Saturday, April 16, 2016

Documentary and Portraiture: Maintaining Personal Style with Clients

A farmer poses amongst his banana trees in Kendu Bay, Kenya. He exudes strength and confidence.

Shooting on assignment, versus for individual artistic projects, is always an interesting balance. My true passion in photography is portraiture and documentary. But, while I love to capture the stories in people’s faces, and the candid moments that define their lives, clients have special requests that are tailored to their business needs. While I tell all my clients that, as I was trained as a photojournalist, my style tends to be very documentary, gravitating towards unscripted moments as opposed to directed shoots, if I’m on their payroll, it’s their opinion that matters. I understand that while I’m hired because of my vision and style, I also need to produce a set of photographs that depicts the scenes they most need. The magic happens when my vision, my style, can effectively convey a clients desired message in a unique voice, a story that only I can tell.

Two recent commissions allowed me the flexibility to use my own style to effectively illustrate my clients story. I’ve recently been working out of Kisumu, Kenya and was approached by two solar-based organizations, Futurepump and the Global Off Grid Lighting Association, otherwise known as GOGLA. Many clients can be very set in their own vision, hiring a photographer simply to execute what they have in their head. In my experience this leads to difficult situations and conversations because I am as much of an artist as anything else. I can’t force what I take photos of, just like a it would be difficult to ask an impressionist painter to make life-like paintings. Luckily, both of these organizations were willing to give me the freedom to fulfill their photographic goals while taking advantage of my style. Honestly, it’s refreshing to work with clients that are so open, and from my end, as the photographer, I embrace an iterative process where frequent image reviews allow for a better, and collaborative creative process.

A group of children pose in the courtyard between their homes at dusk, illuminated by a solar lamp.


GOGLA is not a social enterprise but instead is an association that works to promote the development and sale of solar devices around the globe. They were looking to update their website and publications, and needed a diverse set of images that showcased the different companies with whom they are partners, as well as the benefits of the products they sell. This became the perfect opportunity to approach the commission as a documentarian, and we worked together to find situations where I could be a “fly-on-the-wall” and simply observe people using, and benefitting from the products. 

Children complete their schoolwork in a study group hosted by a local good samaritan in Kisumu, Kenya.

The dinner table and the study desk are the same in Kisumu, Kenya, both lit by a solar lantern.

A young boy stands illuminated by a solar light, in-between two houses in Kisumu, Kenya.


Futurepump is a social enterprise that is selling a solar-powered irrigation pump, the Sunflower. The pump removes the need for farmers to buy fuel to run their conventional pumps, creates a cleaner farm and working space, and provides the ability to cheaply water their crops year-round, significantly extending the growing season. Working with Futurepump gave me the opportunity to not only document farmers in their fields, but also to create a set of portraits of each that will be used to tell their individual story. 

A farmer in Kendu Bay, Kenya, walks her solar panel through her crops. She uses it to power a solar irrigation pump.

Joshua, a farmer in Kendu Bay, Kenya poses for a portrait on his farm.

A young farmer in Kendu Bay, Kenya.

Using the Sunflower solar irrigation pump to water crops in Kendu Bay, Kenya.

A confident farmer poses on her farm outside of Kendu Bay, Kenya. She uses a solar irrigation pump to water her crops.
Final image: A farmer is dwarfed by his crops, mostly banana trees, in Kendu Bay, Kenya.

Thanks as always for stopping by. Any comments or questions are very welcome.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Home-Grown Role Model: Bobby Ochieng Odhiambo

*Note: I'm posting this article as an introduction to a fundraiser to help continue the great work of Bobby Odhiambo. If you read this article and would like to help out, please visit the fundraising page at
I was introduced to the Nyanza Lawn Tennis Association, and the wonderful work of Bobby Ochieng Odhiambo and his team of volunteer coaches, through a co-worker in Kisumu, Kenya named Katie. She lived in Kisumu, Kenya’s third largest city, for roughly five weeks, and become involved with the NLTA after she started taking lessons at the club.
My ears perked at the sound of tennis, as I too have been an avid player and follower of the sport. Unfortunately for me, during my two weeks in Kisumu, I was never able to find the time to step foot on a court. However, the morning I was scheduled to depart for Nairobi, I received a call from Katie inviting me to watch a children’s tournament for underserved youth, which was sponsored by the NLTA. She also mentioned they were looking for photographs. I gladly accepted, eager to learn more about the coaches that provided hope and opportunity through tennis.
We shared a tuk-tuk, a three-wheeled motorcycle with a bench seat and a roof, on the way to the grounds. During the bumpy ride Katie explained to me a bit of the backstory of the tournament. One of the coaches of the NLTA is a man named Bobby Ochieng Odhiambo, who originally is from Kibera, a notorious slum in Nairobi. He moved to Kisumu 13 years ago to work as a tennis coach, after overcoming incredible odds, and now dedicates his Saturdays to giving free tennis lessons to less fortunate children in Kisumu.

As we headed past the actual Nyanza Lawn Tennis Association, which is in a wealthy neighborhood named Milimani, I asked where the tournament was being held. Katie told me that the Saturday lessons, and today’s tournament, took place on four concrete courts just outside of some of the slum areas in the city center. The courts had been built with public funds after three years of lobbying.
As we arrived at our destination, I was struck by the amount of space that was available for sporting activities. An expansive field held a football pitch and an old, unused basketball court. At one point the grass had been cleared but now sections were completely overgrown. The only area that appeared to be relatively well maintained was that containing the four concrete tennis courts located in the far corner of the field, bordered by the road.
A tent was set up to shade those players not involved in a match. August in Kisumu can feel like standing in an oven with the broiler turned on, with temperatures reaching the mid 80s and the sun hovering close due to an elevation of roughly 4300 feet. As we neared the courts, I could hear the sounds of tennis balls on rackets and kids celebrating after points.

We got out of the tuk-tuk and were immediately greeted by the smiling face Bobby Ochieng Odhiambo. Holding a racket in one hand, he was dressed in a bright orange tennis shirt, black reflective sports glasses and sandals. Before heading out to photograph some of the activities of the day, I chatted with Bobby a bit about his background and why he provides lessons for free.
As it turned out, Bobby’s life in tennis didn’t start in earnest until his family was unable to raise the funds needed to send him to college. He was granted admission to the Kenya College of Mass Communication but came from a modest background, being raised in the Kibera slums in Nairobi. The start of school came and went and Bobby wasn’t able to pay the fees to enroll.
“My aunt accommodated me while my family searched for funds for my college. This was around 1998. Due to the pressure that I was idle after I couldn’t attend college I became desperate. I started joining my cousins for tennis training and my interest grew a lot.”
The funds for Bobby’s schooling never came through. Luckily, his motivation to succeed matched his athletic abilities and he quickly became very good at tennis. He started assisting coaches and soon was left alone to instruct their clients. He grew his skills by playing at the Jim Davis Tennis Academy during lunchtime when no one was on the courts. He slowly built a client list and while serving two different clubs in Nairobi he received a call from a friend informing him of a job in Kisumu. He applied and passed the interview process, earning the role of the tennis coordinator for the School Tennis Initiative for a salary of 5,000 Kenyan Shillings per month, or roughly 50 dollars. “I came with two rackets in a bag,” he says. “And I’ve never wanted to return.”

He built his reputation in Kisumu slowly over time. He worked as a coach at the private club in town and also sold his services to schools. He mentions that times were often tough and he went through many months where schools would default on their payments, leaving him without any income.
Five years after arriving in Kisumu though, in 2008, the Nyanza Lawn Tennis Association was born. “We saw a need to govern the tennis in this region as it became difficult to get things done from Nairobi,” he says. “The NLTA is built around tennis enthusiasts who volunteer their time to serve the purpose of making tennis accessible especially for those who cannot afford it.”
When asked about the Saturday activities, he smiles and says he does what he can. “I saved up for two years to purchase my smartphone, so I can run everything through here,” he mentions as we chat. The phone he has is a Samsung with full capabilities to manage webpages and social media accounts. “But everything that we have to promote the club is done through here: photos, videos. Well we don’t have any videos yet,” he says with a smile.
Bobby also mentions how helpful social media has been. He personally has a twitter account, an Instagram account, and uses Facebook and a website to promote the club. The work is paying off, as a tennis pro in Australia saw their webpage and began raising money to aid Bobby’s initiatives. The balls and rackets the children used during the tournament came from this donation.

“We do what we can with what we have,” says Bobby. Looking around at the 50 or so kids playing tennis with good equipment on decent courts, you realize they’re doing lots. But there is still work to do. There are no real changing facilities at the courts, which is usually fine for the boys but more of an issue for the girls. There are no flush toilets, and just a simple pit latrine as a bathroom in the back. Also, the free lessons have become so popular that the four courts are unable to accommodate the interest. With all the space available in the field, more courts could definitely be built; it’s just a question of funding.
Even today, kids are practicing on the non-improved part of the field behind the tent. A mishit ball sends two or three children searching through the three-foot grass, whacking away with their rackets. I’m also told that some kids living deep in the slum areas aren’t able to make it to the courts on Saturday. To reach these children, Bobby talks about a backpack with some rackets, some balls and some string. “Even string is useful. That’s how I started. You throw the ball over the string against a wall and hit it back. It’s good for learning tennis.”

Bobby is currently looking for ways to grow the club’s impact. “We are looking for corporate sponsorship, but haven’t found it yet,” says Bobby. He continues to say its been difficult as he wants to ensure he can do things his way, and not be governed by an outside body simply because of donated funding. But I imagine the temptation to accept any money is strong as the impact made on the kids is palpable.
“It is wonderful to be able to influence the children,” he says. “We can tell them to steer this way, and they do.” He’s not wrong. Sports in the past have worked wonders for kids that otherwise wouldn’t have had anything to do. Not only does it occupy and perhaps remove them from risky situations, it also teaches stamina, competition, fair play, and work ethic.
“We noticed players in the slums are easy to work with because of their living situation. They have things like mental and physical toughness, commitment, you name it,” Bobby says. “They just need to be given the opportunity. These students can be the best in the world.”
Walking around the courts all of this is readily apparent. Many children will give a resounding “Come On!” after each point won in the same manner as pros like Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal. To them, this is serious business. To Bobby as well. To me, as an outsider looking in, I am enormously impressed at the power of the human spirit.

Tennis is just a game, but that game provided Bobby with an opportunity that he is now able to pay forward. While Nairobi features roughly 7,000 NGOs, Kisumu is not as much of a focus, so locals helping locals is enormously important.
“I am doing nothing now but tennis,” he says. But my observation is different. He provides food during the tournament that is purchased from his own pocket. All the coaches ensure that each of the children wash their hands with soap and water before eating; forming a habit that could save their and their family’s lives in a country where diarrheal disease is still a huge problem. Above all, the children here are happy and motivated to learn and do better.
He may just be teaching tennis. But he’s also giving these children a head start on life, with a set of goals and the skills necessary to achieve them. Most importantly, he’s giving them a role model, and it’s coming right from their own country. 
*Note: I'm posting this article as an introduction to a fundraiser to help continue the great work of Bobby Odhiambo. If you read this article and would like to help out, please visit the fundraising page at

Thursday, October 8, 2015

The Things They Carry

A porter carries a heavy load on the Machame route of Mt Kilimanjaro in front of Mt Meru in Tanzania.

The Weight of Pride

The great travel writer Paul Theroux says, “Go as far as you can.” But what happens when you take this advice, only to reach your destination and find everything you tried to escape has arrived before you? This was the situation in which I found myself on Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa. The trend of “glamping,” or glamorous camping, had overtaken the mountain. The air of true adventure was erased. I hadn’t gone far enough.

In place of genuine exploration was a vivid imitation. While the mountain and the altitude are real, the experience caters to a high-end lifestyle, which has removed many difficulties. Clients have to carry only their own water and clothing for the day, and in certain cases, not even this. Faithful porters meanwhile are responsible for humping all equipment necessary for five nights in the alpine terrain up the trails. But, the things they carry far exceed the typical requirement of gear.

Tables and tablecloths, chairs, personal toilets, and banquet tents are just some of the items porters stuff into their sacks to support the lavish lifestyle on the mountain. So much is required that porters far outnumber their clients on the hills. In large groups, the ratio of porters to climbers is at least 2:1; with the ratio becoming more and more lopsided as fewer clients climb. I completed a solo trip and was shocked to find that seven porters were joining me up the mountain. A van arrived to bring us to the trailhead, and I felt ridiculous with the understanding that seven men were required to bring me safely to the summit.

Climbing is indeed a team endeavor, which many don’t realize, but the situation on Kilimanjaro feels a bit colonial. My head kept conjuring images of the wealthy white man standing atop a summit he didn’t earn. It’s a hard image to escape especially with the number of clients that summit each year.

Water is carried from a small stream below the base camp on Kilimanjaro's Machame route, up one of the steepest sections of the trail. Full buckets can weigh 40 lbs or more.

Many companies boast as high as a 96% success rate of reaching the peak, which sounds extraordinary, until you understand how pampered the clients actually are. Every night, after several hours of lugging extra clothing, sleeping bags, chairs, and tents up the mountain, the staff of porters falls into hardware mode. Tents are almost always erected prior to the arrival of the client, so they can immediately fall onto their sleeping pads for an afternoon nap. The reason I mention tents in the plural is that even in my case, as a single hiker, there was a special enclosure for eating, which was complete with a table and chair, and a separate tent for sleeping, all of which is carried from camp to camp. This means that the porters, with no specialized equipment of hiking shoes, made it up the trails significantly faster that I did, all while carrying at least four times my load.

Other examples of “glamping” abound. On the very first day of climbing on the Machame route, the lunch break takes place roughly two hours hike from the park gate. I arrived to find a group of porters furiously assembling a set of 20 chairs and roughly five different tables, so their clients could have a place to sit and eat their lunch. The makeshift restaurant was promptly disassembled after the meal, at which time the porters ran it up the rest of the trail, passing their clients on the way, so they could reassemble the seats for dinner.

My situation wasn’t diferent. The lead porters of an expedition earn extra money by immediately transforming into a waiter upon arrival at the nightly camps. These guys set the table in the food tent, call you for dinner when it is ready, and bring all the courses of your meal, of which there are usually three. My interaction with my waiter, a friendly guy named John, typically went like this. “Hi Jeff. Everything OK? Anything you need? Anything you want?”

Then, upon arrival at camp four, the final camp before the summit, porters have to ditch their load and descend again to the valley to fetch water, as there is none available on the higher slopes. Clients don’t lift a finger even though their very trip depends on this effort. No water means no camp, and no camp means no summit.

With the help I received from my team, I was able to reach the peak without any major issues. Considering the lopsided nature of what I have to carry versus their load, this should be the case. But I found that others are not so lucky. Descending from the base camp it is impossible to miss the numerous metal trolleys that litter the sides of the trail. My guide Nick told me they were there to carry down sick or injured climbers. He told me a story of a woman who needed a trolley after her knee gave out. It took three different porters four hours to guide her of the steeper parts of the trail until she could resume walking on gentler terrain.

Descending from the summit of Kilimanjaro trails pass numerous trolleys used to carry injured, or incapable climbers off the steeps.

Looking around at the people on the trail and at the camps, I understand why so many porters are required. The clients all look the part, dressed mostly in their branded, and often new, hiking gear. But what’s missing is experience, fitness and sometimes youth. Many want an adventure, just not all of it. But they exist in a world where the lofty prices commanded for “glamping” are within reach. They pay to have the trouble removed. It’s like bowling with gutter guards. Their goal is the summit, the destination, but not the journey, or at least not the parts that aren’t photo-worthy.

And so we have the porters who exist in the ether of this mountain. They are constantly present, but often are not seen, except when quickly passing a group of clients, with the things they carry, our things, gracefully balanced atop their heads. It seems though, at the end of it all, the porter’s loads far exceed the material possessions we pack into their bags. They carry our hopes and our dreams upon their shoulders, and our pride within their hands. We return home, victorious, after climbing one of the Seven Summits, boldly joining the conversation of global travel “who-done-its.” But really, the victory belongs to these porters, who carried us, sometimes literally, the entire way.

The attitude of macho is apparent in the porters on Kilimanjaro, especially considering they choose to smoke in the thin air while carrying enormous loads.

Attitude at Altitude

“Do you fear the altitude,” the porter asked as I took a long drink from my bottle at the sign-in station at camp three on the Machame Route of Mount Kilimanjaro. I turned to face him, a bit surprised by the question and wondering if I had heard incorrectly. He repeated himself, as clear as day. “Do you fear the altitude?”

“No,” I answered, trying to keep the defensive undertones out of my voice. “Why do you ask?”

“We porters only drink if we fear the altitude. Me, I never drink while hiking. Only at camp.”

This was my first major introduction to the mindset of the porters on Kili, the local name for the highest peak in Africa. The mountain is more than a job. It's a manly undertaking, a point of pride, especially because it's so difficult. My guide, and main informant, Nick, shared his feelings on the first time that he climbed Kili as a porter.

“It was awful,” he said. “I almost wasn’t able to do it. And when I was done, I swore I’d never again step foot on that mountain.” That was seven years ago and now he’s proud to call himself a guide and lead expeditions for those looking to summit. But, after learning about the desire to climb without water to prove himself a man, I watched to see if Nick drank anything while we were climbing. Not surprisingly, he didn’t. It made me wonder if his first time was so difficult because of the climb or because of extraordinary, self-imposed challenges and restrictions.

Nowadays, most climbers of the mountain use a special high altitude medication, called Diamox, meant to reduce the effects of thin air on a climber. Even still, many people suffer from headaches and severe nausea when nearing the final camps and the summit, which is just south of 20,000 feet. While the porters don’t summit, and only reach the final camp at just around 15,000 feet, climbing without water is borderline irresponsible, especially considering the loads the porters must support.

The initial weigh in of all bags happens before porters leave the park gate. Porters are restricted to 20kgs each.

Roughly ten years ago, the Tanzanian government imposed a restriction on the porters, mandating they carry no more than 20 kilograms each. The rules are strictly enforced, with weigh-in points at the start and finish of the first two days of climbing. Even so, 20 kilograms is a heavy burden, exacerbated by the fact these porters have little or no training, and even less gear that would help to balance the loads on their backs. Most simply throw their day’s load into a waterproof sack, sling it over their shoulders, and walk. They don’t wear appropriate shoes and if they happen to have
an internal frame pack, like most would use to complete such climbs, they don’t use the included mechanisms that would reduce their burden.

While climbing on the fourth day, I encountered a porter with his 20 kilograms stuffed into an old and fraying Jordache branded bag. But the waist strap was open, putting all the weight squarely onto his shoulders as opposed to his hips. I asked him if he wanted me to show him how to use the waist strap, saying it would make things easier. His response was quick. “I don’t need things to be easier.”

Old and fraying backpacks and gear are the best you'll typically find on the porters of Kilimanjaro.

Apparently, being accepted into the porters “club” at each camp is more important than avoiding an aching back over the course of an entire week. Which brings us back to the discussion on drinking water. Altitude sickness affects individuals at random, regardless of their physical condition. Some people respond well, others don’t. Marathoners have had to turn back on Everest while mere mortals, couch potatoes in comparison, get only minor headaches. That being said, one of the major ways to stave of the effects of altitude sickness is to drink copious amounts of water and to stay hydrated. This is impossible if you refuse to even fill your bottle.

Beyond this, it’s rare that many of these porters, before climbing the mountain, have any experience at altitude. Kilimanjaro is a freestanding volcano, the largest in the world. It isn’t part of a larger range like that of the Andes or the Himalayas. It descends from the summit sloping slowly to the savanna that Tanzania is famous for, the Serengeti. There is no other high altitude in Tanzania from which they can come, being already acclimatized or having grown up in thin air. This can wreak havoc on the lungs, but still some porters manage to bring cigarettes up the hills to puff as they take a "break." 

The lack of water, heavy burdens, and relative inexperience at high altitude could produce a perfect storm, and indeed, some porters need to retire every year, and some do die. This threat though isn’t a deterrence. Most make it to the top, and at the end of the day, almost all have smiles on their faces despite their aching backs and heads. Drinking water would increase their comfort, but reduce their self-respect. It’s a testament to their toughness and in a culture of macho it’s all that matters. 

Climbing Kilimanjaro as a porter is boring work, and porters look to do anything to pass the time quickly. But on low salaries they have to make due with entertainment, like this radio, that only increases their burden.

A Tip as a Wage

Being a porter on the slopes of Kilimanjaro is first and foremost a job. The closest town named Moshi, the starting point for all things Kili, has an economy centered on the mountain. Tanzanians hoping to support themselves and their family head to Moshi from all over the country, some with the hopes of lugging bags up the steeps.

The draw is obvious. Westerners come willing to pay between $1,000 and $5,000 dollars to enter the park and climb to the summit. My trip alone cost $1,555 dollars. This amount exceeds the GDP per capita in Tanzania, and my impression was that it would more than cover the needs of my team. I was severely mistaken.

The evening before my last day on the mountain my guide Nick gave me a sheet where I was supposed to write down the tip amount next to each of the porter’s, waiter’s and cook’s names. Based on the high upfront cost, I expected to pay a tip, but didn’t believe it would break my bank. I hadn’t received any information from the guide company regarding appropriate amounts and didn’t give it much thought. Nick told me the tip recommendations and I literally gasped. Porters were hoping to receive an additional ten American dollars per day, waiters $15, cooks $20, and guides $25. These were daily recommendations over the course of a six-day trip. In short, the team was asking for $600 total, or an extra 40% on top of the total trip cost.

I had two problems with this: the first being the lack of information regarding this expectation. In my financial situation, working as a volunteer business consultant in Nairobi, I only received a stipend of $1,200 dollars monthly. I couldn’t pay an additional $600 on top of a trip that already cost more than I earned in a month. I had based my decision to hike, and my ability to pay, on the up-front, quoted price and had turned down other outfits that cost more.

My second issue was the amount requested wasn’t a tip; it was a wage. A tip is supposed to be something extra that isn’t mandatory and is given to reward good service. This didn’t feel like “something extra,” this felt like the bulk of any income that would be received. Further, there were seven people to support. Maybe not all were needed. But with carry weight restrictions of a max of 20 kilograms per porter many strong backs are required to support the “glamping” that many expect on Kilimanjaro for the prices they pay.

My guide, Nick, and his signature colorful beanie, makes his way up the Machame route of Kilimanjaro on the first day of climbing.

While tips from a generous client may even things out, a living wage for these porters should not be left up to chance or the mood and ability of a hiker to fork over enormous extra amounts of cash. In the US, the tipping culture is more prevalent than in other developed countries, but we still expect to pay between 15 and 20 percent of the total. In my situation, this was less than half of the recommendation, which wouldn’t seem capable of providing porters with a viable income.

It’s strange the government and park service would work to restrict porters’ burdens but turn a blind eye when it comes to enacting a minimum wage. Perhaps it’s a question of influence. It’s obviously easier to enforce rules inside the park than to hold authority over the companies that exist externally. If that’s the case, then clients have the responsibility of purchasing only from companies that pay their workers fairly.

I remember feeling defensive when I went to an ATM to withdraw the $220, or just about 15% of the trip total, and the porters asked for more money. “I’m not a bank guys,” I said.

It was clear they were disappointed. It placed a dark cloud over the last days of the trip for me, creating a situation where I felt I couldn’t ask for anything from guys who I had theoretically already paid. But as I complain, I know the situation for the porters was significantly worse. Perhaps their entire month would be ruined, based on a lack of income, in comparison to my uncomfortable goodbye on the “trip of a lifetime.”

If this tip money really is the majority of what they earn, then giving one-third of the asking can be disastrous. But I still didn’t know their actual wage and was afraid to ask them to their faces after disappointing them. I had a full day in Moshi town, and so I decided to investigate the economics of these companies. I met Ziggy and Jose at a curio shop where they both made artwork to sell to tourists. Ziggy was a painter and Jose carved wood. They told me they both work as porters when the jobs come around. They have porter licenses with their photos on them and it all looks very official.

A portrait of Jose, a porter on Kilimanjaro and a wood carver, at an abandoned train station in Moshi, Tanzania.

When I asked how much they typically made as a porter they quoted a range between 6,000 and 10,000 Tanzanian shillings daily, which converts to roughly three to five dollars a day. This is abysmal even considering they are fed and sheltered for a week on the mountain through meals of bread and ugali, which is a mashed corn porridge typical in East Africa. Further, it confirmed my suspicion that the tip was meant to be the majority of the income received for a week’s work.

Costs to run these trips are certainly high. A park pass is roughly $100 dollars daily for a non-Tanzanian resident. But after food and equipment costs have been tallied, it seems the most important element of the climb, the actual workers, have been left out of the equation. Even with a high wage of five dollars a day, my five porters (the cook and guide make more) account for only one tenth of the price charged to clients.

Companies, in their effort to attract hikers, exploit these porters to keep quoted prices low. While there is a Kilimanjaro Porters Association, Ziggy told me that porters overall are afraid to take a stand because there’s always someone else willing to do it for cheaper. This has driven the daily prices down as low as they are, and as Ziggy says, in an economy that is struggling with people who cannot make ends meet, “the job you have is better than the one you don’t.” 

The things the porters carry on Mt Kilimanjaro far outweigh our material possessions. They carry our hope, our pride and sometimes even ourselves.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Climbing to Faith in Ethiopia

A footpath leads to the cliff-top church of Abuna Yemata Guh in Tigray, northern Ethiopia.
Living in Kenya, and traveling throughout Africa, you tend to become accustomed to quoted prices for trips and excursions ballooning through a number of unstated, hidden costs. Guides are extra, sometimes you have to pay for fuel. Every trip is different, but normally you will be asked to pay more.

A scout working to help visitors up the sheer 20ft wall leading to the church known as Abuna Yemata Guh in Tigray, Ethiopia, extends his steady hand to aid in the climb. The church was founded in the 5th century, and was carved into a monolithic rock face 2,500ft above the valley floor by hand over 200 years.

So when I embarked on a day trip to the Gheralta Mountains in Tigray, northern Ethiopia, I expected to pay a bit above what was originally agreed. However, when my guide showed up and asked me to rent a climbing harness and ropes, I was surprised, as I had no idea I was about to embark on some real mountain excursion. This was not the type of extra cost I was expecting.

A covered window at the rock-hewn cliff-top church of Abuna Yemata Guh in Tigray, northern Ethiopia.

I was headed to Abuna Yemata Guh, an Ethiopian Orthodox church buried in the Gheralta Mountains north of Mekele. It was said there was some climbing involved, but ropes and a harness imply more than just scrambling on rocks. As an avid rock climber myself, I wasn’t worried, just excited for the adventure to come. I was also surprised this little side trip wasn’t more promoted.

A young priest of just 24 years stands in the entry-way to the Abuna Yemata Guh church in Tigray, northern Ethiopia. The church was hand-carved into a monolithic rock spire 2,500 feet above the valley and is only accessible by scaling vertical walls and traversing 600 foot cliffs.

In most guide books, Abuna Yemata Guh, and the churches in northern Tigray, are just a paragraph. They are significantly less well known than the famous churches in Lalibela. In fact, the trip wasn’t even recommended to me, I had to go and ask the local travel agency for the details. Most people come and go through Mekele to visit the Danakil Depression. They usually start and end their trip in the city, spending bookend nights in the hotels before jetting back south. This is a mistake.

A holy book is held open by a priest inside the cliff church of Abuna Yemata Guh in Tigray, northern Ethiopia.

The church of Abuna Yemata Guh, I found, is spectacular. It is located in the middle of a monolithic rock spire 2,500 feet above the desert in Tigray. But unlike normal buildings made of bricks and mortar, this church was hand-carved into the rock over the course of 200 years, starting in the 6th century. It is a church and at the same time a man-made cave. Its paintings and frescos are hundreds of years old, if not more than a thousand. And the climbing is real. After an hour-long hike across the desert and up to the base of the spire, there is a 20 foot vertical section of rock that must be scaled before crossing a ledge that features a rock wall on one side, and a 600 foot drop on the other. Shoes cannot be worn at the monastery, but foot and handholds are solid, having been worn deeply and smoothly into the rocks over more than 1,500 years.

A young priest stands in the doorway to the Abuna Yemata Guh church, perched roughly 2,500 feet above the ground. Began in the 5th century, it took 200 years to carve into the rack face by hand, and has served as a holy monastery for those following the Orthodox faith of Ethiopia.

Climbing to the church, it’s impossible to not feel a connection to the rest of humanity. This little church - the inside is not more than 30 feet long by 25 feet wide – has existed just like the rock from which it was painstakingly hewn. It has surpassed dynasties and wars, the formation of countries and the rise and fall of governments. By placing your feet into the holds in the rock, you are literally walking in the footsteps of 1,500 years of faithful history.

A young priest at the Abuna Yemata Guh church in northern Ethiopia looks out over the view from just below the entrance to the church carved 2,500 feet above the valley into a monolithic rock face.
Looking out on the spires of the Gheralta Mountains from the mouth of the church you have a first-hand view of the majesty that is this world. The passage of time, explicitly visible as sun and shadow play their daily game of cat-and-mouse, makes you feel both incredibly insignificant, but incredibly powerful. You understand that while your role in this world may not be large, you’re a part of it nonetheless, a part of this unending dance of magnificence, grandeur and splendor. While I’m not an overly religious person, I do understand how others would find God in this place.   

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Bees and Honeycare in the hills of Kitale, Kenya

Just because you're wearing a bee suit doesn't mean you're not going to get stung. This is the first fact that all people venturing into beekeeping should know. I wasn't so lucky. My realization that bees still penetrate the suit came with my first sting, a relatively alarming occurrence when you're embedded with a team of beekeepers performing maintenance on aggressive hives in the rural hills of Kenya in the pitch dark of night. 

"Um, guys," my shaky voice warbled, thinking the hundreds of bees swarming the outside of my face mask were suddenly about to swarm the inside of my face mask, "I'm getting stung."

Daniel, the senior beekeeper in this outfit looked up at me and said, "It's fine. I've already been stung about ten times." And then he went back to work brushing down the interiors of the hives he was tending. His calm demeanor didn't reassure me especially as I could feel the now harmless bee, his stinger embedded in my arm, still crawling around my sleeve.

But what was I to do? I had asked to come here. And these guys were professionals so they should definitely know. Both Daniel and Jacob, the other beekeeper diligently cleaning hives despite the pain of beestings, worked for an organization named Honeycare in Kenya. The group works to support local farmers that keep bees on their property. While the farmers own the hives, they don't tend to the bees themselves. This is the job of Honeycare. They travel throughout the countryside tending to the bees until, after about three months, the honey is ready to be harvested. They consolidate all the honey across Kenya and sell it to major grocery stores in the country.

I had arrived at my present situation in the darkness of Kitale via a five-hour matatu ride north from Kisumu, the third largest city in Kenya. I didn't know what to expect and had no real knowledge of beekeeping prior to this. All had been set up through Kiva in Nairobi, who normally works to support the individual farmers in purchasing their bee boxes. Most of the hives you'll find in Kitale, and definitely all those I encountered, featured the four letters of the organization boldly on the side.

When I arrived, I was surprised to find that the workers only open the hives in the darkness, which isn't great for a photographer. Apparently the bees in the hives are aggressive, and may attack animals and people that happen to be in the area if the hives are opened. For this reason, they only work at night using flashlights. While I didn't know how this would affect my images, which was the purpose of my journey, I agreed to meet Daniel and Jacob at 6:30pm and as the sun set, we ventured by motorcycle into the hills of Kenya.

Kitale, although well behind the other main attractions of a country like Kenya, is absolutely beautiful. Despite being smack in the middle of the dry season, the rolling hills were still green and monstrous trees dotted the roadside. Off the main roads the beauty increased, as narrow but well-maintained pathways of red clay dirt were bordered by tall hedges and even taller trees. 

We arrived at the first set of hives to be opened just as the sun was dipping below the horizon, casting its last brilliant hues of orange over the Kenyan landscape. I was anxious to get a few photographs of Daniel and Jacob in their bee suits before complete darkness and this is when I recognized how surreal the situation was in which I found myself. Here we were, in the fading light of day, stood on a dirt road, all wearing bee suits that made us look more space invader than bee farmer, with motorcycles in the background. It reminded me of a scene from a horribly written science fiction film, but this was my reality at the moment.

As the final rays of light fell and the night enveloped us, we trudged into the woods, I with my camera and tripod, and Daniel and Jacob with their tools. I imagine working with bees at any point in time can be disorienting. As the boxes are opened they literally swarm and encompass every part of your body. The bee suits we were wearing were white and as I looked down through my mesh face mask I could see hundreds of tiny black dots scurrying along my body. It's enough to induce a panic attack. In the darkness its worse, as your sense of hearing becomes heightened and the roar of thousands of wings drowns out everything else.

Photographing in a bee suit is difficult. Or this is what I found. You're not really able to look through a view finder because doing so would compress the face mask against your skin, which allows the bees to sting you. Face stings are always un-wanted. Always. So you pretty much point, shoot and hope for the best. Luckily I have a digital viewfinder on the back of my camera which helped me frame my shots but really didn't help with the focusing. And neither did the stings. 

But, it was a small price to pay - especially as I'm not allergic - for what happened next. The guys finished tending the first set of hives, which meant we had to travel to the others in the area. As the bees were still swarming, we couldn't remove our suits which meant at roughly 1030pm I found myself riding on the back of a motorcycle in a full bee suit, under a beautiful sky of stars. As I looked up I couldn't help but smile to myself about this incredible experience in Kenya.

To find out more about Honeycare you can find them online at