CHAPTER 1 The New Old-Fashioned Way: Do It Yourself
It’s been three days since the police let us go, but I’m still feeling pretty shaken up about it.
It’s hard not to get paranoid when you’ve been arrested for taking a picture of a wheelbarrow.
Here in Juba, the old capital city of the relatively new country of South Sudan, this is supposed to be the dry season, but it’s been raining every day. Juba is relatively developed compared with a lot of other cities and towns in this country, but most of the roads near our hotel are still unpaved, so I’ve gotten a great firsthand lesson in mud. There are two kinds of mud here: the normal brown mud that you’re used to and a strange black slippery mud that feels sort of like molasses under your feet. It’s almost impossible to walk on. Everywhere you look, someone has fallen and gotten covered in mud. No one seems too upset about it; they pick themselves up, don’t stop to wipe themselves off, and they continue on their way.
In fact, every time someone falls in the mud here, people laugh. It’s kind of disconcerting—your first reaction is, man, how rude, but then you realize that it makes its own kind of perfect sense.
You fall, you laugh.
Because you’re not dead.
Such is life in a war zone. At least, that’s how it feels to me, having spent a few days here among people who have faced unimaginable
horrors. After what they’ve been through, I guess they have greater concerns than whether they happen to have mud on their clothes.
The rain doesn’t seem to want to stop, and my biggest concern is that if it doesn’t stop, the authorities may not let us take off from here. They’re telling me the runways are too wet, and our plane is too heavy, and we won’t be able to land in Yida, the site of a 70,000-person refugee camp near the Sudan border. And if I don’t get out of here and get to Yida soon, I may go stark-staring crazy. Everything my team and I have been working on for months has led up to this: the trip to Yida.
So we are, quite literally, stuck in the mud.
Sitting here in limbo has given me some time to reflect on what we’ve been referring to as “this insane thing we’re doing”—it’d be way too overblown to call it our mission, and we’re way too disorganized to call it a plan. But we have a distinct goal ahead of us. Just a few months ago, I had the idea of coming to Africa when I first heard about Daniel, a boy whose arms were blown off in the war. About the same time, I had first heard about the possibility of creating new prosthetic arms, not through normal medical channels, but in a very do-it-yourself crazy hacker way—my way, in short—with an off-the-shelf 3-D printer.
And that’s when the idea first occurred to me that I could make those arms for Daniel.
And I decided to try to do it.
While we’ve been waiting here in Juba to leave for the camp where Daniel is staying, I’ve gotten to meet a lot of people, and while there’s a normality to their lives—no matter where you go, people do what they do, they get up and they go about their business and they eat and visit and try not to fall in the mud—there’s a jitteriness to it all, too. The sense that violence and hostilities are never far beneath the surface either in the contested areas of Sudan or here in South Sudan, and that they are getting ready to explode again. That creates a real tension in the air. You can almost taste it.
These people have seen bombs rain down from the sky. They’ve seen their children’s arms blown off right in front of them, their wives and husbands and children and babies and grandmothers killed, for no apparent reason. Being in their presence, you can feel the sense of impending disaster, like smelling rain in the air just before a storm.
Someone told me yesterday that every single person in this city has an AK-47 in their home. Probably an exaggeration, but still a pretty frightening thought.
We were taking some background photos the other day to document this insane thing we’re doing and to pass the time before we leave to make the arms. As we were shooting the pictures, some children came running up to us, saying, in various languages, which our translators helped us keep track of, “Photo! Photo! Take my photo!”
Just when we were taking some photos of a nearby hut—a small structure with a blue wheelbarrow in front of it—a man who appeared to be a soldier, in a starched tan shirt and overly large aviator sunglasses, said something about the photos. But from his tone it was most certainly not “Take my photo!” The next thing I knew, we were all being hauled down to the police to explain what we were doing there.
Suddenly, I realized how very little I knew about South Sudan and how to accomplish what we were planning to accomplish.
I am not a medical person by trade. Nor am I a fabricator or a 3-D printing expert; nor do I know much about Africa, bombs, the SPLA—the Sudan People’s Liberation Army—or just about anything we’re doing, for that matter.
I’m a producer. I work on films and TV shows, I make commercials and trailers, I create videos for clients of all stripes. I’ve done the credit sequences for some big movies and the graphics for some others. I’ve started a few businesses, sat on some boards, launched some nonprofits.
So after the police decided not to detain us, and we were left to cool our heels in the rain and the mud in Juba, waiting for our
chance to get up to the refugee camp in Yida, there was one question hanging in the air.
How the hell did I get here?
I had tried to ignore that question on the initial flight over to Johannesburg from Los Angeles. That flight had been delayed a day because my dog Georgia, our beautiful brown boxer, my faithful friend for sixteen years, was dying, and it didn’t feel right to leave without saying good-bye. We struggled all day about what to do—should we euthanize her before I left? It felt wrong. It felt like I was rushing it. So I delayed my flight the next day, and by the evening it was clear that she was waning, so we scheduled the doctor to come to our house at nine o’clock that night, and we all said our good-byes to her, my wife Caskey and our three boys and I.
The doctor was late; he showed up at the house at 9:37 p.m., precisely three minutes after Georgia miraculously popped up like a jack-in-the-box and started walking around the house, eating her food, and drinking her water. So when the doctor showed up and she started barking at him like crazy—and she’s not the kind of dog who usually barks at visitors—he said, “Um, I’m not euthanizing her today. She’s just not ready to go yet.”
We took that as a very good sign, good karma for the trip. But on the flight over, as I caught up on my reading—books like They Poured Fire on Us from the Sky, a harrowing account of three of the Lost Boys of Sudan—I started coming to terms with where I was actually going. In Sudan, warring tribes and armies kill indiscriminately, rape indiscriminately, torture women and children and grown men. Journalists are as unwelcome as the ever-present mosquitoes, only easier to get rid of. I imagined my last words on this earth being “I am not a journalist!” and I realized how little I was really prepared for the journey ahead of me.
But I had also spent the last two years in the company of ex
traordinary gentlemen and women—crazy lunatic gentlemen and women, to be precise. I was taking this trip on behalf of Not Impossible Labs, a company I’d created to try to solve medical problems that seemed to be unsolvable, and beyond that, to solve them in a very Do-It-Yourself kind of way. To get around the big medical companies, the big insurance companies, the big everything. To just get our hands dirty and take the backs off things, figure out how they work, and jerry-rig something new that could do the job just as well and then give it away for free.
The people who populated our lives now, the people who were helping me along this wild and crazy path, defined themselves as hackers and “makers”—which is how I defined myself now, too.
That’s what this book is about. It’s about Doing It Yourself and redefining what it means to Do It Yourself.
A light rain was falling outside the plane, and I found myself hypnotized by the blinking red light on the wing, as I thought about the concept of Do It Yourself. It’s as old as the loom and as new as the 3-D printer. Some say DIY is actually changing the way the American economy itself works. I’m not sure about that, but it sure is changing the way I work. And changing the way we think.
I am an executive producer by trade, and I could have executive-produced this trip—meaning, I could have secured the funding, hired the personnel, arranged the travel, laid out the itinerary, imbued the team with the goals of the mission, been the cheerleader and the scold and the teacher and the planner and all the other things that an executive producer does. And then I could have sent everybody on their way with my sincere best wishes.
But at some point, I guess, the do-it-yourself concept actually involves doing it yourself. So instead of executive-producing this trip, I found myself on this plane, in the rain, in the dark, doing something far different than anything I’d ever done before.
In a few hours, I would be landing in Johannesburg. I’d spend a week, at best, learning how to make a mechanical hand with a 3-D
printer and some parts we’d picked up at a hardware store—using techniques that others have taken months to perfect. To distract myself, I turned my attention to the in-flight movie The Blind Side, in which Sandra Bullock adopts a poor kid who happens to be a great football player. Toward the end of the film, I found myself crying, tears slowly dripping down my cheeks, mimicking the rain that was streaking the airplane windows. In-flight movies always seem to make me cry; something to do with the jetlag and the strange air and the helpless feeling of being propelled at 600 miles an hour in a big metal Tylenol capsule, and the blind faith inherent in that activity.
But if I’m being honest, I was probably crying for another reason.
As the movie ended, I got up to walk around the cabin a bit before we touched down. The sun started coming up on the left side of the plane. A new day was beginning, in more ways than one, for me. Behind me, back in LA, my boys were going to get ready for their first Halloween without me and, quite possibly, our first Thanksgiving apart as well. Ahead of me—well, I had no idea of what was ahead of me.
But in this transition moment—between my past and my future, really—I found myself contemplating the answer to that overwhelming question: What had brought me to this place, this place where I was taking a leap of faith into the unknown? Where I believe that there are ways to defy the odds and the naysayers and your own insecurities and accomplish what everybody tells you is impossible. How had I gotten to this place where that was going to be put to the ultimate test?
Could I really make the impossible possible?
And could I do it in a way that’s translatable—that I could share with others, so they could make the impossible possible as well?
I didn’t know the answer to that.
But I did know one thing.
I was about to, quite literally, stake my life on it.