was the poverty and destitution. After spending time with them, I learned that, in some ways, they have a much richer life than I have ever known.
Like most Ugandans, they sing with you, dance with you, teach you their songs, teach you their dances, laugh with you, and laugh at you. The celebration of meeting can go on for as long as one is willing to dance and clap and share. Without the hindrance of language, communication happens heart to heart, human-to-human. They touch your hair, braid your hair, help you in any way they can, and say sorry if you drop something. They are grateful for your presence in their lives. They will make you forget any concept of time or that anything besides real human connections matter. They will make you wonder why you have so much stuff and wonder what ever made it seem useful. They will look at you with beautiful faces and big curious eyes, and you will melt. And when you leave you’ll feel the sting of tears and an unbearable pain in your stomach, feeling like you have not done enough. Wondering if what you have is a realy a better way of life, and making you almost jealous of theirs.
I spent the rest of my two months in Uganda working with several other NGO’s involved in various aspects of relief work within the region. The majority of my time was spent working with Dr. Jessie Stone, founder of Soft Power Health, a non-profit organization providing education, prevention, and treatment of Malaria in rural Uganda, as well as sustainable, community-based programs run by Ugandans, mosquito net distribution, and a rural clinic in the Kyabirwa village along the Nile River.
The other groups I was involved with included...
The MaineMedia, host in Kampala.
Dr. Lynn S. Auerbach and Kalule Charles, Co-Directors of the Connect Africa Foundation, which helps villagers in Uganda who are struggling to support the thousands of children orphaned by AIDS. They provide start-up business loans to guardians of orphans, and educational support and sponsorships to the orphans themselves.
Rotary International of Kampala, a worldwide organization of business and professional clubs, dedicated to proving humanitarian service, encouraging high ethical standards in all vocations and helping to build goodwill and peace in the world."
Action for Youth Development (AYOD), operating in Kyotera of the Rakai District of Uganda founded by Fred and John, This organization is designed to rescue the vulnerable children and orphans in the area from their worsening condition by enticing them into games and sports in order to develop their talents through training them in some life saving skills and basics of personal hygiene.
I also spent time developing a photography program with UYDEL, Uganda Youth Development Link, an organization designed to empower disadvantaged, vulnerable and marginalized street and slum youth with social cognitive life skills that will enable them become useful citizens of Uganda. UYDEL's focus is on alcohol and drug abuse among street and slum children, reproductive health, prevention of HIV/AIDS and other STD/STIs, as well as withdrawal from or prevention of commercial sexual exploitation. UYDEL is particularly noted for its unprecedented work with children exposed to commercial sexual exploitation (CSEC).
Through these organizations, I was able to see Uganda and Ugandan people as they are... outside the stereotypes of ignorance. I realized the organizations out there doing the difficult work- meeting the people and living within the villages- were affecting the greatest amount of good. The non-profits, the NGOs, the orphanages, the people like those I listed above- the people you have probably never heard of- are the people dedicating their lives to service and to making change. Getting to know those people and their small struggling organizations, gave me a feeling that is difficult to describe. Watching them, standing in a sea of need, as they reach out to one person at a time - I wanted to help, even if it is just with a broom. Those people not only restored my faith in humanity, but they renewed my sense of purpose.
With our non-profit, Forward Focus: Workshops with Creative Purpose, we want to help the helpers. Forward Focus works with NGO's like the ones described above by hosting volunteer vacation photography workshops where photographers are guided to combine adventure with philanthropy, while learning digital photography techniques in the field. By bringing your gifts, your talents - whether web design, photography, the written word, service skills, labor or money - by pooling our efforts in solidarity with projects already in place we can become giants with our efforts.
ForwardFocus Workshops are a pioneering series of nonprofit educational journeys for experienced and emerging photographers and writers who want to cover developmental, environmental, and relief efforts worldwide. Through intensive instruction and hands-on participation, the Workshops provide an opportunity to complete a body of work, to contribute in a meaningful way to projects that make a difference, and to embark on a profound adventure of personal discovery and cultural exchange. The Workshops provide a collaborative forum that combine education, adventure, and creative purpose to celebrate what people are doing to create a better world, supporting and encouraging acts of connection, compassion and contribution, i.e. creating works that matter.
Maybe giving back is a romantic idea - but it's still a good one nonetheless. People judge it, judge the recipients, judge the disseminators, fear it, avoid it, wonder if will help, or use it for personal piety. But whether or not one gives out of guilt or piety, of pure heart or wounded, giving truly can make the world a better place. I whole-heartedly believe that if everyone gave just a little bit, if we pooled our efforts, the world could certainly change.
Leslie is director of the Santa Fe Digital Darkroom Photography Workshops, which provides professional and customized photography workshops in exotic locations around the globe. She believes in using photography to help empower others to find their own creative voice and vision. She was the creative director of the book, Reality from the Barrio, a social documentary honored in the PDN Photography Annual 2003 - The Best Photos of the Year. Inspired by a traditional wet darkroom photography program that Leslie developed for a non-profit's gang diversion program, the book became a thesis project for Leslie's master's degree in social work.
Check out our write up in The Sunday ABQ Journal
Also see our FRONT Page story in the Sunday ABQ Journal:
Have some cameras or equipment you'd like to donate? Community Photography Outreach, a project based non profit utilizing the power of photography to promote positive social change, can put your old equipment to good use!! Give the gift of photography...all donations are tax deductible !