Singing in the Shadow of AIDS

During his travels throughout Africa, journalist Jonah Eller-Isaacs occasionally sent personal "dispatches" to approximately 200 people via e-mail. They provide an interesting insight into Eller-Isaacs' experiences and his own perspective while he gathered information for the "Singing in the Shadow of AIDS" project.

Below are these e-mails in chronological order.
Malawi by Moonlight
June 01, 2004

Dear Friends,

First of all, thank you all for your support in making this trip a reality. Although I'm here alone, you are all with me in spirit and I couldn't have done it without you.

I've arrived safely after an unbelievably long flight. From JFK I flew to Dakar Senegal, where unfortunately I wasn't able to get off the plane, but was rewarded with my own aisle for the rest of the flight. We flew out of Dakar at sunrise, crossed over hazy rivers and had stunning views of Abidjan in Cote d'Ivoire and the sparse Skeleton Coast of Namibia. As we closed in on Jo'burg, we passed over Botswana, and I thought of Mma Ramotswe and the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency.

After a short night in South Africa, I flew into Lilongwe, Malawi's capital, where Dr. Trywell and his sons met me at the airport. His son Albert and I have become good friends, and he is my regular translator. We left Lilongwe after an afternoon at the mechanics and took a hair-raising trip to the northern highlands. They drive on the left side here, but it seems to be totally arbitrary! The roads were lined with people for hours until we started heading into the mountains. Malawi by moonlight was vast plains with mountains rising up like giant burial mounds and distant fires beneath a never-ending sky.

I spent the first couple of days recovering from the trip, and I think after four days, I'm finally starting to adjust, although I seem to be allergic to my bed and it's made me pretty sick. Trywell and his wife Marilyn are wonderful hosts and are taking excellent care of me. Nchenachena is a huge decentralized village, and I'm slowly seeing more of it. I've mastered the basic chiTumbuka greetings, and unfortunately my chiChewa studies are virtually useless - people understand it, but they are put off if I don't speak Tumbuka.

Trywell's family is extensive and tight-knit. Uncles are also called fathers, and a niece would be a daughter, so there are many family connections that I still don't quite understand. Trywell's grandchildren are wonderful, and quickly warmed up to me. The other kids in the village still run away screaming and laughing when I say Monire awana (hello kids). One baby in the Nyirongo's compound still bursts into tears whenever she sees me. They are beautiful children, full of life and very independent. 9 year olds care for 4 year olds who care for infants. It's much easier to learn Tumbuka with them, and they are proving excellent teachers.

On Sunday I went to a service at the CCAP church (Church of Central Africa Presbyterian). I can't find words for the joy and beauty of the harmony. I sang with the congregation in Tumbuka and one of the hymns used a melody that I knew well. With Albert's help, I followed the sermon, and since I don't have words to describe the music, I'll let the passage we read from Acts Ch.2 v.2-4 do it for me:

And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing and mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues...

This passage shot through my soul and I found myself as a part of some sort of universal human experience and understanding, not only in the service, but in the greater work I'm trying to do here.

When I arrived in Nchenachena, I was feeling very unsure of myself and my qualifications, and Saul Bellow (Thanks Dad) took a magnifying glass to my fears in Henderson the Rain King:

...maybe it was shame at coming all this way and then having so little to contribute. All the ingenuity and development and coordination that it takes to bring a fellow so quickly and so deeply into the African interior! And then - he is the wrong fellow!

Fortunately, I'm feeling a little better about things today. Albert took me to my first African market day (a wonderful experience), and one of the shopkeepers said he was part of a choir that performs songs about AIDS (Edzi) and I'm headed to their rehearsal tomorrow. He also said there was a regional network of Edzi choirs in the region - I'm very excited to investigate. Later this week I'm headed to the local schools, and many people have assured me that the students perform lots of different Edzi songs. I think I'll have my work cut out for me over the coming weeks.

My health is excellent, my back is strong, and everything is great except for the fact that I'm allergic to my bed, which has woken me up with the 3 am roosters. I get up as the sun rises and walk around the village, when I get amazing views of the grassy peaks that rise a thousand feet above the village. I've also seen amazing birds, and been able to identify a few of them (Thanks Baker/Vaneks) - African golden orioles, bee-eaters and tiny glowing sunbirds. Coming back to the Nyirongos at night, an immense eagle owl swooped down right in front of me.

I met Gretchen Gorman, the Nchenachena Peace Corps volunteer. Her family was visiting and we had a campfire. Gretchen is working with an environmental focus and we're going to try and work out a trek together through Nyika National Park, which sits a few miles away at the top of the mountains above the village.

Things are quiet after the elections. Everyone I've talked to is completely disillusioned with politics and knows the new president rigged the election (sound familiar?). I'm glad that things aren't at a boiling point yet, but people are very unhappy and Malawi will have to work hard to recover from its exploitation at the hands of its ruling party.

I'm sure you've all read enough now. I miss you all! If you'd like a postcard, send me your address and I'll see what I can do.

Take care,


The real meaning of pants, and in a room with god
June 11, 2004

Dear Friends,

Thanks for your wonderful messages. It's great to get news from home. I'll try to find time to respond to you all. Please keep writing!

Let me start with a wonderful afternoon of miscommunication. The guide recommends dressing modestly here in Malawi, so on laundry day, when I was forced to wear shorts, I was embarrassed and self-conscious. When Albert and I went to meet the Secondary School headmaster to set up a recording session, I told Albert's friends that I was cold because I couldn't wear any pants, as they were being washed. I received strange looks, but wasn't sure why. When I greeted the headmaster and one of the teachers, I again explained my situation around not wearing pants, and again came strange looks and a change in conversation. I didn't think much of it until we headed for home, and Chimwe (Albert's Tumbuka name) asked me, why do you say you don't wear pants? He explained that (thanks to the British) long pants are called trousers, not pants.

What are pants? Underwear. Oops.

On to more stories. I've been away two weeks now and I am engulfed in music. I've recorded solo singers who play homemade guitars with bicycle brake wire strings and bucket bottoms, high school students that would sing the pants off the Mormon Tabernacle, a full album of songs from a local AIDS awareness choir, even chants at a football match. Many of you know that I get very enthusiastic about the things I love, and right now I want nothing more than to sit each and every one of you down and play this powerful, beautiful, joyous music for you.

I can't thank my friends at MPR enough for their field training - most of sessions are in tiny concrete room packed with people, with next to no time for sound checks and just one chance to get good tape. It feels great to be able to get good sound out of it.

Even with the emotional disconnect of hearing life through headphones, I don't have words to describe how much I'm moved each time I sit down to record. I think it's a little like Paul Simon says:

A man walks down a street, it's a street in a strange world.
Maybe it's the Third World, maybe it's his first time around.
He doesn't speak the language, he holds no currency.
He is a foreign man, he is surrounded by the sound, sound
Of cattle of in the marketplace, the scatterings of orphanages
He looks around, around, he sees angels in the architecture
Spinning in infinity, he says, angels - Allelulia!

This past week was unfortunately darkened by the death of Alec Nyirongo, Trywell's nephew (essentially a son). Alec was the chief of Mphande, the small area of Nchenachena where the Nyirongo family lives. I had met Alec during my visit to the Kasambala clinic, where he was extraordinarily friendly and eager for conversation despite his obviously terrible pain. His eyes were jaundiced yellow, his handshake was weak and his breath was short and rattled heavily with tuberculosis. On the way to Mzuzu to send my last email, Alec and his wife were in the car on the way to the hospital, where he died a few days later. I was with him as he breathed his last fresh air outside St Johns Hospital, and his death struck me tremendously.

Immediately after his death, most of the village descended on Mphande to mourn, wailing and singing through the night. Trywell and all the family spent the night (and many to follow) sleeping in Alec's house (for the women) or mats outside by the fires (for the men). On Sunday, the afternoon after he died, I was invited to attend the formal funeral service. There was a central group of mourners surrounding the coffin, which was covered in bougainvillea and flowers collected from the nearby hills. After a short sermon, the immediate family processed down towards the graveyard. I'll never forget the wailing and sobbing of Alec's widow and eldest daughter as they turned away from the open coffin. The rest of the crowd followed the family down the hills, across the river and through withered maize and yellow tobacco fields to the graveyard. The service was full of singing and long incomprehensible speeches. The sounds! The wind leading a choir of banana tree leaves, the shovels drumming a heartbeat, padding the hard red earth to the wails of a village mourning another soul lost too soon. The words of Dylan Thomas ran over and over in my head:

Do not go gentle into that good night Old age should burn and rage and close of day Rage, rage against the dying of the light

After the funeral, I sat alone with my thoughts, listening to In the Aeroplane Over the Sea and writing. Chimwe and I both believe he died of AIDS (code name: TB), although no one is saying anything.

The fifth night of mourning is the last - it is a time of healing and moving forward, when the mourners sing the spirit to rest and most head back home. After discussions with Trywell and Marilyn as to whether it would be appropriate, Trywell told me I would be invited to enter the house of mourning and record. I was honored and still feel incredibly lucky to have seen what I saw that night.

The room was dim, lamp-lit, and smelled of sweat and paraffin. The chanting slowed as I entered and was given a few precious seconds to set up at the feet of the singers. Not the optimal recording situation, but the room was packed like a third class Indian train. What was I supposed to do - push a sleeping elderly woman aside to get my microphone in place? I don't think so.

There were drums, bells, dancing, wailing voices singing, chanting, ululating, waves of sound that overwhelmed and could never be effectively captured on tape. I ended up taping for over two hours and gave up around midnight, although they kept it up until dawn. As the sun rose the next morning, I could hear their distant chanting. I still can't believe I was invited. The mourners called God down into that room - it was holy space, and I was offered a piece to take home. Just incredible.

In other news, the tobacco harvest is in full swing. It's Malawi's main cash crop (70% of total agricultural export), and the clinics that Trywell operates are heavily subsidized by the sale of tobacco. It's interesting that something so destructive helps the clinics stay open. There's so much work involved! I've helped with some of the drying, pressing and baling the dusty, spotted brown leaves which are everywhere around the Nyirongo compound.

I'm headed to Nkhata Bay on Lake Malawi for the weekend, and looking forward to getting out of the village for a while. The Nyirongos are wonderful hosts, but I can't do anything for myself. I can't cook or clean, and yesterday I finally snuck out and left the house for the first time without an escort. I've come to treasure the few times I have alone.

I've been playing lots of ultimate frisbee (here thanks to Katie Clayton) with the high school kids, and I'm quickly getting into great shape. I can actually outrun some of the 12 year olds now. I haven't had a drop of alcohol since I arrived in Malawi, and my body loves it! After the Frisbee game yesterday, I played the kids some of the music I brought with me - Toots and the Maytals, Marley (they love reggae!), the Stones, Zeppelin (they'd never heard Stairway), Manu Chao, Parliament, Paul Simon, and music from Brazil and Mali. Of course, their favorite was Michael Jackson's Thriller. If music is the universal language, than MJ is the dictionary!

Thanks again for keeping in touch. Next time I write, I'll have addresses for mail in Arusha and Nairobi. Please keep me posted on life at home, whether Minnesota, California, or elsewhere. I dream of home every night, and of the most unusual people - Cassie Rogan? Why? Even with my nights at home, I'm feeling focused on my work here, present in Malawi, gearing up for Tanzania, and very, very alive. Take care.


if I hate Fanta so much, why can't I stop drinking it?
June 28, 2004

Dear Friends,

It's hard to believe today marks one month since I arrived in Nchenachena. Time has passed quickly - so fast that I'm already starting to consider extending the trip. Rather than feeling homesick, I feel energized by my work, the fantastic music that constantly surrounds me, and my love and deep respect for "mbale wanga amalawi" - my friends and family, the Malawians. I'm headed to Arusha, Tanzania tomorrow and am very sad to be leaving this village that will now always count as one of my homes. I'll miss the quiet mornings, the endless stars, the safety and comfort of home and the wonderful friends I've made. I won't miss the extreme isolation, lack of electricity or dependable running water, and not being allowed to ever prepare my own food or clean in any way (doesn't sound so bad, but when you're hungry and not allowed to make yourself a snack, it gets frustrating).

Things have gone well, and I've just sent my first batch of backup copies of my recordings home to Minnesota. (it only cost 90 dollars - thanks for the reaming, DHL). After a month of total immersion in sound, spending hours every day tucked under my headphones, it's easy to forget the incredible impression this time has left on my other senses. Unfortunately I'm overwhelmed with logistics getting to Arusha, so I don't have time for developed prose - just a list this time.

The sights:

Malawian women, fierce, tough as nails, draped in brilliant patterns, carrying twice their weight balanced on their heads and a baby on their backs

Malawian men, gods on the football pitch, masters of their domain, but too many sadly stumbling blind drunk on kachaso (local cane spirits)

Malawian children, full of life and energy with independence and a hardness that is incredible and sad

Never-ending hills and valleys spotted with mango, bluegum and mahogany forests, brown grassy peaks, and strangely very Californian

A fantastic collection of wildlife, from majestic fish eagles and monitor lizards to shimmering cichlids under the waves of Lake Malawi

My hands, dusty and tanned, beating a drumhead shared by tiny, beautiful black hands with palms brushed in rose quartz

Inestimable stars, uninterrupted by artificial light, new and exciting (the southern cross) or strangely transformed (an upside down big dipper)

The mountains and beaches of a distant Mozambique past Lake Malawi from the highlands of Nyika National Park

The smells:

Musty air filled with dust from tobacco that lays everywhere around the house

The sharp, sweet smell of maize drying in the sun

The overpowering smell of a slaughterhouse in Nkhata Bay

The worst smell of all: the rank stink of kachaso drinkers (you can smell them coming)

Human sweat, the smell of real people, sweet and unaltered

The dust everywhere on the roads (can't imagine the place at the end of the dry season)

The feel of this place:

The wind off Lake Malawi, strong and steady, not a gusty, temperamental swish-whose, but a long and lonesome whoooooooooosh

My feet, sore and bloodied from too much football on beaches with rough and rocky sand, or from climbing from the village to Nyika (15k and 1500 meters up)

The utterly overwhelming equatorial sun, disturbing my northern European roots and making me positively Italian - this is only the winter sun! Good lord!

Exhaustion, excitement, homesickness, frustration, elation, joy and wonder.

Thank you all for keeping in touch. I really value stories from home. I hope everyone is having a wonderful summer, and please remember how lucky you are to have the life you lead.


A Tanzanian army of the hip-hop persuasion
July 28, 2004

Dear Friends,

I've arrived safely in Arusha, a fast-paced, quickly developing city and the safari capital of northern Tanzania. It's a far cry from the village in Malawi, a cry so long it lasted 30 hours on buses, including too many hours without a seat, crouched overnight in the aisle. I wouldn't have survived without some important women in my life -- Emmylou calmed my nerves, Billie crooned me to sleep, and Aretha made the sun come up. The ride across Tanzania took me through Mikumi National Park, where I saw my first wild elephants, really just a teaser - flying past at 120 kilometers an hour is not optimal for wildlife viewing.

The village where people had never heard of McDonalds or The Beatles is behind me, and although I miss the quiet starscapes of Nchenachena, to have internet access down the street (as opposed to a 6 hour round trip) is marvelous. Arusha is a high tech town, with internet cafes on every corner like an informational urban infection. I even have a cell phone here. Since everyone has one (activation of a new number costs a dollar), I just didn't feel cool without one.

I've sent a lot of text messages out, but the lack of any response makes me think that it might not be working, but please do try. It's a lot cheaper than calling, and I'd love to get some messages.

It's taken a long time to get my program underway here. It's very difficult for me to wait and wait to have things set up. For the a few days, when it looked like things weren't going to work out here, my life was Martin Sheen in his Apocalypse Now Saigon hotel room, raging with inaction and harrowed by death. But now that things are moving forward, my life is the naked old man on the motorcycle in Waking Ned Devine, with a belly full of spirit, riding the Vespa of life.

I'm living with a recently married couple in Sakina, a suburb just west of town. My friends here (more on them soon) organized the home stay for me, and it is luxurious. The house is beautiful, with an uninterrupted view of majestic Mount Meru, and even Kilimanjaro on a clear day, a good 70 km in the distance. The food is excellent, with coast-influenced curries, and we have fresh squeezed juice with every meal. Watermelons! Mangoes! Passion Juice! I drink passion juice whenever possible. James and his wife Jane take very good care of me, and I sit in the evenings with my friends Chacalito, Eddie and Nelson, listening to amazing music from Tanzania and all over the world. We even watch movies on the DVD player. Electricity is a wonderful invention!

I want to tell you all about the incredible people I'm working with here. Honestly, I'm not nearly cool enough to be doing what I'm doing here. Aang Serian (House of Peace in the Maasai language) is an Arusha-based organization that is dedicated to promoting indigenous traditions and wisdom as an essential part of the cultural and spiritual wholeness of people everywhere. Through their closet-sized office, they provide opportunities for international exchange through deep relationships with some of the native tribes here in Tanzania. Visitors can study medicinal plants, traditional drumming, bird trapping, and craftwork while staying for a short time in the villages. They also help local youth attend both local and international conferences and workshops on HIV education, youth empowerment and indigenous rights. One of their most impressive projects is the establishment of a school in a Maasai community that has a beautiful new building opening next week. They also run small fair trade shop. Most exciting for my work is their music studio, housed in the closet of the already closet-sized office, where I'll be working with a veritable army of young and talented Tanzanian musicians both of the hip hop persuasion and the traditional, and many who fuse the two. I've met with many of the artists to hear about their music and explain my project to them, and I plan to begin recording over the next few days. These are mostly high school kids who are using hip hop to provide important messages about HIV and community activism while grounding it all in tribal musical and spiritual traditions. It's absolutely amazing. To find out more about Aang Serian, go to

For an example of the kind of artists I'll be working with, you can go to

Some of the members of Xplastaz and I have become good friends, and I feel so lucky to be a part of this incredible community.

While I'm waiting for my recording sessions to begin, I spend my days wandering around Arusha. What a cultural soup it is! Maasai tribespeople are everywhere in their blue and red robes, and it's quite an experience to sit in all vegetarian Indian restaurant, watching women pass in shimmering modern dresses, or colorful kanga, or full veil, listening to the muezzin's haunting call to prayer. It turns out the tan I thought made me look Italian actually looks Spanish, especially with my beard lengthening unabated. It's a challenge to try and learn Swahili when the boys on the street constantly ask, Que tal amigo? I try to avoid the hassle of the tourist destinations, and I walk around town whenever I can with my new friends, not only for protection, but they're celebrities here and it's a lot of fun. The people here aren't nearly as dangerous as the dalla-dallas, which fly through the crowded streets, blowing their complex, melodious horns and emblazoned with names like Boyz to Men, God's Lucky and No Sweet til there's Sweat (my personal favorite).

Even in Tanzania, I'm getting my California summer. The morning clouds sit on Arusha heavy and gray like Horton on the egg, but they get up after lunch to stretch their legs and give us some blazing equatorial sunshine. Arusha is nigh on 10,000 feet elevation, so the air is thin and the sun is hot. I'm planning a trip to the Ngorongoro Crater, but safaris are expensive and not my primary aim for my time here. It's tempting though, with Kilimanjaro, the Serengeti and flamingo-filled alkaline lakes all a day's drive away.

I'm starting to return to Saul Bellow's Henderson being the wrong man for the job. This music is great, but people are dying, and I haven't yet found the strength to roll up my sleeves and jump into the real grit of AIDS here. I hope that my work will eventually make a difference here, but it's hard to sit back and spend my afternoons relaxing when there's so much to be done.

All in all though, even with the slow start here, I'm having a great time. I'll be here for my birthday (the 26th), and my friends and I are already working on preparations for a big party.

I hope you are all well, enjoying life and doing whatever you can to make sure our unelected President Bush is unelected for keeps this time. Thank you all for your correspondence, and please keep writing.

Take care.


Goat's blood, shooting stars and the insanity that is Nairobi
August 04, 2004

Dear Friends,

Where do I begin? Do I describe the family of elephants that circled my Land Rover and the baboon that chased us? Or do I explain the pain and intensity of my first interview with someone openly HIV-positive, listening to his struggles and his grief, astonished by his strength in the face of the death of his two young children and his wife? The last month in Arusha was full of incredible elation and overwhelming doubt and confusion. When they say Tanzania has it all, they don't just mean Kilimanjaro and Zanzibar.

It's been a long time since I've written to you all, and there are so many stories from the past month that I want to share. Although I've recently arrived safely in Nairobi (if arriving in Nairobi is ever safe!), my thoughts didn't make it into the shuttle with me and are lingering in Arusha. After a month and a half in the "Geneva of Africa" (according to Bill Clinton; I'd say it's a bit dirtier), I know my way through Swahili slang, I've managed to stay mostly healthy and I've made some deep and lasting friendships.

Through it all though runs the agony and hardship of life in sub-Saharan Africa. Poverty here is like an iceberg - massive, dangerous and only partially visible. I'm mostly sheltered from the daily struggle that I saw so clearly in Malawi, but it's impossible to ignore lepers disintegrating into the sidewalks, clutching their children with what's left of their hands. Prostitutes prowl the dark streets and smoky bars, choosing nightly whether to accept the extra shillings for sex without a condom. Sweating men who might make as much as a dollar a day push monstrous loads in giant wheelbarrows through the absolute chaos of the streets. Dirty children, faces filled with flies, tattered rags for clothes; they approach quietly and point to their stomachs with eyes of inexorable sadness. And through the midst of this mess, cell phones twitter and sing, television stations from South Africa hawk Always pads and glittering jewelry catches the equatorial sun and sends it back soaring into the sky. Shining Land Cruisers glide through the dusty streets with their various cargoes: tourists in their new safari vests, tanzanite dealers, or UN employees from the Rwandan war crimes tribunal (the easiest vehicles to spot in their pacifying blue on white). Dreams here tend to go unfulfilled, demonstrated by the x's painted long ago on every building and sign resting on the roadside, x's that warn of demolition upon "future highway expansion." I won't ever ride that dream highway.

My sense of such overwhelming imbalance has only increased here in Nairobi, a city of three million where gangs of street children sniff glue in the shadow of skyscrapers. Some might call it the most dangerous city in Africa, but for the next month, I'll call it home. After getting to know Arusha intimately, it was hard to leave the safety and comfort and especially hard to leave my friends. This whirlwind tour is taking me through the Eastern slice of the cake that is Africa, and I would prefer to linger for some extra Tanzanian frosting. How I envy participants in programs like SIT or the Peace Corps! Although 26 months - not sure if I'm up for that. There are some things I won't miss about Arusha though: the lack of running water and the subsequent bucket showers, the destructive binges and alcoholism of my host, the smells (ugh!) and sounds (how disturbing!) of the neighbor's pigs at dinner, the shocking mistreatment of women (known here as bitches) and of course, the never ending untimeliness of it all. Unfortunately many of those problems have already presented themselves here.

Of course, I had some incredible times in Tanzania. I twice visited the Maasai village of Eluwai, surrounded by men in the signature red and blue and women with dangling zero gauge earrings and huge beaded neck plates. I danced and chanted into the night under the Perseid shower-speckled skies, sat in the stifling smoky heat of the boma next to the cow's bedroom, and drank the blood of a freshly suffocated goat straight off of the still warm carcass. It took more than one bucket shower to get the Eluwai dirt off my skin. I hiked into the foothills of Mt Meru and into the rainforest, where I found a mysterious and still unidentified bone, sat under the power shower of a 100 foot waterfall and watched as my friends killed an approaching snake that looked too much like a green mamba to take a chance (it wasn't). I played endless games of pool (the second sport in East Africa only to football) in smoky dive bars, getting hit on by the waitresses, drinking Safari lager and listening to stories of life in Tanzania.

And speaking of safari, I also spent two days touring Lake Manyara and the Ngorongoro Crater, where the splendor of nature is unrivaled and interrupted only by the hordes of Land Rovers that joined us there. To sit on the Crater rim is to look into the cradle of existence. I won't try and list every animal I saw, but I marveled at the scale of diversity and the magnificence of it all. A Catalan family joined my trip, which made for an interesting challenge. Our guide spoke only a little English, so I translated between Swahili and Spanish, both of which I barely know at all. Like music, though, the language of nature's majesty is universal. As for my project, well, as with most of my experiences here, it's up and down. My lack of any significant experience in journalism is a frustrating obstacle, and I'm struggling with the nature of my work and the story I'm trying to tell. This is an important story and I want to be sure I tell it right. For assurance I keep the words of Tom Robbins with me always: Difficulties illuminate existence, but they must be fresh and of high quality. I also turn to the Stones: It's just another mad, mad day/on the road. I recorded a lot less music in Tanzania than I did in Malawi, but the producers at the Aang Serian studio helped bring together around 30 artists and we combined their lyrics on three hip hop tracks, one of which is excellent. I've compensated for the lack of extensive music recordings by conducting interviews with musicians, doctors, producers, students, and even traditional healers. Some interviews are full of insight, and some are horrifying in their pain, or fear, or misinformation. Some end with hope and strength, others end with a sigh and a silent cry for the death and destruction that haunts this world. A favorite poem of mine by David Ignatow comes to me often:

The world is so difficult to give up
Tied to it by small things
My eyes noting movement, color and form
I am watching, unable to leave
For something is happening
And so I stand in a shower of rain
Or under a hot sun
Worn out with looking.

Indeed, after nearly three months on the road, I am worn out with looking. At the same time, the prospect of leaving the equatorial spring to return to the November tundra of Minnesota is less than appealing. Halfway through the trip, I'm starting to consider my options when I return home, and the most I'm hoping for is to not be working a crappy retail job. Three years after graduation, I finally have a project that speaks to me - now I just have to figure out how to sustain it. It may not be so difficult - I recently got a request for a story from KPFA in Berkeley.

But regardless of my plans when I return home, right now I'm in Nairobi, a city not to ignore. Like Ani says, "in this city/self preservation is a full time occupation." The roads here are deadly - you can't just keep your wits about you; you have to clutch them close and never let go. So far though, I agree with Paul Theroux that in sub-Saharan Africa, the next destination is always the most terrifying, but then when you arrive, people are courteous and hospitable. I wouldn't go so far as to call Nairobi hospitable yet, but it's much less intimidating than I was led to expect.

This morning I took the matatu (minibus or deathmobile) in by myself this morning and got off at the wrong stop. It took me over an hour to find my way back to the office, but I never once felt threatened by people - only by the cars they drive. I'm living in Langata, one of the more secure parts of town and I'm staying with a friend from the Internews office here.

Internews is an international organization headquartered in Arcata, California that works with local institutions all over the world to create free media. You can find out more at The office here is focused on HIV prevention, and their library and extensive media connections are going to be invaluable to my story here. I'm planning on living here for around a month before heading up to Kampala and then home.

So folks, there's my life in a nutshell (help, get me out of this crazy nutshell!). I hope you all are well, and please do keep in touch. I can't tell you how important it is for me to hear about your lives at home. You wouldn't think that hearing about a trip to the YWCA would be riveting. But it is. How easily we forget our lives at home, and wonderful it is to remember them! I was especially homesick when Opus came around and was so sorry to miss it - I'd love to hear some stories from the Sangre de Christo. I'll be in touch again soon; I want to have my pictures from Tanzania online some time over the next week.

Lots of love,


What is sin to the destitute?
September 04, 2004

Dear Friends,

In the battle of the city of Nairobi versus Jonah Eller-Isaacs, I hereby declare Nairobi the winner. I'm writing from the Hotel Orchid, my fourth residence in two weeks, and it unfortunately doesn't live up to its delicate name. At least it has hot water, and yesterday I basked long in the glory of my first hot shower in over a month. My housing arrangements collapsed right from the start, when the family of the woman (who connected me with Internews and invited me to stay with her) said we had to be married if I was going to stay. I'm just not ready for that kind of commitment. The family next door took pity on me and offered me their couch, which I surfed for a few nights until just before the return of the father who wouldn't have approved of my presence. Then I stayed at the house of my original housemate's uncle, but he only has one room and came home early. So here I am. Of course, I've spent much of the last year hopping from couch to couch, but with a job to do and in a strange and dangerous city, it gets frustrating. Wandering battered in the streets, I felt it coming. Time to get horribly sick or robbed, just to make my experience complete.

Luckily, my health is fine.

But the expert thieves of Nairobi caught up with me. I was attending a conference for people living with HIV/AIDS, hoping to capture their stories of pain and suffering but also strength and hope. While I was sitting in the conference hall, my daypack disappeared. Nearly all of my recording equipment is gone, but I still have one of my minidisc recorders and borrowed a microphone from Internews, so my work can continue. Also gone is my camera, but luck smiled on me as just days before I'd transferred all the pictures to a CD. All my gear is insured and I can replace it. I didn't lose any original recordings -- another blessing. Unfortunately though, my journal was in the bag. Three months of field notes, my dreams, all the stories from the trip, unsent letters and postcards -- all most likely in a garbage can somewhere. It hurts, not just for the obviously great sentimental value, but losing all my notes is a serious blow to my project. Also a problem is the loss of my ATM card that provided my only access to money, but I've got a new one on the way.

Through the entire ordeal, I've kept one important thing in mind. Theft is rife here for a reason. Even in the shimmering cosmopolis of Nairobi, the poverty is undeniable -- the endless corrugated iron-walled shacks, the children picking through garbage for a meal, the haunting empty eyes of broken beggars. To quote a track by a close Tanzanian friend, what is sin to the destitute? The annual per capita income here is around $350, a bit more than the value of my minidisc recorder. I can only hope that my gear puts food in a family's empty bellies, or pays for school fees, or buys antiretrovirals, or anything that's necessary and out of reach. As a white American male, my own people are in so many ways responsible for the situation here -- the scourge of international racism, imperialist and twisted development policies, and a cheap cup of Kenyan coffee back home. Even with my good intentions, I'm far from innocent simply for being who I am. Through all my ups and downs here, I keep Ben Harper's words close to my heart: Battered and torn/but I can see the light/Tattered and worn/but I must kneel to fight.

Other the obvious horrendous inconveniences, my research here is actually going well. I've spent a lot of time at Nyumbani, a home for HIV+ orphans and a truly inspiring place. Other than the sometimes hideous skin ailments, you would never know these kids are sick as they dash across the playground or sing and dance at mass. They hold such incredible joy in their eyes. The orphanage has a choir that has become famous in Kenya, and I've got a copy of their album as well as some astounding interviews with the young members. During my last visit, I took a tearful visit to their graveyard. Tiny graves covered in flowers, born January 1996 died October 1996 -- it was almost too much to bear. I noticed, though, that over the past couple of years, fewer and fewer kids have died. I never expected to find hope in a orphanage graveyard. Next week I'll be going with the Nyumbani outreach program into Kibera, the biggest slum in Africa and a place torn apart by poverty, violence and disease -- should be an eye-opening experience to say the least. For more info, you can check out and also take a moment to consider getting a copy of Left Behind, a powerful documentary by a friend of mine on Kenyan AIDS orphans. For those of you in Minnesota, my parents have a copy and I can't tell you what a harrowing experience it is. Well worth the time.

I'm also working with a local music studio and meeting with independent artists with HIV-related music. A reggae club in town held an HIV Awareness Night last month and offered half price admission if you showed a condom -- I'm headed there on Monday. Hopefully (if my new ATM card arrives) I'll be off to Uganda for my final stop before I reverse my trip to back through Tanzania and back to Malawi for my flight home just in time for Thanksgiving -- a full six months traveling alone in East Africa! This'll surely be a story for the grandkids.

I was sorry to see the Olympics come to a close last week. It was a refreshing experience to watch the games here, where the papers praise qualifying heat winners -- as opposed to the states, where (as the Simpsons say) it's shining gold, so-so silver or shameful bronze. Africa was united as one continent at the games, and we all cheered for the motherland's athletes -- though the Kenyan sweep in the 3000m steeplechase is still in the news.

I've watched the Republican Convention with horror at their lies and joy at the excellent international coverage of the protests -- it's so important for the world to know that we all don't support our administration. I wish I could be there. The British-granted 99-year lease of Maasai grazing land to ranchers expired this year, and the Kenya police have brutalized, tortured and even killed some of the peacefully protesting pastoralists. Civil disobedience is a privilege and I'm proud to know so many of you who take advantage of that and get out into the streets.

I hope you're all doing well and enjoying the coming fall (although for you San Franciscans, it's about time for summer!). Thank you all for keeping in touch, and I hope to write again once I'm safely in Uganda.

Much love,


A whistling thorn tree crosses the Equator
September 20, 2004

Dear Friends,

To protect itself, the whistling thorn tree is covered with dangerously sharp thorns, some six to eight inches in length. If grazers should ignore these significant defenses, the trees also play host to colonies of biting red ants. And lo, in harsh Rift Valley conditions, the whistling thorn tree flourishes, and shares a lesson: to survive here, one not only needs an armor of thorns, but an army of ants standing beside as well. After a month and a half in Nairobi, my thorns are bristling and my ants are at the ready. After being robbed, I continued to stay at the Orchid Hotel in a part of town the Brits would call dodgy - when a Tanzanian friend came to pick up his Dutch producer, they refused to stay with me. I fell asleep to gunshots one night, murderous screams the next, and watched a group of boys savagely beat and rob an old man not 20 feet from my window. Not to mention my trips home in the evening - pulling people's hands out of my pockets, being followed by thieves and gangs of crazed glue-sniffing teenagers, refusing the prostituting minions, and through it all darting through the matatu/taxi/people sea they call the city streets. Stuck in this Kenyan catastrophe of a city, I struggled to work through all the post-theft logistics, canceling interview after interview, scrambling to find comparable gear (an impossibility), scrambling to get home before dark, grappling to find my bearings and not lose my sanity spending night after night in my dirty, noisy, fluorescent hotel room.

In the end though, I managed to reschedule everything, and it was worth staying. The founder of the Kenya Network for Women with HIV told me her story of discovering her status and being expelled from school, shunned by her family and, after an unsuccessful suicide attempt, resorting to long matatu rides hoping to die in one of the common fatal traffic accidents - and somehow finding the strength to establish this crucial organization. I met with producers and local artists who are creating NGOs based entirely on musical educational curriculum. I also continued to visit the kids at Nyumbani and was there to celebrate their 12th anniversary, where taped a speech by Mama Lucy Kibaki, the First Lady of Kenya. The highlight, though, was the children's performance of an adaptation of The Wizard of Oz. Imagine tiny African munchkins. Imagine the extras performing excellently as the scenery with paper flowers on their heads. Imagine "There's no place like Nyumbani" and a raggedy pair of old red slippers. Imagine a choir of angelic HIV-positive orphans singing with all their might, "if happy little bluebirds fly/beyond that rainbow/why, oh why can't I?"

And somehow, someone managed to find their way through so many thorns and past the ants, and my last two weeks in Nairobi included an amazing but all too short relationship with Ilhan Mohammed, a gorgeous 21-year-old epileptic Somali Kenyan Muslim studying sociology with a fondness for science fiction and 70s soul. On our first date, we sat in the grass at the old site of the bombed American Embassy and talked for hours about the nature of Islam and the oft-forgotten tolerance and peacefulness at its core (of course, we also delved into its, shall we say, less than pleasant regulations for women). In the darkest hour of my journey, Ilhan was the light that guided my way, kept me sane, kept me happy, and most importantly, kept me from brooding endlessly in my stuffy hotel home. I even was invited home to meet her mother, who was more scared of me than I of her, but hospitably offered me a delicious meal that included my first taste of camel meat (it's tasty - rich and flavorful with a distant taste of the desert). But my work has to continue, and while I managed to fit my deep love and respect for Ilhan onto the bus to Uganda, there wasn't room left for her.

So early on a cold late September morning, I boarded the bus and left behind the anathematic city of Nairobi for greener Kampalan pastures. The ride was emotional and spectacular, with Nick Drake and The Mountain Goats reinforcing my sick heart and watching in awe as we bumped and rolled on potholed highways through the Kenyan Highlands, across the Rift Valley, past roadside zebras, flamingo-filled alkaline lakes, and endless red dirt villages to the shores of Lake Victoria and the Ugandan border. My first ever crossing of the Equator, and I managed to sleep through it! As we dropped down into the Nile River Valley, the scenery grew ever greener and lusher, and we crossed the great river (whose Class 5 rapids I hope to challenge next week!) and entered Kampala at sunset.

Kampala shows few signs of the battering it suffered under decades of the infamous Idi Amin and his vicious forces. It's an expanse of green, a forested metropolis with a substantial marabou stork population, which is sort of like living in a city infested by small pterodactyls. An uglier bird in the world there cannot be - rumor has it they help the local hospitals with their cadaver storage issues. The skies are filled with giant birds and dark, towering lake effect storm clouds that at this very moment are thundering overhead and dispensing buckets of cool rain on my new home. The mosquitoes are absolutely everywhere, as are the matatus (here called taxis), the taxis (specials) and swarms of (Grandparents look away) motorcycle taxis (boda-bodas) that are oh so dangerous but oh so fun. The streets are muddy from the daily rains, and when it's not raining, the heat and humidity are overwhelming. Remember in previous emails when I complained of the heat? That was nothing. I spend my days sweating through the city and, for once, the cold showers are a relief.

I had tried for months to set up connections here, and hadn't found anything concrete until was at a café months back in Arusha and I met Gloria Birungi, a Ugandan friend of a friend; I explained my situation and we exchanged contact information. Just a few days later, I heard from Tegulle Gawaya, a political analyst for local independent daily The Monitor ( Tegulle has since invited me to live with him and his family in Ntinda, a quiet neighborhood north of Kampala's congested and labyrinthine downtown. His two year old daughter Rema is obsessed with her new "Uncle Jonah" but is also in the throes of her tremendously terrible twos, and the peaceful mornings are pierced daily by her bloodcurdling screams. Gloria and I have become good friends, along with many of her eight siblings and a few dozen young children from around her neighborhood. Gloria has offered to work as my translator and guide, and after just a few short days, things are really rolling. Leaving Nairobi has given me new life, and with a new family and tons of new friends, I'm having a wonderful time. Gone is my loneliness in an ocean of watchful Kenyan eyes - there are certainly just as many watchful Ugandan eyes, but they don't feel as threatening and I'm not lonely any more. After three months of picking up rudimentary Swahili, I have a new language to learn (Luganda), so once again I'm the clueless mzungu wandering through town, wishing they'd built central Kampala based on some semblance of a grid as opposed to a cross section of the nervous system. But I have excellent guides - it's amazing that after my frustration with not finding good connections here, all I had to do was meet someone by chance in a Tanzanian café!

And so the thorns slowly retract, melting like the wares of an equatorial ice cream parlor as the ants retreat from the coming rains that renew my soul. Uganda stands in sharp contrast to my previous destinations; it is known worldwide for its success against HIV and the change is palpable. In the past ten years, the rate of infection has dropped from above 30% (!) to under 10%. Everyone I've talked to is well-educated about HIV, and most importantly, everyone is generally open about their status and willing to share their stories. After just a few days here, I'm already filling my tapes with choirs consisting entirely of people living with HIV singing about the benefits of naviropene (an inexpensive and easily accessible drug that prevents mother-infant transmission), interviews with representatives of The AIDS Support Organization (TASO - which recently celebrated its 17th year of providing essential encouragement and assistance to those living with the virus), and with a long list of appointments, interviews, and as-yet untapped connections, I'm sure to be busy through my entire time here. My replacement equipment is complete crap and many of the recordings so far are useless, but my (probably futile) search for a good field recording microphone continues this afternoon. I just hope the international ATM network is back up, because even in Uganda, my last dollar will only go so far. But my new friends are taking good care of me, and they've even offered to take me to the Pearl of Africa Music Awards this weekend, the East African Grammys held on a Lake Victoria beach!

Thank you all for reading, for keeping in touch and for all your support and encouragement. As the emails from home slow to a trickle, I can tell it's September and you're all busy, but please take a second to say hi. After four months of traveling alone and two more to go (I'll be home November 23rd), I have to admit I'm a little homesick, and I would love to hear from you all.

Lots of love,


Reach out and touch the rhinoceros
October 20, 2004

Dear Friends,

Once again, I'm putting my life on the page for all nearly 200 of you, an exercise I've enjoyed immensely, and, according to your much-appreciated responses, so have many of you. It's strange to sit down every few weeks and sum up the unsum-up-able, to capture the ephemeral bliss and transcendent nature of travel, to corral the hippopotamus that is this story while it tears off into the bush. Family, friends, and those I've never even met, it's all the same as I take what moves me and plaster it onto a white screen, with all my ignorance and arrogance and various other shortcomings, trying to put down in words the vivid world that surrounds me, that changes me every day. So here it is once more, my heart off my sleeve and ready for your perusal. Hope you like it.

After nearly five months on the road, I'm as deep as I'll go into the interior of Africa. Kampala is my furthest destination to the north and the west - any further and I'd be at the mercy of the chaos that is the eastern Congo. At the end of this week, I'll leave these green hills and reverse my trip, heading back over the next month through Tanzania to catch my flight home from Malawi. I'm looking forward to seeing familiar faces again, but I'm not quite ready to leave Uganda. Even with the sputtering power supply and horrendous heat, it's been a wonderful visit, especially after the nightmare of Nairobi. There are so many people here I count as friends, from famous musicians and DJs to the families I've come to love. Even my subjects are friends - one local choir went so far as to give me a Luganda name, matovu, which identifies me as a member of the antelope clan. No one has been able to explain thoroughly what exactly that means, but it sounds good with my Swahili nickname, ishi, which means live! as in stay alive. Call me Jonah Ishi Matovu Alexander Eller-Isaacs.

I've learned so much traveling alone, but a lesson that stands out is that what's made the difference between each of my destinations is my company. From the long walks with Chimwemwe through the Rift Valley hills in Malawi to the hazy drunken weekends in Arusha and the lonely brutal days in Nairobi - now, it's friendship and loving families. My friends, let me tell you - in the face of the harsh realities of poverty, I've seen what it means to be indiscriminately happy - just take the Kenyan child whom I watched cartwheel across the street to scrounge in the garbage for food. That gave me some perspective, and in the Kampalan mud, I've found the same exhilaration on almost every face. I'm sitting on the porch at Gloria's house - she and I have become great friends, and her family is my family. Her contributions to my project as translator and guide have been invaluable, and she's even coming with me to Arusha to visit some friends - after months on the road, it'll be great to have some company. As I'm writing, she's translating my most recent interview with a local traditional healer whose musical group I'll be returning to record later this week. Gloria's mother Sarah has just brought me a snack of steamed yams and boiled water that she sells in sandwich bags. The dirty, half naked children from around the neighborhood are at my feet, waiting to play. Amazingly, they've stopped yelling mzungu at my approach, and now when I visit, I hear my name drift on tiny voices between iron roofs and down muddy alleys. Last week one brought me a gift of roasted white ants - delish! There's the ubiquitous sharp smell of a nearby garbage fire, and the air is filled with the noise of the cement mixer from the construction site next door, where the walls of the ground floor are cracking as they start work on the floor above. It feels like home.

A DJ at local legend Al's Bar and I have become close friends also, and as a parting gift, he's offered me free rein of his 5000 album collection which includes the best from Senegal to South Africa. Looking at my 100-plus transit hours I'm to endure over the next month, the prospect of new music is especially appealing - not to mention I get to share it with all of you.

Glory and I have shared excellent adventures over the past month. Together we visited the Uganda Wildlife Centre, a rehabilitation site for animals injured, sick or rescued from poachers. It's funny; I've visited zoos all over the States and usually find myself wracked with guilt and moral issues at seeing these magnificent creatures pacing in tiny, filthy cages. But this time, it was different. Most of the animals inhabit open fields and look happy and healthy. We saw incredible birds: shoebill storks with giant blue clogs for beaks, and a forest walk yielded the noisy flapping of hornbills and wild gray parrots. The forest walk also provided close encounters with monkeys, some literally inches away. Staring into those tiny primate eyes, I saw myself. Luckily I'm a little less hairy. Vervet monkeys covered the path, proud exhibitionists that display their electric blue testicles with great fervor. The day's highlight, though, was getting personal with a pair of white rhinos. Due to American safety standards, the rhino enclosure is usually far from the observation area. But here, everyone is a little more relaxed. When we came to see the rhinos, we found them skirting the perimeter fence just inches away. We were able to touch their cement-like hide and reveled as we walked so close to their lumbering hugeness. After a hot day of wildlife, we headed to the cool green of the Entebbe Botanical Gardens and down to the shores of Lake Victoria. With the Ssese Islands dominating the horizon, I relaxed in the cool waters, watching the kingfishers hover and dive for dinner within arm's reach. All around, an amazing afternoon.

My research also took me to the Eastern Ugandan town of Mbale, where after a few days of effective recordings with local choirs, we accompanied our host to her home village high in the terraced foothills of Mt. Elgon. I ate bananas for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I dipped my hands deep in the bags of green coffee beans that flooded the house (Exporters buy it for fifty cents a pound - think about that next time you decide whether a pound of fair trade is worth it). Amidst wild poinsettias and a million banana trees, we walked through the village, a parade of curious children following the mzungu up the steep and muddy streets. We looked down across mountains to the Kenyan border and watched as smugglers emerged from their hidden forest caches with their merchandise firmly planted on their heads. That night, the radio warned that the local monkey population was rampantly devouring livestock and could soon include humans in their diet. God I love Africa.

And so my Ugandan sojourn draws to a close. The last month has held few setbacks, although the hours in customs trying to convince them to give me my new equipment do stand out. It seems the rules of songwriting hold true for travel writing - it's always easier to write when you're miserable, and things here are splendid, so I'm less inspired than, say, when recovering from a Kenyan catastrophe. I've tried to write this dispatch for days, but still don't feel like I could ever condense this experience. The markets. The afternoon thunderstorms. The endless starches, three meals a day. Satellite TV in a house without drinkable water. You just have to come and see it to believe.

For once, the news from home has me feeling upbeat. The Sox have forced a Game 7, there are no WMDs in Iraq, and the polls are even. On a sadder note, RIP Christopher Reeve and Bay Area Sports. At least for the A's, there's always next year.

I hope you all are doing well. I'm sorry if I haven't had the chance to respond to all of you individually - if you're feeling neglected, send word and I'll be sure to be in touch. Take care of yourselves, and lots of love to you all.


Back in the great white north
November 30, 2004

Dear Friends,

This is just a short message to let you all know that I've arrived safely in Minnesota. It's great to be home, even if I (yes, I'll use that cliche, thanks) left my heart in San Francisco. After a final exhausting forty hours of transit (Lilongwe/Johannesburg/Cape Verde/Atlanta/Minneapolis), I emerged from above the clouds to a brown grid of late fall farmland, flat for oh so very far. Life is, well, it's a little different here. The only black people I see are the ones in my pictures. There's water coming out from the tap, and you can drink it. It came over the weekend, and now the season's first snow is melting in the sun, a deceptive sunlight that is bright and comforting but not warm. Not warm at all. Is it possible that only last week I was snorkeling in a tropical inland sea?

My adjustment, though, is steadily progressing. I'm already dreaming of Africa. My jetlag is subsiding. I'm playing with my dog in the snow. The turkey is almost gone. I've begun the work of processing this life altering, difficult and beatific experience. Somewhat incredibly, I'm already working on my transcriptions. I'm anxious to gather my recordings and pictures and share this story - it should be ready in a couple of months, at least in some form. The radio documentary will take more time. I'll let you all know when it's going to broadcast, and it will hopefully be available online. Yes, a book is a possibility, but a distant one. I've got other work at the moment.

Here at home I've had the chance to listen to the recordings I DHLed home months ago, and again I realize the power of these songs. It's hard to deny the emotional resonance of a high school choir's soaring harmonies while they sing, "My mom has died of the disease/My dad has died of the disease/I'm just alone crying, and what am I going to do?/My parents have gone."

Would you like to help? Tell your friends. This is a powerful story. Everyone should hear it. I want to take this story as far as it can go. If you know any organizations that might be interested, please tell them to get in touch with me.

Speaking of being in touch, I can't wait to catch up with all of you. Give me a call sometime.

Finally, I want to thank you all again for everything. A special thank you to all my donors, without whom this all would still be a dream deferred. Thank you to all my families and friends across East Africa for your indispensable companionship. Thank you to all who corresponded with me, and those who wrote and apologized for their seemingly mundane lives. They're not mundane. I can't tell you how important it was to hear each tiny detail. Over the past six months, I've discovered the value of a simple life. The joys of food cooked over an open fire. The pure passion and strength behind voices lifted in song. Stories shared in the dark. Please keep sharing your stories. Live simply with open hearts. I'd love to hear about it.

Much love to you all.

Readers are reminded that these dispatches represent the view of the author, not those of Minnesota Public Radio.