27 October 2014

Auckland, my Auckland

Thanks to the weather Gods holding off the heavy rain that was forecast for today, a holiday Monday here in New Zealand, I had a lovely long morning walk around some of my favourite haunts, etching them into my memory, saying goodbye … for now.

Tomorrow I fly away again – to Singapore to visit my cousin for a couple of nights, and then on to England, for an indefinite period. I enjoyed my five weeks in the UK earlier this year so much that I’ve decided to go back for more – more impressive stately homes, more cool castles, more long walks along the seemingly interminable footpaths, more cute squirrels … and hopefully some work to keep the wolves from the door!

During the eight weeks I’ve been back in Auckland this time, I’ve seen winter fade, the temperatures warm and spring blossoms burst out in all their gorgeous glory. I’ve caught up with my wonderful friends, enjoyed lots of long conversations over glasses of wine and delicious dinners, and seen many entertaining movies. I’ve loved being back in my wee apartment, with familiar things around me, snuggling up in my comfy bed, enjoying my amazing view over Auckland’s sparkling harbour.

I’ve particularly enjoyed walking my old familiar trails, up many of Auckland’s volcanic cones, around the harbourside and inner-city beaches, and circuiting the marinas full of million-dollar boats, strolling along bush tracks under leafy trees, communing with sheep and cows and purring cats, being serenaded by our melodious native birds and laughing at the antics of seagulls and swallows.

Auckland, you are one of the most beautiful cities in the world and I will miss you. Here are some of the reasons why …

25 October 2014

Tanzania: On Safari

Who doesn’t dream of seeing lionesses and their cubs slumbering under a shady tree? Of a leopard climbing the tree where its earlier kill – a bloody gazelle – awaits its razor-sharp teeth? Of packs of hyenas scuttling shiftily past in the evening light? Of watching the huge bubbles of hippo farts rising up from shit-coloured waterholes? Okay, maybe that last one is the stuff of nightmares not dreams, but you get the picture.

After days of volunteering our photography skills with a local NGO, then spending time in a remote Maasai village, our Giving Lens photography workshop ended with three days on safari, two in the Serengeti and one in Ngorongoro crater. It was magical!

Our team of photographers (Photo: Kate Siobhan Mulligan)

I think a list of the animals we saw (and this doesn’t include birds or reptiles) and lots of photos will be enough to convince even the most cynical that a safari is a must-do, a bucket-list item, an at-least-once-in-a-lifetime holiday essential. And if you are considering Tanzania as a destination, I cannot recommend highly enough the safari packages offered by local NGO Art in Tanzania. These are not your typical rich-folks safaris – you stay in budget accommodation – but the skills of their local guides will ensure you see the full range of amazing African animals and your dollars will help fund the incredible work AIT does to assist and support the impoverished people of Tanzania. Everyone wins!

Our sightings included: zebra and wildebeests in the thousands, impala, giraffe, topi, warthog, Thompson’s gazelle, Grant’s gazelle, spotted hyena, hippo, crocodile, lion, cheetah, leopard, dik dik, rhino, waterbuck, red buck and bush buck, Cape eland, Cooke’s hartbeest, baboon, velvet monkey, rock hyrax, buffalo, forest and savannah elephants, black-backed and side-striped jackal. Oh, and camel – domesticated, but still a surprise.

Tempted? Just do it!

24 October 2014

Tanzania: Meeting the Maasai

Herding cattle, sheep and goats, sleeping in a boma, eating sacrificed goat, getting blessed by the chief, making bead jewellery and dancing – all in a day’s work when you spend time with the Maasai!
(Photo: Trudey Peterson)

We began our three days with the Maasai at Laiboni Primary, the small school adjacent to their village. The Maasai chief, Meshuku Mappi, was persuaded to allow the school to be built in 2007 after a 10-year-old village child was killed by a car during his 10-kilometre walk to the nearest primary school. The school has a very small number of classrooms and limited facilities but it’s so much safer for the kids and the chief has also been persuaded to allow the girls to attend, a victory in a culture where female circumcision is still widely practised and most girls marry and start breeding at a very young age.

The head teacher gave us some background and answered our questions then we were let loose, moving around the different classrooms to meet and photograph the kids. One class we entered had no teacher present so I couldn’t help myself – I took over! While my fellow photographers took their shots, I organised the kids to come up to the board to write a sentence with their names and say the sentence out loud for me, then we changed to practising numbers. It was fun and they were so enthusiastic and full of smiles.

(Photo: Trudey Peterson)

The kids also sang and danced for us, the boys first and later the girls, the leaping and stomping dance the Maasai are famous for. At first, they were shy about performing and they huddled together in one corner of the room but the pulsating rhythm soon had them and us entranced, and by the end they were running about and leaping like wild things.

Meeting the chief (Photo: Trudey Peterson)
From the school we moved on to the village to meet chief Meshuku Mappi, after first getting a lesson in chief-meeting protocol – the women bowed their heads for the chief to pat, the men shook hands, and there was an exchange of ceremonial greetings. The chief could be anywhere from 90 to 100 years old – reports vary and I doubt there are written records. We were told he is 98 (though last year he was over 100) and I found a website that said he was 95 back in 2012. The numbers of his wives, children, grandchildren, etc also vary with the telling – perhaps 9 wives, perhaps 29, perhaps 36, and more than 99 (or 120) descendants. Regardless of the numbers, he seems well loved and respected by his people, and was very kind to us, granting permission for us to photograph anything we wanted and to spend time in the village.

I was amazed at how high the men can leap

The goat being sliced up and eaten
In this and the surrounding villages controlled by the chief, the locals own (supposedly) 170,000 cattle, sheep and goats. This figure I can believe as, later that afternoon, we watched huge numbers of beasties being driven home to their overnight corrals by the men of the tribe. It was the perfect photo opportunity – cloven hooves churned up dust from the bone dry ground, statuesque baobob trees punctuated the landscape like frozen giants, and the bright reds and blues of the men’s clothing popped against the browns of the landscape and the animals. We stayed long enough for some sunset images but then had to be on our way back to Karatu as it’s illegal for tourists to be on the roads after dark.

Making friends with the locals (Photo: Trudey Peterson)
Next morning we packed our overnight bags and headed back for a full day at the village and to spend the night in a boma, one of their mud huts, sleeping on a sort of shelf, made of sticks covered with cow hide. We were free to wander wherever we chose, spent time with the women and children, watched the slaughter and preparation, then joined in the consumption of a goat that was killed in our honour, enjoyed the wonderful spectacle of the men and women dancing for us, watched the animals coming home again from their daily grazing and helped by prodding a stick at one or two.

Our night in the boma was not the most comfortable I’ve had in my life but I slept a little and would happily repeat the experience in an instant. We were up early to catch the sunrise over the nearby hills and the huge old baobob in the centre of the village, then watched the men driving the animals out for the day’s foraging. Life for the Maasai revolves around their animals – their cows are their primary source of food, and their wealth and status are measured in cattle.

The women dance for us
Later that morning the Maasai women tried to teach the women in our team some of their jewellery-making techniques, and we all bought some of their lovely beadwork as souvenirs of our time with them. It was with heavy hearts that we farewelled the people who had welcomed us so warmly into their village and into their lives. The Maasai are very special people and it was a huge privilege to have spent time with them. My life has been greatly enriched by the experience.

Some of the women and children outside one of the bomas

23 October 2014

Tanzania: Giving back through photography

The final part of my 76-day gad about the world took me to a new country, to Tanzania for a 10-day adventure with The Giving Lens, an organisation that uses the medium of photographic workshops to bring volunteers and much-needed funds to local NGOs at the same time as providing their participants with photographic training and a more genuine, less touristy travel experience.

Our Giving Lens team of photographers (photo: Daniel Nahabedian)

I first got to know the folks at The Giving Lens back in 2012 when the founder, Colby Brown, brought a team of photographers to Picaflor House, the NGO I was then managing in Peru. This time, I was to experience the Giving Lens philosophy from the other side, from behind the lens of my camera and, of course, I was also hoping to learn a bit more about how to actually use my new Canon 100D. Fulfilling my long-held dream of seeing wild animals roaming free on the plains of Africa was also a huge drawcard.

In contrast to my previous volunteering, teaching English in Cambodia and in Peru, this was a somewhat different experience. Though we did spend one day teaching photography, the focus was more on using our cameras to document the work of the local NGO and their partner organisations, to provide them with images they could use for their media and websites, and, through those images and our own social media outlets, to help raise awareness and fundraise so they can continue their essential work with the underprivileged people of Tanzania.

With my two students (photo: Kate Siobhan Mulligan)
Our first day began with an introduction to Art in Tanzania, the NGO we were working with and who had organised our Tanzanian adventure. We visited their offices in Moshi, met the key staff members, had a quick lesson in basic Swahili, then moved on to visit one of their partners, the Mkombozi Vocational Training Center. We were greeted warmly by their founder, Asha Mshana, and members of her team and given a tour of the compound: dorms for some kids who live in, facilities for training the girls in sewing and knitting, and a workshop in progress training local men to be soccer coaches.

We then spent several hours full of fun and laughter giving fourteen delightful teenage girls their first introduction to photography on point-and-shoot cameras our team members donated to the NGO. We had barely any common language – the girls had a little English – but miming, pointing and smiles worked just fine, and the girls loved it. After looking at the basic workings of the cameras, we took them on a scavenger hunt – ‘take a photo of something round’, ‘of something red’, etc. It was a hoot!

Checking pronunciation (photo: Trudey Peterson)
We spent the next morning visiting Korongoni Primary, a school that is supported by Art in Tanzania. The school principal explained the chilling realties of Tanzanian education to our team: government funding is insufficient, resources limited and many families can’t afford the cost of school fees, uniforms and stationery, so AIT’s support for the school is much needed. Our task there was to document the situation so we moved from class to class, meeting the delightful children and their hard-working teachers, seeing for ourselves the grim truth of special needs education in an underdeveloped country, noting the lack of supplies and equipment. The teacher in me couldn’t help but put the camera down from time to time to check spelling and pronunciation, and the children’s smiles were a joy to see.

After relocating to the little township of Karatu that afternoon, we spent some time the following morning visiting the AC Day Care and Orphanage Center. It was set up by Angela (above left), a retired teacher who decided to use her retirement money to help the local children, and what beautiful children they were. Despite their dirty, tattered clothing and snotty noses, their smiles and need for hugs touched our hearts. 

Here again, our task was to document the plight of the orphanage and the children, to try to solicit much-needed funds to support the school and to obtain sponsorship for the children. If I wasn’t already sponsoring two children elsewhere, I would certainly have taken on one or two of these. Although I took lots of photos of the kids, I also spent quite a long time with just one or two of them. It was a special time and affected me deeply.

On the last day of our Tanzania trip, we had one more stint of volunteering. In Karatu, we visited the compound of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania to meet their team and hear about the work they do supporting local people who have AIDS or are HIV positive. I am not a fan of the methods churches use in their interactions with the locals in underdeveloped countries, offering assistance in exchange for religious conversion. And while I salute the support this church is giving to local people, I was very disappointed to learn that they were making no effort to educate their congregation about the positive effects condom use would have in preventing the spread of this disease. In fact, when I asked why the disease was so prevalent in the town, they giggled - hardly a mature attitude! I found out later that Karatu is the base for the drivers and tour guides who take tourists on safari to the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater, so there is a high incidence of prostitution to ‘service’ their needs.

The type of house the poor of Karatu live in
From the church compound we walked to the homes of three local families who are affected by HIV. Once again the idea was to photograph the people and to document their situation, partly to provide images for fundraising and awareness, and partly to supply the families with photographs – something we take for granted but which these people almost never have. 

Personally, I thought this photography very invasive and, although they had agreed to it, potentially overwhelming for the people involved. Also, as the families live in constant fear of their disease being discovered and thereby being ostracised, I thought the presence of a group of Western photographers was potentially damaging for them - I saw neighbours watching from behind raised curtains. For these reasons I declined to take part in this volunteering, as did some of my fellow team members for their own reasons.

It was a sad end to our volunteering experience but I don’t want to end this blog on a negative note. The plight of the children of Tanzania affected me so greatly that I intend returning in the future, hopefully in 2015, to do some voluntary English teaching with Art in Tanzania. And if any of my readers feel inclined to help, here’s a link to the donations page of their website. Every little bit helps!