A Letter from the Editor
Six years ago almost to the day - so, Halloween 2008 - I dressed in a Communist soldier uniform that I borrowed from the wardrobe department at the Mongolian National University, drank appropriate amounts of straight vodka and showed up at the only party in town. When the costume winner was announced, I barged onto stage, snatched the trophy-cocktail from the rightful winner who was dressed as a sexy yak and guzzled it in front of the crowded Ulanbataar nightclub. I cannot remember any cheers. I cannot remember very much.
The next day, paralyzed by my Soviet-style hangover, I barely managed to host my own premier party for the documentary series I produced and presented for Mongolia’s National Broadcaster. It was a big deal. I was excited. But I could also barely sit upright.
At that party, in that state, I met my husband for the first time. He’d been at the Halloween party the night before, dressed as an amphibian in an all-green suit. When I spoke to him, he said he had liked my costume. In my vulnerability, I saw the kindness in his eyes.
There is a style of Mongolian poetry called the Three Miracles. The form essentially lists three emptinesses the universe provides:
On my stage, there is no costume
On my screen, there is no button
In my cage, there is no husband
We can attribute all sorts of meaning to the events in our lives - to the coincidences of choice and place and timing and the costumes we wear. Or we can’t. Or don’t.
Einstein, the icon of scientific empiricism, said that there are only two ways to live your life: “One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”
And that’s what this documentary magazine is about - how we find meaning in the coincidences of our human journey and how these moments create faith in our hearts.
My intention is that this documentary magazine expresses something beautiful and complex about our collective human journey. You’ll travel from street life in Indonesia to nightlife in Cambodia. You’ll experience an underutilized miracle in Uganda and scientific research in the desert of Argentina. But it is our feature documentary, directed by emerging filmmaker Gabrielle Brady, where you will spend most of your time, at home in Havana, Cuba.
The stories in The Human Geographic are produced by passionate craftspeople I have met across the world. This magazine is a way to bring together the individuality of their expression, through the power of digital media. On the theme “Miracles” this collection is certainly not exhaustive or necessarily directed. But the stories themselves are life giving nonetheless. And that’s what counts, right?
To enhance your experience, Sydney-based musician John Vella has composed a soundscape and you can turn the music on and off in the top right of the screen. I suggest you put on your headphones, turn up the volume and lounge back for some extroverted introspection.
Please enjoy this multimedia miracle-of-sorts.
Jim and The Witches
By Zena Kells
Jim was walking across a bridge in Tamworth when he heard God calling him.
The voice came from the sky and he thought it was a miracle.
A miracle until other voices joined in.
He called the voices “The Witches”.
Jim and The Witches lived on the streets of Sydney and this is where the story begins.
I'm no money boy
I live in an old converted colonial mansion of royal French ochre, dulled by years of weather and negligence. I have no furniture other then an intricately carved wooden bed frame that I covered with pillows. This is where I write, sleep, bring boys.
The newspaper I work for has a siesta during the peak of the afternoon’s heat. I tiptoe across the floor, close the beige shades, turn off the lights, and lay motionless, hiding from the pre-rainy season’s humidity. But the sun always seems to find me, seeping through some invisible crack, just like the lizards. I’ve grown accustomed to the lizards that adorn my walls and floors – they eat the malaria and dengue carrying mosquitos.
When night falls and the Mekong breeze blows through my metal-barred windows, I am reminded there is life outside of Phnom Penh. That there are teeming blue waters upstream of the city’s brown muck. That the beauty is eclipsed by trauma—trauma from the French colonial past, US air raids during the Vietnam War, and the nightmarish years under the Khmer Rouge. As the shell-shocked nation finally begins its reconciliation process and is forced into its neo-colonial reality, the lingering scars seem to fester all the more.
But upstream, thatched, stilted villages blend in with the forest. Men walk with buffalo across paddies. Women and children laze in the shade of their huts during the afternoon heat, predicting when the rains will begin. Fire crackles through the jungle, casting orange shadows on the faces of grandparents, children and grandchildren shoveling rice into their mouths in the way they always have. The Angkor Empire still exists – a ghost of the jungle – taken over by the vines and fungi, whispering proud songs of a disappeared past.
Each night after the newspaper’s deadline, I walk to Blue Chile – the only gay bar in Phnom Penh – just in time for the drag show. Blue Chili is a one-room bar adorned with rainbow flags and homoerotic photos of South Korean boys – Seoul is the center of pop culture in Asia, setting the ideal of Asian beauty.
The usual older Europeans that have made Cambodia their homes sit with cocktails and cigarettes. Most of them have money-boys surrounding them. Money-boys are the Asian version of male prostitutes, but they are not sex workers in the Western sense. They don’t have a set fee, and most don’t have pimps. Sometimes they just want a meal, a place to sleep, or extra money for their families.
Andrew is across the bar. His buzzed, platinum hair stands out against the black-headed crowd. Normally, I can smell his body odor before he’s in sight – a concoction of cigarettes and ass.
“Brandt, my beautiful bitch,” he says. His face is covered in sweat. He tries to kiss me on the mouth, but I move my face to the side and let him kiss my cheek. I am repulsed by his smell, by the stories he tells me of eating Khmer boys’ butts and craving their ass sweat.
Andrew is a fugitive from Liverpool wanted for drug trafficking. He plans to spend the rest of his days in Cambodia. His other option; prison.
Phnom Penh seems to suit him just fine, a sunny place for shady people.
Andrew is also the Queen of Gay Phnom Penh, choreographing all drag performances, organizing the first ever pride week, convincing clubs around the city to designate specific gay nights.
He sits down at a table, surrounded by his entourage of young Khmer lady boys – the all-encompassing term in Southeast Asia for a boy baring any degree of transgender tendencies, from androgynous to drag to actual transitioning.
On the other side of Andrew sits a handsome Khmer man I’ve never seen before. Tall and muscular, with a soft masculinity. Sun-stained brown skin leads to his dark-buzzed hair; the black and tan meeting in perfect unity.
He looks at me.
His lips are thick and soft – ready to burst – the tips pursed together and glistening with saliva as if he is about to say something important, or cry.
“Meet Din,” Andrew says, and winks.
I bow my head as Din extends his hand, both trying to mimic the other’s cultural greeting. His face is different than other Khmers – rounder, chiseled cheekbones, narrower eyes. Because his mother is Chinese, he tells me. Her parents were merchants that moved to Cambodia in the 50’s. Din is visiting from Siem Reap—six hours north, where he is a tour guide at the ancient ruins of Angkor Wat.
The Khmers and foreigners watch us speak. They whisper among themselves. Gay gossip about which local is with which foreigner is a beloved past time. I am the only young gay expat in town, and many of the boys who had previously hit on me stare at us with machete eyes.
“Let’s leave,” I say.
On our way out, Andrew whispers,
“Best money boy in this damn country.”
“He’s a money boy?”
“Does it matter? Who the fuck knows what that even means,” Andrew replies.
“So did you ever have sex with him?”
“I tried too but he wouldn’t.”
I follow Din into the darkness.
We begin our walk through the deserted streets. Late night fires create attractive breaks in the city’s monotonous architecture. I grab his hand. A group of tuk tuk drivers laugh at us and scream something shrill.
Din tells me about his family. His parents were married a few days before the Khmer Rouge came to power. During the mass exodus from Phnom Penh to the rice fields, members of the regime heard Din’s grandparents speaking Cantonese. Knowing another language – having any education whatsoever – was grounds for execution. Din’s grandmother screamed in Chinese for her daughter to keep walking, to not say a word. And as she walked on, the Khmer Rouge dragged her parents away.
Din’s parents were the only survivors on both sides of their families. Their first son was born during the regime, and died at six months from malnutrition. After the Khmer Rouge fell, they had five healthy children. One daughter stepped on an uncleared mine outside of their village and is missing the bottom half of her right leg.
We walk toward the river.
I tell him about my suburban town in New Jersey – how I came out to my friends in high school and to my parents at 18. He asks if they still speak to me. Of course, I reply. They even met my ex-boyfriend. They hoped I would settle down with a man and have children one day. He laughs at the idea of two men raising children together.
We turn from the sleeping street onto The Strip. Fluorescent lights identify the bars: 69, Score, Pontoon, Heart of Darkness. Food vendors call out. Women of all ages wait at doors, motioning the stream of foreigners onward. The pretty ones are sent to the street, to lure the sexpats inward.
“Play billiard. You win I buy you drink. I win, you buy me drink.”
Din and I stop holding hands amongst the crowds and lights.
A familiar, emaciated woman with her sleeping corpse-of-a-baby nestled in her arms jumps in front of Din and I, frowning and heaving. Din yells at her in Khmer. She bites back and storms off
“They always think I’m foreigner here,” he says.
“It must be your clothes and the way you carry yourself. What did you say?”
“I told her to leave. That we are both locals.”
“And what did she say?”
“To mind my business. To let her make money from a rich white man to feed the baby.”
He asks to come home with me.
No, I tell him, I don’t sleep with money boys.
I want to smother the words as soon as they mutter from my lips. Smother them with my thick white skin.
“I’m no money boy,” he says, and stops walking. “You talk to Andrew. He’s angry because I don’t sleep with him. He’s a nasty man. I’m no money boy.”
“I’m sorry,” I say, pulling him toward me. I kiss him, tenderly.
“You smell like buffalo skin,” he whispers.
By an abandoned building, I push him into the alley. We make out against the brick wall, forgetting about the trash around us. We lose ourselves in each other’s sweaty faces and mouths wet with spit.
The Living Bridge
Flowing into the Javanese Sea, Jakarta’s Ciliwung River is one of the most polluted rivers in the world.
Less than two meters from the river’s edge lives a small community. They call the bridge near the Rumput Market their home. Most of the people who live here simply can’t afford to rent an apartment. Some do actually own an apartment, but rent it out to afford their daily food.
There are large signs posted next to the bridge that tell us that it is illegal to live here, under the bridge. To avoid forced eviction, the bridge residents must pay bribe money to the police. Jakarta isn’t lacking in laws – just their enforcement.
The teenagers that occupy one side under the bridge earn their money by jumping on passing buses and playing original songs for the passengers – for a small donation. If that is not enough to fill their stomachs, they then search for rubbish. If the Ciliwung doesn’t wash up enough plastic bottles, they search the streets of the mega city of Jakarta. Local middle-aged men pay them 30 cents per kilo, then on-sell to factories for a comfortable profit.
Residents of the bridge near Pasar Rumput exchange their small earnings for coffee, cigarettes and food at their little corner shop down the road. If you haven’t earned anything today, you fall asleep with an empty stomach tonight. Nobody has any savings.
When I get to know these teenagers, I am impressed by their maturity and sense of responsibility beyond their years. Especially because, unlike many other dominantly Muslim Indonesians who see dogs as meat or disease, this young group has decided to care for a defenseless puppy they’ve named Bobby.
With Bobby they share a destiny under the bridge – where tenderness and violence cannot be separated. I am fascinated by the mutual giving and taking of motherly love between the boys and dog. At times they share love softly. At times, they violently demand love from Bobby, reclaiming their lost childhoods.
When I returned to the bridge one month after filming this documentary, Bobby had died. When the kids told me, there was no grief in their voices. The loss of Bobby left me hopeless. My innocence was gone. I could only feel the bitterness of life on Jakarta’s Ciliwung River.
Cubans know, in the back of their mind, there are albergues dappled across their island. The most terrible, the most horrific, the most inhumane of these “transition shelters” are the concrete apartment complexes that have few windows, collective bathrooms and no access to public transport. Lacking regular piped water, a centralized sewerage system and privacy between the prison-like apartments, these shelters are spoken of as “the worst of the worst”.
And their residents are spoken of as "Los Numeros Perdidos." The Forgotten Numbers.
These Cubans – widows, uncles, workers, cousins – spend years waiting in vain for a new housing allocation from the government, the people’s government.
I move through the backstreets of Old Havana on foot. The iconic art deco townhouses, loved by the lens of the tourist, lull me into a daydream. Sea foam aqua, lime green sorbet, Pink Panther pink – the blistering wallpaper of a bygone era.
I round a corner and see a puff of dust explode from an upstairs window. It billows elegantly in the fading afternoon light. I could take a photo – the perfect image of Soviet romance.
Then I hear the screams of a family within. Chunks of brick are falling and suddenly the whole upstairs floor shudders. The smell of ash clouds my lungs. The house is collapsing. Other pedestrians stop in their tracks. We take a deep, communal breath and brace ourselves for the building’s collapse.
But the house does not fall. The dust issues a final pathetic whimper. Then settles.
Frozen in the moment between standing and fallen, Cubans call these houses the Static Miracles.
El Departamiento de Diagnóstico
Jolie lights a cigarette as soon as I sit down. Her small apartment is not unique to Cuba. It has high ceilings, narrow doorways and flowing floral curtains made from synthetic organza. She is a burly woman with heavy purple eye shadow, and she works in the city’s housing department as a "diagnostic technician."
We are in front of her desktop computer. Jolie has the only Internet connection in the whole neighbourhood and this makes her proud. Some of her neighbours loiter in the doorway, keen to send emails to family members in Miami and eager to join our conversation.
“I assess the danger,” Jolie explains.
Her job as a diagnostic technician is to enter a potentially dangerous house and decide whether the house is more standing or more fallen. Her analysis dictates whether the residents can stay or if they must be moved to a state-run transition shelter where they will await a new home.
“Sometimes I feel like I am playing God,” she says.
No one wants to leave their home. No one ever wants to move to a shelter. And most people, she explains, know that once they are in a shelter they don’t ever get out.
Jolie lights another cigarette.
Housing for All is one of the long-held ideals of Cuba’s communist revolution. In Castro’s Cuba, housing is a right, not a commodity. Housing is equitable; accessible to everyone, denied to no one. And, the final guiding principle: the state is totally in charge of all decisions about housing.
Jolie stubs out her cigarette in a small, enamel coffee cup. She claps her hands.
“Let me tell you about the apartment block across the road.”
It was an important building. Fidel had once given a speech there during the revolution. The apartments themselves were nice – large – filled with doctors, teachers, party members.
Last year Jolie was part of the team that discovered major structural damage in the building. Everyone would have to leave.
On the designated deadline day, there were fire trucks, police, social workers, politicians and Jolie’s diagnostic team. Everyone short of Fidel himself.
The day started early but by 9am only seven of the 80 families had actually left the premises.
Her team waited.
By 11 am, 15 families were out.
And by 3pm, only 30 families had left their homes.
At 5 in the afternoon, the fire brigade entered. They politely knocked on doors, trying to cajole people to come down. They then proceeded to forcibly open people’s doors and carry them down.
One woman had boarded her apartment up from the inside. They forced their way in and brought her out too.
Jolie, dragging a deep breath of smoke, tells me it was a huge spectacle.
“So where did they go?” I ask.
“Everywhere,” she says.
Some were party members and they were given decent apartments on the outskirts of Havana. Others were given available apartments across the city.
The rest ended up at an old school converted into a state-run shelter. They were made to live in old classrooms.
Two years later, the iconic building is still boarded up. Renovations are yet to begin.
Standing now, leaning on the edge of her computer desk, Jolie addresses her audience - the neighbors and me - with sweeping gestures and dramatic pauses.
There is one case that still haunts her.
“I am called to a house late in the evening,” she recounts.
“The electricity is out and I am climbing the stairs, in the dark, in my high heels. And suddenly something falls.
“I think, ‘Shit, my heels have snapped.’"
“But it was a huge chunk of the staircase.”
Jolie bellows a deep, granular laugh. Then she’s silent for a moment.
“I told them that night that they needed to leave. [The building] was ready to go. But they told me they would rather spend their days in danger in their own home than be moved to somewhere they didn’t know.
“I got the call early in the morning. The mother and her baby had died. The father was in hospital. I had to go and survey the damage.
“You can’t save everyone you know.
"All that was left in the end, just a pile of dust.”
I had seen the house several times. It wasn’t hard to miss. On the corner of a busy intersection in central Havana, it was more leaning than standing. I assumed no one lived in the building, and everyone on the street told me as much.
But one afternoon, I am proven wrong.
Cautiously, I enter the foyer of the building, interested in witnessing first-hand the inside of a Static Miracle. It is cooler and darker inside, a respite from the relentless humidity and unforgiving sun. Moving towards the stairwell, I navigate small piles of ceiling plaster that appear to be swept together by hand.
I am not up one flight of stairs when a small dog, and then another, come bounding towards me. I look up and am met by a wiry but handsome woman who looks surprised to see me.
“Everyone was moved out years ago,” she says, scratching the belly of the more tired-looking dog.
“Everyone except me.”
Her name is Milagro, she tells me. Miracle.
“Milagro!” she says again, poking her chest emphatically.
I follow Milagro up the concrete stairs to her second-floor apartment. With the handle of her broom, she ushers her two scruffy dogs inside the kitchen door. Then she waves me in too.
She brushes dust from a wire kitchen chair. I sit. She puts some coffee on to boil then climbs a small foot ladder and begins prodding the ceiling with the handle of her broom.
Over her loud banging, she yells to me:
“I once knew a guy who died in his home from one of these chunks falling right on his head.”
Continuing her task of ceiling maintenance, she tells me that no one is helping her. No one is finding her a home.
“How can they allow me to live in such a building?”
Milagro’s face is worn and her skeletal body is covered in the etchings of time. Her jaw is rigid and her eyes are scared, curious and trusting. She looks like a very old little girl.
I visit Milagro again and again after our first chance encounter.
She lived in the house with her parents until they died of old age in the 1990s - and the house hasn’t changed since. She likes to keep it the way they kept it. She can’t remember when the decay began. The house was falling even when she was young.
Sifting through old photos of her parents posing in the house, she is reminded of a time her family was taken to a transition shelter - an albergue. Evacuated from their home after a hurricane destroyed parts of Havana, her family was given floor space at an appropriated department store, sleeping alongside hundreds of other people.
“Those were the days,” she says, with a curiously joyful glint in her eyes. Those were the days - when her parents were alive. The days when her parents took care of her.
Good morning. Erika, please.
Ok, when will she be back?
She told me to call because...
It’s about the Concordia 56 case. She told me she would have an answer. My building is falling down. It’s in demolition and the only person left is me...
I've got nothing illegal going on. I don't know what to expect any more.
Who should I talk to?
I got mad and I went to the government office.
I said my piece to Olguita. "I've nothing to do with that," she said. She told me that Erica should solve it...
If the government doesn't solve it, who does?
And then the government sends me back to Olguita. And then Olguita sends me back to you.
Should I write another letter to the Board?
I will. With my name and address on it because no one is resolving anything.
And the bomb is almost exploding.
Milagro’s building was emptied out years ago when a diagnostic team like Jolie’s declared it uninhabitable.
Yet Milagro remains.
It is unclear to me, even after weeks of conversation, why Milagro was not evacuated when her neighbours were. One day she says it is because the albergues were all full. The next day she says it is because she wasn’t at home the day everyone else was removed. The next day she confesses she was offered a space in an albergue several hours from Havana but rejected the offer: that would have made her one of the Forgotten Numbers.
Milagro was three years old when her family came to live in this elegant home. Two years later, Castro’s Cuba was born. The fear of poverty, of hunger, of hopelessness that had pervaded the island under early capitalism washed away with the promise of the socialist dream. Loyally and hopefully, the little girl at 56 Concordia Street gave her freedoms to the state, and in exchange, the state collectively provided her needs.
Until it didn’t.
El Primero de Mayo
The 1st of May is a sacred day in Cuba. Hundreds of thousands of citizens file into Havana’s expansive Revolution Square to celebrate the commitment and achievement of labourers around the world.
The final year I lived in Cuba - 2013 - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez died of a heart attack. In honour of his seminal influence on the Cuban way of life, it seemed like the whole country was in attendance for the May Day celebrations. Hearts were beating for Chavez, for Cuba, for the Communist dream.
The whole country - except some Forgotten Numbers.
Beautiful, young Marie, leaning on the front door of the albergue she has lived in for the past eleven years, tells me she won’t march at the Square. Nor will her mum.
“We stopped going years ago,” she says. There is a sudden, loud wail from a cabal of children playing across the courtyard. I feel a few drops of rain slide down my forehead. The First of May is also considered a lucky day in Cuba: it’s when the rain begins.
Drawing back the faded lace curtains, we watch the children begin to dance, rolling their chests rhythmically towards the falling sky. Their parents join in, contorting their bodies with joyful Cuban sensuality.
Marie’s mother looks up from her knitting and passes me a warm smile. Her thin fingers knot together a small child’s sweater with assorted odds and ends of wool. Marie tilts her head conspiratorially and I follow her into the small bedroom, leaving her mother alone by the window with the sound of the rain and the celebrations.
“It was August 22nd 2000,” she recalls. “Just imagine. August in Cuba, raining like crazy. It’s raining. It is raining so much.
“Me and my cousin are on our way to a birthday party. Both of us are going to the party. I had told my sister I would hang out with her afterwards.
“And when I get back, nothing is left.
“Everything has fallen.
“There are so many people outside the house. And they have taken my sister out. My mum is in the hospital. My uncle is in the hospital. The three of them were in the house when it collapsed.
“I go to the hospital and my mum is having spinal surgery because of the collapse. My mum doesn’t know that my sister has died. No one knows that my sister has died.
“When they took her out of there...”
"I remember that day it was raining so much
August in Cuba, it rains like crazy.
Afterwards comes the sun
And then all the houses in Old Havana
Start to fall."
"This is really hard,” she tells me through a choked throat.
“When they took her out of there they went straight to the morgue. And we went to the hospital, asking everyone where she was.
“Until we discovered that she had been killed.
“My sister was 21 years old.”
I ask, “Is the house still there or have they built something else?”
“I don't know,” she says. “I really don't know because I have never gone back there. For me, that area of Old Havana doesn't exist and I don't ever pass by”.
And then, before I know what is happening, she has uncurled her feet and is striding toward the door. It is May Day, it is raining - and Marie is returning to the childhood home that killed her only sister.
Even though it was just blocks away, Marie hadn’t gone back to her collapsed home for in eleven years.
For eleven years, Marie and her family have been living in an official state-run transition shelter. They’ve been waiting to be allocated a new home for eleven years.
“This was supposed to be temporary,” she says when I visit her a couple of weeks after May Day. “And every year that comes around, I think, my God, another year here. Another year without having your own...”
She holds her palm to her chest, looking for the words.
“...feeling like its mine.”
Marie’s albergue is relatively modern, relatively functional. It has a sign out front, stating that it is indeed an official transition shelter. It is also positioned on the most popular tourist corner in Old Havana. It is the show pony for visiting officials.
Most albergues, however, are not so obvious. They do not have signs. They are appropriated apartment blocks, converted factories, adapted hotels, schools or even old brothels. One shelter I visit is simply an old community hall with bed sheets strung up, dividing one family’s home from another.
Officially, the shelters are temporary homes for Cubans evacuated from their Static Miracles to await the allocation of a new state-owned home.
Unofficially, in reality, these transit homes are more like permanent encampment.
The San Ignacio albergue is an old factory warehouse transformed in to a kind of apartment block. Each family is allocated a small room, with plywood partitions seperating each space. There are no windows or private bathrooms. There is no running water and no cooling system.
I spiral my way around the central courtyard balcony and peek inside the private life of each family. The fourth wall of their tiny home has been sliced away and I am witness to the intimacies of their relationships, their imaginations and their passions. Their loyalty astounds me - waiting, waiting, waiting, for years.
The residents of St Ignatio albergue are quick to remind me they are not the “worst of the worst".
“Thank dear god to the heavens above that we aren’t one of the Forgotten Numbers,” they say.
“And thank dear Fidel too,” they add.
In 2011, the Cuban government made it legal for citizens to buy and sell housing. Arguably, this is the most significant loosening of state control over Cuban’s private lives since the start of the revolution. Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother and president-day head of the State of Cuba, stated that the reforms were designed to preserve Cuba's socialist system - rather than to dismantle it.
In 2014, there is no legal provision to operate as a real estate agent, advertising is largely prohibited and the government bureaucracy restricts efficient and fair registration processes. Many Cubans lack access to finance and cannot expect to own a home in their lifetimes.
Despite Raul Castro’s assertion that private ownership protects the people, it is the Cuban diaspora who benefit most from the new policy of private house ownership. Loyal Cubans like Milagro and the residents of the San Ignacio albergue may never enjoy “the right to live somewhere in security, peace and dignity... [including] the right to choose one’s residence [and] to determine where to live.” OHCHR 2014
Caught in a social structure somewhere between standing and fallen, are these Cubans the The Forgotten Numbers?
For Doug Harris, franchisee of over 20 Papa John’s Pizza Restaurants peppered across Tennessee, USA, the first miracle came as a phone call.
“I was sitting in my office one day,” he begins. “I think this was in May, and I got a phone call from a guy who was really just an acquaintance. And he called me and said,
“I said, ‘Hey, yeah, what’s going on?’
“And he said, ‘I’m sitting here in Africa and there’s a little boy here that wants to know if I know a Doug Harris that has some pizza stores.’
“I said, ‘What?’
“He said, ‘Yeah, he’s sitting here and he says he knows a Doug Harris’.
“I said, ‘Where are you?’
“He said, ‘I’m in Kampala, Uganda.’
“I said, ‘You’re kidding.’
Then it occurred to Doug. He had been sponsoring a little African boy for about three years. He had been asked to do this by another friend who had been working in Kampala, Uganda. He received a letter from the boy once a year and says he probably prayed for him at some point. But then he just got too busy with, you know, pizza.
Doug says this first miracle - the phone call about the young boy in Uganda - was God’s way of reminding him about the importance of relationships and how we should love one another.
“That was the start of it. Then there was more confirmation as we went along. There was just miracle after miracle that just lined up, that had to be from the Lord. That really was the confirmation, I think, that I was doing what God wanted me to do.”
“It is really hard to explain, but you just have that thing. I just knew. In my relationship with God, he talks to me and tells me stuff everyday.
Just two months later in July 2008, after deeply considered consultation with an elder at his church, Doug and four of his closest colleagues were on a flight to Kampala. In the coming years, Doug would make this trip at least 16 times, help start over 20 local businesses, create countless jobs for African entrepreneurs, and eventually engineer what he claims is the world’s best water filter.
Doug’s filter would also come to be used as a tool for spiritual conversion.
As Diana cranes her neck upward to inspect me, her curious eyes are pulled backwards by the glossy scar tissue that engrosses her face. I wince. She doesn’t. She is four years old and oblivious to the grotesqueness of her disfiguration.
“When I look at my beautiful girl and the scar,” her mother Jane says, noticing my discomfort, “I just don't know what I'm going to do about it. As in, I feel so bad about it because I know that one day she will grow up and ask me questions about why she looks like this.”
Jane is a Born Again Christian. She used to be a Protestant, but was visited by a pastor around the time Diana was born and, though unable to give a specific reason for her conversion, joined the new church. She says the quality of her family’s life has improved greatly since. They have more food, they have more spiritual support and they have been gifted one of Doug’s water filters.
Jane’s home, which she shares with her four children and unemployed husband, is a partitioned cubicle about the size of a mini-bus in the Mulago slum of Kampala. In one corner, a small vase of plastic purple flowers is propped on top a small television covered with a lace doily. Diana is sprawled on the futon-like couch that lines the adjacent wall and Jane, who has pulled back the curtain to the sleeping space, is perched on the edge of the bed directly facing her daughter. Next to her, on a child-size stool, sits the bright blue water filter. Three plastic mugs are stacked next to it on the mud floor.
About two years ago, on a regular morning, Jane tasked Diana’s older siblings with the preparation of the morning’s meal while she went to collect water from the urban well.
The older children followed protocol, set up the small charcoal cook stove in the floor space between where Diana and Jane now face each other, and boiled a vat of porridge. Diana, a spirited two-year old trying to escape the smoke, climbed over her brother, slipped and knocked the pot.
The bubbling porridge drained onto her face.
Jane, returning with the jerry can of water, says she could hear Diana’s screams above Kampala’s morning traffic. She rushed Diana to the nearby Mulago Hospital, where fortunately she was able to get free emergency treatment.
“I was kept there for some good months as she was healing,” Jane explains. “But right now I look at my little girl with her cute face and that huge scar all over her body. I don't know what I'm going to do about it. I just look at it and I don't know what I'm going to do about it.”
Jane, who earns her family’s living by on-selling bread, just doesn’t have the money to pay for Diana’s continued treatment. She cannot even afford to send Diana to a government-sponsored school, which costs 40,000 shillings a term - about US$16.
“Right now she's in a makeshift school. They just study under trees, they don't have permanent buildings and I am paying 10,000 shillings per term. But I wanted to take her to a better school that has buildings, because with her scars she is not supposed to stay in the sunshine... I would like her to have a better life, because right now I am suffering.”
As if on cue, Doug and one of his colleagues step into Jane’s home. Beams of sunshine catch the dusty air, bursting from behind the silhouettes of the robust American men. A local pastor named Kephus enters behind them. The men settle on the bench opposite Jane, and converse with her about the filter. Jane hands them each a mug of cool, clean water, which they drink quickly.
Then, they pray.
A crisis of water
In the next 35 years, the world’s population is expected to increase by 30%, while urban populations are projected to double. Most new urban dwellers will live in over-crowded, under-resourced slums in the developing world. The World Health Organization reports that with the increase in urban populations, access to clean water - the life source of good health and equal opportunity - is deteriorating. In the past 15 years, 120% more people who live in cities lack access to tapped water and private, sanitary toilets.
“It is very, very difficult in terms of water here in Uganda,” explains Pastor Kephus. “Most people have sicknesses to death because of bad drinking water.”
In Uganda - a low-income country recovering from the terror of the Amin era followed by 20 years of civil war in the north - 72% of the urban population now has access to “an improved water source.” Essentially this means most of the urban poor have access to the city’s water, even if they don’t have piped access in their home. This water, though improved, still must be boiled to rid it of harmful contaminants and bacteria. The task of collecting water from the slum’s central tap is time-consuming and relentless. Also, a significant portion of a family’s budget is required to buy charcoal to boil the water to prepare it for drinking. This time and money could certainly be more productively spent.
“If you are to boil water, you spend around 2,000 shillings everyday and in a month that is around 50,000 shillings, which a poor person cannot afford,” Kephus adds.
50,000 shillings is about $20. Remember, Diana’s monthly school fees are $16 and beyond her family’s financial means. Jane’s family needs clean, drinkable water on a daily basis. It’s a matter of survival. So, education, preventative health care and saving for the future fall by the wayside and Diana becomes a faceless statistic of the under-realized Millennium Development Goals.
“But ever since I got this water filter,” Jane beams enthusiastically, “I don't have to worry about where I am going to get the water to drink.”
Diana is lying with her head in her mum’s lap. Jane absently strokes her forehead as she speaks. I used to love it when my mum petted me in the same way.
“Because I just put it in the filter and my kids just have water available any time they want to come and drink it.”
Doug’s water filter - the TivaWater - combines two 20L reservoirs and micro granite sand particles that removes “99.999% ... of parasites, worms, protozoa, and viruses... from any water, no matter how dirty.” As water passes through the sand, the bacteria are starved of oxygen, light and food - and die. The TivaWater requires very little maintenance and “is effective for at least 5 years and up to 15 years.” Designed and manufactured in the States and distributed in 11 countries globally, the TivaWater is a particularly well-designed stopgap with profound potentialities.
“Anytime anybody can access drinking water,” Jane says. “Even my neighbors can come and ask to take some water.
“So, right now I have enough water for survival. I can drink water anytime I feel like it.”
Kephus Ndero is pastor and founder of the Victory City Assembly of God Church in Kawempe, a bustling low-income market area of Kampala. Kephus started the church in late 2012, and since distributing the Kiva Water filter, his congregation has increased by four hundred percent - he now has about 120 regulars. He rents a medium-sized community hall for his Saturday afternoon service, and is proud to show my colleague, journalist Ilya Gridneff, and I all the amenities - ceramic toilets, a kitchenette with running water and a plastic-veneer pulpit.
Kephus was present every time I met with Doug and his team, however the formal relationship between them is unclear. Kephus is one of many pastors who provide spiritual guidance to families served by a nationwide charity called Focus Fellowship of Christian Unions, which establishes interdenominational student fellowships, subsidizes school fees and generally advocates for the poor. Focus is a long-time partner of Tiva Water. It is actually the organization that facilitated Doug’s sponsorship of Michael, the boy who’s phone call brought Doug to Uganda. Focus also distributes water filters donated by Doug’s Tennessee church to the poorest families living in Mulago slum.
Kephus is the foot soldier that delivers the water filters to the families in need. He says the filter gives him a way in - a way to begin a conversation.
“As a pastor, I go to have a relationship with those that are receiving the filters,” Kephus says, “to make sure that I take care of their spiritual life. To make sure that just as they improve in their health, they need to improve in their spiritual life.”
“So, they asked me to take care, to make sure that the relationship between TivaWater is not just ending with that filter, but there is continual help for these families to get hope, to get assurance that there is still someone who cares about them, who loves them.
And as a pastor that gave me a reason to be able to go to the community, praying with them and this cuts across not only to Christians but all those that have… Some of them are Muslims, they are Catholics and all the religions.”
Kephus has organized these families into discussion groups that meet weekly to talk about what they are going through. Kephus also teaches them about God’s love for them.
“The first time they saw me like any other person. But as I continued to love them, to pray with them, to encourage them, pray for their children, be concerned about what they are going through, the relationship kept growing stronger. And even though I never talked so much about my church, about my religion, somehow some of them began to ask, ‘But where do you go for prayer, how do we come to your church?’
And this is how conversions occur. The vulnerable people of the Mulago slum feel loved and cared for and listened to, and just want more of that. Kephus says he has seen eight Muslims come to Christ.
Kawa Namuga, a street-side maize seller, is one of these converts. Kawa says she always wanted to convert to Christianity but just didn’t know how.
“But the day that we went to Focus Uganda and the Pastor talked to us about Christianity and he preached to me, that’s when the word of God got into me. That's when I made up my mind and changed, converted, to Christianity.”
Kawa is 44 years old. He husband is an absent alcoholic. He sleeps on the roadside, she doesn’t even know where. She was never formally educated - the girls of polygamous families rarely are. Kawa says her father had the money but chose to get more wives instead of sending her to school. Kawa was a Muslim because she was born a Muslim. She never learned to understand Arabic, so never really understood Islam.
She says she finds it easier to be a Christian.
“I felt there was a big change in my life. I never used to wake up in the morning, but now I wake up in the morning and pray. And on Sundays, I got to church every Sunday and I feel there is a difference in my life right now.”
Kawa’s home is no bigger than Jane and Diana’s cubicle, and all seven of her children huddle on double mattress propped up in the sleeping area. The donated TivaWater filter sits in the center of the room, illuminated by a corridor of light flooding in from the open door.
Kawa is stripping the husks from boiled cobs of maize, preparing it for market.
“There is one day where I had a big burden, I approached the Pastor, Pastor Kephus, and I told him that I had a really big problem at home. But I would like you to pray for me.
“And the Pastor asked me, ‘What is the problem?’
“I told him, ‘All my kids have been chased from school, they don't have school fees. My landlord is... Actually, I owe my landlord a lot of money... I need you to pray for me.
“And the pastor prayed for me and after the prayer he told me you gonna come back to me when all your problems are solved. You will have tuition for your kids and you will have paid your landlords dues.
“And that's what happened. When I went back to thank him, I had nothing to worry about because my problems had been solved actually. So I believe in the power of prayer.”
Kawa divvies the maize into various polythene bags and saucepans. She tells me she can make 25,000 shillings a day if she gets an early start and if her eldest four children sell across the city also. She says the TivaWater filter lets her save about 8,000 shillings a day on charcoal.
“What is the ultimo goal?” Ilya asks Kephus.
“What I plan to achieve is to make sure that these families that are once unloved, no one cared about them, if possible through this relationship, can be helped to get better in terms of their health, in terms of their economics...
“...Imagine 200 families that had no hope of clean water, of nobody visiting them, caring for them, suddenly they have clean water. They have someone who constantly visits them. They have someone who cares. They are now able to smile and say, ‘Oh there is hope.’
“So if those families can be somewhere, I think that is to the Glory of God. It is an achievement. Because if we live in a society that is sick, society that is grumbling and hopeless, I don’t think we can even us can say that is the best we can live in.”
Persisting, Ilya asks if the goal is to get more Islam conversions. Kephus doesn’t miss a beat.
“Not only Islam. The world would be a better place if true love, if people truly loved each other... If we truly teach true love, sincere love, which Christ taught, I think it doesn’t matter which religion. It will be great to have as many people discover the true love of Jesus Christ. And since that is what I am called to do, I will be glad to see as many, not only Muslims, come to Christ, yeah.”
“Some people would say they should be left alone,” Ilya says.
“And that is acceptable, because God never came and used his power to change everybody. We are not robots. We have free will to choose what is right. But if those that feel that they want this, then we cannot restrict [them].”
Faith in the market
A bellboy with a broad grin and a tartan vest opens my car door. I am recovering from the chaotic streets of downtown Kampala and can’t help but return his smile. An additional slew of bellboys escort me through the entrance to the hotel, which opens into a wide balcony restaurant with elegant colonial hard-timber furniture. White linen tablecloths, jugs of iced water and tastefully framed archival photographs create an ambience of crisp congeniality.
The Speke Hotel claims to be the first and oldest hotel in Uganda and is named after the famous British explorer, John Hanning Speke, who ‘discovered’ the source of River Nile.
Doug Harris stands up to greet me. He takes my hand in both of his, asks me how I am doing and introduces me one by one to his breakfast companions. The group decides the interview will be best in the hotel room, so we process out of the restaurant, through the lobby and up the carpeted stairs to the second floor.
For Doug Harris, there is no separation between business and religion. He says he is on a “business mission” to help the poor help themselves. Drawing up two solid mahogany chairs, he says he consciously has to focus on the spiritual dimension in business, particularly in developing markets. Doug explains that, yeah, he’s a pretty successful businessman but that means it’s easy to focus on income statements and balance sheets and marketing plans and strategies and things like that.
”What a lot of these countries need is businessmen to help solve problems. Because a lot of the people that live here have a great spiritual life but what they don't have is a job and they don't have a way to support their family, so there is a lot of poverty and suffering because of that.
“So I would urge business people that have skills and some experience and some resources to come to different countries like Kampala, set up camp for a while and meet some people, make some relationships, invest some capital, bring their ideas and help stimulate the economy. I think they would find it would be a great journey.”
But what about the Muslim conversions, is this part of the plan? Or is this a by-product of a modern-day business mission? How does he reconcile the market-based objectives of capitalism with the socially-minded intentions of the Christian-faith?
“In the last ten years,” Doug says, “I've been able - because my business has been successful - I've been able to spend a lot of time in our city to serve on a lot of boards. So I was able to learn about the poor and what they need.
“And one of the things that I really learned is that they need help and sustainability in their lives. They don't necessarily need aid.
“What they need is they need someone to come alongside them, to walk with them and help teach them how to work, how to get a job and how to support themselves. And so really that’s kind of translated into what we do here in Africa. And with TivaWater and the other businesses we started.
“Our goal really is to help people create an income and to help really the economy and bless their family and their city.”
Never in his wildest dreams did Doug think he would help invent such an effective water filter. The original design was created by a Ugandan entrepreneur, which was then developed and built in the US. The TivaWater filter retails for 150,000 shillings - about $55. The business model is influenced by Doug’s experience with Papa John’s pizza - partnerships are established with local organizations that employ local people. These organizations sell, finance and distribute the filters.
The filter, Doug says, is a market-based solution. It’s an economic model.
“We've done a lot of research... about the developing world and the poorest of the poor and there is a huge market in these developing nations but the main thing, and this product that we've got now is affordable for a lot of people in the developing world.
“But that would be the difference with the pizza market in the United States or other business you know. There's a higher income level, so that's no necessarily one of your over riding criteria. Whereas here we're always looking for products that are affordable that the market place can have the income to purchase.”
The main conflict I see in the TivaWater economic model is that more often than not the filters are sold en masse to NGOs who distribute them for free. This creates all sorts of market distortions, not to mention the perpetuation of aid dependency.
Doug pours us both a glass of lemon-water. I ask him whether his Christian faith helps or hinders his business objectives.
“Well, I’m not sure what you’re asking. But certainly everything that we do, we’re highly relational with all the different businessmen that we help start business with. We’ve got several poultry farms and grocery stores and things so, I think for me, it has definitely reminded me to go deep in the relationships.
“We feel like we're following Christ. We're all followers of Jesus Christ, and we were called by him to come and help the poor. But in a different way.
“And we just felt that God has called us to come and help the nation of Uganda. As chance would have it, we developed this filter.
“But really for us its about our spiritual life and this is what we really feel like we have been called to do. And to serve. But we are blessed just as much as we ever bless here. The people we work with are awesome. They have such a strong spiritual life that we feel like we are getting as much as we are giving. So that's a great thing.”
On Saturdays at midday, the FOCUS Uganda plot is teeming with children in various school uniforms. FOCUS is a Christian organization but their criteria for supporting families has nothing to do with faith. They assess families most in need and support many Muslim children all the way through their education. One child from each family is selected to attend the outreach program and they receive extra educational support, moral guidance and financial support with their school fees. The intention is to advance the opportunities of one child so they can help their siblings to become responsible citizens also. They’ve supported over a 1000 children since 1992.
When I sit on the grass to take a break from interviewing Doug, a group of enthusiastic girls swarm on me. They want me to take their photo. With my Western Rights-based approach, I hesitate. These girls are here because their families are the poorest of the poor. It’s exploitation to take their photo without permission from their parents, right?
I take the photo.
But they want me to be in it with them: the little black girls with the over-sized muzungu. I ask one of the little boys to take the photo for us. We smile.
The compound is quiet in the middle of the workweek. The children sponsored by FOCUS are in school. The outreach officers are in the field, visiting homes, distributing filters. For our interview, Audrey Kurahunga, the Project Director, leads us behind a shipping container they use as an office and into the shade of a eucalyptus tree.
Yes, FOCUS is an interdenominational Christian organization. Yes, they teach moral guidance from the Bible and no, they don’t apologize for that. Yes, they have many Muslim students and yes, these students remain Muslim throughout their education. She knows of maybe one kid who wanted to come to Christ on his own accord.
Yes, Audrey agrees, the filter is good. It saves people money. It helps reduce illness like diarrhea and malaria. She is grateful for the donated filters and says the families who receive them are also. No, she doesn’t know of anyone associated with FOCUS recruiting converts with the promise of a filter. Maybe outside of FOCUS some pastors do that.
No, FOCUS doesn’t bulk buy TivaWater filters like other NGOs. They distribute filters donated directly by Doug’s church in Tennessee. Doug approached her about it.
“He just offered,” she says. His colleagues have pledged a filter for every family that has a child at FOCUS - that’s 198 families.
“I have a question as well,” she interjects. “Can I just ask questions as well? What is the expected impact of these filters? When filters are given, what is the…
“OK there is the saying that you’ve helped someone access water, but surely like, the case with a very poor family, you have to wonder how much of that can really help? I mean, what is the realistic expectation of how that changes someone’s life?
“Is that question making sense?
She pauses, seeking approval to move the conversation in a new direction. Then continues anyway.
“You have to also wonder: how much does it take to really survive in the long run, given the overwhelming problems you go through. How much of a real impact do you think this is having? I guess I am saying, to say the families are also putting in a lot more to survive than this little impact than we have.
“And we have to largely acknowledge the people are largely contributing to the changes in their own lives. So I guess I’m just saying that I hope that their contribution to their own survival is what is highlighted more than just the small things we do to try to make people’s lives easier, I hope that gets…”
Audrey trails off. I know what she is talking about. Most of my photography work in East Africa has involved documenting how certain projects impact the lives of the beneficiaries - for NGO’s and social enterprises alike. Everyone wants evidence that their donations, their investments are making a difference.
“I just thought that I should say that,” Audrey continues.
“Every time somebody does something, they are like, ‘I want to know how much it has changed your life.’ And sometimes it’s blown out of proportion. I’m just saying, let’s be realistic. It’s good, thank you. And, you know, in some ways it does help.”
“[But] you should acknowledge how much, you know, the families that we work with...
“Sometimes even the children forget and they think, ‘Oh FOCUS is who is helping me.’
“But excuse me, you come here one day a week for a few hours and your parent is the one that is feeding you, housing you, clothing you. When you are sick, they are there with you. And in their small ways they are sacrificing and working so hard, we need to acknowledge their contribution.
“So sometimes I find myself in positions like this saying, ‘Come on, I mean its great. But please also acknowledge that guys are doing a lot on their own to survive.’”
FOCUS hosts many international volunteers, mostly young Christians on their summer vacation looking to serve impoverished communities. She says she is frustrated by the attitude of some of these people - not all.
“We have people, who for example come, they’re just coming to Africa to convert heathens. Excuse me, what do you mean by heathen? You know, someone really comes, like ‘Oh! So we’ve come to make sure you guys, you know, we just see all these pictures and we just expect wild people.’
“And it can get annoying. So, sometimes I want the story of how people are surviving in Uganda, very resilient and they’re doing what they can do given their circumstances. I want that story to be heard.”
“Find some way to say, “People, I want you to come and also say, 'Before I came and long after I am gone people are going to survive. People will find ways that they are surviving and they are making it. So I am thankful that in some way, maybe for a day, maybe for a few while, I helped in some way.”
“And we don’t downplay that obviously. But we also say, be reasonable; let’s be realistic about this.”
“So find a journalistic way to say that…”
Islam found Uganda before Catholicism or Protestantism did. But within 25 years of the first Christians arriving in the central Buganda Kingdom in 1877, Uganda became one of the most successful missions in all of Africa. Buttered up by their exposure to a Universalist ‘world-view’ outlined by Islam, the Baganda were particularly responsive to the Christian texts printed in Swahili and distributed to its youth, voracious for intellectual stimulation. Kabaka Muteesa, one of Buganda’s kings during colonization, was reportedly disillusioned with his Islamic faith after a clash with Egypt who was trying to build an empire throughout the reaches of the Nile River. During a visit from Egyptian delegates the year before the first Christians arrived, Muteesa’s reign was criticized for a lack of commitment to authenticity. A revolt erupted and 100 Ugandan Muslims were executed. Islam was subsequently suppressed and Muslims have been considered a politically subversive minority population since.
It wasn’t an easy ride for Catholic and Protestant missions - there were assassinations, executions and various wars throughout the colonial history of Uganda. But overall, Christianity took root in the region. Missionaries were the first to introduce formal education, Western medicine and various other technologies that advanced the social development of modern-day Uganda. Politically, Christianity has informed a deep cultural conservatism that, for example, recently manifested in legislation criminalizing acts of homosexuality. As historian Kevin Ward explains, in today’s Uganda, “Christianity remains at the center of society, both as a problem to be overcome; and as an essential contributor to fundamental change.”
“I don’t know of any forced conversions,” Audrey says, returning to the topic of the water filters. “Forced conversions where you must become a Christian.”
“I know some people here that stopped, I have been with some of them. Just like any other religion.
“For example, here in Uganda, a church in Uganda, there are people who felt like at some point... Maybe because for some of them they felt that their spiritual needs were not being met, they just felt like, ‘Oh, it doesn’t do anything for me” and they left.
“There are different reasons why people choose to identify. And I think those reasons also honestly need to be looked at. So the reason for conversion, or something going, you have to explore that as well.”
"So right now, you’re just using a context of ‘it is the Christians’ and ‘why are they reaching out to these people?’ Are they possibly indirectly putting some subtle pressure on them? It is possible maybe, yeah. But we really try here to make sure here that people understand that they’re not getting help because you’re a…
“And there’s people here who come here and say, ‘Oh I’m a Christian, you should help me.’ And we’re like, that’s not the criteria. ‘Is your family in need?’ We’re trying to help poor families here. That’s the bottom line.”
The TivaWater filter is one of many inexpensive solutions designed specifically to alleviate the suffering of the world’s poor. Bed-nets for malaria prevention, energy-efficient cooks stoves that reduce smoke inhalation, oral rehydration solution (ORS) for the treatment of diarrhea, solar lights that charge mobile phones are just a few of the more prominent technologies in vogue right now.
And the benefits are huge.
Development economists Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo estimate that “a $14 investment in a long-lasting insecticide-treated bed net has an average return of $88 every year over the child’s entire work life.” Yet thousands of donated bed-nets lie unused, or are made into fishing sacks or appropriated as wedding veils. Prevention is cheap - cures are expensive. And yet the world’s poor consistently default to the latter.
In their book Poor Economics, Banerjee and Duflo call these technologies “underutilized miracles”. The potential of a product like the TivaWater filter, they say, is not realized because of myriad cultural factors; fear of change, resistance to Western imperialism, suspicion of science, syncretic religious beliefs. Banerjee and Duflo also cite distribution as a major operational challenge. How do you actually create a network that delivers these market-ready solutions to the market itself?
Love, Doug Harris answers. Time, Kephus Ndero adds. Respect, says Audrey Kurahunga.
At the edge of what we know
by Nate Upham
Stepping out of the dusty truck, I inhale a familiar scent. Argentina. Cool air carries a mix of damp earth and burning branches from the aged vineyards across the valley. The scent of desert plants nearby mingle with the sweet, far-off smoke, infusing the air with the essences of creosote, sage, and saltbush stored in the sandy soils under my feet. The silent valley hums with a deep history of a changing landscape, tales of orogeny and erosion witnessed by the resident organisms, recorded in their evolution.
Before me, amidst a sea of low shrubs, lies the salty white hardpan of a dried lakebed – a salar. Snows are still visible in the Andean mountains to the west, balancing on the edge of spring and the blistering summer to come. To the east, the isolated peak of Cerro Nevado emerges out of the desert. The horizon stretches onwards to the south, flat and unbroken, hinting at the distant wind-torn Patagonian steppe and the Fuegian reaches of South America – el fin del mundo.
A buzzard flaps its wings overhead. We are here – the site. At this place we seek to observe a miracle.
I have been charged with researching a rare mammal with a duplicated genome and extraordinary adaptations for desert life. My goal is to capture just one red vizcacha rat – Tympanoctomys barrerae – and return to Canada with frozen samples of the tissue for genomic study.
Recent studies indicate that vizcacha rats are tetraploid, meaning that their cell nuclei have four copies of each chromosome, rather than the usual two copies found in all other mammals. Diploid mammals (including humans) suffer disease or infertility with even a slight alteration from the standard double set of chromosomes. The mystery of how vizcacha rats survive and reproduce with tetraploid genomes—and whether it somehow aids their specialized desert lifestyle—is the motivating force of my journey.
I am with two collaborators – ecologists from the Aridlands Institute in Mendoza – who have graciously agreed to organize permits, vehicles, and supplies for this trip. We are in the Monte Desert of Mendoza Province, western Argentina, about 80 km southwest from the sleepy, tree-lined streets of San Rafael, and have already stopped twice this afternoon to look for signs of vizcacha rat activity – burrows plus fresh scat or urine.
It is not until this stop, our third one, that we finally glimpse these beautiful desert rodents.
From the truck, I grab my notebook and camera and set out perpendicular to the dirt road, traversing between mounds of low shrubs and sandy soil. I am in search of active burrows beneath the saltbush shrubs – called zampa by the locals – where vizcacha rats make their underground homes.
Stripping off the salty outer coating of the zampa leaves, vizcacha rats eat the juicy interior flesh as their main food source. Amazingly, they accomplish this feat with specialized bristles on the roof of their mouth – unique entirely to vizcacha rats – that they vibrate against their lower front teeth. The high salt content of zampa makes its consumption impossible for most organisms in the water-sparse desert, where maintaining a bodily balance of salt and water is especially critical. Complementary to these bristles, vizcacha rats also have highly efficient kidneys that conserve water by concentrating salt in their urine.
Standing near a bend in the salar, elevated about five meters from the hardpan, I imagine an earlier, wetter time. A time when the lake would have lapped at the sandy shore, shaping the landscape in cycles of waxing and waning water levels. The time-span of geologic change is normally an abstraction to me. But in this moment, the generations of transforming scenery are tangible. I see how the best-suited variants for each new environment are preserved and reproduced. I see the process of natural selection. Every living organism is at once a passing witness, participant in, and embodiment of this process; the miracle of adaptation and evolution is one of Nature’s tales of awe.
I bend down to pick a few zampa leaves, pressing one against my tongue to taste the visible salt crystals. Doing so makes me thirsty. I notice that my collaborators are walking back to the truck – it must be time to check a different site.
Turning around to join them, I halt mid-step. I am caught by something subtle. I crouch to peer down a half-moon opening, barely visible beneath a stunted, gnarly shrub. There are no cobwebs, and on the other side, there is a pile of neatly cleaned zampa leaves. I quickly count a dozen openings around the mound, apparently joined in a single burrow complex.
Jumping up, I shout to the truck,
“Guys, guys, this is it! We found them!!”
My colleagues and I identify similar burrow complexes around the entire salar. Incredibly, we realize, our preconceptions of what should be had been blinding us to what was.
At nightfall, we set up 40 live-traps on the mound and the surrounding area.
Returning the next morning, I meet a vizcacha rat for the first time.
There are three males in the wire live-traps, each found at a different mound.
I remove the first animal and place him in my hand. It is apparent the cool night has slowed his metabolism. I warm the three animals in the sun and take ear clips for later analysis. I release two of them back to their burrows.
The third animal we keep. Later, we will euthanize him and flash-freeze six organ types on liquid nitrogen.
In the tradition of respect for all living things, we pledge to protect and steward the body and tissue of our vizcacha rat for the most extensive possible study. The skin and skeleton will be preserved as museum specimens and made available for scientific study. From each tissue, we will extract RNA and generate more than 12 gigabytes of genomic data – information on the number and function of gene copies will be key to understanding how genome duplication works in mammals. Human chromosomal duplications are surprisingly common but poorly understood, leading either to miscarriage or developmental disorders such as Down Syndrome. How the vizcacha rat maintains a quadruple set of each chromosome is a story yet to be told – but one sure to contain insights relevant for human health.
Today, on this spring morning in Argentina, we have observed the miracle of one of Nature’s most creative and enduring solutions to life. This small, delicately furred mammal seems impossibly adapted to the unforgiving desert environment around the salar, be it the result of having a double genome or another reason we are yet to find out. Meeting the red vizcacha rat reinforces my resolve about what is possible for science to discover – an endeavor limited only by our imagination to ask new questions, and determination to seek out their answers.
I fell in love with a man who loved me and hated me.
The first time a warning fluttered inside me was in the early days of our relationship. He was short of money, work was scarce – he was a gardener and it was raining. He had a severe tooth ache but couldn’t afford a dentist. Couldn’t afford the loss of pride to ask his parents for help.
The agony tormented him. He got up one night and started punching cupboard doors in a fit of rage. He helped me to rationalise this outburst, explaining how much agony he was in.
His tooth wasn’t removed for four weeks. Once it finally was taken out, he was kind again. Almost gentlemanly.
Until he wasn’t. Until the next rage. Until the next excuse.
The verbal outbursts escalated into small physical events. Accidents he claimed.
As if he would ever want to hurt me, he said.
I became lost in a sea of uncertainty, and he became the only person I could find. That was the relationship we had.
I took photos of myself with bruises and injuries and reddened eyes. I knew I needed to document this. Not so much to use against him in the future, but deep down inside I knew I needed to see these photos for myself to try and help remind me of all the reasons not to be with him.
For the better part of a decade, I created a pattern for myself defined by hard-fast decisions that were difficult to reverse. Spontaneous, desirous, dangerous. I married in university, after a uni bar night. I gave birth to a gorgeous boy, after teaching in Japan. I divorced, after the passion ran out of my marriage.
Then, I dated this man who loved me and hated me.
Then, I fled to Thailand.
Now, in my artists’ studio in my step-family’s small rural rice farming village, I sit down with a pencil and draw. Finally, I draw. Slow, long, forgiving sketches that require time and dedication. These pictures can be refined and redefined.
Birds. They are a pleasure to draw. Their bodies have such fluid lines and curves, with the challenge of intricately honouring the detail within their feathers.
They are symbols of freedom.
The Human Geographic
Creative Director, Editor, Producer + Designer _ Miranda Grant
Marketing Director _ Elysha Gould
Content Advisor _ Gabrielle Brady
Strategic Advisor _ Samual Grant
Creative Advisor + Graphic Design _ Jackie Jones
Web Development (Creatavist) _ Victor Murage
Web Development (Wordpress) _ Susan Harkey
Graphic Design _ Morgan Stokes
Sound Design _ John Vella
Aerial photography _ Miranda Grant
Director, Cinematographer and Writer _ Gabrielle Brady
Editor, Writer and Designer_ Miranda Grant
Illustrator _ Jackie Jones
Sound Design _ John Vella
Additional Photography _ Florian Kunert
Additional Photography _ Josh Scotland
Sub-editor _ Hilary Heuler
Journalist and Multimedia Producer _ Miranda Grant
Additional Reporting _ Ilya Gridneff
Additional photography _ Josh Scotland
Translator_ Fauziah Nakiboneka Kasobya
At the edge of what we know
Writer and photographer _ Nate Upham
Commissioning Editor_ Samual Grant
Additional photography _ F. Cuevas