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A Son Returns to the Agony of Somalia By K’NAAN

K’NAAN is one of my favorite musicians.  He inspired people around the globe with his rousing “Wavin’ Flag” during the World Cup in South Africa and now he has written a powerful op-ed piece for the New York Times about a journey he took home to his native Somalia.  It’s an urgent call to action in case we are forgetting the famine already.

A Son Returns to the Agony of Somalia

By K’NAAN
K’Naan is a musician and poet.

MOGADISHU, Somalia

ONE has to be careful about stories. Especially true ones. When a story is told the first time, it can find a place in the listener’s heart. If the same story is told over and over, it becomes less like a presence in that chest and more like an X-ray of it.

The beating heart of my story is this: I was born in Mogadishu, Somalia. I had a brief but beautiful childhood filled with poetry from renowned relatives. Then came a bloody end to it, a lesson in life as a Somali: death approaching from the distance, walking into our lives in an experienced stroll.

At 12 years old, I lost three of the boys I grew up with in one burst of machine-gun fire — one pull from the misinformed finger of a boy probably not much older than we were.

But I was also unusually lucky. The bullets hit everyone but me.

Luck follows me through this story; so does my luckless homeland. A few harrowing months later, I found myself on the last commercial flight to leave Somalia before war closed in on the airport. And over the years, fortune turned me into Somalia’s loudest musical voice in the Western Hemisphere.

Meanwhile, my country festered, declining more and more. When I went on a tour of 86 countries last year, I could not perform in the one that mattered most to me. And when my song “Wavin’ Flag” became the theme song for the World Cup that year, the kids back home were not allowed to listen to it on the airwaves. Whatever melodious beauty I found, living in the spotlight, my country produced an opposing harmony in shadows, and the world hardly noticed. But I could still hear it.

And now this terrible year: The worst famine in decades pillages the flesh of the already wounded in Somalia. And the world’s collective humanitarian response has been a defeated shrug. If ever there was a best and worst time to return home, it was now.

So, 20 summers after I left as a child, I found myself on my way back to Somalia with some concerned friends and colleagues. I hoped that my presence would let me shine a light into this darkness. Maybe spare even one life, a life equal to mine, from indifferently wasting away. But I am no statesman, nor a soldier. Just a man made fortunate by the power of the spotlight. And to save someone’s life I am willing to spend some of that capricious currency called celebrity.

We had been told that Mogadishu was still among the most dangerous cities on the planet. So it was quiet on the 15-seat plane from Nairobi. We told nervous jokes at first, then looked to defuse the tension. The one book I had brought was Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast.” I reached a chapter titled “Hunger Was Good Discipline” and stopped. That idea needed some contemplation. The very thing driving so many from their homes in Somalia was drawing me back there. I read on. Hemingway felt that paintings were more beautiful when he was “belly-empty, hollow-hungry.” But he was not speaking of the brutal and criminally organized hunger of East Africa. His hunger was beautiful. It made something of you. The one I was heading into only made ashes of you.

By now, the ride was bumpy. We were flying low, so I could see Baraawe and Merca, beauties of coastal towns that I had always dreamed of visiting. The pilot joked that he would try to fly low enough for my sightseeing, but high enough to avoid the rocket-propelled grenades.

FOR miles along that coast, all you see are paint-like blue water, beautiful sand dunes eroding, and an abandoned effort to cap them with concrete. Everything about Somalia feels like abandonment. The buildings, the peace initiatives, the hopes and dreams of greatness for a nation.

With the ocean to our backs, our wheels touch down in Mogadishu, at the airport I left 20 years before to the surround-sound of heavy artillery pounding the devil’s rhythm. Now there is an eerie calm. We clear immigration, passing citizens with AK-47’s slung over their shoulders.

It’s not a small task to be safe in Mogadishu. So we keep our arrival a secret until after we ride from the airport to the city, a ride on which they say life expectancy is about 17 minutes if you don’t have the kind of security that has been arranged for me.

Over breakfast at a “safe house,” I update my sense of taste with kidney and anjera (a bread), and a perfectly cooled grapefruit drink. Then we journey onto the city streets. It’s the most aesthetically contradictory place on earth — a paradise of paradox. The old Italian and locally inspired architecture is colored by American and Russian artillery paint. Everything stands proudly lopsided.

And then come the makeshift camps set up for the many hungering displaced Somalis. They are the reason I am here. If my voice was an instrument, then I needed it to be an amplifier this time. If my light was true, then I needed it to show its face here, where it counts. Nothing I have ever sung will matter much if I can’t be the mouth of the silenced. But will the world have ears for them, too?

I find the homeless Somalis’ arms open, waiting for the outside world and hoping for a second chance into its fenced heart. I meet a young woman watching over her dying mother, who has been struck by the bullet of famine. The daughter tells me about the journey to Mogadishu — a 200-mile trek across arid, parched land, with adults huddling around children to protect them first. This mother refused to eat her own food in order to feed abandoned children they had picked up along the way. And now she was dying because of that.

The final and most devastating stop for me was Banadir Hospital, where I was born. The doctors are like hostages of hopelessness, surrounded and outnumbered. Mothers hum lullabies holding the skeletal heads of their children. It seems eyes are the only ornament left of their beautiful faces; eyes like lanterns holding out a glimmer of faint hope. Volunteers are doing jobs they aren’t qualified for. The wards are over-crowded, mixing gun wound, malnutrition and cholera patients.

Death is in every corner of this place. It’s lying on the mattresses holding the tiny wrists of half-sleeping children. It’s near the exposed breasts of girls turned mothers too soon. It folds in the cots, all-knowing and silent; its mournful wind swells the black sheets. Here, each life ends sadly, too suddenly and casually to be memorialized.

In this somber and embittered forgotten place, at least they were happy to see I had come.

For more information on Vicky Collins visit Teletrends Television Production and Development.

To see Vicky’s photographs from Africa visit Vicky Collins Photography.

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Going Back to Paniolo Country

My mother always had her head in her art. One of my earliest recollections growing up was her gluing tiny glass stones into mosaics of colorful peacocks. Then she shifted to ceramics and for years our cars could not park in the garage because of her kiln and workshop. When I sang in a choir called Na Kani Pela we needed to raise money so we could represent Hawaii for the Bicentennial. She conducted a group of moms who worked to make centerpieces of town criers from the 1700’s for our banquet. She was always up to her elbows in art projects. When my dad died she took up painting and during this time entered what I consider her most confident and creative period. I have paintings hanging in my home of a rabbi, of Japanese carp called koi, and of Parisian street scenes like you might see on Montmartre. She put her art away for a time when she remarried and spent years dancing the tango. I am a tanguera she once told me. For a time music took the place of paint and canvas. Now she is back at it with fancy figurines and fans and masks. Her art is full of fantasy and whimsy and old Hawaiiana. My favorite piece is an oil painting called Paniolo Country.

Paniolo Country by Art by Jael

I love cowboys and Hawaii and asked my mom how this painting came to be.  I am curious what catches her eye.

Years ago Dad and I flew to Molokai, Kalaupapa, which was the leper colony, with Bob Benson in his private little plane from Frito Lay. He asked us to join him for the day and he would get a special pass because they were getting ready to do away with the leper colony and turn it into a museum. As frightened as I was of flying, and especially in a small plane, we joined him with his wife Beth for that once in a lifetime opportunity. What I saw from the top of the cliffs was what the painting depicts. I remember thinking, wow, what a view! I thought this was the best view in the world and the poor people there cannot fully enjoy it. I did not paint this painting till after Dad died. It was when I saw one day in a magazine something similar and it reminded me of what I saw in Kalaupapa looking down. They used to throw the lepers down the cliffs into the ocean before Father Damien came. You could only reach the top at one time on horseback to bring supplies. There was no other way except a very narrow trail for horses and mules.

Paniolo Country is just one of many paintings and unique pieces you might enjoy at Art by Jael.  Her inspiration comes from the scenery of Hawaii and the imagery of her own imagination. Perhaps you will find yourself a treasure.

For more information on Vicky Collins visit Teletrends Television Production and Development.

To see photography by Vicky Collins visit Vicky Collins Photography.


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“Life” Lesson

I’m reading Keith Richard’s book “Life” and came across a passage that really speaks to me.  It’s about how one needs to walk the walk before they can be authentic and talk the talk. Keith Richards is writing about the early days of  the Rolling Stones when he and his band were still teenage nobodies dreaming of creating the epic blues sounds of their idols, Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf and Robert Johnson.  The passage goes like this:

“The drive in the band was amazing among Mick, Brian and myself. It was incessant study. Not really in the academic sense of it, it was to get the feel of it. And then I think we realized, like any young guys, that blues are not learned in a monastery. You’ve got to go out there and get your heart broke and then come back and then you can sing the blues. Preferably several times. At that time, we were taking it on a purely musical level, forgetting that these guys were singing about shit. First you’ve got to get in the shit. And then you can maybe come back and sing it.”

For more information on Vicky Collins visit Teletrends Television Production and Development.


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Facetime Instead of Facebook: 36 Hours in Honolulu

The Sunday New York Times had a feature in its Travel Section today on how to spend 36 hours in Honolulu.  It singled out some of my favorite places like Kapiolani Park, Chinatown and the drive from Hanauma Bay to Waimanalo with stops at Sandy Beach and Makapuu.  With no disrespect to the author, Jocelyn Fujii, I would like to suggest my own itinerary based on recent travels and a reunion with Na Kani Pela, a choir I sang with in high school that represented Hawaii for the Bicentennial celebration.  I guarantee you will have a magical time.

Na Kani Pela choir gathers for 35th Reunion in Honolulu.

First, start by bringing in the people who made your high school years memorable.  Collect them all on Facebook then invite them and their families for a big reunion bash.  Bug them until they say yes, as showing up for a reunion 35 years later gives people considerable angst.  Get people warmed up with a small gathering at the Ground Floor on Richards Street in downtown Honolulu and listen to some Hawaiian music.  Hold a pot luck at the home of your calabash mama who looks just like she did 35 years ago.  Watch the spark of recognition in her eyes with each arrival and the tears of joy as she gives you a huge ohana hug.  Realize you are older now then she was back in 1976.  Shudder!  Celebrate as each of your high school friends walks through the door.  Sing the songs that were the soundtrack of your youth.  Take photos.  Hug alot.  Talk story.  Bring tons of food and pig out.

Stay in room 1431 of the Waikiki Beach Marriott with a view of Honolulu that will make you never want to leave.  Spend time with your sisters for the first time in three decades on your island home.  Bring your sons along as dates.  Let them roam around Waikiki like you did when you were teenagers.  Get up early every day and walk around Diamond Head.  Discover the Farmers Market at Kapiolani Community College.  Have inari sushi, fried green tomatoes and shave ice for breakfast.  Talk to a homeless man named George on Kalakaua Avenue who reminds you that “just because you don’t have a roof over your head, doesn’t mean you don’t have a home.”  Visit your favorite beaches on Oahu.  Eat plate lunch at Zippy’s, L & L, Kaneke’s and Ted’s Bakery.  Have breakfast at Wailana.  Char siu omelet.  Ono!

Na Kani Pela picnic in Waimanalo

Have a picnic on the beach at Sherwood’s in Waimanalo.  Make Kukui Nut leis with your buddies and talk more story.  Watch your children play in the surf and get stung by Portuguese Man of Wars just like you did when you were a kid.  Be baffled as they stay in the water even though the pain makes them want to jump out of their shorts.  Realize that if your son was growing up in Hawaii today it would be a perfect fit just like it was for you so many years ago.  Have a banquet at the Elk’s Club and watch 4th of July fireworks in the distance.  Ooh and aah!  See all your friends in their muumuus and aloha shirts.  Realize you are all older and a few pounds heavier but you can still sing and raise the roof like you did when you were teenagers.  Watch two generations of hula dancers and tell your friends just how much they meant in your life.  Hug some more, this time holding on tighter, as you say goodbye for now.

Sunset on Waikiki Beach

There is no place like Hawaii, and to me, there is no place like Honolulu, where I grew up and still continue to call home.  The only problem is that you eventually have to leave.  36 hours go by quickly.  This time when I flew back to the mainland over the lights of Waikiki I took so much more with me.  I carried my friends from Na Kani Pela, I took a tropical sea of memories and the music that played in the background of my youth.  I came back to Colorado with a full heart and a sense of how lucky I was to be a kid who grew up in a place like that, with friends like that, surrounded by love like that.  That’s how you spend 36 hours in Honolulu.  Now we’ll have to stay in touch on Facebook.

For more information on Vicky Collins visit Teletrends Television Production and Development.


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Happy Hanukkah (Yeshiva University Style)

Mazel Tov to the students of Yeshiva University who came up with this clever video, “Candlelight.” What a creative way to wish everyone a Happy Hanukkah and appeal to people of all ages. Love all these knock off’s of of Taio Cruz’s song “Dynamite.”

For more information on Vicky Collins visit http://teletrendstv.com.


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Beads, Bricks and a Better Life

It was the most amazing coming out party.  A small village outside Kampala, Uganda, full of women, celebrating the miraculous accomplishment of rising up from life crushing poverty to become homeowners and landowners.  They started singing and dancing in the morning and the festivities did not stop until midnight.  One of the most joyful sights I’ve ever seen.  Thanks to BeadforLife, the people in the bead circle who support this NGO, and to HDNet’s World Report which gave us a home for this remarkable story.  Hope the video makes you smile.

Beads, Bricks and a Better Life from Vicky Collins on Vimeo.

For more information on Vicky Collins visit http://teletrendstv.com.


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K’Naan: Waving Flag’s Backstory

I love backstories. I love looking behind the scenes at inspirations and motivations that lead to great creativity. Here’s musician and artist K’Naan’s story in his own words on BBC Radio about what led to his epic song “Waving Flag,” which became a rallying cry for earthquake stricken Haiti, and then a joyous anthem for the FIFA World Cup in South Africa.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/news/2010/08/100811_knaan_nh_sl.shtml?s

For more information on Vicky Collins visit http://teletrendstv.com.


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We are the World (Cup)

Sad to see the United States go down to Ghana in the 2010 FIFA World Cup but also glad to see Africa still in the game. The energy in the streets of Kampala was amazing while we were there. People would crowd outside of bars and stare through the windows of stores to watch the tiny televisions tuned in to the games. I’m sure they’re proud to have a team still in the hunt. This song was playing during every commercial break in Uganda’s World Cup coverage. It featured a little animated African boy drinking Coca-Cola. I like the full length celebration mix. A rousing anthem to keep me in the spirit even if the trophy is not for America (this year.) Love how the world can put aside its differences and come together for soccer. Thanks K’Naan for the rousing anthem.

For more information on Vicky Collins visit http://teletrendstv.com.


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Juliette’s Acid Attack

Acid attacks are a brutal form of domestic violence in the developing world. Juliette tells the story of her attack in Kampala, Uganda and how the man who maimed her walked away. Despite devastating injuries she inspires with courage and optimism.

HDNet World Report: Acid Attacks/Juliette’s Story from Vicky Collins on Vimeo.

For more information on Vicky Collins visit http://teletrendstv.com.


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The Faith Club Part 4

Over the course of reading the book “The Faith Club” many things resonated with me but one statement from Ranya, the Muslim woman, sums things up.  “Once you can see things from both sides you’re on the side of compassion and humanity.”  Another thing that impressed me was a bit of wisdom from my friend, Cheryl, during a walk last weekend.  “Don’t judge a religion by the people who practice it.”  How simple, yet how profound, these statements are.  Cheryl’s remarks reminded me why I strayed from religion in the first place and Ranya’s thoughts reminded me why I came back.

As a high school student, attending Episcopal School and singing in a Catholic choir I often asked myself if there was room in Christianity for a more open minded view.  Surely there was more than one path to God.  I struggled with the notion of a God who condemns those who don’t accept him or causes good people to suffer.  I recall when I was producing television at KAKE TV in Wichita, Kansas, we had a family with many children appear one day on our noon talk show.  There was love and joy all around.  A short time later we were shocked to learn that a fire had swept through their home and taken the lives of several of their children.  One of my colleagues remarked that God must have been punishing them.  I shut her out.  God reveals himself in many ways but he doesn’t kill babies.  I’ll never believe in a God of vengeance.  To me that notion belongs to fundamentalists and extremists who monopolize the dialogue and make the possibility of understanding impossible. 

But by closing my mind at that moment wasn’t I disrespectful of her ideas, however farfetched?  Could we have possibly understood each other better if we had dialogued on the subject rather than agreed to disagree?  That’s what is so impressive about the women in “The Faith Club.”  Over time they realized that there were more things that united them than divided them.  They were able to embrace the faiths of each other, put it out on the table and recognize a God of all humanity.  Suzanne, the Christian woman, described religion like college degrees.  “One person might earn a BA in literature while another earns one in history.  They’re equally educated, though differently educated.  The real test is how they apply that knowledge in their lives.”  I’ve finished reading “The Faith Club” and as I come to the end of this high holiday journey of faith I’m committed to going out in the new year with my mind more open.  There are connections and contradictions in all faiths and I must not only listen but also hear.

And I must remember that if I am open, God shows up in the most unexpected places.  The truth doesn’t only reveal itself in church or temple but sometimes under the stars at night.  During my high school years I sang in a choir called Na Kani Pela which performed every Sunday at Our Lady of Peace Cathedral in downtown Honolulu.  During the summer before I went to college we went to Makawao, Maui for a concert.  It was one of the last times we would all be together as a group and as we had done so many times before, we sang.  The song that night was a Latin hymn called “O Magnum Mysterium.”  As we began our harmonies a silver rainbow appeared in the sky and when we finished it slowly faded away.  It was quite miraculous.  I will always believe God was there that night reminding me to recognize the beauty in all faiths and remember the universal truths that connect us to one another and our humanity.

For more information on Vicky Collins visit http://teletrendstv.com.