Stories from Afar & Up Close

Filtering by Category: Travel

First steps

What I didn't expect to hear (but did hear) when I decided to go to Yemen: "Call me as soon as you get here. The weather is still sunny and we should take advantage of that."

What I did expect to hear (and did hear) when I decided to go to Yemen: "It's dangerous. Don't go. People get kidnapped there, you don't know what it's like…" 

Exactly. I didn't know what it's like, but I have wanted to see this place since I was 8 years old and saw a picture of the brown-and-white houses of Sana'a. Now I'm finally here. It's true, I don't know how dangerous it is, so I try to follow people's advice to avoid the biggest dangers and other than that, hope for the best.

The Old City of Sana'a, seen from our roof.

It's been good to be in an entirely new country, in which so many things are unknown and unexpected. There is so much pleasure in simply stepping out the old, heavy wooden door and wandering through the narrow streets of the old city, finding something new around every corner.

There are the men who look like half a chipmunk with one cheek full of qat and the men in wrap-around skirts and daggers in their belts on motorcycles. There are the women dressed head to toe in black with only their eyes visible, and women in more traditional dress which includes a colorful cloth that covers their entire face. There are the little kids coming back from school in their dark green uniforms who scream hello hello! and souwar souwar! (pictures pictures!). There are a surprising number of wild cats and dogs, there is a lot of garbage in the streets, there are small restaurants that serve the most amazing concoction of eggs and vegetables and herbs, and everywhere I look there are those brown-and-white-houses I came to see.

These little girls insisted on having their picture taken.

Of course there is also a whole new realm of culture and politics to explore. I've had friends and friends-of-friends who've done their best to explain the history and tribes of this complex country. I've participated in a 'chew' (sitting around on flat pillows on the floor with bags of qat and cans of sugary drinks against the bitter taste) and I've been invited to participate in the male section of a wedding when I passed the procession in the street – all men chanting songs, the groom carrying a golden sword and being videotaped – on their way to the big tent in the street where, once again, qat will be chewed.

A man on a motorcyle in the Old City of Sana'a, behind him the tent for the wedding (which took place at night).

In a way, it's like being a little kid again, exploring and poking around and asking everyone what's this and what's that and nobody minds answering because I'm so obviously foreign. I don't have a lot of time here, but like most kids I can't wait to 'grow up' and learn more…


Sometime back in 2001 or 2002, I went to visit a friend who was working at a hospital near Kisumu, in the western part of Kenya. I hadn’t told him when I was coming, though, so when I arrived he had just left for a long weekend at the beach and since I had no way of reaching him, I had to change my plans. I called the guy I had been chatting with on the bus on the way there all those hours. He told me to stay put; he would pick me up in an hour and a half. And he did. Getting to his family’s compound somewhere in the hills around Kisumu was a small adventure in itself; it took almost two hours of walking, sitting on the back of a bicycle, crossing a river in a dug-out canoe, and more walking before we arrived. Once there, I was told to sit down with the men on the side of the house made of dried red mud. So I sat there in the shade talking with his father, some of his brothers, uncles, and probably some neighbors, talking about life in Africa and Europe, about work and jobs and salaries. After a while I asked my new friend if there were any women. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘but they don’t speak any English.’ His sister who served us drinks and food just smiled when I thanked her in English, so I took his word for it, but after I while I had enough of sitting with the men and their crackling transistor-radio, so I wandered over to the kitchen-hut and motioned if I could come in. Of course I could, the four women in the kitchen welcomed me in perfect English.

As it turned out, his oldest sister was the head nurse at one of the biggest hospitals in Nairobi, and had just come over to her parents’ village for the family gathering this weekend. We talked about life in Africa and Europe as well, and about their specific jobs and lives, their marriages and children. I was 20 at the time, and they were wondering why I didn’t have children. Suddenly my friend’s oldest sister looked me straight in the eye and said: ‘Can I ask you something?’ Of course she could. ‘What do you use for contraception?’ All eyes were on me. Two more women had arrived in the meantime, but no one made a sound. ‘Uh, well, condoms?’ I said, ‘and… the pill?’ ‘So white women take the pill as well!’ said the oldest sister, the nurse. ‘Yes, most of my friends do… why would we not?’ I asked, naïve enough. ‘Well,’ was her answer, ‘I thought the pill was meant to make us African women infertile.’

I am still glad I didn’t know back then what I know now, and that I was able to answer that question in full honesty. After that trip I went on to study anthropology, and I learned about the secret sterilization programs that have taken place in many countries in Asia, Africa and South America in the name of international health care and aid programs (and even in the USA itself, mainly on the black population). Still, I thought, that was in the past, and although it’s understandable that rumors about it are still going around, we can safely assume that health programs these days do just what they are supposed to do instead of carrying out a secret political agenda. And so from then on I would make a conscious effort when traveling of convincing people to trust international health care programs and use the medication against malaria and AIDS that they provide.

Unfortunately, I was naïve again: in its urge to kill Osama Bin Laden, the USA has set up a fake vaccination program to capture his children’s DNA. As the author of the piece writes; ‘People's faith in their doctors is critical to the ability to provide health care, and it's unconscionable that the United States would use the single most delicate health issue in the Muslim world as its cover. […] People believe in their medical care. They want to be healthy, and they want more than anything to have healthy children. Accordingly, they believe in their doctors and nurses. And it's the duty of health-care professionals -- and governments -- to return and protect this trust. It is not acceptable to weaponize health, to use Christopher Albon's brilliant turn of phrase. But it's clear -- and interesting -- that doing so is remarkably easy. In a world where social cohesion is eroding rapidly, people still trust their health-care providers.’ It may be clear from my story that this trust people have in their health-care providers is not blind, and may have taken a long time to grow. Stories like this can break that trust in a minute – especially if they cannot be dispelled as a myth by an honest 20-year old backpacker.