By David Famularo
Sitting down to some chips and pizza in a Masterton cafe with Geoff Walker, he hands me a stapled five sheets of A4 paper headlined “SidebySideUganda – Projects: A 4 year vision”. It’s an intriguing list of 16 projects over the next four years. It’s an eclectic mix that includes four containers of educational, humanitarian and farming goods over four years, 7000 Wairarapa school students supporting the education of children at Awere Primary School in Ludok Village, recording the experiences of refugees, and a business making reusable sanitary pads.
Geoff is the first to admit he’s not your conventional aid worker, but he has managed to whip up a lot of support for his projects already, and just as importantly, he has built connections between residents of the Wairarapa and around the village of Ludok in Uganda where Geoff has made his home away from home.
This incredible journey began in 2012. A friend from Denmark had made a number of trips to Uganda to deliver containers of donated goods. “She had travelled to Uganda a few times and had always said ‘Come and take some photos.’ You always go ‘yeah yeah, I will do that some time.’ Then in 2012 she was going again and maybe this would be her last visit. She said ‘You should come’ and I thought ‘what a good idea’ – getting away from here. 2012 was an interesting time.” Geoff is referring to the Carterton balloon disaster he had witnessed first-hand just 10 months earlier, photographing the passengers before the flight, as he always did.
“I went there [Uganda] for about three weeks, got introduced to different people and ended up in this area in the north so then I went back in 2013. I thought ‘what a nice place, the people are great.’ I felt compelled. Here’s my friend doing something, these people have been hard done by, we are one world, we are one family. They have a strong connection to us because of the Commonwealth and we’ve done nothing. Because of the Commonwealth connections there are a lot of things that make doing things a little easier, they even drive on the left hand side of the road like us, stuff like that which makes engagement a little easier. So that’s how it started off!”
It was all a new experience for Geoff. “I’d never done anything like this before. I was in the Lions Club and that’s about serving your community. There’s a picture of me in the Wairarapa Times Age, I must have been about nine or ten, outside our house in Cole Street, in presenting a bag of money to the IHC director because I had raised money by having a cake stall and stuff like that outside our house.”
At this point Geoff breaks into a hearty laughter, much as he does throughout the interview. “Where it comes from, David, I’m sure, is people have been really kind to me, people have been really, really kind to me. I’ve had an interesting life, that’s for sure.”
Along with an altruistic streak, Geoff has always been a creative free spirit. “I’ve always been creative. I’ve been into photography for a long time, a long, long time, even at school (Wairarapa College). I met Doctor Roger Freeth one time who said ‘You don’t know how far you can go until you have gone too far.” Geoff follows up that comment with another hearty laugh.
“I’ve meet lots of interesting people in my life. I had the only the third digital photo printing machine in the world in my shop in Auckland. It cost $300,000 which was a lot of money. I had a photo shop in Remuera, one in downtown Auckland before that. Things had gone to crap. Things had gone not very well for all sorts of reasons so I came back to the Wairarapa [in 2001]. “In 2000 I stopped drinking, that’s a good thing, and I even I’ve stopped smoking.”
Geoff is not averse to taking detours along the path of the interview and at this point takes the opportunity to slam the influence of alcohol on society. “Alcohol is an avoidance of reality and that’s why governments like it. It’s easy to control people. Look at the Aborigines, look at what’s happened to them. Same thing’s happening in Africa. They have got a horrific drinking problem. That includes Uganda. “It’s soul destroying. Drinking is soul destroying. that is what had happened to me, it was destroying my soul. Now it’s not (laughs) and that’s great.”
As can be seen from the preceding comments, Geoff is not impressed with some of the changes Western culture has had on Uganda. “It’s getting worse and worse, Westernization is destroying the culture. What do Westerners do – go and conquer places and look what we are doing – we are destroying the world. It’s not working, what we are doing is not working.”
“I feel quite pleased that when I decided to go the first time, I thought long and hard about it,” Geoff reflects .“I looked up about Uganda because like you I didn’t know much about it. It had been kept pretty low key. Religion has been through there like a dose of salts as well, so they are confused by that. What does religion to tell? – that you are bad and you are going to go to hell. Guess what, bad is a judgement and religion says don’t judge. It’s taken away their way which worked very well. Bits of their culture are still there but it’s being eroded away, and that’s sad. Look at here, we are trying to get our culture back.”
At this point Geoff takes a sudden 45 degree turn at that last thought. ”How cool is this – at the signing [of the Treaty of Waitangi settlement between Wairarapa Maori iwi Rangitane and the Government in Wellington] they have got me as their photographer. What an honour, how humbling, what a wonderful honour.”
Anyone familiar with Geoff on Facebook will know that he loves taking and posting photos of his everyday life. “People appreciate what I am doing because I am living in the village, I am there as a participant, not as an observer. “I’m sharing their life, I live like they do. I live in a hut, I eat their food. We don’t have power.”
What’s in your hut? “Oh yeah, a mattress. We are fenced off, they connect and we are continually building more fences around ourselves and we wonder why we have problems. We are not connected any more. “Guess what? We are like molecules, the Earth is such a small dot within the context of the solar system, the galaxy etc, we are nothing, and yet we are everything at the same time.”
“But look at our society, we build more and more fences and we have more and more rules, they’re stupid rules. You can’t protect people from themselves and life still happen, accidents still happen. “In the context of the village they work with nature, not try and force nature – that’s what we need to learn from them.”
I have to confess that I quite like my fences but I appreciate what Geoff is achieving in building bridges between the two communities. I ask him what he has to say to people might ask why they should give money for his projects when there are other established aid agencies they can donate to. “Because there’s value in connecting people with people, you know? Making it a personal thing. It’s taking away the fence between us, its opening up that channel again, and I think there is a lot we can learn from each other, that’s really the key. Aid agencies do great jobs. I’m not putting them down, but those [personal] connections are what we are missing in the world.”
Geoff has been organising a more formal structure for his projects. By the time you read this, a Charitable Trust called the Sidebyside Foundation will have been established. “From my own point of view, because it’s gone big, it needs that structure,” Geoff says. “It just means it is moving to another level –I’m really proud of that. It’s not about me, it’s about doing the good stuff and that’s a wonderful thing.”
As highlighted earlier, there are certainly an interesting variety of projects on the go, other’s being LEAP – Lions clubs supporting the empowerment of Albinos in northern Uganda and Coffee Kids – ten children supported from cafes in the Wairarapa. It was interesting to hear an interview on Nights With Bryan Crump on Radio New Zealand where he interviewed the founder of an aid project that simply donates cash to those who need it, with the faith that they know best what to use the money on and will spend it wisely. A similar sort of philosophy informs Geoff’s projects. “Instead of us saying they should do this and that, just let them do what they need. Actually, we can learn a lot from them. We’ve got a lot to learn.”
On the other hand, Geoff has been grateful for the huge support he has received from Wairarapa residents. “I just talk to people, people are enthusiastic. The Wairarapa has great people.” He cites Farmers4Farmers where Wairarapa farmers and others will support a programme of $15,000 over four years to revitalise and develop the farming capacity of Ludok, the village he lives in, assisting in its recovery from the civil war in northern Uganda from 1996 to 2006 between the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and government of President Yoweri.
“Most of the projects are designed as a four year thing, to get people going again thing. Then we will see what happens. They have had enough aid and dependence on aid for too long. “All the projects have the aim of being self-sufficient. We surveyed 128 kids and their families around the village last year. The average family income is around US$200 a year. It’s all subsistence. I was aiming for grass roots [assistance]. It started with wanting to support the kids and the farming was their idea. I said ‘What do you really need a hand with and what could really make a difference’ and they said ‘Help us to get our farming going again, and educating the kids.’ So that is what they wanted and everything else has flowed from that. Because they lost all that stuff in that war and it still hasn’t been returned. There is a whole range of projects but they are all interlinked. It’s just connecting the dots.”
Geoff remembers a former boss saying he could sell anything, even sanitary pads, which fate has proved true. Lions and Lioness clubs are supporting the development and implementation of a programme for the manufacture and supply of reusable sanitary pads as a small business, along with tailoring, enabling female students and others to lead full lives free from the constraints menstruation can cause, saving money and creating a small business. “I knew that was a something that was needed and it was something simple.”
There are also plans for a “Heather Burgess Nursery School” comprising three rooms and named after a Featherston woman. “Just ten days prior to her passing, Heather asked me to visit her. She’s always followed me and chipped in $20 bucks here and there – someone with a heart. When I came back ‘I thought must go and see her.’ I hadn’t picked up how sick she was. A few weeks ago I get a message on Facebook. ‘Look Geoff, come and see me before I die. I want to give you some money.’ We had a chat and then she got tired as you would expect and then she gave me some money because she knows I don’t have any money. It was very touching and humbling.”
Geoff is open about how he has managed to come so far without having a full-time job. “I’m trying to support myself by selling my photos. I get asked ‘How do you support yourself?’ A friend of mine drank himself to death a few years ago. He was a smart money person. He gave half of his estate to ten of his friends. It was nearly up to six figures I got, so that has enabled me to do this. And his brother goes, ‘This is so cool. He would be delighted by what I’m doing’ – that’s true. What a nice thing! “That enabled me to do it, buy the tools I needed. I haven’t gone on a cruise or something self-indulgent. It’s good that people know that because they go ‘Gulp, how are you surviving?’ Well that’s how I survive. I’ve got nothing to hide.”
Geoff is equally open about his experience of a night of imprisonment which made the news back in New Zealand. “The funny thing was, I was arrested partly because I had this t shirt on which is from the Bayimba Arts Festival.” He pulls out a yellow T-shirt which he had been given when he ran a photography workshop at the festival last year. Geoff and his driver were taking an albino boy to have his eyes tested at a low vision centre. But it turned out that that day the main opposition party – whose colour is blue – was holding a rally in the same town (NB the government colour is blue).
“I was by the army barracks just by chance taking pictures of the nearby mountain. We had gone past the spot where it was good to take a photo. I thought this is hopeless because there are all these slummy looking buildings in front of me. Anyway, I had just jumped back on the bike and all these guys came running out saying ‘What are you doing, these are army barracks blah blah blah. I said ‘Look, I’m sorry, I didn’t know and I was not taking pictures of the buildings, I was taking pictures of the mountain behind.”
“They believed me but said ‘We will have to get the intelligence officer to come and make sure it’s okay.’ The intelligence officer eventually came and he was okay. But while we were waiting for him to come, the girl from the village rang to see how the day had gone. When she found out where we were she panicked and rang a friend who rang the presidential offices in the State House. The man in the State House rang his boss and he ran the police. The army guy is talking to me and then the phone rings. He goes away and then comes back and says ‘I was just going to let you go’ – it had all been friendly – he says ‘That was the police in State House and they are sending someone out from the town to collect you.’ Because they need to take statements. Everyone is trying to look good, because you are a foreigner as well.”
“Then the police come and they were nice too. But it is maybe 9pm at night. They have got to do everything by the book because the orders have come from State House, so everything had to be done properly. I was questioned and so was the nurse who was helping the albino boy. They just wanted to make sure everything was covered so State House didn’t come back with more questions. So that was that. In some ways it was funny. So I had to stay in the cells. I got out the next day about lunch time.”
I ask Geoff if he is worried about being viewed with suspicion by the government, especially given his outspoken views. “I do. They know what you are doing and keep an eye on you – Yeah, I get warned.” So how have you managed to walk that tightrope so far? “The people are just nice. They are ordinary people. Even the police and military, they’ve all been good. But they keep an eye on me, I know that. But I don’t try and stay out of the political side of it “I’ve been warned about making comments on Facebook, because they monitor it all.”
One of Geoff’s most endearing projects is LEAP – supporting the empowerment of Albino’s in Norther Uganda. “They need special things like sunscreen, eyeglasses,, reading aids and even long sleeved clothes, and if we can provide them with education as well – they are less likely to get an education. But we can do that, that helps the families as well, you know? Do you think people seeing others helping albinos helps change people’s perception of them? Of course it does. I know it does because the first boy we’ve been supporting for a year and a half with our lion groups, I’ve been to his school twice. They are doing a great job, making everyone aware he is just normal, instead of being hidden away. We still do that with disabilities here. People who are different get pushed away.”
As a “mzungu” or European, how is Geoff viewed by the locals, I ask. “They are looked up at, looked down at, all of those things depending on the person who is doing the looking “Most people are great. They understand that you are there to help out and are just a human being.”
We end the interview with a brief discussion on the temperature and geography of Uganda, as you do. “They have the perfect climate, 28 degrees all day. The whole country is about a 1000 metres above sea level. It goes up to about 35 degrees and comes down to about 20, and at night time it’s probably about 18. There is plenty of vegetation. It’s tropical. Up north it gets a bit dry.”
I inquire as to whether the country has a litter problem as in common in many developing countries. “They have a litter problem. Because you see, it’s all non-biodegradable stuff which comes from Western culture, everything they have decomposes except the Western stuff – that’s a problem.”
Does Geoff have any advice for others interested in pursuing a similar path? “Yeah, follow your nose. Listen to your heart and intuition, not your head, because that is where your truth is. Your truth is in your soul, not your head.”
You can view more of Geoff’s photography at the Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/geoffwalkernz
And website http://sidebysidewithgeoff.nz/