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Publishing Update – Africa Geographic

While I was working on my recent Ladakh Women’s Project in India, completely out of range of any wifi (Ladakh lost its wifi on 25 January and while we were travelling there three months later it still hadn’t been restored), I had no idea that my work in Ethiopia was being considered as part of the best shots taken in all of Africa during the last twelve months.

Shortly before I left for the India trip, Africa Geographic published a blog piece from me about how to photograph Lalibela here https://africageographic.com/blog/getting-lost-lalibela/ but at the same time I had also entered a few of my images from Lalibela in their Annual Competition for the best images shot in all of Africa.

When I came home I discovered they had selected the image above for their Yearbook!  This enthralled me completely.  I have just ordered two copies of it – one for Mark and I and the other for my parents in Australia.

This image hasn’t been listed as a finalist in the competition but I’m not too worried about that.  The finalists are all incredible and any one of them would deserve to take the grand prize of a safari for two in Africa.  I am lucky in that I get to travel to Africa five or six times a year for work and now I feel even more lucky that my work from Africa has been recognised in this way, especially when so many thousands (perhaps millions) of images are shot there each year.

I am also truly thankful to the priests I met in Lalibela last December, who not only allowed me to visit their private world, but who also so kindly said yes when I asked if I could photograph them.

For me anyway, this week has given me a lot to feel thankful for!

Kathputli

“I am the sum total of everything that went before me, of all I have been seen done, of everything done-to-me. I am everyone everything whose being-in-the-world affected was affected by mine. I am anything that happens after I’m gone which would not have happened if I had not come.”
― Salman Rushdie

Midnight’s Children

Kathputli.  It was the slum that inspired Salman Rushdie’s writings in his famous novel “Midnight’s Children”, a story about the children born between midnight and 1am on the exact day that India gained independence from Britain – 15 August 1947.  The story tells how children born at that hour were blessed with magical powers and the main character, the one born closest to midnight named Saleem, had lived for a short time with Pavati the Witch in a magician’s ghetto alongside a snake charmer named Picture Singh.  I imagined that the magicians ghetto is Kathputli.

Walking the streets of Kathputli it isn’t hard to see how Rushdie gained his inspiration, for Kathputli is not an ordinary slum, it is also home to some of the most talented street and party performers in Delhi.

 

Visiting a slum can be a very confronting experience.  In 1994, when I first visited India, I visited a large slum in Delhi at the time and I was horrified, shocked and saddened by that experience.  For as far as I could see, there were people living under black plastic garbage bags propped up by sticks.  In the distance I noticed a black bear, in chains, being tormented by people.  Although this first visit was terrible the memory of it has stayed with me forever.

A few years ago I visited another slum, this time it was one outside the Rajasthani city of Jaipur.  I’m not sure of its exact name but people were still living in dire conditions there, however this time I saw that NGOs had set up mobile health clinics, obstetric care facilities and even a mobile school for the children of that slum to attend.  The Jaipur slum gave me a glimmer of hope that life inside the slums of India may be slowly improving.

Fast forward to this year and I arrived in Delhi to start my Ladakh Women’s Project, an expedition I designed to support women living in remote and isolated communities across Ladakh, in Jammu and Kashmir, northern India.  Joining me at the start was one of my guests (now friend) on the trip, Dutch/Australian photographer Ingrid Hendriksen.  It was Inge’s first time to India and I said “How about we visit a slum?”.  Inge, being up for anything, replied “Sure”.  I wasn’t sure what she would think of joining me in a slum for photography.  Indeed, I even had some out-of-character neuroses about visiting Kathputli.  After all, my previous experiences in slums had been very mixed.

Slumming It

Before we arrived in India, I encouraged Inge to watch the well considered documentary presented by Kevin McLeod called “Slumming It”.  As the daughter of a highly awarded architect in Australia I have always been fascinated by the way people live, social mobility, public spaces, communal living and the way communities evolve.  This documentary, presented by Britain’s foremost commentator on housing architecture, provided viewers with a fascinating insight into the society of slums versus our own.  It asks questions about the way our societies are fragmenting, in parallel with slums, which are becoming more and more cohesive.

This documentary is about Dharavi, a slum in Mumbai that is home to nearly one million people in a square mile and the slum that inspired the famous film “Slumdog Millionaire”.  It paints a vivid picture of the daily life of people in slums, how they survive and how their communities are shaped by small industries and communal households.  Dharavi is being threatened with destruction by land developers in Mumbai, who want to relocate the residents into high rise buildings from their current home.  One of the most poignant comments made by Kevin McLeod, to me anyway, was his questioning of the developer “Across our society we are taking down high rise public housing buildings because they foster social dysfunction and crime.  Why do you think that removing people from somewhere like Dharavi into these buildings might benefit them?”.  There was no reply.

Destructing slums in India remains a highly controversial topic.  As the world’s population booms and people from rural areas migrate towards the world’s cities in huge numbers, the slums of India often play a vital role in housing people arriving from out of town.  Some of them simply stay for a short time in these places.  Others move on.  Regardless, the slums of India, in my experience remain a place of transient life and humanity.  They are as much fascinating as they can be overwhelming.

Slums and the Dangers of Poverty Porn

Before we went to Kathputli I wasn’t sure what to expect.  I’d seen photographs of it taken by other photographers and they all appeared to be colourful and vibrant.  The last thing I wanted to portray about my own experiences in Kathputli is the concept of poverty porn.  For I am neither here to make Kathputli appear glamorous or to sell my images from my two trips there.

Instead I would prefer to share my pondering thoughts about how and why communities like Kathputli differ so greatly from our own.

A Colony of Artists

Kathputli is as much an artist colony or enclave as it is a slum.  Many of the residents of Kathputli have arrived there from two of India’s most colourful and vibrant states, Rajasthan and Gujarat.  Amongst them are some extremely talented street performers including stilt walkers, dancers, puppeteers, fire breathers, magicians and high wire artists.  In this way alone Kathputli is very different from any slum I have visited. Similar to other slums you still have to watch your step in Kathputli (you might end up standing in something horrible) as you walk through the labyrinth of narrow alleyways with rudimentary sanitation.  Often open sewers are covered with large slabs of stone.  In public areas, large spans of rubbish are not covered by anything.  Yet Kathputli feels different. Its narrow alleyways are filled with smiling children, stray cats, people preparing meals or enjoying a wash.  There are livestock animals in there like goats and chickens.  And nearly everyone knows someone who performs professionally.

Our guide, Bunty, provided both of us with an excellent insight into life inside Kathputli.  I asked him what happens when people become ill, when a woman gives birth or what might happen if Kathputli’s residents need dental, optical or other medical care.  He explained that a clinic is nearby to help most people but didn’t really go into any specifics.

He also told us how the colony had changed over the years with homes that are now numbered and how access to water and power has improved for the community.

We were invited into Bunty’s home and in one room we learned that six of his family sleep in the room we were invited into for tea.  All of them joined us to paint our hands with henna while we drank tea and enjoyed Indian sweets.  It was one of the most generous, humbling and beautiful experiences of our entire trip to India.

Kathputli is Surprising

Kathputli Surprises #1  – It Doesn’t Smell.

In the pit of pre-monsoon India we visited Kathputli.  The temperatures in Delhi were nearing 40C during the day and I worried that the entire experience of Kathputli would quickly overwhelm us.  I thought the smell alone would drive us away.  Instead the opposite was more true.  For some reason neither of us could smell anything dire.  The air was simply perfumed by people and it wasn’t unpleasant at all.

Kathputli Surprises #2 – There was Beauty Everywhere.

Over the 23 years I have been visiting India, the one singular impression I have of the entire country and its people is an affinity with colour.  It’s like complimentary colours are formed perfectly with Indian genetics.  It doesn’t matter how rich or poor a community may be, that sense of colour and beauty pervades absolutely everything.  Kathputli is no different.  Walking through the streets of Kathputli you may chance across a brightly coloured wall adorned with a complimentary coloured shrine.

The women have an innate sense of wearing colours that suit them.  Children dart around courtyards that are painted a rainbow of oranges, greens, pinks and reds.  The colony’s performers move about in a riot of vibrance that includes shades of turquoise, yellow, lime green and purple.

Kathputli Surprises #3 – The People are Extremely Generous and Kind

Everywhere we visited in Kathputli we were literally overwhelmed by the friendliness and kindness of the people we met there.  We were invited in for tea.  Children followed us around simply so we could take their photo.  Many, many residents simply wanted to chat with us or practice their English.

In fact within an hour of us arriving on our first visit, we were spontaneously invited to join in a wedding celebration, the friendliness and beauty of which moved us both to tears!

This level of kindness and generosity surpasses so many of our societies in the ‘developed’ world and one of the things I ponder most about places like Kathputli is how much they remind me of my own childhood, growing up on a fishing trawler with a strong sense of community and purpose.  Our modern world has lost much of this yet Kathputli retains a stronger sense of community responsibility and support.

Kathputli Surprises #4 – Everything That Can Possibly be Recycled Is

When I return home from places like India and Kathputli, I am often saddened at how much we waste.  All over the world, the issue of waste is unavoidable and Kathputli, in some ways, is no different.  They do, however, make use of things way more effectively than we do.  When I was a child we used to be quite resourceful with rubbish and try to waste as little as possible.  I had a childhood that instilled in me the need to use less and waste less but the more I travel, the more I am realising that my own upbringing was unusual.  The incredible amount of single use plastics in our environment is the by-product of our society which has become used to plastic packaging, throw-away cups, bags, utensils and wrappers.  As a child, if our nets on the boat were ever caught up in a snag, we would try to retrieve them and mend them.  I spent many hours watching my dad show my brother how to mend nets.  In contrast, many modern fishermen use nets that are so cheap, if they get caught, they are simply cut free to drift the ocean, indiscriminately killing a lot of marine wildlife.

Kathputli has waste but it only consists of stuff that can’t be used.  Secondhand timber is used to fashion ladders and steps, pieces of corrugated iron are used for building houses, bricks are used for the same, clothes are handed down, tins are used for growing plants and storing food items, the same bottle is used for fetching water every day.

Although some would look at Kathputli and see it as dysfunctional, when it comes to waste I feel they do this much better than we do.

Kathputli Surprises #5 – It Supports An Entire Industry

While many of Kathputli’s residents live in poverty, the community itself supports almost an entire industry of performers that are often hired out to work in events all across Delhi.

Kathputli’s resident artists have been entertaining weddings, openings, parties and all manner of social events since the colony was established over sixty years ago.  We were lucky enough to watch many of these performers during our two visits and they are extremely talented.  I was really left wondering what may become of some of them if, somehow, Kathputli was ever destroyed.

Why Kathputli Should Be Preserved

Kathputli lies approximately 30 minutes drive from one of Delhi’s wealthiest areas, the city’s prestigious Diplomatic Enclave.   The land it sits on is owned by a government body, the Delhi Development Agency, which has earmarked it for demolition.  Currently new accommodation is being created for the residents in Kathputli to voluntarily move to yet few have done so.  Although the destruction of this incredible place has been curtailed for now, I fear that it will only be a few years before that act becomes a reality.

The destruction of a slum like Kathputli perplexes me.  Why would anyone want to destroy an integral part of the social fabric of a large city, especially one that is so charismatic, cohesive and inoffensive?  I understand the incentive of big developers wanting to make lots of money, at any cost but why Kathputli?  In the middle of the night, if I can’t sleep, I often think of communities like Kathputli and what its residents may do if they are forced to move.

My hope is that Kathputli will continue to exist either in its current form or in some altered way that will allow the resident families there to build upon their existing relationships and continue to foster their community’s strengths.

Lamayuru Monastery – A Photographic Essay

 

A breathtaking sunset at Lamayuru.

My favourite novice monk at Lamayuru, Rigzin.

A young boy stares up at us as we photograph the rooftops of his village from our lofty heights of the monastery.

One of the intricate and ancient mural paintings inside the monastery at Lamayuru.

The moonscape environment that lies due east of Lamayuru. Every time I see this landscape I am reminded of Guge Kingdom in western Tibet, although this patch is significantly smaller than its Tibetan counterpart, it is no less spectacular.

The stupas, or chortens, crowning the Lamayuru Monastery date back to the 10th century.

Colourful Mani Stones.

Konchok Tashi smiles at us from the window of the room where he lives.

Lamayuru is nestled deep within the mountains of the Indian Himalaya.

Lamayuru Monastery at sunrise.

A novice monk seeking light from a higher force during the morning prayer at Lamayuru Monastery.

An old man carries water towards the kitchen of the monastery.

Last light falls on the main building of Lamayuru Monastery.

Konchok Tashi

The elaborate carvings and mani stones at the monastery of Lamayuru are some of the most colourful I’ve seen outside Tibet.

Konchok Tashi bids us farewell after visiting his monastery.

Unreported Africa: Lassarga

The sign that leads you to Lassarga (or Lassaraga) near Dakhla in Western Sahara.

My Journey Through A Remote Fishing Village in the Disputed Territory of Western Sahara

I could feel the salt air stinging my lips.  Lips cracked dry by days of working in the desert.  The ocean was literally rubbing salt in to my wounds.  We were in the windswept coast of Dakhla in the disputed territory of Western Sahara and my lips were stinging like someone had slapped me.

Fishing dinghies and buoys adorn the sand spit at Lassarga.

There is a constant wind in Dakhla.  A wind that fuels a niche kite surfing tourist market yet barely any other tourism exists there.  The town, which lies at the pointy end of a south facing peninsula of sand, has no tourist markets and no souvenir shops.  It boasts a small number of very good restaurants that cater to business visitors but few others.  Nearly all of the visiting tourists stay at fully inclusive kite surfing resorts at the north end of a bay that is home to Atlantic Humpback dolphins and a variety of seabirds including gulls, terms and cormorants.

The Canary current runs rich with ocean life, feeding a small fishing industry and a plethora of seabirds.

At the very southern edge of town lies the tiny shanty town of Lassarga.

Lassarga, or Lassaraga as it is locally known, consists of a small collection of fishing shacks behind a fleet of blue and white fishing boats that are not much larger than dinghies.

Tiny fishing boats lined up on the sand spit at Lassarga.

Approaching Lassarga, the amount of rubbish lying around the settlement is instantly visible.  Stray dogs and cats wander about, scavenging for bycatch from an artisan fishing industry that harvests fish, crabs, cuttlefish, prawns and octopus from the waters surrounding the peninsula.  The air of Lassarga is perfumed with salt, fibreglass, rubbish and  the rotting detritus of bycatch that was thrown aside in favour of a more delectable catch.

Street scene at Lassarga.

Although my lips are stinging, my sense of smell is alive with memories of my own childhood growing up on a fishing trawler in Australia.  This was my first visit to Lassarga and somehow the visions of rubbish dissipated behind a strong nostalgia for my childhood.  A childhood spent around the daily tasks of mending nets, maintaining boats and salt of the earth fishermen whose livelihood relied upon the seasonal fruits of the sea.

The sand is dotted with the tools of the fishing trade in Lassarga.

I am the only woman here.  Mindful of the impact I may have on this masculine place I ask a young lad if it is ok to enter the shanty town on my own.  He waves me on with a nod of affirmation.  I pull the shawl that I have with me out and indicate that I’m putting it on, out of respect for the conservative locals who are Muslims, and who might baulk at a woman entering a world that is normally alien for wives and daughters.  The young lad laughs and gestures to me that the shawl is not needed.  That it is ok for me to go through the village.

Textures of Lassarga. The huts are made from the remains of wrecked fishing boats.

Wandering down sandy lanes strewn with litter I notice that many of the fishing shacks are made with the pieces of old boats, driftwood and fishing nets. Shielding their occupants from the weather is a patchwork of abandoned tarpaulins and plastic garbage bags strung together with twine.

Huts made of old boats, fishing basket sides, timber and tarpaulins, all strung together with twine.

I disturb a feral dog who had found a half dried starfish.  His incidental snack that may be the only thing he eats all day.  Further down the path a feral kitten squeezes its way under a rusting iron door.  Plastic containers, metal tin lids, plastic bottles and other litter is everywhere.  It is a mishmash of rubbish and shacks woven together by a network of sandy paths strewn with the remains of life.

Feral junkyard cat in Lassarga.

At the edge of town a fleet of rusting tractors lies waiting to haul fishing boats out to sea.  Beyond them, across a neck of sand, lies around two hundred tiny blue and white fishing boats.  Each one beached on the sand and surrounded by the essential equipment for the catch – nets, floats, anchors and buoys.

Ready to go to sea at Lassarga.

I walk out across the sand spit and I can feel the litter crushing beneath my boots.  Occasionally I spot murex shells, kelp and fragments of fish net cast aside by the last high tide.  And then I feel lost.  The smell of the sea, the nets, the fibreglass and the paint transport me back to when I was a kid growing up in Australian on my family’s fishing boat.  Back then my playground was the islands of the Great Barrier Reef and the fishing wharves of Gladstone and Cairns.  Fast forward forty years and I am in a similar place on the westernmost extremity of Africa, except the playground of the fishing kids here is the wild beaches washed clean by the Canary current and islands with curious names like “The Dragon”.

A collection of seashells I found on my walks through Lassarga.

On my first foray into Lassarga I thought I might have been there out of season.  Wandering through the sea of fishing boats at the end of the spit I had only met three ageing Saharawi fishermen sitting on the sand mending their nets.  It felt otherwise deserted. For a while I sat with them, trying in vain to tell them how I used to also sit with my family and mend nets when I was a kid.  I asked if I could take their photo, they politely declined so I slowly excused myself from their gathering to continue my stroll.

Mending nets on the sand.

Further into the boats I was stopped by an outbreak of raucous laughter.  I’ve always been drawn to an infectious laugh and eventually I found the owner, a smiling Saharawi fisherman called Haj.  Drawn by his presence I wandered over to say hello and introduce myself.  I asked him what he was up to and he motioned that he was painting his boat.  A couple of minutes transpired where we tried to work out if we could find a common language to communicate and in the end we both laughed and gave up.  I motioned to ask if I could take his photo and he said yes.  I was so happy that he did because my overarching feeling about Haj was one of tremendous kindness.  He was just such a lovely man.

A portrait of Saharawi fisherman Haj.

I ran out of time that day and my work in the Sahara beckoned so I had to leave to get some sleep before another marathon drive into the unknown.  Lassarga, had, however, left a lasting impression on me and on every return we had to Dakhla, I hounded my patient partner, Mark, to go back there.

Haj’s catch at Lassarga.

Dakhla’s coast is characterised by the sea.  Wandering around the windswept expanses of each promenade I noticed men returning to town on tiny donkey drawn carts with their catch, or parked tractors waiting to be filled with fish caught by rudimentary fish traps off the coast.  I look at it all and realise that artisan fishing of this style will never create problems in our world.

The lineup of boats on the sand spit at Lassarga.

Instead the world of these fishermen is changing at the hands of much bigger operators, with bigger trawlers and larger nets.  Raping the surrounding seas by catching tonnes of fish, are trawlers from Morocco (who has claimed Western Sahara by a sovereign right), Spain and Russia.  The little guys I met struggle to get by on the catches of their minimal patch, just as my own family did many years ago before the industry changed in Australia.

Going home with fish for dinner. Dakhla.

On my second and last visit to Lassarga, I instantly noticed more gulls flying around the dinghies on the sand spit.  Some guys had brought in a catch!  Fascinated by what they might have caught, I strode down towards them and found small numbers of fishermen offloading cuttlefish, octopus, fish and stingrays.  This time the air was perfumed with an added smell of burning wood and I realised that some of them were cooking fresh fish for breakfast on the beach.

Grilled fresh fish on the beach for breakfast.

Lured by the smell I wandered over and was instantly invited to join them.  The fragrant freshness of the fish was divine and I felt truly spoilt.  While I tried to speak with the fishermen responsible for my impromptu breakfast I pulled out my phone and started to show them photos of my last trip to Lassarga.  They instantly recognised Haj and said to me “That’s Haj!” while they pointed out to other boats on the periphery of the fleet.  In the distance I saw Haj again, unloading his catch of fish.  I yelled out “Haj!” and ran over to show him the photographs I took of him.  He laughed his infectious laugh.  This time he was with his two sons and in very broken English we worked out they were both on Facebook so I said I would send them the photos of their dad if they connected with me there.  I left them my card so they knew how to find me.

Haj.

After I left Haj and his boys, I went looking at the catches of other vessels.  Nearby some guys had brought in some rather large octopus and as I tried to find out from them what the Saharawi name for octopus is, one of them, another kindly Saharawi fisherman called Ahmed, invited me to tea.  From a tiny mound of coals and ashes, I was served a glass of hot strong tea poured from a ceremoniously high held tea pot.  The tea was sweet, strong and pungent but it served as a wonderful dessert after my fresh fish cooked on coals for breakfast.

Tea with a kind Saharawi named Ahmed.

Reluctantly I started on my stroll away from the fleet.  Time was running away from me again and I had to go back to work.

Waiting for the catch to come in at Dakhla.

While I may have left Lassarga for the last time, a big part of it never left me.  Visiting there transported me back to my childhood in so many ways.  Yet it was indelibly different.  At Lassarga I was not only transported through an entirely alien culture, I was kindly escorted with tea.  Tea with the Saharawis.  And if I concentrate hard enough now I can still feel the taste of tea and salt on my lips.

Motorcycle trailer details in Dakhla.

Sheathbills, Skuas and Stinkers

The Bad Boys of Antarctica’s Avifauna

Each time I work in Antarctica, I am often saddened to hear groans of disgust when people see their first predators or scavengers like Sheathbills, Skuas or Stinkers (Giant Petrels).  Their reputations as “chick stealers”, “poo eaters”, “carcass lovers” and their collective reputations of evil echo that of many mainland scavengers and predators.  Through their natures, smells, behaviour and appearances, they become more difficult to love somehow, more “ugly” than other birds like penguins who are considered “cute” or albatrosses who are considered “majestic”.

Yet each of these birds performs a vital role in seabird ecology and after many years of working with them as a seabird handler and guide, I have found that even the most unloveable species of seabird in the Southern Ocean have loveable sides.

Here are some dark and light sides to some of Antarctica’s iconic avifauna.

Sheathbills (The Poo Eaters) Family: Chionidae

“You are the first birder I’ve ever met who has seen a Black-faced Sheathbill ahead of the White-faced in my life” mentioned my partner, Mark, at the end of our recent trip to Antarctica.  We met on the only island in the world where the Black-faced Sheathbill exists, in the isolated, remote Australian Antarctic territory of Heard Island, deep in the southern Indian Ocean.

The Dark Side

Irrespective of their facial markings, Sheathbills share a rather common and disturbing trait of coprophagia or eating both their own faeces and that of other animals.  Their diets have also incorporated tape worms extracted from the stomachs of penguins, leftovers from any carcasses remaining on the beach, placenta or afterbirth of seals and penguins, kelp, invertebrates and even leftover food from penguins.  On some occasions Sheathbills have been known to attack other birds for food but scavenging is definitely their preferred method of getting their next meal.

The Light Side

Sheathbills are often called “Antarctic Chickens” for their white appearance and their propensity to walk across the ground, rather than fly.  On my most recent trip to Antarctica I was surprised to watch one follow our boat for over an hour way out to sea.  I wondered where it was heading!  The long open sea flight proved to be a big burden on this robust little bird, to the point it occasionally sought a place on the decks of our boat to rest.

On Heard Island I loved watching Sheathbills inspect our backpacks for tidbits and take shelter from the wind behind our dry barrels on the black sand beaches.  They sometimes also followed us around like small puppies.

After becoming acquainted with both species of Sheathbills on Heard Island and also recently on South Georgia, I tend to see them as comical rather than marauding scavengers of the worst kind.  They look like chickens, act like chickens and yet they are tough little birds who have become incredibly resourceful to survive in some of the harshest environments on earth.

Skuas (The Machiavellis of Antarctica) Family: Stercorariidae

Of all the birds I’ve worked with the Skua family is perhaps the only bird I will hesitate to hold during research.  As distant relatives of Gulls; Skuas, and Brown Skuas in particular, have a wicked glint in their eye that gives them an appearance of wanting to kill you.  On more than one occasion I’ve seen a Brown Skua bite a handler on release, not because it has been handled badly, but simply out of spite.

The Dark Side

Skuas are the Machiavellis of the world’s polar regions.  I’ve watched them sneak up on penguin nests to steal their eggs for food, round up unsupervised penguin chicks and herd them off ledges to stun them before eating them, bash their way into a carcass feeding session, fearlessly taking on the Giant Petrels already present in order to get a side meal and also harangue other seabirds in flight to either catch them or make them vomit food up out of panic (in ways similar to Frigatebirds) so they can eat it.

On my recent trip to the Antarctic continent, I was lucky enough to watch a Brown Skua play with its stolen Gentoo Penguin egg in the snow, a bit like a cat plays with its prey before it eats it.  It was a fascinating encounter, even though it spelled the end of a Gentoo Penguin, watching this bird struggle to pick up his egg as it rolled down a snowy slope.  Finally it was joined by its partner to share in the feast.

Penguins are quite fearful of Skuas for good reason.  On Macquarie Island, the most successful Gentoo Penguin nests are the ones located around the buildings of the research base.  Gentoos have learned that Skuas don’t like people and the feeling is mutual so their chicks are safer from predation, simply because more humans are present around the base.

Utilising a wicked combination of a sharp bill, alongside reptilian feet that are a weird evolutionary cross between webbing (for swimming) and talons (for hunting), it’s needless to say Skuas are not the most loved birds in the world.

The Light Side

Yet from a distance I actually quite like Skuas.  I’ve watched Brown Skuas perform the most stunning aerial acrobatics trying to catch food when I’ve been at sea. I’ve also watched Pomarine Skuas performing similar acrobatics when they’ve tried to grab bits of caribou fur from living caribou to line their nests.  All of these manoeuvres are performed with wings in the air and mouths open in a display of dramatic behaviour that would rival any theatre act.

They are completely fearless.  Up close they actually have bloodshot eyes which make them look like they have a grumpy appearance after a hard night on the town.  Skuas don’t care about the size of the competitor, they will fight it regardless, be it another bird, caribou, seal or even a human.

The inside of a Brown Skua’s mouth is actually baby pink.

When Skua couples meet they greet each other with a wonderful display of wings in the air, mouths open, calling and biting each other.  It may sound like rough love to some but for Skuas this is true love and it’s wonderful to watch.

Stinkers or Giant Petrels (The Boofheads) Family: Procellaridae

Giant Petrels sadly have probably the worst reputation of Antarctica’s predator and scavenger birds and of all three bird families, they are perhaps the birds I like the most.

On a very superficial level, Giant Petrels do look ugly to a lot of people.  The gigantic nasal tube that crowns their bills only adds to their overall thumping appearance of heavy, unwieldy on the ground and argumentative persona.

The Dark Side

Giant Petrels are the carcass kings of Antarctica.  If there is a dead penguin or seal to be feasted upon, they are the very first birds there and when they arrive, they don’t just pick around the edges of a dead animal, they plunge head first into the feast, often emerging with a face full of blood or sinew.

Couple that with frequent arguments against other Giant Petrels and a propensity to feast off a carcass with their wings wide spread to insert their dominance over their meal and usually people will walk past them in disgust.

The Light Side

Did you know that Giant Petrels smell like old library books?  I think a lot of people imagine them to be perfumed with a disgusting combination of carcass and fish but in reality it’s quite the opposite.  They actually smell of a familiar mustiness and leathery aroma that is very evocative of old books or old desks.  It is more pleasing than you think.

Their plumage is actually very beautiful.  Up close each of their breast feathers are rounded with a slightly pointed tip, making each look like a tear drop.  Their feathers are also very subtly marked with striped vermiculations in older birds.

As juveniles and immature birds they are chocolate brown in colour and have dark brown eyes making them appear less wicked and evil from their pale-eyed, older counterparts.

There are two different species of Giant Petrels – northerns and southerns.  They are subtly differentiated by a change in their bill tip colour.  The Southern Giant Petrels have a slightly greenish bill tip, whereas the Northern Giant Petrels’ bill tip is more pinkish.  One wonderful aspect of the Southern Giant Petrels is the small population of white morph birds in their species.  These all white birds are neither albinistic or leucistic, they are simply white and in my opinion, they are stunningly beautiful birds to see in the wild.

Many of the Giant Petrels I’ve handled during banding have actually been quite submissive when I’ve held them.  If I’ve ever had an argumentative one, it has tried to spin its head from side to side to make me let go of its bill.  The arguments never last long if you can make them comfortable.  They are often quite nice to handle.

Why Predators and Scavengers are so Important in Antarctica

It’s sad that so many visitors to the Southern Ocean or Antarctica, express disdain at these three bird families when they encounter them but in reality, all three play a vital role in maintaining the health of breeding colonies.

As the cleaners they roam large colonies of breeding penguins and seals in the Sub-Antarctic, feeding off afterbirth, faeces, carcasses and leftovers to effectively tidy the entire place up.  Can you imagine the stench and disease of breeding colonies if none of these birds existed?

5 Reasons To Visit Senegal

Senegal is so far off the tourism radar in Africa, that many people struggle with knowing exactly where it is, let alone knowing what you can see there.

It’s true.  Senegal lacks all of the fancy trimmings that ‘safari’ destinations in Africa feature so highly.  Places like Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, Namibia and Botswana are all spectacular in terms of wildlife and scenery.  They are also considered relatively ‘safe’ for travellers.  In many of these countries you can drink the water, people speak English, there is electricity and the all important wifi connection that so many travellers need today.

But what about West Africa?  A lot of people know this region because of package holidays in The Gambia.  While The Gambia is wonderful, it is only a very small dot on the map.  In fact Senegal surrounds The Gambia on all sides!

Here are some reasons why you should consider visiting Senegal!

People

Senegal’s crowning glory is its people.  Its wide variety of ethnicities include the Wolof (Senegal’s largest cultural group), Fulani, Serer, Jola, Mandinka and others.  It is hard to fault any of these people when it comes to friendliness.  The Senegalese are forthright, helpful and proud.

When I think of the people in Senegal, the first words that come to my mind are “kind”, “beautiful”, “smiling”, “friendly”.

They are a nation of Sufi Muslims and as such the obey many of the tenets of their faith, except they have a few additions. Alongside observing Ramadan and other holidays, they also serve the community via four main Tariquas (or Sufi Orders).  Travelling in Dakar or other regions of Senegal, it is possible to see shrines belonging to Sufi prophets that are important to the people of the area.

Traditionally Senegalese women view the wearing of the Niqab or Burka as drab or un-African and in their opposition to this style of dress, they often choose to wear brightly coloured clothes that show off their beauty.

It is quite common to be driving along a highway in a remote part of Senegal and find a Senegalese girl dressed in a flamboyant evening dress with a matching turban proudly carrying goods on her head.  In contrast to their muslim sisters elsewhere in the world, many Senegalese women wear off the shoulder dresses, bare arms, bare backs and uncovered heads.  This does not mean they have a lesser belief in Islam, they just don’t feel the need to justify that belief as strongly as others.

Another thing that has always surprised me about Senegal is how well behaved the children are.  It’s true that in Senegal, some of the children beg because they are poor, but they are not incessant and will happily walk away if you say “Sorry”, “No I don’t have anything” or my favourite “It’s Monday, why aren’t you in school?” which is met with shy little smiles before they leave me alone.  The kids are lovely there and they are very curious about travellers.  I’ve lost count of the number of kids who have wanted to see their world through my binoculars or look at my photos on my camera.  They also have fun with my phone!  I was once in a very remote hamlet on the top of the Fouta Djallon massif, near the border of Senegal and Guinea.  The kids of this hamlet saw me taking pics with my phone and they wanted to see.  In the end I let them use the camera in my phone for a while and it was quite surprising what they took photos of and how much artistic talent they had.  We were up there doing avifauna surveys but I also had an impromptu photography class where they also taught me a few things!

Music

There is simply not enough room in a single blog post to talk about the music of Senegal.

Many countries of the Sahel have passed down their traditions through “Griots” or storytellers and singers.  While this tradition is sadly dying out, in some ways it is being replaced by musicians in countries like Senegal.

Senegal’s most famous artist is probably Youssou N’Dour, who has also dabbled in politics in the country.  Other artists worth keeping an eye out for include Baaba Maal, who lives in Podor in northern Senegal, Diogal Sakho and the wonderful Marema, who drew her inspiration from listening to her mum playing Tracey Chapman CDs when she was little.

 Here are a few clips that I personally love from Senegal.

 “Mama” by Diogal Sakho which always makes me want to kick back, have a glass of wine and enjoy a lazy Sunday afternoon somewhere warm.

“My Friend” by Marema.  Each time I see this clip, the open grassy plains dotted with baobab trees that Marema is dancing through instantly transport me back to Senegal.

Food

Senegal is a former colony of France and a few things have stayed with the Senegalese after the country gained independence in 1960.  The most obvious one is the French language which is still widely spoken across the country.

The second is the food.  Senegal’s food is a fusion of French and West African cuisine which is spicy, rich and flavoursome.

When you travel in the river areas or near the ocean in Senegal, you can usually find fresh fish on the menu which is often deep fried whole by the local people.

One of Senegal’s most popular dishes, Poulet Yassa, originally comes from the Casamance region in the south western corner of the country.  It features a chicken, lemon and onion stew that is often served with rice at lunch time.  We love this dish so much that I make a version of it at home.  Here is a recipe:

Ingredients

1⁄2cup peanut oil (or any cooking oil)

1chicken, cut into serving-sized pieces

4 -6onions, cut up

8tablespoons lemon juice

8tablespoons vinegar (cider vinegar is good)

1bay leaf

4cloves minced garlic

2tablespoons Dijon mustard (optional)

1tablespoon maggi seasoning sauce (or Maggi cubes and water or soy sauce) (optional)

1chili pepper, cleaned and finely chopped (optional)

cayenne pepper or red pepper

black pepper

salt

1small cabbage, cut into chunks (optional)

2carrots, cut into chunks (optional)

Method

  1. Mix all ingredients (except the optional vegetables), the more onions the better, and allow chicken to marinate in a glass dish in the refrigerator for a few hours or overnight.

  2. Remove chicken from the marinade, but save the marinade.

  3. Cook according to one of the following methods.

  4. Cooking method 1: Grill chicken over a charcoal fire (or bake it in a hot oven) until chicken is lightly browned but not done.

  5. Cooking method 2: Sauté chicken for a few minutes on each side in hot oil in a frypan.

  6. While chicken is browning: Remove onions from marinade and sauté them in a large saucepan for a few minutes.

  7. Add remaining marinade and the optional vegetables and bring to a slow boil, cooking the marinade into a sauce.

  8. Reduce heat.

  9. Add chicken to the sauce, cover and simmer until chicken is done.

  10. Serve with Rice or Couscous

Delicious!

Nearly every small town in Senegal has a boulangerie selling baguettes.  In fact it is quite common to see Senegalese people walking down the street with daily freshly baked baguettes and in my experience these are as good as any I’ve had in France.

Sights

Some of the more interesting sightseeing in Senegal lies in places like Lake Retba, a pink saline lake lying just north of Dakar.

St Louis, the former capital of Senegal and Mauritania combined, still has many crumbling colonial buildings which give the city a similar feel to Havana in Cuba.

Senegal’s rich and tragic history of slavery is best learned about through a visit to Iles Goree, a short boat ride from Dakar.

If a beach holiday is more your thing, then the resorts along the coast at Cap Skerring, near the border of Guinea Bissau are worth the indulgence!

Birds

In 1998 Senegal lost its last wild elephant through poaching.  This tragedy occurred in the country’s largest nature reserve, Niokolakoba, which borders Senegal and Guinea.

Sadly Senegal doesn’t have the rich mammal life that is so eagerly sought in other African countries.  There are some small fledgling reserves that feature wildlife and if you like monkeys, there is still plenty of Green Monkey and Patas Monkey troupes in the country.

However larger mammals, and especially larger predators, are very difficult to find in the wild in Senegal.

In a complete paradox to the loss of mammals in Senegal, a true highlight of the country’s wildlife is its birds.

If you are a keen birder or simply if you need a wildlife ‘fix’ during your Senegal holiday, here are my favourite birding places in the country.

Djoudj

Words cannot describe what Djoudj is really like.  Try to imagine standing on a sand bank in front of nearly half a million ducks, flamingoes and waders and that would start to describe what it is like to visit Djoudj, Africa’s premier wetland.

Djoudj lies in the far north west of Senegal, near the border between Senegal and Mauritania.

It is home to stunning birdlife including a nesting colony of Great White Pelicans that has over 6000 pairs, countless ducks, huge flocks of Greater and Lesser Flamingoes and even a mass roost of Pied Kingfishers.

For birders Djoudj is a paradise.  You could spend an entire week within the reserve and see something different every day you visit.

Iles de Kousmar, near Kaolack

 

A flat clay island in the middle of the Gambia River, Iles de Kousmar is home to the largest roosting colony of African Scissor-tailed  kites in the world.

To get here it is best to go with a local guide who can navigate you through the local villages to the start of a walk across a hot salt flat.  You then need to take a dugout canoe across a small stream before you continue the walk to the island.

Even if the kites and kestrels are not there when you arrive, evidence of them is everywhere in the streams of white guano in the trees.

At dusk they arrive and to sit amongst so many Scissor-tailed Kites flying around your head feels like you are surrounded by dainty fairies fluttering about you.  It is amazing.

Wassadou

The upper reaches of the Gambia River are filled with more wildlife than you would imagine.  Wassadou is situated a little downstream from Niokolakoba and although, large mammals are absent, it is a great spot to see beautiful birds like Egyptian Plover, Yellow-crowned Gonolek, White-crowned Lapwings and many other riverine species.

Late in the afternoon it is stunning to sit under a giant Kapok Tree, sipping a cold beer while watching the local Guinea Baboons play in the trees above your head.  Magical.

Saloum Delta

Expansive and teeming with life, the world heritage listed Saloum Delta is the spot where the Gambia river flows out to sea on the coast of south western Senegal.

Featuring ancient mangrove forests, lagoons, islands and palmeries, the bird diversity of the Saloum is stunning.

The three birds that nearly every birder wants to see here include White-backed Night Heron, White-crowned Tiger Heron and Four-banded Sand Grouse.

On your journey to find them, you might be lucky enough to spot a Marsh Mongoose wandering through the mangrove roots searching for food or have an Osprey swoop down in front of you to catch fish.

Further towards the mouth of the estuary, the Iles des Oiseaux is home to thousands of breeding Caspian and Royal terns during the season and it is also frequented by many Pink-backed pelicans and waders.

 So Why Not Senegal?

I think a lot of people are put off by Senegal because of its location in West Africa.  Although Senegal is a very safe country to visit, it is surrounded by troubled countries like Mauritania, Mali and Guinea and I think it is the fear that trouble from one of these places might flow into Senegal that puts many tourists off visiting the country.

It is also a country of muslims and at the time of writing, a wave of Islamophobia is sweeping through the developed world. Sadly this is putting people off, even though any traveller with any sense knows that the Sufi muslims of Senegal are probably some of the least harmful people in Africa.

When you visit Senegal you will also notice a lot of rubbish in some areas.  Senegal is largely poverty stricken and in some places the amount of rubbish in the towns and on the beaches is distressing.  The image above is of one of the beaches in St Louis.  Even more distressing is the fact that so many Senegalese children play amongst this rubbish and they hardly notice it.  Surely this must be bad for their health?  We’ve noticed that some villages are better than others when it comes to responsibly disposing of rubbish but if you are the sort of traveller that would leave a country thinking this is all you saw, then perhaps Senegal shouldn’t be high on your list of holiday destinations.

So What Is It About Senegal?

I’ve tried to pinpoint what it is about Senegal that continues to draw me back there each time.  Why is it that I look forward to seeing Senegal so much?

I think there is a sensuality about Senegal that exists in its people, their lives and rhythms.

It’s quite something to travel in remote parts of the country and watch seriously beautiful people appear before your eyes in Senegal.  Many of the women look like they would be more at home on a Parisian catwalk than out in the middle of a Sahelian Acacia forest.  The men are not only attractive, a lot of them smell good.  I’ve often wondered why that is?  The children are curious and friendly, not annoying, loud or dangerous.

Above everything the people are kind and generous, even when they may live materially with very little in comparison to us.

Senegal has such a rich tapestry of ethnicities, languages, food and music.  It isn’t exactly “Africa for Beginners” but why not arm yourself with a basic knowledge of French and malarial tablets and go?

Perhaps you will be like me, sitting in a rooftop cafe in Dakar, feeling the Harmattan breeze blowing off the Atlantic and something might just wash over you like I felt the first day I arrived – a feeling that this warm West African country had welcomed me in as one of their own.

Finding My African Daughter

If I had to think about any specific event or text that made me fall in love with Africa I think I would really struggle with singling out a source.  I guess it was a culmination of being inspired by a general historical fascination with colonial Kenya, Karen Blixen, my yearning to visit one of the hottest places on earth (after a stint of living in one of the coldest), movies and the idea of vast landscapes filled with stunning wildlife.  After I visited the Sahara on a few trips in my early twenties, I realised the most profound part of Africa would hit me the hardest of all. I developed a love affair with Africa’s people.
From my encounters with the Touareg and Nubian people in particular, my curiosity was sparked and I returned from the Sahara each time with a yearning to learn more about the rich cultures of the people living there, their stories and how they survived in some of the harshest conditions on earth.
That was 27 years ago and while all of the world’s tribes interest me, it seems the more I learn about African tribes, the more I want to learn.  I have been blessed to work with the Himba, Afar, Amhara, Fulani, Mandinka, Herero and San people in Africa since my first visit. I was also lucky enough to spend some time with ethnic Somalis living in Ethiopia in late 2016.
My decision to sponsor a child in Africa came at a time when I was experiencing great change in my life. I was going through a divorce and the resulting turmoil threw me into a phase of wanting to work for volunteer groups, work extra hours in my job, just do anything to help me mentally escape the challenges I was facing in my personal life.  For some reason, at the very deep emotional pit of my own situation, I still felt I had the reserve strength left to support someone else.  Although I was in a terrible situation I still felt there were so many people out in the world who were facing much larger issues than me, whose struggles just to get through everyday life were so much harder.  It was then that I decided to sponsor a child.

World  Vision

The incredible program run by World Vision in Australia works on a model where you sponsor a child but rather than that child receiving any direct benefit, the community where that child lives receives help with infrastructure like water, electricity, sanitation and schooling.
Meanwhile the child sponsors can maintain a pen-pal style relationship with their sponsored children and follow them through their schooling as they grow up.
The child sponsorship program with World Vision actually runs in many African countries but I chose Senegal due to the fact there is so little tourism there.  Generally tourism brings more income to a country so I felt that a child in Senegal would somehow be missing out on the opportunities that the industry might bring to them. That life for them would be just that little bit harder.
I decided to get in touch with World Vision and they promptly sent me a selection of little faces of African children I could sponsor.  I looked at all of them.  I wanted to sponsor a girl.  From my time in North African countries, I realised fully how difficult life can be for the people there, particularly for women and girls.  Women in Africa often face challenges that many women like me can’t begin to understand.  They can face a life of no education, forced marriage, early childbirth, a lack of sanitation, minimal health care and household chores as they live under societal expectations that are so very different from our own.  Whereas women like me have options for education, independence, child birth and whether or not we will marry, so many African women don’t have the luxury of choice that I have had in my own life.
I chose a rather shy looking little girl with a beautiful face called Bineta.  I really knew nothing of her background aside from the fact she lived in a remote village in central Senegal.
Throughout my sponsorship of Bineta I thought of her very often and I was doing this at a time when electronic media wasn’t possible so I always used to look forward to proper mail with stamps that arrived on my doorstep in Kaolack, central Senegal.  Inside was always little notes, progress updates and the occasional photograph of Bineta as she was growing up.
I kept all of her letters and photos.  Through them I learned of her life at school.  That she liked dolls.  That she was learning Arabic and that when she was not in school she was often tasked with household chores.  I sent her replies with more information about me and my life in Australia.  We exchanged birthday greetings and cards/notes in between.

My Journey to find Bineta

While I was living in Australia I had long wished to actually travel and visit Bineta in Senegal.  My original plan was to fly to Morocco and take the bus down to Senegal via Mauritania, as they were countries that had held a fascination for me, yet I hadn’t travelled in them.
My circumstances never really allowed me to go.  I could neither take the time off work, or I couldn’t afford it, or something else would crop up and I had to curb my plans.
Time flew by, Bineta turned 18, the project in her village ended and I also moved to live with Mark in England in 2013.  The worst outcome of this change in circumstances was my loss of contact with Bineta.  Even though that was four years ago, I never really forgot about her.  I always wondered what became of her.  Was she already married?  Did she further her schooling?  Might she already have children?

2016

Three years later, my wonderful partner Mark said that he needed to travel to Senegal to revive the tour that our company runs there.  I had told him about Bineta before we started living together and he suggested that I get in touch with World Vision about trying to find her.
That was in February 2016 and before we flew to Dakar, I sent World Vision a generic email enquiring about Bineta’s whereabouts.  I got caught up in work and never received a reply.  This was not really the fault of anyone.  I was too busy and my email probably fell in a trash folder at World Vision so my enquiry went unanswered.
Our 2016 trip to Senegal included visits to Podor, St Louis, Kaolack, Kedougou, Ouassadou and also to Dakar.  My letters with Bineta were always sent to me by the World Vision office in Kaolack but we were so busy on the trip I didn’t have a chance to stop and ask for her in Kaolack.  At any rate, the region surrounding Kaolack is dotted with so many tiny hamlets and villages that finding a lost sponsored child in one of them would be like searching for a needle in a haystack.
After our trip to Senegal I went to Australia to visit my family and I started to go through some of the papers I had been keeping in storage at my parents’ place.  In those papers was all of my paperwork relating to Bineta and all the letters I had kept from her, so I took it all home with me to the UK and started to read through it all, trying to piece together our friendship.  Since our work in Senegal was going to continue I wanted to get back in touch with World Vision with more detailed information and the hope that we could somehow find her.
Ironically it turned out that she lives near a tiny village around 50 kilometres from Kaolack.  We had actually driven right through her village on our trip and I had no idea!!!
Being so close, yet still so far, I decided to try different avenues of contact at World Vision to find her.  I finally reached a fantastic team of people in World Vision who could give me more information. The told me that the project had ended in Bineta’s village and that they were not sure if she could be found.  They were careful to set a very low expectation with me as communications in Senegal can be tough and that delays or a complete lack of replies is common.
I had zero expectations of what might happen. I simply left the situation open to fate.  If it was meant to be that I find Bineta, then great, if not, then it was simply never meant to be.
A few months passed, I got tied up with my own work elsewhere in Africa, I had simply left correspondence in the hands of World Vision in Dakar and the ball was in their court to come back to me.
Well I finally got a reply.  They had managed to find Bineta and yes, if I wanted to visit her that this would be possible.  I was so excited I ran into Mark’s office exclaiming “World Vision have found Bineta!!!”.

2017

Since our work would inevitably see us returning to Senegal, I mentioned to World Vision that I could possibly make a side trip to visit Bineta in early 2017 and we started the process of planning a visit.
World Vision are very careful with their child visits and this is for good reason.  They aim to protect children who may be vulnerable to exploitation, even if they have reached adulthood.  My first step in organising my visit with Bineta involved me getting a police clearance.  Since I have no criminal record this was never going to be an issue for me so I managed to obtain a formal clearance with the police in Britain, who cooperated with the police in Australia to ensure that I had a clear record.  When it arrived by post, I scanned it and sent it to the World Vision office in Australia, who in turn sent it to Dakar.
At that point we hadn’t decided what dates we would actually travel so when they were determined I got in touch with World Vision and let them know that we were going to be in Kaolack on 6 February 2017 and we could visit Bineta the following day.
Senegal is so far off the radar of African tourism that our plans to visit Bineta threw everyone a curve ball.  Firstly we weren’t adding her visit to a dream Africa holiday on safari.  We also didn’t require any local transport.  After all, we were working in Senegal and we were in a hire car driving around the country.  I think we were a very unusual couple for World Vision to deal with as we were not frightened of travelling in West Africa and we didn’t require any assistance before we actually arrived.
We fixed the date and heard nothing.  Email communications must have been down and it wasn’t until we were actually in the country that the details of our visit could be finalised.  When I didn’t hear back from Senegal confirming the date and time before our flight to Dakar, I simply gave World Vision my cell phone number to text me on and said that I would try to pick up email if I got to places that had wifi.
A few days before we arrived in Kaolack the flurry of communications started.  I got calls saying yes, the visit was going to happen.  When I got wifi, I received an email confirmation too.  I got excited.  Finally, finally, we were going to meet Bineta.
Bineta’s Village
Initially we were asked to meet Bineta at her boarding school near Kaolack but en-route we got a call requesting that we start by meeting at the local office of World Vision nearby so we could sign some paperwork to finalise the arrangements.  We dashed back, met a great team in the office and before we met Bineta we travelled to the tiny hamlet where her family lives.
At Bineta’s village we met her parents, grand parents, aunts, cousins and uncles. They were so so thankful for everything I had done to support them while Bineta was growing up.
Here is what we saw on the dirt track to her village.  This is so very typical of countryside Senegal – open grasslands dotted with acacias and children running errands, carrying everything on their heads!
This is the tiny hamlet where Bineta’s family lives.  Her parents live in the brick house on the left and her extended family live in neighbouring huts.
This is Bineta’s family, her mum is on the left in a black turban, two of her aunts and their children (Bineta’s cousins) are in this photo.
This is me with Bineta’s grandmother (I think from her father’s side)
After we met everyone, we piled off in our cars along with Bineta’s father and drove to her school around 20km away where Bineta was boarding.

Bineta’s School

Arriving at the school we were greeted by the head master who took us to where Bineta was living.  She was on recess from her classes when we visited so we managed to spend a short amount of time with her, her teachers, some of her family and her headmaster.
Before she was introduced to me I recognised her instantly from her photos.
I was pleasantly surprised to hear that she was still in school, learning to be a teacher and that her favourite subjects are grammar and language!
Her school is still very basic.  Bineta’s classroom has a dirt floor, bench seats and a black board.  There are no desks for kids to sit at and yet Bineta has flourished.  I believe she is an excellent student in an environment where it would be so easily for her to become otherwise.  Her achievements in life so far are a credit to her.
Visiting her school gave us both a fantastic insight into the lives of people in rural Senegal and what it is like to grow up as a kid there.  It is something so few people really experience.  We left feeling humbled, grateful and happy that Bineta has become the beautiful young woman I always thought she would be.

My “Fulani Family”

It was when we first arrived at Bineta’s family village that I found out Bineta is a Fulani.  I recognised it as soon as I saw her mother, who has the characteristic black tattooed lips of Fulani women.  My heart melted.  I love the Fulani people in the Sahel.  As settled nomads in Senegal, the younger generation of Bineta’s family, including Bineta, don’t have this tattooing that is so typical of the Fulani culture but that’s OK.  I’m sure the Fulani culture permeates their existence in so many ways.
During our field work in Senegal in 2016 I met my first ever Fulani people.  We met them all over Senegal but our most surprising encounters were in really remote places like Ndiael, where we would find a Fulani adolescent herding his mass of Zebu cattle towards water, or when we were surveying the grasslands for bustards and we’d see a whole family of Fulani people heading to the nearest village on foot to do their shopping.
Each time I was stunned at how friendly they were and to this day, I am always happy when we encounter Fulani people in the field.  The women are instantly recognisable by their facial tattoos.  Some older Fulani women also have elaborate tattoos on their hands and feet.
Fulani men can often be seen wearing a peaked hat that looks like it would be more at home in Asia than in the Sahel region of Africa.
The Fulani people are the largest nomadic group in the world.  Currently numbering between 20 and 25 million they are the largest muslim ethnic group in Africa and they comprise many different ethnicities across the countries they wander including Chad, Sudan, Burkina Faso, Niger, Mali, Cameroon and Senegal.
The Fulani treasure beauty in their women and braveness in their men.  Travelling in Fulani lands you can often see men and children in particular, shaking the Acacia trees to release the seeds, which are given to animals as fodder.

Where to from here?

Our visit with Bineta was brief and it left both Mark and I with so many questions about what she might do with her future.  Right now we are trying to work with World Vision to see if we can help Bineta to continue her education in some way either through them or independently.
We face a few very substantial and justified hurdles in helping Bineta but I’m happy to stay within the protocols that are defined by World Vision.  After all, they have been so incredibly helpful to us in our journey to find Bineta.
Our very first step will be to have the photos we took printed and sent to her family.
From there we are keeping an open mind about what might happen.  In my own ideal world, nothing would make me happier than to see Bineta complete her education and become the teacher she dreams of becoming.
At the very least, I don’t want to lose touch with her or her family.
I’ve never travelled through the world with a vision that I wish to save our planet.  I learned a long time ago that I can only do so much, that my financial and emotional resources are finite.
However, I have always harboured a very strong belief that the best way to break the back of poverty is through education.  I can’t afford to support Bineta’s entire family financially forever. That is way beyond my means.  I can, however, support her education, which I hope will give her better skills to find a better paying job so she can support her future family.  I am trying to find a way to give her that start.  Let’s see where this journey might take us but this is my hope.
And without hope we have nothing.

Africa Through My Mother’s Eyes

On my recent trip to Australia to co-lead and drive the Princess Parrot Expedition for Birdquest, I had the pleasure of being able to tack a few days on to the end of the trip to see my family in Cairns and on the Gold Coast.
During my stay with my parents in Cairns, I finally got the chance to look at the photographs my mum took while we were away in South Africa and Namibia in June.

Before we left for Johannesburg at the end of the May, panic struck me.  I realised that my mum didn’t have a decent camera with her for the trip.  Since she is older and a full DSLR and lenses is too heavy and technical for her to carry, I made the decision to buy her a little Canon Powershot with a 60x optical zoom.  I nearly always recommend bridge cameras to people who are going to Africa but who don’t want to carry big kit around with them.  After all, lugging the sort of gear I carry with me isn’t for everyone.

Packing, I somehow managed to squeeze her camera in with all of my gear, and off I flew from the UK to Johannesburg to meet them off their flight from Australia.  Accompanying her camera was a plethora of slower memory cards that I don’t use anymore so my mum could basically have a camera and just take as many pictures as she wanted.  When I gave it to her in Africa she cried.
My mum has always been the family photographer.  My dad has always just delighted in seeing the shots she takes.
Well, since we parted ways at the end of the trip, I hadn’t really had the chance to fully look at what my mum had taken on the trip.  When I did I was pleasantly surprised.
As with all my trips I am usually thrilled to see what my clients take in the field.  After all, I know full well what it is like to take a group of photographers into a specific place and see everyone getting completely different angles to what I imagined.  I love seeing their stories unfold, sometimes even more than I enjoy seeing my own.
When that ‘client’ is your mum, though, that thrill takes on a whole new meaning.  It was the first time both my parents had really seen Africa.  My mum had visited South Africa during the apartheid era of the 1960s and so much has changed in Africa since then, we really counted this as the first time they both could see the real Africa.  The Africa that I see.  One that is sprinkled with some tourist experiences but also with totally wild immersions.  It was this trip that I literally “drove off the map to the border regions of Namibia and Angola” with my parents, an area that is so remote, so few tourists see it.  I was a bit apprehensive about travelling with my elderly parents to such a remote place but they loved it so much and they became some of the privileged few to visit a part of Africa that you don’t see on postcards.  The heart of Africa.  The Africa of beautiful tribal people living in some of the wildest landscapes on earth.
So here is Africa as my mum saw it.  I must say I was really impressed with this gallery of shots.  She just saw scenes so differently to me in many ways.  Of course we saw some of them the same, but mostly the shots are very well done, especially for a lady who is nearly 80 on her first ever real photography trip to Africa.

My Wanderings with the Himba

Of all of my images from Africa, it is perhaps my photographs of the Himba people that spark the most admiration, comments and questions when I share them.
I will never forget the first time I saw Himba people.  I met a small group of Himba women engaged in selling souvenirs in the tourist market at Swakopmund.  Their appearance was mesmerising and I thought to myself “Now I really feel like I am in Africa”.
That was back in 2012 and the Himba people have continued to beguile me ever since.
I recently returned from my third visit to Namibia where I met the Himba, only on this most recent trip, I was thrillled to take my parents to meet them.
In the short time I have been privileged to ‘know’ the Himba people, I have learned so much from them.  Before you read my replies to these questions, please bear in mind that I am still learning so much about Himba people.  In fact I learn something new every time I meet them!  I can only answer in the best of my knowledge.

Why do Himba women colour their skin red?

In Himba culture, when girls grow into women, their custom is to paint their skin with red ochre.  They seek out stones of haematite, grind them down to a powder and then they mix it with animal fats before they smear it on their skin.  This is largely thought to help protect them from the sun but some people also believe that it retards hair growth.  It is a custom only practiced by Himba women.

What do Himba women do with their hair?

Young Himba girls have shaved heads and they wear two plaits that often drape over their faces.
When Himba girls grow into women, they morph their appearance from their bare skinned childhood into long, braided red hair extensions that are covered in a mixture of mud, red ochre and animal fat, a similar mix to the red ochre they paint their skin with.
A few other things change during the time they grow into women.  Himba girls wear an arrow-shaped metal plate called an “Eha” when they are little and when they become women this changes to a larger necklace that features an “Ohumba” or cone shell.

Do Himba women ever take a shower?

With the exception of the first few days after they give birth, Himba women never take a shower using water.  Instead they have a ‘sweat’ bath each day to maintain their personal hygiene.  This involves collecting native bark and herbs (usually from a Commiphora bush), which they add to burning coals in a clay bowl.  When they do this they will lean over the bowl and the heat of this will make them sweat.  For a full bath, they will cover themselves in a blanket to completely sweat and perfume themselves with the smoke of these herbs.  The combination of herbs is called Otjize.

If Himba women never shower, do they smell?

No!  Himba women smell similar to tanned animal hide or leather actually.  It is a very earthy, lovely smell.  Not what most people think!

What do the Himba people eat?

Unlike many tribes around the world, the Himba don’t make bread.  Instead they use maize meal to make a porridge which forms a part of their staple diet.  Aside from this, they eat the meat of their livestock (goats and cattle) and use the milk from both as well.
On my most recent trip we visited Himba villages that were located more than seventy kilometres from the nearest shop where the people can buy food that supplements what they eat from their animals.  To get there, the men of the village undertake a three day/two night journey on foot, in each direction, once a month to buy groceries.  They often take donkeys with them to carry loads.

What do the Himba people drink?

Although the Himba don’t use water to bathe, they do need water to drink and also to water their animals.
Wells, some of them up to three metres deep, are dug by hand from dry river beds when water is needed.  These wells can take up to three months to dig and the final location for them is often determined after a number of trial holes have been dug.
These wells are attended by all members of Himba families who will visit them throughout the day with their herds of goats or cattle.
Sometimes children are sent to fetch water for their family from these wells in large jerry cans.  I’ve seen children walking barefoot a distance of six kilometres each way to get water for their family. The lengths the Himba have to go to get food and water really do put my own life into perspective!
The Himba also brew their own beer from honey and bark which has been mixed with grass seeds collected from the nests of harvester ants.

Do Himba children go to school?

Traditionally only Himba boys were ever allowed to go to school and even then, not all of them could go.  The eldest boy was usually selected to be the child who went to school.  Girls had to stay home to learn how to perpetuate traditions.
These days a number of well considered ‘mobile schools’ have been established across Kaokoland and both boys and girls attend these from the age of six through to the age of eighteen.  Designed to be moved with the Himba families living near them, the mobile schools mean that Himba children can still keep learning when their families have moved on to find better grazing land for their livestock.

What do the Himba people believe in?

The Himba are animists and they have their own god called Mukuru, who they speak to via a holy fire that burns in their village.  Between that fire and the hut of the head man of the village, there is an imaginary line which should never be crossed by visitors.  The fire is maintained by one designated person in the village only.
It is my understanding that only adult Himba can speak with Mukuru, and even then it is most likely the head man who communicates any concerns to Mukuru.  Children are not allowed to speak with Mukuru directly although I think they may do so via their parents.

What do the Himba people live in?

Himba families live inside an Ozondjuwo, a basic hut with an earth floor, walls made of tree branches strung together by the fronds of a Makalani palm and then coated by a mixture of mud and dung.  The men collect the materials for Ozondjuwo to be made but it is the women who actually construct them.

What is the skin that Himba women use in their dress?

Traditionally Himba women would have worn the skin of an antelope in their extremely elaborate dress.  These days it is most likely to be the hide of a goat.
The two main items of dress that are made of skin include an “Erembe” which almost looks like a crown and it is worn by women who are married.  All women, regardless of their marital status, wear many tiered skirts that are also made of leather.
These items are worn in combination with elaborate jewellery and leg guards that are made of leather, shells and metal.  Believe it or not, I’ve heard that a full set of Himba dress can weigh up to forty kilos!

Where are the Himba people from?

The Himba are a semi-nomadic, pastoralist tribe of people whose origins are in Angola.  They first inhabited Kaokoland around the 16th century.
They are intrinsically linked both culturally and linguistically to the Herero tribe in Namibia and were originally considered as Herero.  The name Himba is a literal translation of the word ‘beggar’ in their Otjiherero language and this rather unfortunate name was given to them when the Himba had to move their cattle great distances during a bovine illness epidemic in the nineteenth century.  When they went searching for crops and cattle, they had to ask other people for help, hence their name “Himba”.  It was this move in search of crops and cattle that split the Himba from the Herero and they became two separate tribes.
Today the Himba and Herero speak more or less the same Bantu derived language, but their appearances are a stark contrast.  Noticeably more in the women of both tribes, the Himba have chosen to retain their red ochre appearance whereas the Herero women have adopted a Victorian style crinoline dress and a hat made of rolled cloth, which they also start to wear when they grow from girls into women.

How do the Himba people get medical help if they need it?

Most Himba people live in extremely remote and isolated areas of Namibia.  It is my understanding that if a Himba person becomes ill, their first course of action is to seek traditional medicine and care but in recent years, a number of remote clinics have been built across Kaokoland that offer modern medical treatment in the case of long standing illnesses, complicated childbirth and emergencies.

What is the life expectancy of Himba people?

I think this is difficult to truly determine as many Himba live a long way from towns and settlements so estimates vary.  I’ve read that Himba women live only to the age of around 45, around 10 years less than men, but I’ve photographed people who look a lot older than this and I’m unsure of a source that specifies their life expectancy more exactly.

Do they engage in tribal conflict?

There are three main tribes living in northern Namibia – the Himba, Herero and Zemba people.  It is always surprising to me how harmoniously these tribes co-exist.  The large Namibian town of Opuwo is bustling with activity and it is possible to walk down the streets of Opuwo amongst people of all three tribes together.  It is quite something to shop for food at the large OK Supermarket in Opuwo alongside Himba women wandering the aisles bare-breasted with children slung around their backs.
On my most recent trip, I asked a lodge owner near Opuwo if there was ever any problems with the different tribes in the area and he said “No. Mostly these people just want to be free to live their own culture”.
In recent years the Himba and Zemba people have stood united to block the construction of a hydro-electricity dam on the Kunene River, downstream from Epupa Falls, on the basis that the construction would destroy traditional Himba grave sites.

Are the Himba people poor?

I guess this depends on where the Himba people live and what you define as “poor”.
Traditionally their wealth is measured by the amount of livestock they own and this remains true to this day for many Himba people living in remote areas.  In Opuwo it is possible to meet Himba people who are more affected by the lifestyles of towns, who may have issues with alcohol and who may be living in a shanty style building on the outskirts of town.  Thankfully the number of Himba people living like this is still a minority.
I feel we need to avoid equating the way of life that Himba people choose with poverty.  We see them living in traditional huts in the middle of nowhere, walking great distances to herd their livestock, get water and food and we think they are poor when the opposite is more true.

What roles do men, women and children play in Himba society?

The Himba live under a patriarchal system in terms of authority, but a matriarchal one in terms of economy.  On a day to day basis, life is generally conducted along the following lines:
Men – responsible mainly for herding livestock, killing animals for meat and cooking meat
Women – responsible for finances, making porridge, caring for children, milking cows and goats.
Children – responsible for fetching water and fire wood, herding goats and cows and just being kids!
I have seen all sorts of variations on the above roles in my travels including women herding livestock, men caring for children, all members of the family taking livestock to drink and all members of the family fetching water but traditionally the roles above apply.

What about the appearance of Himba men?

Himba men do not paint their skin with ochre.
Traditionally younger men would wear their hair in a single plait called an Ondatu until they were ready to marry, when their single plait was turned into two plaits.  This signified that he was no longer interested in younger girls and that he was serious.  Once a Himba man married he covered his hear in what is called an Ondumba, a piece of cloth that almost looked like a turban.  The only time the cloth was removed was in mourning after a family bereavement.
Modern Himba men have mostly adopted a Western style of attire like the head man Uapenga in the image below.

Why do Himba women always have a space between their teeth?

The space between the front two teeth in Himba women is created as a part of them growing from girls into women.  Much like the change in their hair above and the colouring of their skin with ochre, the gap in their front time is a symbol of maturity and beauty in Himba women.

What about metal leg guards that Himba women wear?

All adult Himba women wear beautiful leg guards.  When I first saw these I thought they were just a very decorative way of protecting their legs against snake bites but I believe these are just for decoration.  When a Himba woman is married, small notches are made in them to signify how many children she might have.

What happens when Himba people die?

I recently had the quiet  honour of visiting a cemetery for Himba people in Kaokoland and I found it truly fascinating.  Traditionally, Himba graves were adorned simply.  A large red stone at the end of an oblong pile of smaller stones acted as the headstone of a woman.  The graves of men were adorned with a large white stone at the end of the same oblong pile of stones.
Modern Himba are more regularly choosing engraved headstones made of marble and granite, much like our own.  If their dates of birth and death are known, then these are placed on their headstones.  If not, they are simply omitted.  Interestingly a symbol of what the person did in their lives is also engraved on their headstones. For example a Himba man who hunted might have a rifle engraved on his headstone.  A man who only farmed may have a cow engraved on his headstone.
These permanent burial grounds are also adorned with the skulls of cattle as offerings to the Himba people’s ancestors.

What challenges do Himba people face?

It is dreadfully naïve to think that the Himba live in a totally innocent world, free of trouble and the same sort of pressures that we confront each day.  Over the short time I’ve come to know them, I’ve learned that Himba people face a myriad of challenges associated with education; slotting their culture into modern Namibia; social change; alcohol; social problems and the cultural shift they are experiencing through tourism.
However, in many ways I think the Himba are much wealthier than us.
They are able to provide for their families through their livestock; their children grow up playing together and return home to families that love them and provide them with a secure home; their sense of community and honour is far greater than many English speaking cultures.
Often when I spend time with the Himba people in Kaokoland, I leave feeling that we have lost our way a little in our developed world.  It is a wonderful experience to spend time with people who are connected to their families, their land and their livestock in a very intimate way.  In our frenetic, fast-paced way of life we sometimes lose sight of the things that should be the most important to us.  Basic things like family are given a low priority over technology, work, traffic, television, internet, politics and life in general.
When I visit the Himba a part of me feels like I am going home, to a place where the only noises I hear are the whirring sounds of flocks of African Peach-faced parrots and of Himba children calling to their goats in the valley, the crackling sounds of a wood fire or the wind rustling through the grasslands.  They live in a world that is disconnected in so many ways from our way of life, I feel like I am returning to my childhood when I visit the Himba people in Kaokoland.
It is for these reasons that I will always try to tread as softly as I can upon their culture.  I take small groups into Kaokoland to meet the Himba but I am always careful to not overwhelm them when I visit.  My deepest respect for Himba people underpins every aspect of my visits with them and I always try to encourage my guests to speak with the Himba through our translator and find out more about them.  In my experience Himba people are very generous with their culture if you ask them questions.
They can also be very curious about our culture. I recently had a funny conversation with an older Himba lady I met in Kaoko.
“How many children do you have?”  she asked me.  In hindsight I should have replied “Four” as I have four stepkids who I consider my own.  Instead I said “None” and this of course sparked the inevitable reply.  “Why?” I tried valiantly to explain that my job takes me all over the world and I wouldn’t be able to take my children with me when I travel.  The confused look on this lovely Himba ladies face was growing more intense as my translator tried to explain this to her.  She paused for a moment and then asked how old I was.  “Forty five” and she smiled.  “That’s OK, you still have five years to have a baby!”  We both laughed!  I was with my mother when we were having this conversation and the topic switched to my mother and the fact that I was her daughter before we drifted off on to other subjects.
It is my hope that my guests leave Kaokoland with more than just beautiful photographs but also with stories of their time with the Himba people.  I like people to get to know the names of the people they meet, a few words of Himba language, experience sitting on the ground and chatting to them about their way of life and laugh with them when the occasional moment gets ‘lost in translation’.
If you would like me to introduce you to the Himba on one of my trips, I run annual small group tours to Namibia.  Please email me at inger@ingervandyke.com to find out more…..

Epic Lion Hunt in Etosha

I saw my first ever wild lion at Charitsaub waterhole while I was travelling on an overlanding trip in 2012.   She lapped the water gently, a brief moment of relief from the steaming heat of that September day.  I was captivated.
During the same trip we met a male lion who had been left to babysit four tiny cubs while their mother was away hunting.
On subsequent trips to Etosha I’ve encountered lions sleeping under trees, more lion cubs and even a group of lions who spontaneously ambushed a family of elephants on my trip with clients last September.  We were tagging along in Etosha in two vehicles and we decided to take a lesser known side route.  When we did we saw a family of elephants, a bull elephant, two females and a little baby crossing the road in front of us.  We stopped to watch them.  It is my policy on all of my trips to give wild animals the right of way on safari.  I would rather stop my vehicles and just let them be.  I rarely give chase and I always try to never drive between groups of animals, separating herds.  As we sat and watched this small family group cross, we were oblivious to the fact that a pride of lions was sleeping in the long grass on the side of the road.  We only found out about them when the lions saw the baby, the bull saw the lions and burst into a furious alarm display of feet stamping, trunk waving and trumpeting.  He was desperately trying to intercept the lions and get them away from the others.  Thankfully for the elephants this elaborate act proved successful.  For us it was an adrenaline filled twenty minutes that became one of the highlights of our trip.
I read recently there are now less than 1000 lions left in Namibia and the cats in Etosha are representative of the country’s largest population.  When we were there two weeks ago, we saw nine lions in a day, nearly .01% of the total population of lions in Namibia.  We were blessed by three encounters – one with a lone mail wandering in the early morning sun near Okondeka, another where five lions in a small pride of two males and three males were resting beside the road between Halali and Okaukuejo and a third encounter which was so stunning and lucky, that I shall remember it for the rest of my days.
On the second day of the trip in Etosha with my parents we meandered our way from Halali to Okaukuejo visiting waterholes.  It was a quiet morning.  We saw a Black-backed Jackal get up and run into the morning sun as we drove out of the gate of Halali.  Nearby a Springbok grazed the savannah grasses for breakfast.  We drove past an ambling Wildebeest who decided that the road was an easier path than the rocky plains surrounding us.
At Charitsaub the quietness seemed to be continuing.  A lone zebra was at the waterhole taking a drink.  Enjoying the first light of day, we stopped to watch it.
And then I saw her.  “Lion!” I said to my parents.  “There’s a lion in the grass just near us!”.  At first they struggled to see what I was looking at.
The zebra finished drinking and we watched it wander up to a nearby hillock.  The lioness, realising it had a vulnerable, solo animal that had been separated from its dazzle, began to stalk it.
“Oh my god!  That lion surely can’t be going  to take that zebra on on its own!”  I said to my parents.  “The zebra will out run it and get away”.  As the zebra approached the hillock it saw the lioness and took flight on a short run.  Then it stopped.  Realising the lioness was working with three other lionesses as a team, it was doomed.  It knew it immediately.  We watched as four lionesses took the zebra down right before our eyes!
 
The other Zebras in the dazzle watched on in dismay at the loss of one of their own.
In a gruesome display, the lionesses took several attempts to kill this poor little zebra.  It sadly wasn’t an instant thing.  My parents and I were transfixed, each of us wondering what was going to happen next.
 One of the Dutch guys asked me what I thought might happen next “Do you think they need to drink?”.  As he said this I noticed some gathering Black-backed Jackals.  The smell of the kill had lured a pack of them in from downwind.
 More jackals began to appear but the lions stayed, defending their kill.
I replied “No.  I think they are probably going to stay and try to protect their catch from the jackals” to them.  Then the lions proved me wrong.  Two of them broke away from the kill and headed back to the same waterhole the zebra used to take a drink while the other two supervised their zebra.
 They edged nearer and nearer, the marks of their kill still evident in their fur and on their faces.
 Then they literally dropped on to their haunches around 35 metres from our car to drink!
The whole scene left us torn between feeling sorry for the poor little zebra and also with a quiet understanding that lions need to eat too.  It was awe inspiring to watch this unfold.
I always share these stories of my lion luck with some trepidation.  My trip to Etosha in 2017 only has one space remaining and I feel that these experiences are what draw people to my journeys.  The reality is we were just lucky.  Nature is nature.  Nothing about this situation was controlled or contrived in any way.  It simply transpired right in front of us.  The lions were completely unconcerned by our presence and we stayed with them for over two hours.
Who knows what my next trip to Etosha will bring?