About Sulfiati Magnuson

My life has been recreated many times over my 70 years, so I really shouldn’t be surprised that I have once again left my beloved West Coast of America to reside in Africa, specifically Uganda. This new life is based upon the love of family, the desire to live with one of my daughters and her husband as they have my grandchildren, two boys aged 19 mos and almost five years. Truth be told, I am also an economic refugee from one of the most expensive places to live in the United States, Seattle, WA. Seattle has been the fertile ground for many engineering, biotech and most recently, what is referred to as hi-tech, companies. This has changed a somewhat provincial community into a diverse one in which the average home price is now $700,000 and climbing. This financial pressure is urging many to combine households, as people used to live, “in the old days.” I am continuing to practice psychotherapy based on Jungian principles, and am an Certified Imago Relationship Therapist. In addition, I have specialized in Loss and Grief, and community response to trauma, natural and man made. (See my website: www.sulfiatimagnuson.com) Being here in a country that is experiencing explosive growth, right on the equator is stimulating all the different aspects of my self: mother, grandmother, psychotherapist, photographer, journalist, advocate, community member, friend, and seeker. Just when one expects to be limiting one’s experiences, I have just placed myself in a situation to test myself on all levels of what I know, what I can do, and what I believe in. I have been asked to share my story as it unfolds, in words and images. As a great believer in the power of journaling to reveal what might have been missed, I have agreed.

Grass Sweepers

Grass Sweepers.1.2.cThe spectrum of life for women here in Uganda is somewhat of a paradox. One one hand, there are many women in positions of government leadership and activism. And, then, there is the other hand in which women do not have reproductive rights, knowledge or supplies for female hygiene which causes young women to miss school, or are married off when they hit puberty to protect them from being enslaved by local urban militia or a rival clan; or, they have been forced to work as children by begging to help support their family or a pimp, and so their childhood is over.

Like ancient goddesses, many women always seem to have an extra hand when there is more to be done. So, yet another hand holds the minority of women who are struggling for good paying jobs and/or to get an education, many deferring marriage and childbearing so as not to limit the potential to transform their lives, and the lives of their families. So the old adage is still true, “Teach a man and you’ve educated one. Teach a woman and you will have taught a whole village.”* Many women are innovative entrepreneurs here, and are inspiring and employing many in revolutionary methods of agriculture.

It is not any easier for the men in this, “boom town,” bursting with unemployed youth. The average is Uganda is 14-16, which means there are few elders to do the work of rearing, mentoring and guiding the many. It also means that jobs are scarce and the competition can be defeating. Last week, the government posted 27 job openings, and 10,000 people applied. That number was culled to 4,000 who met the requirements, and on the day appointed to begin the electronic application process, they all showed up. The computer system was overwhelmed by all the makeshift stations created in every nook and cranny of the government building, so the computer network shut down, and all were sent home disillusioned, or defeated, or angry, many to homes a long ways away.

From the “slums” of Kampala or distant rural villages to Parliament to is a long journey. Everyone knows where the slums are, and each has a name, like the one made famous in the film, “Queen of Katwe.” The reality is that Katwe has received a lot of notoriety, translation: tourists and money. Other similar sites continue the cycle of poverty, scarcity, survival and want.

I recently celebrated a birthday here, and when a young, hard-working woman learned of it, she exclaimed, “You get to become old!” with tears in her eyes. Becoming an older woman here in Kampala is not guaranteed. And, if one does live to an older age, one might be caring for one’s grandchildren because a son or daughter has succumbed to AIDs or is HIV+. The grandmothers are often the street sweepers, who use small, short handled “brooms” to sweep the gutters of the streets, occasionally with a baby tied to their back. And something I had never seen, women who sweep freshly mown grass, using the same style broom, causing one to work hunched over all day in the hot sun.

Life here is not edited nor sanitized. There is a vitality, a strength and a momentum that comes from the young. At first it was close-up and overwhelming, and now that my personal rhythms are settling in, I am inspired and in awe of the Beauty of all kinds that I am discovering in many unexpected places.

*I apologize for not being able to thank the first speaker of this truth.


Women in Uganda

Every day the newspapers are full of stories about the astonishing impact of the refugee crisis as Uganda has welcomed 1.2 million refugees fleeing the violent conflict in South Sudan in just 11 months with 2,000 more arriving every day. There is great emphasis on the benefits of education, however the government has just announced the closure of 1,3000 schools due to appalling conditions. Corruption, torture, human trafficking and the destruction of the environment because of the drought, army worms, and poachers are still everyday events here. Of all the images that are swamping my soul, the images of women here in Kampala have the strongest resonance for me in telling the story of the perseverance and resilience of the people I see here.

Butterfly Girl.f.©.2

I met this beautiful, young Ugandan girl at a birthday party after she had just had her face painted. Her parents goal is to keep her in school, and healthy. Many girls are married off at very young ages (and soon after bear a child) either for profit, or to prevent the girls from being captured into sex slavery by urban militias.

Handless Mama.F.©.jpg

This haunting woman and her child were begging on a very busy street in downtown Kampala. She and many others, including very young children, were begging as they wove their way between cars, trucks, bodabodas (motorcycles used as taxis and mode of transporting goods), and matatus (converted vans that serve as taxi’s with up to 16 people in each one). Begging in traffic is against the law, but poverty drives necessity. I asked our driver how she might have lost her left hand, and he replied, “It is a form or torture to cut off someone’s hand(s) in the northern part of Uganda. She is of the Acholi tribe that has been the targeted by Al-Shebab. Aside from her plight, it is very likely that she, as well as the children, are being “pimped,” and receive almost nothing for their efforts. (iPhone capture through my car window.)
Version 2
This photograph was taken the day I arrived after a three-day transit, as I began to get excited about being in Uganda. The earth is truly like red clay here, and always catches my eye. This is a scene often sighted: men of all ages standing to the side of the street with a bodaboda nearby. The average age in Uganda is 14 years old, and unemployment is a constant issue, as is education. (iPhone capture through my car window.)
Banana Woman.2.F.©
People here seem to effortlessly carry all manner of produce and other objects on their heads.

When a Global Community Weeps

Our Human Bond

Last night, a week or so after MH17 was downed, I went to bed after editing some photos in which I was isolating a dance figure onto a black background, square-by-square of black paint, and pixel-by-pixel. As I lay alone in my bed, I felt as if grey, spongy blocks of silence were surrounding me in the same way, to the point where I thought I might scream or throw up. Is this madness? No.

Earlier in the week, rather than abstaining from visual media portrayals of current events as I had been doing, I instinctively knew when something momentous was happening, just as I had when Ronald Regan had been shot, and the tsunami in Japan began hitting the shores. So, I turned on CNN. Another Malaysian plane down, but this time shot down by a missile, as easy and innocent a prey as a migrating bird in flight. For days, I watched as the world exploded in first one place, then another, faces of horror and grief mixed with those of laughing ghouls, and blank eyed, inhuman demi-gods. Chants of, “Uncivilized!” were met with silence, and chants of, “Monsters!” were met with more guns, rubble and more dead.

Now, I am almost immobile, sickened, and awash with tragedy after tragedy, “Why?” after, “Why?” keep piling up on one another, just as today’s body bag count keeps rising. I am no longer in a place where I can feel that my prayers could alleviate any one’s pain, as I too am submerged, and in despair.

Strangely enough, I find solace in the controversial writings of Chris Hedges in his little-known book, War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning. Hedges states that the world has been free of war of some kind of war for only 150 days throughout human history, so that from the widest perspective possible and without moral judgment, war must serve a purpose.

As a war correspondent for many years, he was immersed in the chaos and carnage of tribal violence, genocide and religious zealotry. And while he certainly saw depravity and brutality, he also saw people rising, or being driven to a higher form of them selves. Sacrifice, heroism, compassion, or valor – some of the virtues we hold as most human, sprang from the blood soaked fields and streets of the last decades’ battles. Not everyone survives in-tact, some become “cannibals” of various kinds. Strengths and virtues that arise evolved on the anvils of man-made Hell. But arise they do.

In our sanitized, urban or suburban lives, little calls upon most of us to grow our souls. Hedges reflects that these powerful experiences shared with others become the glue of comradeship between fighters, journalists and first responders of all kinds. And yet, like many, he found that he too had become over-run by the numbing of sensibilities that is required to survive under the gun, on hyper-alert, in fear. He retired as a war correspondent, not-unscathed, and now reports on the wars without guns that are taking place in his own country, America.

I firmly believe that little is without purpose in this world, and beyond. I choose to call it a Divine Pattern, and I have no pretensions as to comprehending it all. But like all other humans, I am driven to find meaning in what I see and experience. For me, that means turning off the flow of misery depicted on TV, and taking time for contemplation, for prayer, for quiet, and for a response through making art.

While I am not in a position of forgiveness for all the combatants of this week, I am also not able to rage. I weep for all the participants, their families, and for the rest of us who cannot escape the waves of grief that spread like sonar waves around our planet.

So when I sat transfixed, watching the Dutch citizens honor the slow motion arrival of the first coffins from the Ukraine, I felt my connection to the event and people I had never met. When any tragedy occurs, especially a mass tragedy, the impact ripples in an almost limitless spiral:
to those who were also injured, but didn’t die
to those who witnessed the tragedy
to those parents who have lost a child
to those who have lost a family member
to those who have lost a loved one, friend, neighbor or fellow…
audience member
market goer
to those who know one of the above
to the first responders
to the secondary responders, those who work to heal in the aftermath
to those in similar situations
to those who might be in similar situations, or who know they will be
to those who share similar status, beliefs or religion
to those of the same color, culture or caste
and so the circles widen as surely as a rings around a petal disturbs the surface of the sea.

This is why we have ceremony. Ceremony not only brings what is implicit, and held deep within and turns it into something explicit, but it makes the unimaginable more tolerable by containing it, by creating a gathering of others experiencing the same loss, by giving language to screams, silent and otherwise. Grief is something that is not healed by time, or platitudes, but only by traversing the scarred remnants of one’s heart so as to get through the phenomena. Ceremonies, especially personally created ones, create a vehicle for the process of transforming pain into a healing, for one’s self, family, community and beyond. And, thereby create a human community forged through tears.

I will always feel closer and grateful to the people of the Netherlands for doing what they felt compelled to do as the first procession of hearses carrying the bodies of the downed arrived in Hilversum: stop their car, or interrupt their routine, to silently recognize the innocent people who had needlessly died in a horrific, unimaginable and tragic manner. They stood vigil for me, they threw petals in the path of the hearses for me, they silently applauded and lit candles for us all. Someone said, “We fight because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” Ritual and ceremony help us to remember our human bond, hold hands even across continents, and move again through grief and into the acts of mourning.

In celebration of awe

Rose.Pink n Yellow.FThere are precious moments when all concepts of “Art” are swept aside and all that has been revered, or had attempted to be captured in paint or stone, is wiped away. It is as if all that has ever been Beautiful is captured in whatever is before you, capturing your gaze, and the rest of you as you vibrate in some ancient form of communication.
In the stillness of a white hot, summer afternoon in La Crescenta, CA when I was four or five, I sat on the floor near our plate glass door, transfixed by an opal. It was gathering light and reflecting myriad shades of cornflower blue back to me. It was set in a ring my mother had made, and I had the first experience of what I would now call awe.
It happened again when we had moved to Pasadena, CA, and I was in high school. Gracing the front entrance to our house on the hill in Hastings Ranch was a very large Magnolia tree. And just to your right as you walk beneath the abundant arbor of magenta Bougainvillea, was my mother’s Rose garden, attended by two Cypress sentinels. One day, as I walked past the chest-high rose blooms, one called out to me. It was a vibrant red, the color only flowers and parrots seem to have been granted to wear. I had to stop walking, and breathe it in, every scent, and petal, line by achingly beautiful line. I marveled at its perfection that was apparent from every angle. In that moment, I knew that rose, and later painstakingly drew it with colored pencils, and wore it in silver rings upon my hands, and in the clothing that adorns my body.
In my high school English class, I wrote a poem about the experience of Beauty I had found in that rose, and was accused of plagiarism, of what I, “couldn’t have known”. I was confused, and felt a collision of what I knew to be true in my world, and what was accepted in the culture I had found myself in. Perhaps it was then that I made decisions: poetry was not to be my medium to express the world I as I saw it, and that how I experienced the world was not always going to be accepted by those around me.
I have been taking photos since I had received a small, Brownie camera on my tenth birthday in 1956. But when I was 19, it was my mother’s gift of a Pentax Spotmatic camera that a camera became my companion. With a camera, I could capture these Soul moments, and Beauty in every form that came to me, from the bark of Sycamore trees, to my beloved tulips growing in the rich mud of Washington’s Skagit Valley, and humans caught in the act of being their most human – in song and dance and theater.

I continue to celebrate the majesty of this world as I see it: Divine Tells.

Live to Dance!


Ulyber Mangune and Laura Duncan in rehearsal for CORE Theatrics' 2014 production of All Shook Up “Dance, when you’re broken open. Dance, if you’ve torn the bandage off. Dance in the middle of the fighting. Dance in your blood.” ~Rumi This photo was taken at CORE Theatrics: The Art of Being Human, during rehearsal for their 2014 production of “All Shook Up.” Uylber Mangune plays the lead with passion, enthusiasm and grace. Laura Duncan’s total commitment to every dance step she takes makes her performance riveting. The phrase, “Live to Dance,” is taken from Laura’s t-shirt, and is so apt for these two dancers. I have been enthralled by dance ever since I spent hours of my pre-kindergarten years in a very special dance class. My mother, who was a ballroom dancer, had decided early on to introduce me to the joys of the world of dance. She took me to a house with a wooden floor, a large window with floating white curtains to the floor, and a piano. I was there just to BE with the music, the art materials available on the floor, and the piano. I vividly remember the feeling of elation and freedom in my bodyheartmind as I twisted and turned as the music beckoned.  Under the wing of this teacher in her magic studio, nothing I did was wrong, and I could fly. My aliveness was celebrated. What I now know, is that my mother had a deep appreciation for Isadora Duncan and her methods of teaching young girls. Throughout my childhood, I looked forward to the day we changed the sheets of all the beds in the house. She would pile the sheets in the middle of the living room, and I got to play at being a Queen with my cool, white train following behind me as I frolicked barefooted in the small circle of our hot, tiny home in Altadena, CA. When I tired of being Queen, I built tents and crawled in, or wrapped myself in the white cloth like a Vestal Virgin, and lounged on our brown leather sofa, a remnant of my mother’s marriage and home in the Los Feliz Hills of Hollywood. As I got a little older, my mother encouraged me to pretend I was Marilyn Monroe, an act I replicated at Blue Bird Camp, Singing Pines. Somehow, out of context, I did not get the warm reception I was expecting and felt embarrassed and confused. I think that is when I stopped “play acting,” and became an audience member, a witness. And, oh, the hours of deep joy this has brought me. Carl Jung said, “A dream wants a dream.” I believe that art wants art. By that I mean that the natural response to art in any form, is to continue the flow of creativity with art in response, not unlike a conversation. And now, I feel as if I am responding, and grateful for the dialogue.

Sarah Espinosa, Mike Klinge, Andrew Garrett and Connor Rice.

Sarah Espinosa, Mike Klinge, Andrew Garrett and Connor Rice.