The Net Mender

His name was Ali Ibrahim. It probably still is. In all honesty, I know virtually nothing about the man.

But, I was in Malindi, walking off the beach, and saw him sitting in a rundown shed, mending his nets. I started to walk off, paused, knowing he would make a good subject. Approaching random people to ask their permission for a photograph has been my biggest weakness as a photographer, and I have missed many opportunities because I wasn’t comfortable asking the question (the problem is magnified by my oft-inability to speak local languages). This time, however, I was with Wawi Amasha (more on her later). Wawi is a constant inspiration to me, and her presence coaxes me to push myself to achieve more.

I almost walked off, but I knew I would be disappointed in myself, like every other time it happened. Instead, I asked Wawi to help me translate, and I entered this rather ramshackle wooden shed. This Ali Ibrahim, in our brief encounter, had one of the warmest, most genuine personalities I have come across in a long time. He granted me the courtesy of shooting while he worked, and I only stayed for a few short minutes, before he gave me his address, for me to send some prints to him.

Walking away, I reviewed the photos, and felt I could see his gentle personality in the eyes of this portrait. I was so grateful to him, for allowing me into his personal workspace, and to Wawi, for unknowingly forcing me out of my comfort zone, in my endeavour to become a good, if not great photographer. That’s the goal, anyway.

When I return to Kenya, I must return to the red wooden Malindi Co-op Fishing building, and if I find him there, I can hopefully have a real conversation with him. I’ll probably need Wawi to translate again…

TED visits Nairobi

I’m completely backlogged, and have too many awesome things happening lately, so forgive the potential lacklustre writing in spaces, I just want to get all the photos out… Deal with it. Anyway:

Sometimes things just fall into your lap when you aren’t expecting anything. You just need the right attitude, and to be ready for anything. Often I’m not ready for anything, and go into town for what is meant to be an afternoon before saying yes to a multiday trip somewhere without “necessities” like spare clothes, or a toothbrush.

While not as extreme as that situation, I did find myself in a position a few weeks back where I was in Nairobi central to meet some mates, who wouldn’t be there until later. I made some phone calls, and was told by my mates with the What Took You So Long Foundation, that they were shooting the TED Auditions at some fancy private school that night. If I had my camera they could pass me off as crew for the night Did I have my camera on me? Yes. So I decided against my other friends (photography always trumps dinner, especially with snacks on offer).

If you don’t know TED talks, they are, in my own words, a bunch of inspirational talks from people with innovative ideas, or outlooks, or just interesting things to say. They are worth a look of your own, because I don’t explain things well. Anyway, here’s some photos. The event also gave me my first real chance to test my new lens for the DSLR. So here’s results.

Oh, and I slept on another couch that night. No toothbrush, no spare clothes.

"I swear, it was THIS BIG!" Had to

The undercover journalist. Awesome

 

Two Weeks as an African Overland (Trainee) Tour Guide

There’s been a bit going on around these parts lately, and a definite backlog, but I just wanted to write about this one now. A month ago, a good friend of my mums told me that one of the overland truck tour companies were desparately looking for tour guides. After a lot of “Apply, you’ll be great for it”, I conceded, applied, and a few days later found myself meeting the crew, and packing my bag on to the truck for a 2 week trial trip to Uganda.

For those who don’t know, overland trucks (NOT a bus, as you will be told) run tours, traditionally between Cape Town and Nairobi, or as far as Cairo. They are an organised way for travellers to see the “rugged heart” of East Africa, while camping in secure campsites with frequently warm water and cold beer, and working as a group to cook tasty western food. The largest concerns for the guests are where they will find internet, safe water, and washing services.

I don’t mean to sound cynical, or pretentious. Honestly. I’m just calling it how I see it.

Anyway, back to the training. I was one of two trainees, the other a cool Kenyan dude. There was a driver and the tour guide, and 6 guests (plus an awesome Welsh couple for one week of it). While I won’t go into the specifics, the two weeks was spent driving from Nairobi to Kampala over 3 days(with a game drive in Nakuru, which the other trainee went on while I went shopping), Kampala to Queen Elizabeth National Park, where I did see elephants and hippos, Q. Liz to Lake Bunyonyi, where I did very little around the allegedly second deepest lake in Africa (or first, or third), while the clients went gorilla tracking, Lake B to Jinja, where I did little, went on a booze cruise (free for crew) and went white water rafting again (also free), then Jinja to Nairobi.

From my two weeks, I came to a couple of conclusions.

Firstly, overland trucks do a LOT of driving. In the 14 day Ugandan circuit, we were driving 9 days, 8 days were between 4 and 8 hours of driving.

Second, you don’t sleep in. I logged maybe one day after 6am, probably four 4am starts, with a clear majority at 5am. I’m a traveller, I’m not used to this. It also makes it exceptionally hard to rise after some drinks, which leads into:

Third, you will drink a lot. I did, anyway. When it comes to alcohol, the constitution of my “nah I don’t need a beer tonight” is exceptionally weak, I succeeded 2 days in a row, and one was a result of me leaving the tour group early to get back to Nairobi to get my new passport, but I’m counting it. The real problem here, although disguised as a perk, is that, at least on my trip, the guests were always offering to shout drinks. Now, I’m a poor, young, Australian backpacker, it’s almost criminal for me to turn down a drink offered. But, it’s lucky they were shouting so many drinks, because my bank account is minimal, which wasn’t helped by:

Fourth, the pay is rubbish. Training wages (which last for 6 months, that’s 2 CT-Nbi-CT circuits) with my company, was $80US/week. And I was a lucky one, some companies won’t pay their trainees. Now, if I was paying my own beers, each weeks’ pay would have been drunk by Thursday. The maximum wage is $200/week for fulltimers ($250ish for part time), but the policy says one pay rise a year, based on performance, and it’s unlikely you would get a pay rise from the lowest to the highest straight away. They say you don’t get rich, and you do it for the love of it, but hell:

Fifth, as a trainee at least, you will be working from 4-5am (you have to be up 1 hour before breakfast) until you go to sleep, or leave the bar. By working, I mean you need to stay relatively personable, cheery, and polite, and can’t resort to your normal self, whether that be bitchy, drunk, or sweary. Basically, that means game face is on for 16-20 hours of the day, every day, for $10/day. I said it wasn’t about the money, but hell.

Sixth, a trainee is basically a glorified assistant. Your responsibilities seem only to be helping out with the setting up and breaking of camp, helping preparation of breakfast, lunch and dinner and cleaning, and mingling with guests on the drives. Not hugely laborious, admittedly, but I thought the idea of a trainee was that they were “trained” on how to do the job. Rather than teach us any of the accounts, or how to get groups through immigration, or organise local safaris, we were just used to make the boring jobs easier.

But, end of the day, it’s a paid way to see Africa. I mean, you get to travel from Nairobi to Cape Town, with accommodation, food, travel, and beer money (and some free beers) all covered. And when you arrive at a campsite, and everything is set up, the guests are free to go wander and explore, but:

Seventh, as a trainee tour guide, you stay behind to start on dinner, or try and get information out of the guide. When the guests go out on excursions and such, technically your time is yours, but if their return time is unknown, the guide training you probably wouldn’t be impressed to see you return After the guests, or not have started on dinner, or done anything productive.

It’s easy to see why it’s a “dream job” for some… Assuming you are ok with travelling with a mix of foreigners, all spending big money, and are ok with passing through numerous towns, mixing with a very limited handful of locals, and staying in secure campsites with other tourists every night. It’s a GREAT job, if you want to see the campsites of East and Southern Africa, drive through some villages without stopping, do cool activities for free, and get drunk and try to sleep with girls from other trucks. But that’s not what I was looking for.

As for me and my situation, while not the main reason for quitting, the final push was the fact that the tour guide training me and the Kenyan trainee, showed favoritism to the Kenyan. Call me petty or whatever, but when he lets the other guy go on the game drive in Nakuru while I’m left to set up camp and prepare dinner, and then chooses the other guy to go on the 3 day Maasai Mara excursion, while I’m told to stay in Nairobi due to a lack of space in the vans… that just didn’t sit well with me.

But, at the end of the day, the issue that kept nagging at me, was simply that it’s not the way I intended to travel Africa. I wanted to be out, hating life while cramped on local transport, getting stranded on the outskirts of random villages when the minibus breaks down, meeting locals in countries like D.R.C. and Burundi, and basically having adventures and stories I find to be worth retelling. I wanted to be out, riding the 3-4 day train from Dar Es Salaam to Zambia, volunteering with the IAPF (International Anti-Poaching Foundation) in Zimbabwe, and basically, having the freedom to make my own choices. I have never been a fan of the Contiki/Busabout type tours, where a bunch of travellers pile onto a bus and rush through an area, spending 1 night here, 1 there, drunk a lot of the time, and shopping the rest. As someone who has only observed, it appears that, on those tours, you see a place but don’t “see” it, and the overland trucks remind me of that, just with a grittier marketing angle. After all, it’s a truck, not a bus.

The Perils Of The Kenyan Wedding

When you are travelling, you hopefully learn sooner or later to go with the flow, and open yourself to new possibilities and experiences. Admittedly, it took me a little while to get into this mindset, and looking back, I can see many possibly great memories missed because I either was too skeptical, didn’t know if I could trust the inviter, or simply because I had a schedule I wanted to stick to, or somewhere I planned to be (not one of the schedules was ever that important). Becoming comfortable enough to just say yes to these offers was one of the best changes I have made to myself since hitting the road.

One such offer came up when I went to dinner with some friends. I briefly spoke with Wawi, a girl at the table I hadn’t met before, who in passing mentioned her cousins’ wedding was in 2 days time, and I should come to her village with her and check it out. I didn’t think too much more about it at dinner, mostly because when having dinner with one other dude, and 8 women, 6 of them African, the atmosphere isn’t entirely conducive for thinking (these ladies were loud). The morning after, I woke up, thought more about the offer, and figured two things: 1- I had no solid plans for the weekend, and 2- How many Kenyan weddings am I likely to be invited to. So I packed my bag with a nice shirt, my camera, and 8 rolls of film, cruised into town, met Wawi for the second time, and squeezed into a matatu for the 3 hour trip to Embu, stopping on the way to buy pineapples (Apparently the best pineapples are grown near Embu… they were damn good so I could believe it).

I had been really excited by the prospect of shooting a traditional Kenyan wedding in Wawi’s home village outside Embu town. I found out that the wedding wasn’t going to be traditional, however. Like the majority of weddings in Kenya these days, the bride and groom decided to forgo tradition in favour of the more “modern”, or more “elegant”, or more “civilised” (read: expensive) Western style wedding. I’m not entirely sure of the reason they choose to emulate Western weddings, but it’s possibly the same reason they emulate western clothing styles, and much of western culture. I wouldn’t, however, call the mimicry of American rapper speak by young Kenyan males elegant. I also decided that, while not traditional, it would still be worthwhile seeing exactly how these church weddings went… and I wondered how the elder Kenyans felt about their children’s seeming abandonment of local culture. Again, this is all my perspective as an outsider.

I don't know.. tacky?

Plastic flowers.

Having only ever attended one wedding to my knowledge, and I was attending as a photographers’ assistant, not a guest, I had a very limited knowledge of what goes down at a wedding. To be honest, everything I knew about weddings was a result of movies, TV, and hearsay. This wedding was held in one of the local Embu churches. The decorations were, in my opinion, interesting. Plastic flowers when there was an abundance of fresh local flowers all around the area, cardboard signs cut into hearts, and a red, white and black colour theme. The service also dragged on (but I found out the next day this seemed typical of most church services). Aside from the introduction by the pastor, some singing and dancing, some talking in Swahili and Kiembu (the local dialect), some talking in English, more singing and dancing, and the typical wedding stuff (the speech things bride and groom do, the ‘I do’s, and the rings, and the signing of the papers, the pastor also launched in to some form of marriage counselling before they were even wed. She followed with a “short” (over an hour) sermon about God or Jesus or something I wasn’t paying attention to. After avoiding churches and religion for so long, I involuntarily found myself right in the middle of it, and unable to sneak out… I was the only white person there, it would have been a bit obvious.

Leading the bride in

After finally wrapping up the service, the congregation (I don’t know what we call a group of people at a wedding, moved up the street to the girls school, where the reception was held on the soccer field. While happy to be outside, and thankful that the pastor stopped speaking, Wawi and I were both starting to really crave a cold, strong drink. Thankfully the outdoor reception proved to be a bit less western influenced than the service (I think.. Again, I know almost nothing about weddings). When the bride arrived, guests from the grooms side crowd the car to welcome her to the reception, and the dancing begins from the car over to the marque setup. Something similar to a congo line formed and weaved between the brides side and the grooms side.

They even danced their way to cutting the cake

The wedding cake, in the theme of a traditional village, despite the absence of a traditional wedding.

There was more dancing, some entertainment, a point where people just seemed to socialise, then a good 15 minute buildup for the cutting of the cake. After the cake cutting came the throwing of the bouquet, then everything wrapped up. Mind you, the reception still took about 4-5 hours to get through these. The planned night party in the village didn’t eventuate. There was a goat given by the groom’s family to the bride’s family to be slaughtered for the party, but the bride’s stepmum apparently had a change of heart and decided to save the goat for some other occasion. Wawi, her brother Jimmi, and I went out ourselves instead, and I finally got the ice cold Tusker I had been waiting 8 hours for.

The bouquet throw.. Obviously..

All in all, I found it interesting to experience once, but I’m sure by next time, the novelty of the dancing, and listening to someone preach in 3 different languages, will have worn off somewhat. Still, I probably won’t say no if I get another offer.
Oh, and I recommend clicking on these two portraits

She asked "Will you take my portrait". Couldn't possibly say no

This man seemed so kind, I only wish I could have spoken his language