Thursday, December 04, 2008

Memory books, HIV/AIDS, and Africa: "So that when I die you will never forget me."

Portrait of Harriet, a main character in the film "Memory Books" by German documentary filmmaker Christa Graf.

“We know everything about how Africa is dying but we know very little about how Africa is living.”
Henning Mankell, popular Swedish crime novelist and the author of “I die, but the memory lives on”

I have to admit that for the past weeks I have been rather depressed like many people may be around the world with all of the problems that humanity is facing. From a global financial crisis that is threatening everyone to warlords on the rampage in eastern Congo; to Somali pirates operating with impunity off the coast of the Horn of Africa while their country sinks ever deeper into the Abyss, attacking commercial and passenger ships right down the coast of East Africa to Tanzania; to Zimbabwe’s monster-in-residence Robert Mugabe virtually choking the very lifeblood out of his country and his people while regional African leaders debate whether to act either on behalf of the people of Zimbabwe or serve their own short-sighted interests, to Sudan’s despicable leader Omar al-Bashir & Co. trying to snake their way out of a pending ICC indictment for acts of genocide and crimes against humanity in Darfur.

To top things off the attacks and atrocities against innocent civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan continue seemingly unabated despite our best efforts to stop them while terrorists have successfully carried out brutal attacks and mass murder in India’s megacity Mumbai, threatening to turn the Indian subcontinent into a living Hell. These are dark times for humanity, no doubt about it.

And then along comes
World AIDS Day 2008 (December 1st) when caring people across the globe reflect upon the loss and ravages of a disease that has killed and continues to kill millions and millions of people. On the evening of December 1st while scanning TV channels for something good to watch I stumbled upon a film at ARTE-TV that I want to share with you. It is a documentary film about HIV/AIDS in Africa, Uganda to be specific, but unlike any other that I have seen on the subject to date. The film is named simply “Memory Books” and was shot and directed by a renowned German filmmaker named Christa Graf. It is a film about hope and self-help groups organized by Ugandan women who are HIV-positive working to support one another and create something useful for the soon-to-be orphaned children of sick and dying parents. This “something” is a collection of tender and loving words and photographs and drawings contained in little books for the children and as the filmmakers remind us, these Memory Books may be some of the most important documents of our time. Handwritten, handmade, nothing fancy, costly, or high tech.

I won’t take up much more of your time with my own words as I would like you to explore Memory Books on your own thanks to the wise choice that the German filmmakers have made to launch a website (English, German) and a blog in support of the film and the Memory Books Project in Uganda. However, I would like to add the following few words:

Regular readers of Jewels in the Jungle may remember that the title of this blog owes its origins to a project for assisting orphans in Uganda
as I explained in my Aug/Sep 2008 interview series “Seven Questions”. Parts of the film “Memory Books” was shot on location where that inspirational project took place (in and around the Ugandan cities of Kampala and Jinja on Lake Victoria, and rural villages in the Iganga district). As I watched this excellent documentary I couldn’t help but wonder about the fate of the beautiful children featured in my Yahoo! Flickr photostream on Uganda___ how many of these children are doing well and excelling at school, how many are sick with disease and may be no longer with us? I also was reminded of my friend Fred, a good and highly intelligent man who has been working with AIDS orphans in southeast Uganda and the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo for years, trying to help these children with meager resources donated by local people without any assistance from the Ugandan government or international aid organizations. I remember our many conversations about the crisis with HIV/AIDS and its impact on life in Uganda as well as our talks about the unfolding humanitarian nightmare in eastern Congo.

Perhaps someday I will create my own “Memory Book” with my two grownup children so that they will have something valuable to help them remember their “old Dad”___ but in the meantime if I happen to die unexpectedly (God forbid) please remember me by what I have tried to express here at Jewels in the Jungle and for my children may they remember precious moments from the past that we have been blessed to share together both at home and abroad. Now have a look at this outstanding and “important” film about dealing with the anguish of loss before and after the death of a dear loved one.

Excerpts from the documentaryMemory Books’ courtesy of the official film website

In front of the small brick house Dennis and Chrissi brush their teeth every evening in the dim glow of the oil lamp. The 10-year-old watches his little sister conscientiously as they get ready for bed. Since their mother died of AIDS two years ago they are both orphans, two of more than two million of their kind in Uganda. There are few countries in Africa that have more households run by orphaned children and, despite extensive efforts by the government to raise awareness, experts on the subject predict that nearly 35% of Uganda's population is infected with HIV. When the parents die, the children are forced to look after themselves.

A very special project has emerged in Uganda as a result: Memory Books, written by infected parents, mostly mothers, and their children. Aware of the illness, it is a way for the family to come to terms with the inevitable death that it faces. Openly, honestly and compassionately, the books give the children a chance to prepare themselves for life on their own. Values and traditions are passed on in the form of stories, fairytales and songs and the family’s history is recorded with the children's favorite memories or their parent's wishes for the future.

The books not only capture immeasurably valuable memories, but also allow members of the family to process some gruesome realities and prepare for the future. Hopelessness and desperation are confronted through the collaborative effort of remembering and recording, a process that inspires unexpected strength and even solace in the face of death. These books will likely be the most important guidelines that these orphans have to lead them through life.

Excerpts from August 2008 interview with filmmaker Christa Graf courtesy of (International Documentary Association)

Synopsis: In Uganda, AIDS-infected mothers have begun writing what they call Memory Books for their children. Memory Books are a way for families to come to terms with the inevitable death that they face. Hopelessness and desperation are confronted through the collaborative effort of remembering and recording, a process that inspires unexpected strength and even solace in the face of death.

IDA: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?

Christa Graf: Until 1978 I worked as a laboratory technician in the biochemistry research department of the Max Planck Institute and at universities in Munich, Berlin and New York. Long trips in Africa, the Americas and Asia inspired my dream of becoming a journalist. In 1992 I began an internship at TELE5 TV station and later worked as a volunteer at TV Freising. Since 1994, I have been a freelance author and producer for various TV stations and have created more than 50 reportages and documentaries for renowned stations including ZDF, 3sat and Bayerischer Rundfunk.IDA: What inspired you to make Memory Books?

CG: In 2006 I went to a reading of I Die, But the Memory Lives On by Henning Mankell, a Swedish author who gained bestseller stardom with his series of crime novels. Because he lives not only in Sweden, but also in Mozambique, he has a special interest in African concerns, so he wrote the first book about the Memory Book project. At the reading Mankell said a lot about the Memory Books and how they might become one of the most important documents of our time, which sparked my interest. I wanted to find out more about the Memory Books, so I decided they would be my next topic.

IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them?

CG: One of the biggest problems ocurred right at the beginning. I went to Uganda to find protagonists for the film. Unfortunately, as soon as I told them about the documentary's topic, they all lost interest, turned me down and refused to help. Of course I could understand it because for them it looked just like another European making another film about AIDS and how Africa is ruining itself. But when I explained I was trying to make a film about how Africa deals with this problem and how it lives, not about how it dies, they became very cooperative and friendly.

Additional resources and related articles

Memory Books – the official website of the documentary film by Christa Graf (German, English)
Film trailer (English, Lusoga and Luanda, the indigenous languages of southeastern Uganda)
Note. Film trailer is in Apple Quicktime format, approx. 38MB in size
Main characters
Video interviews with the filmmakers and producer including film excerpts (German)
Note: videos are in Apple Quicktime format, approx. 100MB in size total
The organisation NACWOLA
Dennis and his sister Chrissi
Press Material
Memory Books - a film by Christa Graf (the official blog)

ARTE-TV (a German/French independent television network)
Memory Books: damit du mich nie vergisst (German text and video)
Program airs on ARTE December 1st, 5th, and 10th (check local listings) – website of the International Documentary Association
Interview with filmmaker Christa Graf about the making of “Memory Books” by Thomas White, Aug 2008

Henning Mankell – official website of the popular Swedish author
Lest We Forget: Africa's AIDS Crisis - Photo Essays - TIME

James Nachtwey’s XDRTB Project to help raise awareness and action against Extreme Drug Resistant Tuberculosis (XDRTB) – personal website of the award-winning TIME photographer

Camera Rwanda @ Flickr – the Flickr photostream of professional photographer Kresta King-Cutcher Venning

Jewels in the Jungle @ Flickr – my humble Africa photostreams at

Plan International
AIDS Memory Books

World AIDS Day 2008 - UK official website

BBC News
Picturing life with HIV in DR Congo, 11/30/08
Personal website of photojournalist Nell Freeman

The pitfalls of Africa’s aid addiction, 11/24/08
Sorious Samura’s documentary on the sorry state of corruption and neglect in public health services administration in Sierra Leone and Uganda

BBC World - Panorama program: Addicted to Aid (aired Nov 24th)

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