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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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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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Fallout from a Bombing

I received a call this afternoon from a young man named Thomas Kramer from Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania. I could tell that he was very young.  In a most tentative voice he said “Is this Ms. Collins?”  I answered yes in the skeptical voice I use for phone solicitors.  Then he told me the most amazing story.  Turns out he is just 14 and was in Uganda for three weeks volunteering with a mission group.  Thomas was in the Ethiopian Village Restaurant in Kampala, Uganda watching Spain play Netherlands in the World Cup finals when the horrific bombing happened on July 11.  If you remember an Al-Qaeda linked Somali terrorist group called Al-Shabab bombed two locations in Kampala killing 74 people.  They were pissed because Uganda had peacekeeping troops in Mogadishu and this was destabilizing their evil efforts.  Thomas was eight feet from the bomber and was one of the 85 people who were injured.  Another friend of mine named Matt Anderson, who spent the summer in Kampala volunteering for BeadforLife, (http://beadforlife.org) was on the other side of the wall at the same restaurant and was unhurt.  Thomas is recuperating from 105 staples in his leg and a skin graft.  Matt is probably part of the reason he is alive.  Matt was being hurried out of the restaurant after the carnage but could not turn away from the injured American boy.  He helped Thomas that night and alerted our embassy too.  Because I wrote a blog about this episode Thomas found me and asked me to put him in touch with Matt so he could thank him.  I am so completely inspired by this and by the fact that my blog may bring these two together.  For those of us who feel we blog in obscurity it’s so wonderful to know that sometimes we actually make a difference.  OYE!!

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


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Kampala World Cup Massacre

I had hardly stopped fist pumping in the air over Spain’s victory in the World Cup when I heard the news about the simultaneous bombings in Kampala, Uganda.  What caught my eye immediately, besides the death toll in the senseless attack, was that one of the locations of carnage was the Ethiopian Village restaurant in Kabalagala.  When we were in Uganda in June we stayed on the hill right above this district and would walk down to Kabalagala to eat and use the internet.  The Ethiopian Village had an enormous TV in the main room and people would crowd in to watch the World Cup.  We were in Uganda when African teams were still in the hunt so people would spill onto the street.  You would often see enthusiastic fans packed 100 deep on the street looking into some bar with a tiny TV just to get a glimpse of the action.

When I heard about the bombings, I immediately worried about my friend, Matt Anderson.  He’s a student from the University of Colorado, on his first trip to Africa, who is helping BeadforLife with its inventory this summer.  He was staying in the same guest house where we were and it would have been completely logical for him to have walked down the street to the Ethiopian Village for a Nile Special and the finals between Spain and the Netherlands.  Ethiopian Village has great food and my colleague, Paul, and I took Matt there one night after we all were done surfing the net across the street at The Lion’s Den.  My instincts were right.  Matt was in the bombing.  I received an email shortly after the attack from Devin Hibbard, our host and one of the founders of BeadforLife, that yes, Matt had been there but he was alright.  Thank God.  This morning I received this email:

Vicky,

I’m OK.  I was at the Ethiopian Village when the bomb went off.  Thankfully, I was in a side room watching a smaller TV, not the large projector screen, so there was a wall between me and the blast.  I wasn’t hurt at all by the blast but helped some Americans who got shrapnel in their legs – everyone’s instinct was to rush out as fast as possible but these people were on the ground and couldn’t move, I had to do something.  Eventually, people kicked me out saying it wasn’t safe even though these Americans were still inside and injured.  I didn’t know what to do until someone yelled at me to call my embassy.  Thankfully I had the number in the Uganda phone Devin gave me.  I called the embassy and shortly afterward greeted an agent who arrived on the scene.  This is all very scary and unfortunately put a damper on the whole trip.  I don’t know how much longer I will be staying but friends at BeadforLife say that there will be political unrest for a while… we’ll see.  Thanks for the email.  I’ll keep you posted.  Matt

A Somali group called Al-Shabab, which has ties to Al-Qaeda, is taking credit for this massacre.  A leader for the militants said “Whatever makes Uganda cry, makes us happy.”  The group has a beef with Uganda because they have peacekeepers in Somalia and have ties to Ethiopia.  There are worries that there will continue to be instability leading up to next year’s Presidential election.  According to news accounts, the bombings at the Ethiopian Village and at the Rugby Club killed at least 74 people.  This is unthinkable.  This is so senseless.  During my visits there I have always been amazed by how safe I feel in Kampala.  It is such a shame that radicals would disrupt and disorganize the place like this.  And it is such a shame that my friend Matt, who was so overjoyed by the opportunity to do good in Uganda, had to witness such evil.  I hope he doesn’t lose heart.  Please pray for the people of Uganda and most of all please pray for peace.

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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Favorite Friends I’ve Never Met

Several of my friends and even my family think social networking is a waste of time.  They won’t Facebook, Twitter or read blogs and can’t really understand what I get from it.  I’ve found the most vehement opposition from my tango dancing mother and my friends who are cyclists.  These are not ladies who exercise casually, but rather women who compete on the dance floor, do 100 mile bike rides in the Rockies and think it’s fun to race up Mt. Diablo in Northern California.  Their buff bodies speak to their passion.  My flying fingers speak to mine.  They are my bricks and mortar relationships.  But because of social networking I have a new circle of virtual friends who I enjoy and respect, even though we have never met or for that matter, may never meet. 

First there is Susan MacCaulay.  She is a Canadian living in Dubai.  I stumbled across her website Amazing Women Rock (http://amazingwomenrock.com) when it was quite new.  What seems to have started out as a place to go for moderate Muslim women has morphed into something much larger and universal.  She is a champion of women around the world and has a large following now.  The first thing you notice about her is her passion for pink, her platinum blonde hair and her trendy get ups.  On one occasion she turned the camera on herself in a Riyadh hotel room and talked about how strange it was being a woman on a road trip to Saudi Arabia.  Then she posted it on YouTube and endured the threats from those who felt they were disrespected.  She has an elderly and opinionated mother who she adores somewhere back in Canada who reminds me of David Lettermen’s mom.  I am such a fan of hers I even contemplated a trip to Africa through Dubai just so I could meet her.  She hollers about injustice towards women and celebrates their achievements.  Susan rocks! 

Second is Dr. Qanta Ahmed.  She is a striking British national whose family came from Pakistan.  What’s interesting about virtual friendships is you often forget what brought you into someone’s universe.  I think I crossed her path doing research on a story for HDNet’s World Report but I’m not sure.  She had written an article about her transformative relationship with a rabbi who made her fall in love with Judaism while she lived in Charleston, South Carolina.  The irony came at the end when you found out she was a Muslim.  She is one of the most articulate voices for connection between people of all faiths.  She told me about her book “In The Land of Invisible Women.”  I ran out to buy it.  She wrote about the time when she couldn’t renew her visa in the United States and had to leave the country even though she was a doctor practicing medicine.  She moved for two years to Saudi Arabia and tells the story of the culture shock for a professional woman under the kingdom’s repressive laws.  Even so, she had a remarkable journey, had great stories about Riyadh and the Hajj, and got in touch with her Muslim faith.  I was stunned by her writing ability.  She has an amazing eye for detail and there was an extraordinary richness in her voice.  I still don’t know how she finds time to practice medicine with so much social networking.       

Third is my filmmaking friend, Zippy (is that the greatest name or what?) Nyaruri.  I met her via email when I needed a fixer for a story on the monetization of food aid in Kenya.  A fixer is a producer on the ground in a foreign country who helps set up a story and takes care of arrangements.  Without a fixer it is next to impossible to handle all the logistics and relationships.  Our story fell through but we have kept in touch through Facebook.  Through Zippy I see Africa.  When I first was introduced to her she was bouncing back and forth between Kampala and Nairobi.  Now she lives in Capetown, South Africa and recently she posted pictures of herself in Namibia.  She is developing a documentary about one of the few women truck drivers in Africa.  She introduced us to a fellow filmmaker named Godwin Opuly who runs sound and second camera for us when we are doing video production for BeadforLife (http://beadforlife.org.)  Even though I have never met Zippy, when I considered visiting Capetown for the FIFA World Cup, she invited me to stay in her home.

Fourth is Caroline Jones.  She actually found me when she saw a story I produced about an acid attack victim called Juliette.  She was so moved she asked if she could use a photograph of her as the foundation for a painting.  Caroline’s ambition is to help others through art.  Her inspirations are women facing obstacles and the book “Half the Sky” by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and his wife Sheryl WuDunn.  Caroline has created a body of work she calls Nguvu http://nguvu.artworkfolio.com.  Nguvu means strength in Swahili and her exhibit is this August in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.  She will donate 50% of the sale from each work to the organization selected by the photographer.  She also builds boats, has a daughter and is a vegan who blogs about tasty recipes for other vegans.  That’s all I know about her.

Finally there is Karen Daniel.  She is a freelance television producer just like me who lives in Knoxville, Tennessee.  She’s loves NASCAR and drives a truck.  She idolizes Dolly Parton and Linda Ellerbee.  She is the kind of person that you recommend even if you don’t know them because you know she gets it.  She’s been described as fearless and like me she wished she moved to New York City right out of college.  She has grey hair and the last time we chatted I told her that models dye their hair grey now.  It’s the new hip thing.  We also have a mutual acquaintance.  I met Ashton Ramsey trying to book Neil Wanless for the Today Show.  He’s the impoverished young cowboy who won a 200+ million dollar lottery in Winner, South Dakota.  Talk about a small world.  Both Ashton and I know Karen Daniel.  Once again, I can’t recall how it came up but imagine my surprise when I’m sitting in a small town bar and we both know my virtual friend.

Of course my virtual friendships aren’t anything like the ones I have with those who I grew up with, break bread with, go to book club with, and take Sunday walks with.  Those are the lasting friendships of my life.  But my virtual friendships are enriching my life and broadening my circle and I’m learning and pondering things that I never would have considered if I weren’t running across these amazing women around the world.  My college friend, Margaret Hoeveler’s mother, Griff, used to say at the end of the day you can count your true friends on one hand.  I think that’s wise but I also have a circle of special social networking friends I can count on one hand and they assure me the energy I spend doing this is not a waste of time.

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