A former Chico man is determined to document the continent’s suffering
Mathieu Young is a 24-year-old man who grew up in Chico and now lives in Los Angeles, where he makes a living as a photographer. He shoots head shots for aspiring actors and any freelance assignments he can get. But life in LaLa land is not quite real to him these days, he says.
That’s because last year at this time he was in central Africa, in a small village in Kenya. He was there filming a documentary about the impact of HIV/AIDS on rural Africa. And what he saw during five months in Kenya, and on a two-week side trip to Uganda, changed the way he looks at life in America.
One day in Kampala, the capital of Uganda, he went to a slum where many orphans lived. There are tens of thousands of orphans in Uganda, their parents dead from AIDS and war. Some of them are former child soldiers abducted by the bizarre, horrific Lord’s Resistance Army and forced to fight.
“We saw it all: skin diseases, no legs, orphan after orphan,” Young later wrote in his journal. A crowd gathered, mostly kids, a few adults. When Young made the mistake of giving one child a coin, pandemonium broke out. Suddenly he was “totally surrounded by Kampala’s most desperate.” Their hands were everywhere, “grabbing at my arms, my bag, my pockets.” It was all he could do to force his way out of there.
“It was such an intense scene of suffering and desperation,” he wrote. “One lady, with this terrible skin disease on her face, had 12 kids. Her husband was dead from AIDS. They all looked so hungry and helpless and miserable, and who knows how many of them were sick themselves? What can you do?”
Chico theater-goers may remember Mathieu Young from his many appearances in local productions during the mid-1990s. He was a core member of the Chico City Light Opera youth ensemble, playing Dickon in The Secret Garden and Toto in The Wizard of Oz. In 1999 he was Romeo in the Shakespeare in the Park production of Romeo and Juliet.
A precocious kid, he graduated Chico High School in 1998 at the age of 16, having skipped 11th grade. He went on to attend UCLA, where he majored in theater, film and television, graduating with honors in 2003.
In a phone interview, he said he wanted to be an actor but got “tired of sitting around waiting for the phone to ring. That wasn’t proactive enough for me.” He’d done some photography at UCLA, so he “decided to roll the dice and see if it could pay the rent.” And it has done so, allowing him to expand into filmmaking and videography. In 2004 he completed a socially relevant short film, Myopia, that has been shown in small-film festivals in Boston, L.A. and Australia and will be screened Aug. 11 at the San Francisco International Festival of Short Films.As much as Young enjoyed his work, though, it wasn’t enough. His father, who died in 2002 after a long fight with cancer, had done humanitarian work for The Hunger Project. Shortly before he died, when Mathieu was 19, he took his son to the rainforest of Ecuador so he could see what poverty did to the tribes there and what dedicated people could accomplish. “He left me the kind of legacy that says you need to do more,” Young said.
Last year, he began planning a trip to Africa. Working with a group called The AIDS Responsibility Project, he arranged to go to the village of Kanga, in southwestern Kenya, to document the impact the arrival of antiretroviral therapies would have on AIDS sufferers—hence the hopeful name of his documentary, The Lazarus Effect.
Young raised the money for the trip himself. “I sort of went into it with blind optimism,” he said. When he got to Kanga, he discovered there were no AIDS drugs, that most residents of the tiny village had not even been tested for the disease, and that they were largely ignorant about its causes and treatments.
So instead he worked with local elders on a different project, turning a local school into a health and education center. Another goal was to generate funding to support some of the local kids’ education. Only primary grades were free; middle school cost $400 a year, more than most families earned.
“Poverty there is a vicious cycle,” Young explained, “and the only way to break it is through education.”He took a bus to a larger town an hour away and, from an Internet café, sent out emails seeking funding for his efforts. He raised $5,000 that way, enough to help the villagers set up a poultry-raising and a sugar-cane business.
Then he got some regional aid agencies involved, and they began doing HIV testing in Kanga. Villagers who tested positive then became eligible for drug therapies that were provided by a U.S. government-sponsored agency.
Young returned to the United States on the day before Christmas. Since then he’s been editing his documentary while also doing his day jobs, a push-pull situation he finds difficult but inescapable. He’s single and lives with roommates. The documentary, he says, “is my wife and lover.”
“I was really lonely in Africa, but I was surrounded by so much beauty. I feel more alone in Los Angeles,” he said.
The wealth and waste of America disturb him. “It’s hard just to go out to a club and pay eight bucks for a beer knowing what that money would mean to an African family.”
He’s talking about Darfur for his next project, something that worries his mother, Hilary Herman. “Not that I would try to stop him,” she said. “He’s going to do what he wants to do. He’s got such a big heart.”Herman is the city of Chico’s building official. Some readers will remember her as Ralphie Herman, but she started using her given name a few years ago when she moved to the Bay Area for eight years. She’s the person who arranged for a show of her son’s photos now up at The Upper Crust, in downtown Chico.
Meanwhile, Young continues to raise money for the Kenya projects. All proceeds from the sale of his photos will go to them, particularly to the sponsorship of school children.
Young wants to finish the documentary and go to Darfur to do another. “As much as life is hard in west Kenya, it’s nothing like Darfur.”