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Monthly Archives: May 2012

Two years ago this month I was in Port au Prince, Haiti. It was a few months after one of the worst earthquakes in living memory had devastated the city, killing over 200,000 people and leaving 1.5 million homeless. The actual quake had lasted less than a minute, but in its wake it had left behind a city broken beyond repair. Before the earthquake, Haiti had already been the poorest country in the western hemisphere, with over 70% of its population living below the poverty line in tightly packed slums. After the quake the city and the country lay in ruins.

…I remember the day I took this photograph.

We had been stopped at a road block and I remember asking my driver about the significance of the flags fluttering amongst the twisted wreckage. It seemed incongruous somehow that this one building should stand out amongst a seemingly endless landscape of indiscriminate destruction. He informed me that it had been a maternity hospital. On the day of the earthquake there had been 125 women and children in there. They were still inside…

…For some reason this one image has always summed up the sheer hopelessness of Haiti’s plight for me. The relief agencies had taken the time to place flags in the rubble, but none of them had had the time or the resources to recover the dead from inside. Over the coming days I was to see far worse sights amongst the slums and refugee camps of Port au Prince, but somehow my thoughts always returned to this one emotive image. Two years on, it still exerts a powerful hold…

Winston Churchill once wrote: ‘There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man’. This is a theory that seems to have gained ground and credence over the past few years, with the development of a number of centres across Britain, the US and South Africa that deal specifically with equine therapy. Horses, it would seem, have developed an innate ability to react to human emotion, making them the perfect conduits for dealing with mental, emotional and physical issues.

Now, I have to admit, when this theory was first put to me I had my reservations. Many who know me will attest to the fact that I have a cynical streak running through me wide enough to cause a partial eclipse of the sun. However, it would seem that even Hippocrates, the founding father of western medicine, was endorsing the therapeutic benefits of the horse back in pre-Christian Greece. Since then, these most versatile of animals have apparently been used to rehabilitate recovering addicts, helped people through the traumas of physical abuse and rape and had incredible success in dealing with autism in young children. OK, I admit, I was intrigued. I was not however convinced.

…That was until I watched a small, six year old autistic boy make his way across a muddy field in the early light of a spring morning, followed by two, beautiful, thoroughbred racehorses…

In light of my obvious cynicism, a friend of mine had arranged for me to pay a visit to place called Chajara, a unique enterprise based on the Isle of Man. The brainchild of Charlotte Mackenzie and Rachel Smith, Chajara focuses on the concept of healing through horses, an idea whose seeds were first sown and nurtured on a small farm in rural Ontario, Canada, where, as a child, Charlotte watched her parents dealing with the children of their city friends. Each summer, the farm would become a haven for kids from the suburbs, who were able to channel their energies into positive pursuits; energies that may have otherwise sent them down a different road entirely. It is a memory that has stayed with Charlotte all her life and one that she hopes will ultimately turn Chajara into a proper farm, one where people; whether they be children or adults, special needs or simply troubled, can come and heal.

One such person is young James and his contact with the horses seems to have had a profound affect on him, something that his mother has become all to aware of, as she goes on to explain.  ‘Because he doesn’t speak, James can’t tell anybody what he wants and he gets very frustrated. Children with autism have a totally different perception of things; they see and hear things differently. Here he can be totally chilled, just wandering around and checking things out. This is perfect. He has freedom and there is no noise, its absolutely gorgeous.’ Both Charlotte and Rachel are aware that it is a process that works both ways. ‘I remember how I was transformed going through the process on the farm’, says Charlotte, ‘I was a city kid and I was not happy. I was troubled. Then my parents go out and buy a farm and my whole life changed.’ Even Rachel’s own children seem to have benefited from their association with the horses.

The ultimate aim is to provide a centre where there will be opportunities for people – children and adults alike – to learn the social skills that most of us take for granted and to examine their own needs and relationships through their interaction with the horses. Speaking to James’s mom, it seems that Chajara fills a need that is currently lacking in mainstream medicine and she would love to see it expand so that more children like her son could benefit. Evidence, it would seem, bears out the faith that both Mr Churchill and Hippocrates put in the horse. Centuries of contact with humans would certainly seem to have fine tuned their senses to our inner cocktails of neuroses, phobias and emotional trauma. And, if the success of organisations like the Greatwood Charity in the UK and the Montrose Foundation in South Africa are anything to go by, it would seem that my initial cynicism was somewhat ill-placed.

There is an old Arab proverb that declares the horse to be God’s gift to mankind and, looking around at the smiles on the faces of young James and Rachel’s own three children, I can well believe it. Chajara and other similar enterprises seem to appeal to a basic need in people, one that many of us tend to lose sight of amongst the hustle and bustle of everyday life.

As Charlotte so eloquently puts it, ‘…its all so authentic somehow. Horses see through the hypocrisy and the bullshit’.

For more information about Chajara contact Charlotte Mackenzie or Rachel Smith at Chajara@hotmail.com, or take a look at the ‘Chajara, Healing Through Horses’ Facebook page.

Over the years I have had more than my share of hairy moments. I have faced down machetes and had guns pointed in my face. I’ve pushed a broken down jeep out of a crocodile infested river and even been smacked in the nuts by a shark! But never have I faced such terror as I did last weekend. The sight of 30 pensioners disgorging themselves from a ferry like a rampaging horde of octogenarian Vikings, all hell bent on a drug and toasted tea cake fuelled weekend, was a sight to turn the bowels of even the bravest of men to water.

It had been sold to me as a ‘Heritage Rail Adventure’, on paper an innocuous and genteel amble around the Isle of Man’s delightful and antiquated rail network. How hard could it be – they’re pensioners for God’s sake? All I had to do was shepherd them around…

…How then do you lose an 80 year old woman with a walking stick?! I mean, I only turned my back for a minute! Then there was the asthmatic Irishman. Except he wasn’t asthmatic was he. No, he had pulmonary fibrosis and he was meant to bring oxygen with him. Instead, he turned up with two bottles of Bushmills! This had disaster written all over it.

Things did improve though. I managed to keep a close check on the 80 year old with the walking stick, although I have to admit I did lose the asthmatic Irishman. The trains and trams also proved to be a popular diversion, in between the endless rounds of tea and cake. The Isle of Man can boast some of the finest Victorian railways left anywhere in the British Isles, with the Manx Electric Railway bearing the distinction of being the longest narrow gauge vintage railway system anywhere in the islands. Now, I appreciate that to the adrenalin junkies out there that probably doesn’t mean much, but to an avid train enthusiast, especially one high on cod liver oil tablets and a surplus of caffeine, this is quite a thing to behold. And, I have to admit, the more I saw of the ingenuity of the Victorians, the more I came to appreciate the sheer genius of the pioneers of Britain’s Industrial Revolution.

In spite of having lived on the Isle of Man for over 15 years, some of this stuff was completely new to me and over the course of the weekend I joined them on steam trains and horse trams, negotiated my way up to the top of the mountain on the Snaefell Railway and even rode on the footplate of the Groudle Glen Railway. Heady stuff indeed and, remarkably, I found that I was enjoying the whole experience immensely. For all my flippancy I have to say I am a great respecter of age. Not only does it bring wisdom, but it also brings some fascinating stories. These were people who had lived through wars and rationing, raised families without the benefit of government handouts and knew nothing about social media sites. We had conversations. Real conversations. And not once did anyone try to update their Facebook status mid-sentence!

 …I do wonder what ever happened to the Irishman though, I never did find him again…

There is no particular rhyme or reason for these photos, they just happen to be ones that I like and ones that remind me of significant moments in my life. I make no apologies for them and they are not here to be critiqued, they simply tell a story…to me anyway.

Hopefully to you they will simply be interesting images from a road well travelled…

Assuming I survive the rigours of the Canadian Arctic I am off back out to Brazil this coming October, to lead a team of volunteers into the slums of São Paulo. Now many might see that as a testament to a mind laid waste by Larium and swamp fever, but to me it sounds like the start of a whole new adventure.

I was last in Brazil 12 months ago, working in the north-east of the country for a company called Charity Challenge. The job back then was to look after a pair of teams working on the renovation of two crèches in the heart of the São Francisco Valley, near a town called Petrolina. I remember us arriving at work that first day, to be greeted with a series of concrete shells that were overgrown with weeds and littered with the broken reminders of years of neglect. The scale of the work was daunting to say the least. The playgrounds were a tangled mass of weeds, rusting metal and old car tyres, whilst the classrooms themselves were little more than a dingy collection of sombre rooms filled with cobwebs and mosquitoes.

Over the coming days though we cleared the jungle and removed the rubbish, built walls and sandpits and began to transform the walls of the crèches into canvases of colourful murals. We overcame heat and dust, giant toads and limping tarantulas. We cleaned floors and windows, tiled bathrooms and inflated enough balloons to launch a small car. We also had fun! Our mission had been to help create an inspiring and safe environment for the children and by the end of the project we were a mass of grinning smiles and grubby, tear-streaked faces.

There are few things in life more likely to raise the spirit than the sound of a child’s laughter, especially when that child has grown up in a community denied the basics that most of us have grown up taking for granted. I still recall my last day there, looking down at the grinning face of a small child covered in face paint and clutching a smiley balloon…

…Twelve months on and I have no idea what faces me in São Paulo, but if last year was anything to go by, it promises to be interesting…

A few years ago I travelled across Ethiopia, for no other reason than I could. Almost a decade later It still remains one of the most visually and culturally captivating places I have ever seen.

To many, Ethiopia today is a country without hope. Nothing more than a famine-ridden dust bowl languishing on the eastern edge of Africa. Yet this is home to one of the oldest Christian civilisations on earth, with a cultural pedigree that can match anything in antiquity. This is a country that witnessed the rise and fall of great empires whilst our ancestors were still running around in animal skins and woad mascara. This is the cradle of humanity for God’s sake!

I’m ashamed to say that I hadn’t given Ethiopia much thought of late, that was until a friend of mine came back from there earlier this year. Listening to her talking about the place brought back memories of sharing a rickety old bus with a man and his Kalashnikov, passing the skeletal remains of burnt out tanks and the imposing majesty of imperial castles as I made my way into the religious heartlands of the interior.

One of the places that left a particular impression on me was a town called Harar, situated in the foothills of the Chercher Mountains, some 150 kilometres from the Somalian border. This was a town of conflict and contrast, a microcosm of African life, where Muslims and Christians had brokered an uneasy truce and the streets and alleyways positively screamed with noise and colour. Once a staunch Muslim stronghold, until the latter part of the 19th century Harar was completely closed to Christians. Birthplace of Ras Tafari Makonnen, better known to most as the emperor Haile Selassie, this was a city like no other I had come across in Ethiopia. It was more vibrant than the towns of the Central Highlands and felt more Arab than African. There was also an underlying feeling of tension wherever I went. Christians were tolerated here, but only just.

For all its initial aggression though I liked Harar. From my hotel room I watched the chat sellers doing a brisk trade in their seemingly inexhaustible supply of the region’s main cash crop. Chat is a mildly intoxicating and perfectly legal stimulant that has been cultivated in Ethiopia for centuries and from my elevated vantage point it also appeared to be the prime preserve of the adult male population of Harar. Walking through the streets later that day I came across countless men resting up in the late afternoon sun, their eyes glazed and their teeth green from chewing bags of the stupefying leaves.

Harar’s network of narrow lanes crisscross the city, passing markets overflowing with spices and vegetables and crossing streets filled to overflowing with barber’s shops, tailors and lepers. I wandered past tiny mosques and Catholic schools, visited the house of the French poet Arthur Rimbaud, who spent 16 years of his life here and, in a back street of almost overwhelming obscurity, came upon the house were Haile Selassie grew up. It had been taken over by a local family and a passing holy man, whose lofty claims to be able to cure everything from sexually transmitted diseases to cancer were somewhat tempered by the appalling stench and overwhelming sense of decay that assailed you as you entered the yard. It was more open sewer than health centre and I remember beating a hasty retreat back out into the warren of alleyways, looking for more pleasant sights and smells.

One of Harar’s more famous spectacles is the nightly hyena feeding that takes place outside the city walls. Very much a tourist attraction these days, it nonetheless has its origins in a ceremony that stretches back hundreds of years and, in spite of its potential for crass commercialism, it does present something of a unique experience. Calling them in from the surrounding darkness the “Hyena man” feeds these wild dogs from a basket of offal, sometimes placing the tempting morsels between his teeth and allowing the more adventurous of the pack to snatch it, quite literally, from his waiting jaws. I counted upwards of 20 of them emerge from the trees and walk cautiously towards us, a somewhat disconcerting sight given that they could have torn us to pieces very easily had they been inclined. They seemed content to go with the easy option though, just as well given that our “armed” escort seemed to be holding his gun the wrong way round!

As the food ran out and the rains began, I recall the Hyenas vanishing into the darkness like ghosts, their retreat being calmly watched over by a mangy cat who seemed to take the entire spectacle in its stride. I should have gone with them. As it was, I spent my last night in Harar stood on a rooftop, in the midst of a storm of almost biblical proportions, trying to talk sense into an evangelising and very drunk American. He had climbed onto the roof to preach a sermon to the poor benighted souls below, offering them comfort and solace from the bottom of a bottle of Jack Daniels. This was not good. For centuries this town had been a crossroads, an entrepôt of commercial trade from Africa, India and the Middle East. It was from here that the Muslim armies of Ahmed Ibn Ibrahim al Ghazi had swept forth in a holy jihad against the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. This was a town with attitude, which still had a xenophobic mistrust of foreigners and the largest chat market in Ethiopia. This was not a town for drunken American evangelists…