Thursday, April 21, 2016

Turkey - Antakya

Antakya is on the border with Syria. It use to be called Antioch, the city is as old as history, and you can feel the wisdom of the time in its streets. To live in such closeness with the past makes people somehow more grounded. History teaches changes and shows that with the consideration of time, surviving depends on cooperation, care and support between people. Strength, violence and force are short lived. It is no wonder why fundamentalists and autocrats of all kinds spend so much energy to re-write history, to destroy sites and foundations. Those are signs of their failure.
In the old part of the city, many doors are adorned with blessings and the symbols of the religions of the book, the cross, the star, the crescent. 
My Syrian colleagues told me the stories of their country and of the peace that was existing between the faith, tales of the past and forgotten great men like the Poet Al Ma'arri, of holy sites that are shared between communities, stories of beauty. I found it important, given that now Syria and the region is mostly presented through the lenses of violence, fundamentalism and intolerance. It just puts things in perspective. How small bands of men can do so much harm, how they are so far away from the deep desire of peace and compassion the vast majority of us seek. Fundamentalism and bigotry don't stand the test of time, but they destroy so much. Totally uncool.    


On the other side of the mountain, less than 50 km from Antakya, in Syria, people's lives are destroyed. My colleagues told me their stories, the ones of their families, their friends or strangers. They taught me hope, bad things are always short lived. Inch Allah.
In Antakya-city one cannot really feel the conflict on the other side ofthe mountain. A great part of the population is Syrian, the city is on the border, but life continues as if nothing is happening. People meet, shop, play, smoke, go on with their lives. There are, for sure, tensions, but they don't sweat to the eye of the outsider. Stillness.
And bombs exploded in Ankara, a kind reminder that Turkey as well is involved in the conflict. Every months there are new fronts, and they are feeding more violence, more radicalism, more intolerance. Lybia, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, France, Burkina Faso, Belgium, Syria, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Malaysia, USA, Somalia, Kenya, Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Egypt, the UK,... when naming countries starts getting in the 3 digits. Violenceis widespread, but always you see solidarity, compassion, empathy and greatness.

And the war will stop. I have been invited to share food and good company by friends in the other side of the border. In time of peace.  

Also, in the outskirt of Antakya, carved in the stone of the mountain is one of the oldest christian church. St Peter's Church. It is very impressive to feel 2000 years of worship in the cave. I got to be there whilst muezzins were calling for the prayer, and it all made sense. Another bonus one gets from visiting the church is that you get an indulgence (granted by the pope to all who reach the church). An indulgence being a grant (the pope can give) of remission of the temporal punishment in purgatory still due for sins after absolution.
So I basically am a better man.

People in airports. Killing time in the plane, in airports. Sketching strangers.

Saturday, April 9, 2016


I cannot play any instruments and I cannot sing. I have an amazing voice, the America Got Talent winning type of voice, mind you, but I just cannot remember any words of any songs. This includes the hits happy birthday or Frere Jacques... So, being musically handicapped, I like when people pick up their fiddle, their pipes and start singing, downing beers and sharing music. In Dun laoghaire, I especially like the Mc Loughlin. I feel home there. Pat the bartender recognizes me, musicians are very friendly and the Guinness never dries up.

One of the musician, Rosie had a watercolour set, so I borrowed it to sketch her mates. Really nice.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Sierra Leone... Life after Ebola

Back to Sierra Leone early January!
What a change, how lively it is, the country is back swagging, people go out, beaches and bars are full, what a change from last year, the contrast is enormous, highlighting both the resilience of the people from Salone and the admirable way they changed their habits and life, to respond to the worst Ebola outbreak. 
I have so much respect for them, now we are drinking, we are dancing and playing ball on the beach, that's the way we roll! 
People are back in the streets, gazillions of them, and I could spend some time in the markets and slums of Freetown. Informal settlements during the week and touristy spots on the WE.

One of the pleasure of spending time in slums is that they are full of contrasts. The first impressions are mostly filled with the litter, the smells of fire, sewage, food, noise and durtiness. Then you start paying attention to life, to the kids, the multiple businesses, the youths putting up a party spot, the others playing ball, and you come to the realization that the metal city is breathing and moving. Then beauty comes out. Beauty is shy. It comes in the way rooms are taken care of, the paintings on the walls, the people you meet or, in this specific case, in the work of craftsmen. Facing the sea is the shipyard, and a boat was being finished. I don't know what resonated so much in me. Was it the colours, the size or the story behind the boat? The ship builder told me that it was commissionned to navigate between Conakry and Freetown, transporting up to 25 people, with their merchandises. It was due to be lauched early february. It should be on the ocean now. The boats tell stories of the fishermen, of mobility and the relations people build between regions. The boats and the zinc houses are full of dreams, energy and aspirations. Walking in dirt with heads full of dreams. 

Thanks guys for taking me out to the Whatsapp -and filling a USB with local tunes. A cool venue to dance on nigerian, ghanean, Salone beats, azondo, dancehall, ndombolo and others! So nice to go out! So much more simple than in zim. You don't feel like an intruder, you're a guest and it feels good.

Quincy (previousely known as Paddy's) is another night spot, a bar, dancefloor and pool tables on the beach. I went there because I couldn't not go out. It's Freetown and Ebola is over. You have to dance for life. I was thinking I'ld find people in that popular venue but no-one I knew was there. There was a police-force function, with distribution of certificates and prizes, then the music kicked in.
When I'm alone I sketch. As a man alone in a bar, I draw attention, and the solitude is quickly broken by friendly ladies of the night. I find that drawing enables to switch the conversation, to discuss about something else than love, businness and attraction. We then get to chat about what I am doing, I get to do their portrait and chat about our lives, the children, the jobs, dreams of success and a good life. I like to hear stories of people. I think that in a sense that is what I do. Last year a young girl in india asked me what I was doing. I was visiting her school, in a brick kiln. the workplace of her family. It is difficult for me to explain my job to children, so I said that I am hearing stories from people all over the world and I can share them. In a way I am a storyteller. I am collecting hundreds of stories,  snippets of life from people who have/ are facing hardship and from those who live with empathy and compassion. I collect stories of violence and love, poverty and dreams, neglect and care.
And I see with so much clarity the similarity in the human experience, regardless of colour, gender, religion, group of belonging, environment... humans are designed to love, to help each others, to cooperate and to show compassion. Whatever the situation, be there war, natural disaster, violence... there will always be people who will care and help, regardless of the danger, regardless of themselves.
I met last week a beautiful women, she is working for the catholic church in a war zone, helping to provide health facilities to over half a million people. Under the bombs. On one side you have people trying hard to destroy, on the other you have others that keep on building and caring regardless. They win. She told me that she spoke to the bishop about the extreme situation she is working in, and yet that feeling of being alive, happy and so looking forward to go back in the field. Under the bombs, living surrounded by violence. The bishop said that it was like being in Love. Love make people do crazy things, forgetting themselves and yet feeling in complete harmony and peace.

My daughter can share images from her head, she can put thoughts in other people's heads and dreams. She is 5, she is right, she shares good thoughts. I should do that more often.Kids know things adults have forgotten.

Friday, November 27, 2015

South Sudan

South Sudan is an interesting place to find yourself in.
Curfews, stories of violence, of fights, stories of survival, stories of disappointments.
I spend most of the time in Goal's compounds in Twic and Agok, a few hours by plane north of Juba, at the border with Sudan.
Very far from anything. In Twic there is no coca cola nor pepsi. That is how remote it is.
I visited nutrition centers and hospitals, met with women groups, discussed about childhood and access to adulthood with community members... great.
Interesting for me, a few weeks before I was in Ethiopia, in the refugee camps of Gambella, populated by South Sudanese Nuer. Here I was in South Sudan, with the Dinkas.
Nuer and Dinkas are the two main groups fighting against each-other, with horrible stories of massacres, mutilation, hate. The Nuers I met all had nasty stories about Dinkas. For me it is difficult to truly understand how different they are, and what is the base of so much hate. They seem to be so similar.

The country I have seen lives thanks to Humanitarian aid. From the airplanes in Juba airport, the presence of blue-soldiers, the logos on hospitals, schools, the branding of houses... evidence of the presence of NGO and the UN is everywhere. And they are certainly running a lot of social, education and health services.
It should costs the world 800 millions a year, to assure peace, survival, education and health in this war-thorn country. Half has been raised in 2015. Whilst I was there people were looking at the options to shut down operations, lack of funds means to close nutrition centers, delivery rooms, community support...

When I came back someone asked me if it would not just be better to stop the humanitarian aid, stop accepting refugees and leave the people to sort their problems out.
A watch and see attitude.
Behind it is the opinion that Humanitarian aid can fuel or help maintain conflict. I didn't really knew how to respond and make sense of my position. Yes, maybe, humanitarian action and human kindness are giving an option to people that are suffering to seek shelter, hospitality and help. And that might not push them to fight back, and maybe sort out the problem.
And continue the cycle of violence.
And enable the strongest, with the most weapon, cash to destroy the others. And the most vulnerable are children, women, old people. The past, the future and the creators. 
It's like telling a kid that has been raped or beaten to sort his/her shit out with his/her abuser.
It is siding with the bully. I feel it is not good.
So why is humanitarian aid so essential? Because it remind us to embrace that this world deserve to exist in a multi-cultural way, where all have the right to exist.

Today, in Paris world leaders are discussing Climate change and environment. It is a great challenge for humankind, I am happy it is a growing concern.
One of the other challenge that not many are addressing is the systematic cultural diversity destruction that is happening. Languages, ways of living, cultures are permanently removed and with them our human identity.
We destroy the environment, but we are even more efficient in destroying ourselves, and destroying those who do not thing like us. If people think differently, have other ways to eat, pray, relate... I think to myself  "wahw, they are showing me a new way to be human". And they deserve respect and the right to exist. 

So, is the country under Humanitarian-dip? For sure.
Does it have negative impact? Yes probably.
Does it cost a lot? 80 USD per year per South Sudanese.
What is the impact? Life-changing. Enabling people to survive, to live better and to build a future, not only for the people of South Sudan, but for all of us, and our human diversity.

Fascinating thing in South Sudan is the bird diversity. Small colorful bee-eaters, vultures, kites, eagles, to big crested cranes. Its a great place to see those flying things.
And cows. Everywhere, with their massive horns. Beautiful..
And very, very tall people. I'me average size, some of the Nuers and Dinkas tower me from two heads above. They are majestic in the way they walk, the scarification on their faces and bodies, the bond they have with their cattle, it is very strange and beautiful. And often beyond my capacity to understand.
The relation with the cattle is very difficult for me to get. I see steak, they see an extension of themselves, wealth and respectability, honor, spirituality, I don't know.


I came back from 5 weeks working in Ethiopia and South Sudan, and with a short trip to Nairobi.
Exceptional countries for many different reasons. Unique.

I Ethiopia I mainly worked with Goal's teams in Gambella's refugee camps; welcoming people fleeing South Sudan, and with organizations responding to unaccompanied children on the move: street children, immigrants...
In Gambella alone there are over 120'000 refugees. Only 10% of them are men. The Men are mostly still in South Sudan, trying to save their cattle, fields and property. Women, children and old people have moved to seek security and to ensure survival.
They feel that life in a camp is better than life at home. Says it all.
It was very powerful to be there when Europe was -finally- opening its eyes on the people choosing to move out of their homeland and seeking refuge in a foreign land. It felt as if the Old lady woke up after a huge binge-drinking bender, with a headache and somehow surprised about "What the hell is happening?".

There are an estimate of 60 millions refugees and internally displaced people in the world today, among which 19 millions are refugees and asylum seekers. In 2014-2015 the USA welcomed 121.000 of them,  Russia 274.000 and the entire European Union member states 695.000.
On one side people are debating their hospitality and hosting ability, they are wondering what makes it impossible for the migrants to stay in their homeland. They are fearing for their comfort and respond with hate. They are showing the worst: locked doors, fear, hate, racism etc. True pollution.
On the other hand, some opinions shared publicly are showing compassion, empathy and the best human can give: love and care.  

Ethiopia revealed itself to me by the kindness and hospitality of the people. Without understanding the languages, discovering a society so truly fundamentally different than mine, I felt hosted and welcomed by all. From the coffee ladies, the bar-customers, the social workers or the people sitting and looking whilst I am drawing, I really felt a true interest in being with me.
Very uplifting indeed.
I loved being there, experiencing the polychomatic world of diversity, having my soul strengthen, and my comfort shaken. I love feeling the togetherness. It is cool.

Nothing much to say. You need to go to Ethiopia to feel for yourself.


Monday, November 9, 2015

what on earth is that

The book is out!
The author, Sarah just got the books in Zimbabwe and it has been on sale online for a couple of weeks now. 
I have seen one in the hand of my parents and family but still have not handled one, That will only happen in 3 weeks, once I am back home. 
In any way, it is available via amazon and reaches your house in a couple of days only!

"What On Earth Is That?" Is the delightful story of 2 children who find an extraordinary creature while playing and set off on a journey to find out what on earth it could be. It is funny and charming but delivers a powerful message raising awareness and inspiring children of all ages and adults alike to help to protect the most-trafficked but least-known mammal on the planet - the pangolin.

Where to buy the book


Bricks and Mortar

Monday, September 21, 2015

Incredible Kolkata

Either I have absolutely no sense of imagination, or I am completely, unconsciously and utterly an ad-child, loving and re-wording them when possible.  
Hence the super catchy title for this post.
So, from Kathmandu, I was invited to go to Kolkata, to work with our team in India.
It is great to finally meet up with people in reality, since all of our contacts have been over skype or via email: as good as a video can be. In Kathmandu I got some essential clues about some of my colleagues. For example S. forgot her shoes, the size of my daughter's. I then concluded that she had two small feet and have been wearing shoes. I could not say if she was currently wearing shoes, because I did not know if she had another pair. One cannot google that type of thing. 
Anyway, from Kathmandu to Kolkata. Short plane flight then an immersion in a city of 14 million people. That is as much as Belgium and Luxembourg put together. 
I actually think it could be nice to have a TV show called City swap, and have Kolkata populated with Belgians and Luxembourgers. The latter will be in charge of the rickshaws, and the first ones of everything else. We'll leave the policing to the limburgers and religious duties to the carolos. It could be wonderful. There are great palaces to accommodate the Belgian king and no other european will realize that cars coming from Belgium are driven, on the wrong side of the road, by a West-Bengali . They will curse the license place in the same way. 
Even Kolkata police has umbrellas and rain jackets branded KIP. Its a match!

So two weeks in Kolkata, mainly working, and being caught by the monsoon. Not much life sketches done really.

A tea-shot-glass-pottery. Made for people to have a shot of rich creamy and spicy tea then discard the pot. Really amazing. I saw some guys making these, hundreds a day. I also saw many paper shot cups, Nescafe-branded, probably a couple of cents cheaper and more convenient to carry and store. The first one is like drinking a poem, the second,... in a paper cup: convenient, ugly, blunt and lifeless.
Transport in Kolkata is very unusual. Most of the  cars are Indian-brands: Mahindra, Tata, Ambassador, Maruti etc. they just have a different shape. Some look like other brands, but... different. Same same but different. Very odd.
Then are the legions of public transport vehicles: the ambassador taxis, looking retro and important; the bajaj, or three wheeler taxis, dangerous and obnoxious. Same colour than in Mozambique, the yellow and green tchopelas are everywhere (especially in the Complain section of the local press). Then are the man-motored devices, the rickshaws, bicycle or foot.  They make you feel guilty riding in them. Which is odd. One should really feel guilty driving alone a large engine car, no?
Finally there are the odd cows, rooming in the city. I don't know what they eat. They are just there. No one rides a cow. 


On my last day, I went to visit a group in a slum in Howrah, which is the twin city of Kolkata. Between the two is the Gange river. Nothing special.
But it rained the whole night and previous day. The streets were 30 cm under water, and in the slum, a good 40 to 50 cm. Way above my knee. The car could not go through, so we jumped and hired a bicycle rickshaw to do the last 500m of our journey.
I rolled my trousers up, thanked Bata for my Fillies and met the group. We could not do much because of the rain and the fact that everything was underwater, but I would not have liked to have missed our meeting. I came back drenched with a practical understanding of what Monsoon is all about when you live under a plastic sheet in an informal settlement. Not pleasant.
I have been impressed to see the local Councillor coming with huge pots of food around midday, to feed those that could not cook because of the floods. My colleagues were not that impressed, it was a normal service during the rain.  
Raining outside, so I stopped a bit longer at a spice and tea shop.

My family was very concerned about me going to Kolkata. More so than anywhere else I have been to.
They have never been in India. Their image of the city is crafted by books such as Shantaram, La cité de la Joie, or infos coming from the news. So for them Kolkata is Calcutta: a massive chaos with extreme poverty (really extreme), so many people that life does not count: people are dying on the street (if they are not rescued by Mother Theresa's posse) ... I was to go deeper than the heart of darkness, and they were fully getting geared to rescue me before I turned into Kurtz.
I am immensely grateful to know that my family has my back, it is very comforting.
In a certain way, I also kinda had high expectations: years in a catholic school crafted a concept of charity in which mother Theresa is in the top five saint. Which she is. What I mean is that the definition of slums and misery come from what we were reading and watching about Calcutta then. And now, I was going there. 
But they were wrong. It is great to have stereotypes crashing down. Kolkata is a sensational place. A bit crowded (but I've seen more) but so versatile! I was most impressed with what I saw and the people I met. I met people moving from a life on the dump-site to another profession, girls from an informal settlement who are turning into rugby champions, commercial sex workers looking for a better education for their kids, transgender dancers rehearsing, brick kiln workers improving their school,... not the kind of crowd that is invited to Davos, but good people in an unpleasant situation, working their way out.
For sure, poverty is in your face, but you can walk past homeless people in any city without seeing them, or ignore street kids begging. One is not touched the same way by every child, disabled, excluded person. Sometime you see something or someone that will talk straight to your soul, and leave an important impression.
But not always.
If I would always compare what people have, how they live with how I live, I will turn crazy, revolted, uncomfortable. I will only compare, see the differences where there are mostly similarities. It is difficult to really meet someone with a set of standards. In order to share a conversation, one need to start by listening and accepting other realities. Because in the end, we all seek to laugh, learn and feel happy. And that can happen with anybody really.  

Beautiful jewel beetle found crawling out of the mud in a brick kiln. Every year there are millions of people moving to work in that industry. A lot of families with kids. 

Most of these pictures are a bit unclear. My printer/ scanner has difficulties moving to Windows 10, so I phone-pic the whole lot.