Chapter One


DROUGHT

Florita Botts

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In 1973, during my work as photographer/visual media producer for FAO, I was assigned to photograph the seven-year drought in West Africa. In Mali, Senegal, Chad, Niger, Upper Volta—the poorest countries in Africa, on the edge of the Sahara, the Sahel —they were into their seventh year of less and less rainfall.

Most photographers would have been eager for such an assignment. I wasn’t.

I thought of the magazine photos of the Bihar famine taken by Pierre Pittet, a good friend of mine and a really good photographer. One tragic photo particularly: a dying man stretched out on a pallet inside the hut, naked skeleton, suffering eyes staring into the camera. Pierre told me how he arranged the lighting. Flash way over to one side and pointing horizontally as though it were light coming in from a window, to build up the shadows in the ribcage, accentuate the deep hollows in the sunken cheeks. A family was dying of starvation in that hut. Pierre selected the father for that specially lit portrait. I imagined the scene, not as Pierre photographed it, but with Pierre there, quick-thinking the best chiaroscuro lighting effects, setting up a tripod to hold the flash, unwinding the extra-long pc cord from camera to flash, moving fast inside that dark hut.

I once read this someplace: "Photographs cannot create a moral position, but they can reinforce one--and can help build a nascent one." Pierre was considered one of the "concerned photographers." He was a master at portraying human suffering in famines, poverty . Maybe I could have fit into that category, but I weep too easily. Lose my balance, clarity.

I’d been preparing for an assignment in Kenya and Ghana. A tough one: to photo-document what was being done--and not done--about family planning in those countries: to prove in photos that there is a real population explosion, with all its problems—few doctors and nurses, few hospitals, unemployment, shantytowns, few schools, land hunger-- in both countries. My office in the Information Division thought I should get press photos of the drought in the Sahelian countries on the same trip, concentrating on Upper Volta [now called Burkina Faso], next door to Ghana. The international press was clamoring for them from FAO. Upper Volta didn't want its famine publicized in the world's newspapers. They wouldn't give visas to press photographers. But my chief knew it would be easy to slip me in with my U.N. diplomatic passport: no one would take any notice of a woman.

Looking at Pierre's photos I couldn't see myself in that room in Bihar, sizing up the lighting effects, concentrating on f- stops and synch, searching fast for something to clip my flash to, while the eyes of that family were watching me. It wasn’t timidity or lack of courage. It was lack of distance. In my many years as a photographer for FAO I'd had to take photos of riots, the worst slum conditions (now waiting for me in Kenya and Ghana), reeking slaughterhouses, lines of the unemployed, hospital wards, malnourished babies, doctors curing the sick, in so-called “developing countries" which were my specialty. I'd had rocks and insults thrown at me. But when doing my work as a photographer I preferred to establish a relationship with the subject, no matter how. I'd memorized in Bahasa, Arabic, Chinese, Amharic, Thai, name it, "Please, may I take your photo?" "Yes?" "No? But I'll give you a photo in exchange" then taking out of my many pockets the Polaroid camera for the incredulous. "Good...one more, please...Don't look at me….Look at me...Smile...Don't smile...Continue what you were doing"… etc.

And where I could speak the same language--South of the Border, or in Africa where Africans spoke English or French or Italian --I worked the way I needed to, chatting with my subjects, admiring or asking questions about whatever they were doing, maybe smoking a cigarette together, establishing a relationship. So the idea of approaching the starving and composing the photo, clicking the shutter in their faces, was loathsome and insulting. But I had to go.


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At the U.N. food distribution office in Ouagadougou, capital of Upper Volta. I met the sour director of emergency operations, Monsieur Bordeau. He was reaching retirement age. He was a French ex- Colonial bureaucrat. He was irritated that he had to deal with me.

"The drought devastation is up north. A two-day drive at the least, roads all sand. Our Land Rovers are tied up. In any case, we wouldn't be able to get government permission for you to travel."

"But you received instructions from our press office at Headquarters two weeks ago to set this up."

"What do they know in Rome about the problems we have here?"

Back at the Hotel Independance, a gin-and-tonic in the bar, wondering what to do next. French Air Force officers sitting on bar stools offered me a drink. They’d just finished their morning flights to the north to air-drop bags of cottonseed for starving cattle. They invited me to fly with them the next morning to photograph their feed drops from the plane. It was as easy as that.

I was hooked by my belt to a wire inside the transport plane so I couldn’t be sucked out of the open sides. Below us were dry lakebeds, dry waterholes, clusters of round huts here and there surrounded by brown patches, and desert beyond. I received the signal: Get ready. We were over a nomads' camp. The plane swooped down low to the ground.

My camera on the airmen heaving the bags overboard.

Below were figures with baskets, staying clear of the bags as they hit the ground. The bags burst open. The cottonseed scattered. The plane circled and dipped again; my camera on the bags falling, exploding, and on groups of nomads dangerously poised nearby, readying to rush in. It was over in a few minutes. On to the next camp. Fifteen sacks per camp. Eighty sacks in the hold.

****************************

I returned to the sour director of emergency operations. "Monsieur Bordeau, I've flown with the French Air Force this morning to Tin Akof, near the Mali border. I photographed their feed drops. No one asked for permits. Even at the airport I photographed the planes being loaded, no police stopping me. You must find a Land Rover and a driver for me."

I hounded him, pressed, insisted. If only he knew how reluctant I’d been to photograph that demented scene from the ground. After the bags of cottonseed had split open on impact, I could imagine the mess, the waste. Nomads scrabbling on all fours, gleaning the precious seeds as fast as they could, taking up fistfuls of sand and scattered cottonseed they blew away in the cruel wind.

************************************

We loaded up the Land Rover. My companion for the trip was Roger. Bordeau insisted I should not go alone with an African driver, but his choice of chaperon dismayed me. Roger was a rumpled Belgian, probably in his early forties but he was puffy and he had drunk too much, eaten too much, to be fit. He wore unironed cotton shorts and his short legs were pastry-white. He told me he was a livestock expert, had been called in for the emergency to be in charge of the animal-feed distribution. Hadn't yet been up to the north, and so far had only worked from the maps. He wasn't eager to leave the maps in Ouagadougou for the real world, said it wasn’t really necessary. "We don't need many provisions," he said. "One day up and one day down."

I objected. "People who've been tell me we need at least two days both ways. I'll need
time to take photographs. And what about unforeseen delays? Like getting stuck in the sand, or flat tires?"

"There won't be any. I've got to be back here by Sunday. I've promised my wife."

We split the costs for the food and Evian. He put back on the shelf three of the ten sardine tins I’d put in the basket. "I don't eat much when I'm traveling. We don't need tunafish as well," he said.

I put a few cans in the basket anyway. I started to pull a bag of rice from the shelf. “What are we going to do with all that?" he asked.

"What we don't eat we can give to anyone who asks us for food."

"My policy is not to give to anyone."

One loaf of bread was his selection. I put another two in the basket, and I could see he was displeased, mouth tight, little hard eyes.

I was certain he’d been dragged into accompanying me. But why shouldn't he come along? It was his business to see firsthand, talk to the nomads, estimate the losses. This was his work. It wasn’t a good start for the trip. I'd rather have gone without him. He wouldn't be a guide. All he knew were statistics: "Niger, Upper Volta and Mali will lose two million head of cattle in this drought. A quarter of a billion dollars' worth. 5,192 sacks of corn--that's 236 tons--since last May, 252 tons of sorghum, 5,050 sacks, distributed in the Dori prefecture”—put a green-headed pin on the map—“120 tons of cottonseed means 1 kilogram per animal for 30,000 cattle for 4 days...."

*****************************************

Then we were finally in Dori where he’d put the pin. Nothing but a few mud houses in the sand, a mud police station identified by the national flag where we had to check in. Trees that looked dead and probably never gave much shade in the best of times. Roger said: “I knew there’d be nothing here to see. Let’s get out of here fast.”

A mob of robed, turbaned figures milled around outside the open door of a tin-roofed hut. Others emerged clutching sacks labeled wheat bran from the Republic of Germany, and cottonseed gift from the people of the United States of America. Here were the great nomads of the Sahel, magnificent pastoralists, fiercely independent, now standing in line for animal feed.

The crowd made way for me inside the hut. I stood on piles of sacks to photograph the crowd of dark faces frowning under white turbans and blue hoods, dark hands waving ration cards, hands grasping sacks. Outside, camels with their legs folded under them were loaded up.

Donkeys waited, attached to two-wheeled carts. A group of naked, emaciated children stood together off to the side, waiting for their families in the distribution line.

Passive, they merely stood, looked at nothing. No movement. Stick bodies with bulging bellies. Heads too big on thin necks, hollow eye-sockets, big eyes staring dully, unflicked flies sucking on their lids. There was no reaction to me, to my camera, as though they were in shock. I took the hand of one boy, he was probably eleven or twelve, with the long legs long body of his tall nomadic tribe, coffee-and cream-color skin but there were patches of white, and his cropped brown hair was yellowing, the classic signs of malnutrition. He would have been a stunningly beautiful boy. He kept his hand in mine, looked so earnestly at me with his hazel eyes that I couldn’t stand it, turned away.


I returned to the Land Rover for more film. Roger hadn’t moved from his seat, and I could see he was impatient for us to get going. He sweated copiously, I'd never seen anyone sweat like him. He was wet from head to foot, as though he’d emerged from a shower in his clothes.

He muttered about the time we were losing; I ignored him and walked away, outside the circle of low houses. Dead cows were flattened into the baked landscape. One cow had just died. Her calf was by her, still standing but about to drop on his spidery legs. Wavering, he sniffed his mother, almost fell on her. A few sheep, noses to the sand, staggered in zigzags. A thin goat at a dead tree stood up on hind legs to nibble a torn branch but there was nothing to nibble. The thorn trees were skeleton-white, every tree had been stripped of leaves and bark, branches torn and pulled to the ground to be stripped by hunger-crazed animals.

As I headed back, I passed behind an open truck. On wooden boards lay a pathetic heap of starving cattle. Too weak to stand, no resistance left, they lay in a pile. Their horned heads were folded back against their ribs, too heavy to be held by their weak necks. Sacks of bones. Not a sound, not a movement, not even a flick of the ears, a blink of their dazed eyes. They entered my camera.

The truck driver came around to the back, greeted me politely in French.

I asked: "Where are you taking these cows?"

"To Ouagadougou."

"But they are worthless. There's no meat left on them."

"It's just the hides that will sell. The bones and horns go to the factory."

"What did you pay for them?"

"Six hundred CFA each." That was about $2.50, I calculated. "And I'll earn double, maybe triple if I'm lucky. In good times I pay up to twenty thousand for a well-fed cow."

He pointed to some dung on the floorboard. "It's almost pure sand. These cows haven't eaten anything but sand."

Honking from the Land Rover --Roger pressing on the horn. We had a long way to go; Dori was only Stop 1.

I was back in my hot seat and Duma, our driver, gunned the engine. His name meant Born on Friday. A very black African in a chartreuse robe strode fast toward us, calling in French: "Stop, stop! Do you have any medicines with you? My wife is very sick."

Duma waved him off impatiently, the car lurched forward. He threw the gear into second with a flourish.

"We Africans are all like that. We think any pill will do, no matter what illness we've got."

We roared off. Duma liked to accelerate in the villages, liked to make people and animals scatter. We drove past the crowd of nomads at the animal-feed distribution center.

Roger said, "If the cattle eat only cottonseed or wheat bran they'll die of bloat. They must have roughage."

"What should be done about that?" I asked.

"Their owners should go out to the millet fields and gather straw to add to this feed. But they don't know this."

"Why don't you tell them?"

"Me? It's not my job!"

I was silent in the back seat. What is your job then, Mr. Livestock Expert?

"Besides,” he continued,, “it would be impossible to convince them to do it. It's not their habitual way of raising cattle. Nomadic cattle have always gone out to find their feed in pasture. It would be inconceivable to the nomads to gather straw for them."

"Apart from that," I said, "where do you think there's any millet straw to be found? There's not a straw left in the fields. The animals have eaten everything."

They are shitting sand.

We drove for hours on a sandy track, on all sides was the same monotonous landscape. Roger complained that I stopped Duma too often to go out with my cameras for compositions of carcasses, tight hides sun-sculpted into bronze; dead trees bark-stripped now like ivory; sand pale-gold.


It turned out that we'd taken the wrong road. The guide we picked up at Gorom Gorom admitted that we’re on the wrong track. The going was rough. We skidded and slid in the sand, bogged, grinding the four-wheel drive, backed up, lurched forward.

We were changing the second flat tire, so there went our second and last spare tire. Both flats from gigantic thorns.

I walked away, drifted out into the colorless waste, seeking existence in this negation. I stopped at a stripped acacia. I felt grave as before an altar. "If the rain comes," I whispered, "will you green again?"

A dead branch hung by a thread of bark, torn from its socket.

How much grief in that branch.

We had to return to Gorom Gorom, the nearest tire repair. It was too risky to continue with no spares.

The tire repair would take hours. There was practically no equipment at the repair shack. We killed time doing a tour of the market. The cloth section beckoned, a provocation of brilliant colors against the sad land and lopsided tin-roofed shacks. Roger picked a stunning hand-woven bedcover, bargained down to a rock-bottom price. He was jubilant. He said that this was the best time for bargains. No one had any money for commerce because of the drought. The merchants were desperate to sell.

"My wife will flip!" he trumpeted. "And only ten dollars!"

Back at the repair shack, Roger fidgeted, swore, looked at his watch obsessively. We didn't speak. We discovered very soon out of Ouagadougou that we’d nothing to say to each other. Finally he barked: "We can't continue. We go back to Ouagadougou. It's enough."

"Enough of what?"

"It's Saturday already. You've taken enough photographs of the situation."

"We calculated two days to reach Tin Akof . That's where the ‘situation’ as you call it is concentrated. Everyone has told us to go there."

"It's just more dead animals, and hopeless people. More of the same."

Our argument circled around what he considered "the same," until he made it clear what was really bugging him: "It's my policy not to work on Sundays."

I exploded. "Only a cynical bureaucrat like Bordeau could invent someone like you for a trip of this kind. I'm sick that I didn't insist on coming alone!"

More hot words and we finally compromised. We’d camp near Tin Akof that night, be at the Christine Wells early the next morning, I’d do a rush job. We'd be on the road and non-stop back to Ouagadougou by the next night.

We found a new guide. He was Issa, French-speaking, studied with the White Fathers. He belonged to the Peuhl tribe, nomads renowned for their great herds of cattle.
We made it to our campsite at sunset. Roger took out his new bedcover, our guide and driver pulled out the rest of our gear. He was thrilled with his new purchase and the bargain price; he’d already mentioned it twice since we left Gorom Gorom.

We discovered that Roger forgot to buy the eggs. He’d said we didn't need to buy tuna fish but at lunch he ate an entire can. Our supper was more tuna fish and bread.

We were not far from a camp, a group of huts with straw mats for walls and roofs neatly lashed together by ropes. Issa told me these were typical nomad homes.

I could see people drifting around outside. "Roger," I said, "let's go over there. Issa will help us talk to the people."

I noted the flash of a red and gold Côte D'Or chocolate hoarded in Roger's hands. He wasn’t going to offer it to anyone. His private supply. Must have been gooey in this heat. "I don't need to talk to them," he said.

I knew he would say that. He wasn’t ashamed of his overt disinterest. He hadn't spoken to anyone wherever we stopped. He'd told me his last assignment before this had been in Calcutta. "After Calcutta I've become immune. That burned me out." Now the burn had settled in. He had his statistics and that was all he needed to carry on his routine in the capital city with his map and his pins. He could collect an excellent salary every month after visiting warehouses with a clipboard in his hand, writing reports.

Issa and I walked over to the camp.

We were greeted by a six-foot youth in blue tunic, long legs in floppy trousers, black turban wrapped loosely around his head and neck. "He's a Bellah," Issa said. The Bellahs were another nomadic tribe from the region, very tall, elegant like the Peuhls. He stood beside a gaunt cow suckling two calves.

I stared, surprised to find a cow not only with milk but with two calves. I was surprised also because the youth spoke to me in French: "She's feeding her own calf and one whose mother died this morning. She's alive because she got seed, from the plane."

"Where are the rest of your cows?" I asked.

"They all died. We had many. Many. There's only enough seed to feed this one."
He walked with us.

"Where do you come from?" I asked.

"Me and my family from Upper Volta. From here," he waved his herding stick. I noted this, that all nomads carry a herding stick at all times, an appendage. Now, even if there were no more animals left to herd, the stick was in his hands. "We're staying near the water. There's no more pasture."

We stopped by the tent next to his. A beautiful young woman sat on her knees on a mat. As she mixed millet in a gourd, didn’t look up at us. She was regal, elaborately ornamented, with beads cascading in the cleft of her naked firm breasts, silver rings on the rims and lobes of her ears, beads in her tight multiple braids, globular bracelets on both ankles. A baby lay beside her and plucked at her lavender skirt. I took photos of her and the baby, working fast. My usual ethic of seeking permission was nullified.

"She's a Peulh," the Bellah youth said. "From Mali. Her family lost all their animals at the Wells. For many days they walked to reach them. They finished their food. We've shared our last millet with them."

Outside, I saw other members of her family, grouped in a line on the sand. They crouched, knees drawn up, robes covering curved backs. Hunched like birds in the rain on a fence. Immobile and spent-- frowning but looking at nothing. They paid no attention to us or to my camera clicking.


"What will you do. What will they do?"

He looked off at the plundered landscape. "I don't know."

I thought about the herding stick. A nomad without a herd was like a tortoise without his shell. And if the wide expanses which were his world were barren, he was totally bankrupt.

*******************************************

We sat on our cots in the sand drinking coffee and two men appeared on their camels. They saluted us, a raising of a hand, no words. Their white turbans, wound around and around like bandages covering the face, barely revealed their eyes.

The camels knelt, the two men descended, untied their saddlebags, and stood their spears upright in the sand. Wrapped in their white togas, in silence they built a campfire, the camels resting obediently beside them. The only sound was the rubbery cud-chewing noises from the camels. One of the men came over to us, enamel teapot in his hand. He opened his mask to the mouth. He had deep lines around his mouth, around his green eyes.

"He's asking for water to make tea," Issa said.

"Here we go," Roger muttered.

"He's also asking for some sugar."

"I knew it!"

"Roger, we've got three bags of sugar," I said. "We're not taking them back to Ouagadougou."
I poured some of our Evian in the pot, folded up a little pile of sugar in a notepaper. I thought, I'll fill a plastic bag and give it to him tomorrow morning. I said, "Issa, tell him we'll have coffee for them tomorrow morning."

Roger snorted in his mug.

The two men reclined in the sand drinking their tea. No food in sight, and I asked Issa to find out if they needed anything.

"They have no food," he said.

"They would never ask for it, would they?"

"They are Peulhs. We Peulhs would never ask," Issa answered quietly.

Roger said, "I never give to anyone who begs."

I took them a can of sardines and bread. They examined the opened can, they didn’t know what these sardines were. I tried to explain through Issa, who didn’t know sardines either. But they didn’t refuse. With their fingers they mixed them with broken chunks of the bread in a gourd bowl, making a mealy dish.

Their campfire burned into the night. At midnight I heard the camels groaning. From my cot I could see that one was being loaded up. One man mounted, and I watched his silhouette as he rode off in the moonlight, saluting his companion.

At one o'clock a terrible wind came up. Sand and whirling rain clouds swept horizontally across the sky. We leapt out of our cots, rushed to fold up our flapping bedding, and just made it into the Land Rover when the rain hit. The Peuhl who had stayed behind tapped on our window, asking to be let in.

"There's no room," Roger said from his front seat.

"We can double up," I said, sliding closer to Issa who shared the back seat with me.

"Pas de place!" Roger repeated in a growl to Issa as he started to open the door.

"The white man's hospitality," I said. "Is this how they do it in Belgium?"

Roger kept a zipped lip, and wouldn't turn his head at the ostracized wayfarer who slid to the ground with his back to the car door, covering himself with his burnoose, pulling his turban over his face.

The sand whipped all night, lacerating, mixed with a punishingly meager rain. Steaming sweat and smoky smells, we sat out the night, rigid in the uncomfortable seats, sleepless.

At dawn the storm was over. We were stiff, sour-mouthed, greasy as we crept out of the car. Roger was in his perpetual foul humor. I tried to joke with Duma, but he was in Roger's thrall; he knew who the team leader was and watched that barometer, and didn’t smile. Issa and the turbaned wanderer got a fire going, and coffee was on.

"Issa," I said, "ask our friend here why he didn't leave with his companion last night."

"He stayed because you promised him coffee."

"Now, let's synchronize our watches," Roger said. "One hour for photography. One hour. It's 7:10. At 8:10 we hit the road."

We arrived at the Christine Wells, just over the hill from our camp. We were on the border of Upper Volta and Mali. I’d been told this water point had been drilled by the French during the colonial era. I hadn't really known what to expect, even though I’d been given statistics in the Drought Relief office in Ouagadougou, of 15,000 head of livestock herded through by nomads migrating from Mali in search of green pastures where there were none. Here, at these wells, the Voltaic nomadic livestock had already stripped every green thing and left. And an estimated 5,000-6,000 animals had already died after drinking at these wells, after days and days of trekking to reach them. "Freezing up,” this was called. When livestock are starving, and then drink their fill, they swell up, keel over, and die.

I’d imagined wells like many I'd seen in my travels-- deep holes in the ground, water extracted by buckets attached to ropes. But this is not what I saw at the Christine Wells. I saw drinking troughs overflowing, miraculously clear water, the greatest blessing spilling and splashing.

I realized that this was from an artesian well, a pressure hundreds of meters beneath this tortured land. Spectral cattle, donkeys, goats, sheep, and camels milled about this water, women and children thronging, merging with them. Water spilled out over the trampled earth into ponds, flooding the stripped trees, the plundered earth. Like boulders around the muddy shores lay dead cattle. Everywhere were carcasses of livestock half in water half in mud, collapsed where they drank, surrendered to a cruel joke.

I tried to control my tears. My viewfinder was blurred. A bitter fatigue overwhelmed me. I switched to the 21mm Super Angulon, my super wide-angle supreme, composed photos of this mass cemetery, aimed through curved horns which would long be grave markers; a cow's back filled the viewfinder. The bodies were intact, as though they’d found nourishment in death.

Photo: a woman’s slender arm, braceleted above the elbow, reached toward a branch above her head. She held a gourd-bowl in the other hand. She seemed young, but her naked breasts were flat, wrinkled. She was plucking minute leaves one by one from an acacia on the water's edge; the tree was a white skeleton but it was alive. The leaves were so tiny I couldn’t see them, but to her they were a visible meal. So all these white skeletons were alive, sprouting! Three naked children stood behind her, holding gourds in their thin arms. The smallest child stooped, grasping with effort a gourd much bigger than his potbelly. Foreground: at the mother's bare feet, a baby donkey 's carcass was pressed into the clay, seemingly boneless, a phantom, more a donkey's skin flung into the mud.


Photo: Foreground, framing the picture: the back of an emaciated cow, freshly dead. Lying peacefully, resigned to failure, she must have stretched out quietly waiting for her breath to stop. Close to her, intimately close, a family, stick figures sitting side by side, with knees drawn up to their chins, outside a tent. Mute, staring at the ground. Empty pots, empty bowls.

Photo: another scene of the same kind.

Photos: more scenes of the same.

Everywhere. Why am I photographing this suffering? I claimed no selfhood. Predatory complicity. There were screams in my head, the sounds were pitched past human hearing. The voice of Earth’s degradation?

Issa said: "They have lost all their animals. They have nowhere to go now. They're waiting for the planes to fly over again."

"But they're dropping cottonseed. For the livestock," I mumbled.

Issa replied: "The people are eating the cottonseed now."

Roger added: "Why don't they get up and fight? If they were Belgians, they'd be watering the desert with buckets!"


*****************************************************

So, I bore witness. The photographs were distributed to the international press network, I was sent clippings from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Die Zürcher Zeitung, Christian Science Monitor. The dead cow in the foreground, the destitute family crouching in front of their tent, the beautiful hazel-eyed boy. The U.N. in New York blew up fifteen photos to life-size and exhibited them in the entrance.

The nomadic way of life was finished. The nomads all across the fringe of the Sahara lost everything, and ended up in refugee camps.


At my headquarters in Rome. On my way to the top-floor cafeteria, I entered the Up elevator, Two people were already inside, a shortish woman-- a dyed blonde in mink coat--beside a shortish male in gaudy tie, leather jacket, belly requiring its own room in the elevator. It was Roger and his mate. He must have been on the routine visit to headquarters for the routine fruitless briefing to wangle the next useless assignment. We exchanged a glance, recognized each other. Silence. I pressed the 3rd-floor button, just to get out of the elevator as fast as I could. There would be no more trips anywhere with Roger, not even to the top floor of a building.

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