The ENEMIES Project

June 27th, 2012

Right now I am blogging about my work on the ENEMIES Project – an ongoing project in which I am traveling to past and current conflict zones around the world to photograph people from opposite sides of conflicts.  Follow my current work on the ENEMIES Project Blog.

Tibetan refugee in Dharamsala, India – from The ENEMIES Blog

A look back on 2011, Part II – Transformation

January 2nd, 2012

Ten photos for the whole year?  What was I thinking??  This is the second of two posts about 2011. The first part that covers Jan-June is here: “What was I thinking?”. If you just want to see the pics, scroll down.  But here’s what I think about them…

My work is in transformation, and what you see on this post is a part of that change.  I saw this trip to Africa as a trip to gather raw material in the form of images for new work that I will be producing both as part of the ENEMIES Project and beyond.  Some of what you see below are the paints for new works not yet made, some of it is documentary images I did for other people and for myself, some are just snapshots that show what I saw and what moved me.  So many artists conceal their process and only show finished images and pieces. The whole point of my blog is for you to see what I go through, how I think, how I edit, how I see the world.  This post is a lot of just the raw cut of my view when I was traveling in Africa. I like to expose my process, the way I see the world and this is what my blog is for.   This isn’t a supposed to be full view of where my work is going, but it will show you a part of the process. I think there is a risk in this, because the art world is so heavily based on image.  For me, I see my life as something of an evolving artwork so this seems appropriate.  I’ll continue to put up more of the process throughout the year, and you’ll see it if you keep watching this blog.

Yesterday I came up with dozens of photos from just the past six months that I love.  The problem is that I love different images for different reasons – some I simply love because of the image itself.  Some I love because of the story behind the image.  It always fascinates me how all of us connect to different pieces of art for different reasons, and I like to examine that process in myself.  One of the hardest things in photography or any art form is to step beyond your the emotions that are wrapped around your own work. Of course you have to have the emotional relationship with the work in order to produce work that connects with other people.

Art is about expression – at least for me it is.  It is about trying to understand the world, myself and my place in the world and expressing all of that in a way that communicates what I feel to others.  But I also think there is a fine balance that an artist has to walk here, because we have to express our view while at the same time being able to understand whether the work is conveying that expression on its own.  You must absolutely have your own vision and the ability to stick to your own vision in the face of being pummeled by the expectations of others.  But I’ve seen tons of art that fails because it is too personal in a way that makes it impossible for other people to connect with.  It’s a very fine line, and I think that’s the real skill of being successful as an artist. Perhaps the real issue here is building your inner self in a way that is intellectually and emotionally connected to the rest of the world enough so that when you create your own vision it becomes something that other people relate to or can learn to relate to. You may not think that this type of issue extends to editing and choosing photographs, but it does, and for me it is relevant as I move forward with my work and beyond the simple photograph.

Enough babbling.  Here are the pics – some are raw, some are sketches, some snapshot.  This is what I saw – or at least a portion of it.

My favorite… toughie, but it may be this one.  I saw this girl flying her kite while I was traveling in the Rwandan countryside.  It was just one of those beautifully magical, unreproducible little moments.

Rwandan girl with kite

After that I decided to pick one or two for each project – that made it a bit easier.


This was the reason I went to Africa. If you don’t already know, this year I started a project to photograph people from opposing sides of violent conflicts around the world. You can read more about it on the ENEMIES Project website, and if you are inclined please consider backing this project on Kickstarter or help me spread the word about the Kickstarter with your friends. Here is the video I made about ENEMIES for Kickstarter. If you don’t see it below, you can see the video on the  ENEMIES Project on Kickstarter. For those of you who don’t know, Kickstarter is a way to raise funds for arts projects. You can become a project backer, and you get rewards for different levels of backing – prints, calendars, books from the project. You back a project with a credit card that is processed through, and your credit card is only charged if the fundraising goal is met.

I went to East Africa so that I could travel to South Sudan, the newest country in the world that is recently out of a grueling forty years of civil war. I also photographed people from conflicts in Kenya and Rwanda. You can find blog entries about them here or just go to the ENEMIES Project website and click on the blog link.  Picking one of all the photos I took for this project is really tough – really tough.  I like a lot of them, and the stories are intense and many of them inspiring. But here is one. You can see more on the ENEMIES Project website.

I photographed this couple in the village of Wanjyok, South Sudan. The man is Dinka originally from the south. The woman is Mysseria, from the north. South Sudan has been in a bloody and repressive conflict with the northern part of Sudan for four decades. Mixed couples in which the man is South Sudanese are rare for reasons that are too complex too explain in this short paragraph. This is one of those many examples of two people who fell in love rising above ethnic barriers that have been hardened by generations of painful memories.

Mixed ethnic couple in Wanjyok, South Sudan


Grevy’s Zebra

While I was in Kenya I did some photographic work for the  Grevy’s Zebra Trust, a small non-profit that works to conserve the endangered Grevy’s Zebra.

I met so many amazing people in Samburu, the northern Kenya province where I was photographing Grevy’s Zebra. I also took the opportunity to photograph the Samburu and Turkana people for ENEMIES.  This man was the brother of one of the guards of the Mebae Conservancy – a community owned ranch where the idea is to manage it for ecological sustainability.

Grevy's Zebra project

Samburu elder

The Samburu people were so incredibly photogenic.



I did relatively little nature photography this year, but I did a few that I made a set of prints from and these gave me an idea for another set of works.   Here are two that I liked a lot…

Cheetah, Masai Mara National Reserve

Hyena, Masai Mara National Reserve


The Human Dominated World

Traveling in Africa made me more aware of something that I’ve been thinking for a while now.  The earth has transformed from being a world dominated by wilderness with patches of people to a world dominated by people with only patches of untouched wilderness.  I thought about this a lot this year, because in Africa there is still wilderness, but it is generally heavily managed and protected. Africa is truly a human-dominated landscape – much more so than I had imagined, and I wanted to create a set of works that talked about the disparity between what tourists see in Africa and the majority of the landscape. Here are two of those works.

The Charcoal Seller – this man lives in the Kibera slums of Nairobi, a few miles from the David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage and Nairobi National Park, regular destinations for tourists. He has never seen an elephant and probably never will. He is holding a photograph of an elephant orphan from the elephant orphanage .

Charcoal seller in Kibera

These Masai school children live in an area where there are extremely severe conflicts with elephants. Elephants regularly kill and injure people and steal their grain here.  Children frequently don’t start school until they are much older, because it is dangerous for them to walk to school.  I photographed the elephant in the print they are holding in the Masa Mara National Reserve, which is about 40 kilometers away.

Masai school children


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Masai – Elephant conflict

One other project I did in Kenya was photographing and documenting the conflict between the Masai people and elephants outside of the Masai Mara National Reserve.  This was a pretty intense story to see.  I wrote a lot about it in my blog, which you can see here, here and here.  There are a lot of cool photographs from there, including the one above.

This is a drugged elephant inside a transport truck, about to be moved out of a heavily populated area  near the Masai Mara National Reserve.

Drugged elephant

Masai children looking out a hole in the wall of their house made by an elephant the night before.  The elephant rammed a hole through the wall in their bedroom, two feet from the bed in the middle of the night searching for grain.

Masai children in elephant battered hole

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I loved this time-lapse I did in northern Kenya.  The singing in the background are Samburu elders from a wedding ceremony I was invited to attend in a Samburu village.  If you don’t see the video below you can see it here on youtube.

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Favorite snapshots…

I love this picture of Ben Ochieng.  Ben lives in the Mathare slums of Nairobi.  He lost his business in the 2008 post-election riots.  Since then he has started a crafts making cooperative, a school and a youth group to keep kids out of trouble.  Very cool. You can see some dancing by members of his youth group in my post about the artists in the slums. I am helping them build a small business to take tourists into the slums and see the vibrant arts culture there.  It is called Kenya Street Slam – here is the website I built for them:

Ben Oching

Another favorite photo – one of the acrobats from Dandora slums doing the impossible. Also on


Loved this.  I was taking a picture of this newly born goat in a village in northern Kenya when this kid stuck his head in to look at my camera.

Kid and kid

Lastly, this is one of my favorite pics of the year.  After I got back to the US I took a trip to NY City, and I saw this abandoned rose in the middle of the subway tracks on my way home at 3:00 am.  I took this photo with my ipod.  It was dark, the photo is grainy.  I love it.  It’s a story waiting to be told.

Abandoned Rose, A-line, 3:00 am



My favorite picture of me.  Got loads of good pictures of me on this trip to Africa.  I quickly found out that doing a self-portrait with someone was a great way to break the ice.  Especially with children.  But, this isn’t a self portrait.  It is a picture of me with a group of Samburu Moran (young men warriors).  They all carry guns in this area because here their tribe borders with the Turkana tribe who they have been in conflict with for generations.


Ok, ok stop already… that was more than ten photos.  So shoot me  🙂

But I’ll leave off with this one hilarious image.  This is the son of a Masai friend wearing my sunglasses. His last name is “Kool” – so totally appropriate  🙂

And speaking of children… go look at the photo on this blog post – “Hand in the slums”. I love that one too. I think I love a few too many of these photos.  🙂

A look back on 2011, Part I – “What was I thinking?”

December 23rd, 2011

Here is a quick look back on a few of my favorite images, thoughts and experiences from 2011.  This is part 1 from before I went to Africa.  I wasn’t doing much photography in the spring, and this post doesn’t include the many, many personal experiences with friends and family that were totally seminal to my work and my life.  That would make it a much, much longer post.  I have a vast and almost inexpressible gratitude for the support of my community of friends and my family.

This has been a bit of a crazy year, and it looking back over my images I realized how transformative it was for me. You’ll see the transformation from here to the end of the year, so here we go, starting in January…

I write poetry. I started several years back as a way to understand things in my life that needed words. I usually only share my poetry with a few close friends, but I’m going to include some in this post that are relevant to this year.  My poetry is pretty romantic and tends to be filled with night imagery. I love the night. Bear with me or skip past them, but they do say something about this last year.  In December my friend and fellow poet Paul had requested a poem about the eclipse that was happening on the winter solstice.  I didn’t finish it until the first of the year.  When I wrote it I didn’t realize that it would foreshadow the coming year a bit, since I would find myself seeing some of the vast range of the human condition as I started out on the ENEMIES Project.  Here it is…


solstice eclipse


Minute by minute,
under the gaze of the waning moon, 
the dark burn of winter has turned and is falling away.

Last year the night sky was shattered, and
now the solstice moon is hiding, 
eclipsing in silence
behind a thick ceiling of gently-lit clouds.

In the distance a siren is wailing,
but I hear only the dropping
of minutes into an empty bowl.
And now even that has stopped 
as the earth swings on her pendulum
back toward another season of seasons
and I hold on to keep from falling away into space
where the broken pieces of older nights
drift out beyond the pull of gravity.

I see you moon,
behind the clouds,
I see you.
I know you have hidden 
behind the earth this night
for a moment of reprieve 
from the glaring gaze of the sun. 

The siren has faded,
and the long night, once split and broken,
is whole again. 
I know you are here 
even though you are shy and hiding.

Somewhere tonight lovers are laying under you,
and other poets, better than I,
are writing words about you.
Somewhere tonight people are killing others under your gaze
and you hide from it all
eclipsing behind clouds on this longest night.

Perhaps if I had to watch both the lovers
and the killers, the sated
and the starving,
I would hide as well.

You don't know that the night was broken
and you don't care 
that I will run through your touch once more,
or that sometime again I will swim naked 
through a sparkling sea under your silken gaze.

Now that this longest night has passed and you have hidden,
I will still wonder about you 
when I am gazing across meadows
of dancing fireflies,

And you will caress me 
again without knowing.


Midway through January I was driving back to Austin from Salt Lake City when I passed this refinery.  The previous summer of 2010 I was photographing National Forest Roadless Areas that had been leased for oil, gas and coal – it was my last major work for my ROADLESS project.  On the way back to Austin I photographed a few refineries that I happened to pass by. I stopped to photograph them, because of the connection to the Roadless work.  The first refinery I photographed ended up in a show in California called Earth Through a Lens. I called this first image “Dante’s Refinery” – it is chilling and surreal – worth a look, but this one below was in New Mexico.  I saw it from the road, and when I drove up I noticed that it had been built around this little cemetery.  Also a completely surreal scene.

In a way, these refinery photographs were fitting images for the new year transition – they are refining the leftovers of old lives to power new ones, and I was just about to embark on a new project that would take my work into a totally different direction. Until last year, a great deal of my photography had been natural history.  It was an amalgam of my training in the arts and my work in the sciences. But several things were changing. I needed to get back to an art that was more purely expressive, and I had become obsessed with understanding how people step back from truly dark places. So while I was driving back to Austin I was making calls and starting to strategize for the ENEMIES project. The ENEMIES project was to be that first stepping stone towards moving my art.

The last couple months of 2010 I was a visiting artist at the Archie Bray Foundation in Helena, Montana.  I worked on a few projects at the Bray including photographing the resident artists and their work. This all started out by photographing my friend Kevin who was a resident artist there.

Kevin Snipes at the Archie Bray Foundation

While at the Bray I also created a set of mixed media works that I called Fall of Man. These were a set of installations of ceramic torsos that I sculpted and then photographed inside an old abandoned brick factory while projecting images onto them.  I did these photographs the day before I left the Bray and only finished working on them when I returned to Austin.

Fall of Man #1, Archie Bray Foundation

It was at the Bray that I decided that I really needed to pursue my desire to push my work beyond photography, incorporate more media, and allow myself more expression.  In the past I’ve worked in glass, ceramics, drawing, sculpture and printing, and I wasn’t happy that my works had fossilized into one media. My time at the Bray was the start of this, and I spent hours sketching and sculpting. Towards the end of the year I became obsessed with the ideas behind the ENEMIES Project – conflict, peace, hate, forgiveness.  Right away I realized that  ENEMIES would have to be transitional – it would have several layers, a layer that is mostly documentary, and layers that get progressively more expressive, further from the lens, and more about my vision and experience.  It seemed to me that this might also be an interesting way to present art anyway – so that the pieces also show the process.  The photographs would be raw material – paint that I would go out and gather.

So back to 2011, as I was driving through New Mexico on my way back to Austin I got a call from the President of the US Institute of Peace. I had sent him an email message at the very beginning of the year. He was calling because he liked the idea of ENEMIES and encouraged me to seek collaborations with the Institute. Just after that call I got to Chaco Canyon. This felt like a major life step, so I climbed the cliffs above the ancient dwellings there and made this balance.  It was a small one, but it was my first balance of the year ( more balances here if you’re curious). Balances are a meditation for me and with this balance it felt like I was somehow making a connection with the past before I stepped off into the future. This was the day that really felt like my new years day.

Chaco Canyon balance


Back in Austin I spent most of my time trying to organize logistics for ENEMIES – figuring out how I could make it work and where I should go first.  This meant an immense amount of time on the phone and the computer, and very little time taking photographs or creating art.  Logistics take ages.

In the spring I started hanging out with some very fun new friends including Jean Krejca, a well-known caver. Jean took a few of us up in these hilarious little machines called “powered parachutes” (I’d call them flying mopeds). Too fun. This is still one of my favorite images from the year.  It made me want to start hang-gliding again.

Flying mopeds

Throughout this time I was on the phone a lot trying to do logistics for my trip to Africa.  I had decided that I would start ENEMIES in East Africa, because I had been invited to go to South Sudan with the US Institute of Peace.  At that time South Sudan wasn’t even a country yet – it would become one on July 9.  It seemed totally appropriate to start ENEMIES in the newest country in the world. A country that had endured forty years of civil war.


Just before I left for Africa I finished a music video project that I had shot at the end of 2010 in Helena, Montana for my friend Ryan Rebo. This video was shown in the Holter Art Museum in Helena, Montana this summer.  Here it is below.  Click on the little symbol in the bottom right corner to make it larger or go and see it here on youtube. It’s called the Lonely Scientist.

This is a bit of a snapshot picture, but I love it.  Barton Springs is one of the things that has kept me in Austin. I spent a lot of the spring and early summer there. I often went there at the end of the day and sat by the pool as the sun set.   It is a place of community and healing for me.  This photograph was from the night before I left for Africa to start the ENEMIES project.  I met there with a few of my closest friends to say goodbye.

Barton Springs, Austin, TX

That day a friend from my community at the springs gave me an idea and a piece of string, which I soaked in the pool right where you see this picture, cut in half and tied half to my ankle and half to one of the trees next to the pool. This was my connection to home when I left for the ENEMIES project in Africa.

Next stop, Africa…

My foot with my tie to home, and the foot of a Samburu man in northern Kenya.


Street Slam – kickin it in the slums

November 6th, 2011

Slum artists – acrobats, rappers, b-boys… It’s been a long time since my last post… I’ve been busy – in Rwanda and the slums.

*Update*  I just made a website for these guys to take tourists into the Dandora and Mathare slums.  It is

[If you can’t see the video below you can watch it on Youtube or see it on]

"Move over" painted on a rock in "the temple" in Dandora

I was going to write more, but I think these two videos say most of it.  The day I first went to Dandora it took me an hour and a half to get to downtown Nairobi where I met my friend D’costa to go with him to Dandora, the slum where he lives.  Dandora is another one of the many slums that ring Nairobi and the site of the largest garbage dump in East Africa.  People tell me that Dandora is considered one of the most dangerous slums in the city, but now I’ve been told that Dandora is much safer than it used to be. The youths police the slum, and on one of the times I was there we came across a couple of police with ak-47s.  I never felt threatened at all.  It’s totally safe to visit Dandora if you go with people who live there.  The same is true with the Mathare slums another nearby slums where I have friends. Mathare used to be dangerous, now it is totally safe for a foreigner to walk there during the day.  Like anywhere in Nairobi, night would not be a good time to be there.

me and the gang at "the temple" in Dandora

The mounds of trash around Dandora stretch for acres and acres.  I had followed D’Costa’s small form through pressing crowds and billowing clouds of diesel until we came upon an unmarked bus stop on the rundown side of downtown Nairobi. Then the two of us squeezed into a seat in the back of a decrepit bus, and crept along a road to the Dandora slums where D’Costa shares a room with a friend from Mombasa. It wasn’t a bad little room.  For $25 a month they had a decent window on the second floor, shared toilet and shower, shared sink for washing, no kitchen. But way better than the shanty rooms in the real downtrodden part of the slums.  This was in a real building. D’Costa is a rapper and acrobat, and he knows many, many people in the slums.  He introduced me to his friends and the two times I visited we walked all over the slum and met people and artists who live there.  The acrobatic group that I met also do community projects like picking up trash, planting trees by the river, and keeping the slum safe.  They are amazing guys.

I also spent some time in Mathare with two other friends, Fred and Ben, who are peace-makers – leaders in the community who help keep it safe and help make peace.  Ben helps run a school in Mathare that is totally put together by the community. They use whatever rooms they can find in the slums and the teachers don’t get paid anything. They just want their kids to get an education. There is only one government school in Mathare – not nearly enough for the half million people who live there, so they took matters into their own hands. The school also hosts a couple youth groups that do dance and music.

Defying gravity in Dandora

I am helping my friends from Dandora and Mathare start projects to bring tourists into the slums. These are incredibly vibrant places with amazingly talented people who are trying really hard to make a difference in their own lives.  They are not looking for handouts.  The acrobats practice every day starting at 6 am.  My friends also took me around to see people who are making crafts in the slums, amazing little slum farms, and a waterfall on the Nairobi River that runs through both Mathare and Dandora.  The waterfall is a waterfall of trash, because the slums are built on trash dumps.

These are incredible places and amazing people.  I’m going to build websites for them, and try to get tourists going there.  This could be one of the best things you do if you travel to East Africa.  *And* you could help these people empower themselves at the same time.   I made the video above from both the communities.  Below is a video of my friend D’costa rapping at “the temple”.

temple rap…

I leave Kenya next week.   Totally mixed feelings about that.  A month ago I didn’t think I would ever come back to Kenya, but now I want to come back.  It’s complicated, and I’ll write about it when I get back.  But here’s something I txt-ed to a friend the other day when I was riding a matatu through town… “Somewhere amidst the swirling masses of people and the billowing clouds of diesel fumes I’ve finally found a sense of peace with it all. Like a column of sunlight angling down through the clouds at the very end of an overcast day.”

My next blog post will be about my trip to Rwanda last week – genocide survivors and participants and a trip to see the mountain gorillas.

“Your Elephants”

October 24th, 2011

Land use change in the Transmara, from “Wildlife and People: Conflict and Conservation in Masai Mara, Kenya” by Noah Sitati

Here’s a quickie to follow up on my post about elephant conflicts in Masai land.  Quite a few people have written me back to express the thought that the elephants were there first, and that people are probably taking away their habitat.  Without a doubt this is true.  In the past twenty five years the amount of farmland in the Transmara has increased by 1000%, and forested land has likewise decreased.  An elephant population that used to be contiguous with the Masai Mara National Reserve now is increasingly only sustainable within the reserve itself.

“Your elephants”

Before coming to Kenya I’d heard that people in villages with elephant problems often refer to the elephants as “your elephants” when they talk with the Kenya Wildlife Service.  I definitely came across this attitude.  In fact, the prevailing attitude was that the Masai Mara Reserve was created to protect wildlife, and the rest of this land should be for the Masai – not wildlife.  The Masai Mara is actually a fairly small reserve, but it is part of the huge Serengeti – Masai Mara ecosystem and there are elephants that move back and forth between the two.  But what is the answer?

elephant skull from poaching

In Kenya, elephant poaching is still a large problem.  Elephants that live outside of parks are at risk from both poaching and from being shot by farmers who want to take things into their own hands after losing all their food.  When I was in Transmara we were looking for elephants in the areas around peoples farms.  There is still a good amount of forest in Transmara, but the elephants are increasingly wary of people. In one patch of forest near a dwelling and school we came across a recently poached carcass that was maybe two weeks old.  The elephant’s tusks had been removed, making it clear that it had been poached and not just shot when it was raiding a farm. So there are multiple problems here.

Elephants are not threatened throughout their range.  In fact, in South Africa conservation has been so successful that there has been serious talk about the need to cull elephant herds again at some point in the future (here’s a NG article about elephant management).  Culling is unlikely to ever be a need here in Kenya, but the conflicts between elephants and people are likely to continue unabated unless some solutions can be found to this problem. I think that it is easy for us as Americans to sit back and talk about the idea that people are the problem here.  When someone’s grain storage is raided, they can lose six months worth of food that they were depending on to keep themselves and their kids fed.  Most of the people here have no jobs to rely on beyond their farming, and there are virtually no jobs even if they did want to do something other than subsistence farming.

Dr. Noah Sitati of WWF has been looking at this problem for years now.  He believes that it is possible to equip farms that are in known elephant paths with electric fence (here is the report on wildlife / people conflict in the Masai Mara), but he thinks the long term solution is to pass zoning laws that would limit farming, and create economic development so that so many people were not dependent on farming.  Noah also writes that the Kenya Wildlife Service could do more to help the people who have ongoing conflicts with elephants.  Most of the people I talked with said that KWS does nothing when they receive a report about an elephant conflict.  If someone is killed they offer apologies only.  The man that was injured was given some money by KWS, but it was not enough to cover hospital costs.  In the US our government does not compensate people for either personal or property damage caused by wildlife.  Here is seems to be an expectation, because the wildlife is considered to be around for tourists only.  The locals don’t see any benefit.  In reality, I would say that many people benefit to some degree, because tourism is the largest source of income for Kenya, but subsistence farmers cannot see this in their own lives.

Here is a short interview with a woman whose house was broken into by an elephant.  She and her husband are both educated.  They are both nurses.  There house is quite nice for the area.  The elephant pushed a wall completely into the house, but they were both gone when it happened.  The elephant ate most of their grain, which they generally distribute to family members who have no jobs.

Are the elephants in these areas doomed?  Noah thinks it could go either way for the population in Transmara and those other areas close to the Masai Mara.  For the elephants around Narok, those populations probably have no future.


Parting shots:

adorable elephant orphan in Nairobi…

Orphaned elephant at the David Sheldrick Trust in Nairobi

Masai school girls having fun with my sunglasses

Masai girls having fun with my sunglasses

Acrobats from Dandora, one of the most dangerous slums in Nairobi (next post)

Dandora acrobats

Your Elephants, Our Children

October 16th, 2011

Driving into Transmara from the Rift Valley around the Masai Mara is a bit shocking. Lush green hills heavily patched with old forest roll away as far as you can see.  It looks so completely idyllic that I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a hobbit wander up to me and offer me breakfast. And so it is hard to imagine the battles that happen here. A few days ago I came out here to Masai-land in southwestern Kenya to look at the conflicts between elephants and the Masai communities.  I spent the first two days in Lolgorien, which is just west of Masai Mara National Reserve.  I came here because Noah Sitati of the World Wildlife Fund asked me to look into the conflicts between elephants and school children in the Masai communities.

Elephants are intelligent, emotional and beautiful creatures, but they can also be extremely dangerous. When surprised an elephant will often attack people, and they frequently kill.  The elephants come to the villages to raid the fields, grain stores, and houses for any grain they can find, and they have an excellent sense of smell.  They move back and forth between the forests and the villages in the early morning and late afternoon, exactly the times when kids are going to and returning from school.  There are no school buses, and the kids walk most of the way through the bush – often walking up to 5km each way.  The children are afraid, and for good reason.  Several school children in the area have been killed in recent years – one was recently trampled to death. So, many children stay home out of fear or arrive at school hours late.

Masai school kid

All of the Masai land around the Mara is having elephant problems.  The human population here has been steadily increasing – people are making more farms and cutting down more forest, which is reducing habitat for the elephants.  So people and elephants are in conflict more than ever.  This  brings up the basic question that conservationists don’t like to address: can people and wildlife coexist in the long run, or will all wild animals that don’t mix well with people end up being confined entirely to parks and reserves?  It isn’t an easy question.

I’ll say this up front… I have always felt more sympathetic to the plight of nature than to the plight of suffering people. This doesn’t mean at all that I don’t care about people, but in my experience man is the ultimate survivor in this world, and our survival and prospering has come at the great expense of the natural world.  Of course it is easy for me to say this. Here I am tapping out a blog on a laptop computer in a country with an average annual income of $315.  Most of the people I have met here cannot imagine even what I am doing now – waiting for dinner with a middle class Kenyan dinner, drinking a glass of wine and writing this blog.  Simply by being a middle-class American, I was born among the fortunate prosperous few in the world.

Ray Bohlin, Photograph by Phil Borges

Years back I walked into the office of Dr. Ray Bohlin, an evangelical preacher and publisher. His office was filled with dozens of versions of the bible and stacks of the pamphlets that missionaries hand out on street corners. Dr. Bohlin has kind eyes, and yet because of our differences I sat down with a bit of hesitation. Dr. Bohlin is a pro-life, god-fearing Christian and evangelicals have typically been opposed to the environmental movement. but he is also a staunch conservationist which is why I was visiting him.

When it came down to it, we shared far more morals than we differed in with regard to both nature and people.  I had been fighting for conservation because I felt a need to protect what I saw as the most threatened and beautiful parts of our planet, Ray was fighting for conservation because he feels that God commanded man to be the steward of his creation. Still, when it comes down to it, Dr. Bohlin would put more of his energy into fighting to help man, and I would put more energy into fighting to help nature. Are we so different? I don’t think so.

Yesterday I woke up in Narok, Kenya, the closest big town to Masai Mara National Reserve.  I woke to the scratchy, amplified calls to prayer from a nearby mosque.  Below the hotel crowds of people swarmed the pitted and rutted dirt roads of the small city.  On the way out of town I drove by a cow quietly munched rotting vegetables from a smoking and overflowing dumpster next to an outdoor church blaring with the rage of a fiery sermon in Swahili.  “What am I doing here?” I thought to myself as I crept my car between the masses of people and decrepit stalls.

Elephant damage to a Masai house

I came to Narok after Lolgorien, because the Masai communities around Narok have been terrorized by elephants that raid their crops and break into their houses in search of grain. We drove up into the hills east of Narok under a grey sky and stopped at a small school on the dirt road. Kool, my Masai guide (yes that’s his real name) works for little to no pay for WWF monitoring conflicts between elephants and the communities here.

Kool showed me where the elephants had broken through the barbed wire surrounding the school. They live in the forest below the school and walk through the school grounds to get to the farms up the hill. Later that day we went to look at several houses that had been broken into by elephants in search of grain.  This one to the right was the last one we saw.  In the middle of the night an  elephant broke through the wall of the bedroom where a mother and her children were sleeping.  It took a 50 kilo bag of maize and then went around the other side of the house and ripped the upper half off another wall to get at the wheat stores. In the end it took all of their food.

Masai teacher injured by an elephant

The next day after a torturous drive out muddy dirt roads I met a Masai man, a teacher, who had been attacked by an elephant two months earlier. He and his cousin told me what happened as we sat on a rough bench overlooking rolling hills of patchy farm and forest land. When the elephants came to steal his crop he went out to scare them away with a flashlight. Two left but when he turned around there was a large male still there, and it attacked him. He ran but the elephant knocked him to the ground and tried to impale him with its tusks. Though he avoided being impaled, the elephant stepped on his leg before leaving. This educated man said that he doesn’t care about the elephants anymore. If it were up to him he would cut all the forests down and “turn the area into a dessert” just to get rid of them.

What is right and what is wrong here?  When I decided to look at this question, I knew I was stepping out of my comfort zone.  I am comfortable in the wilderness.  I feel most safe away from people – surrounded by nothing but forest, stars, sea, meadow.  But that world only exists in patches now.  People used to live in a sea of wilderness, but now we have built a matrix of human influence that wraps over every square inch of the earth and wilderness exists in patches and scraps embedded in that matrix.  This isn’t my comfort zone, but this is the world now.  It is a human painted world, but nobody knows what we are painting. We are blind painters of our own landscape.

Kool's kid wearing my sunglasses

There are some possible solutions.  Maybe.  I’ll end this here and write about them next time.  “your elephants”?  I’ll write about that too.  It’s complex, like everything.  I video recorded several of my talks with people who have been attacked.  Maybe I can get some time to edit and put some of those up as well.

Until then, the kids in Masai land are still laughing at themselves in my camera and pushing each other away to see themselves.  Even the kids that had been screaming two nights ago as an elephant smashed the wall down into their house still ran after me laughing and jumping in front of my camera.  Sometimes laughter can fly in the face of fear and drive it into the past.

If you haven’t already read it, this post relates to my previous post about moving elephants.  Definitely worth a look – truly surreal. You can see it here: moving-elephants

Me & the Masai kids whose house was pummeled by an elephant

ENEMIES: Warawar Peace Market, South Sudan

October 9th, 2011

S. Sudan woman walking on road

This post is from the first trip for my ENEMIES Project.  Read more about it here:

Warawar – an ominous name for a town in a country that is coming out of decades of civil war and genocide.  Add to that the fact that Warawar also happens to sit near the border of South and north Sudan, and you could be excused for thinking this little town might not be the safest place to travel in the newest country in the world. These thoughts and more were bouncing along in my head as we rattled out the road to Warawar from Aweil, a long red scar that runs through an otherwise green landscape dotted with small clearings, mud huts and large spreading fig and mango trees. Though filled with massive potholes, the road was better than I expected. We passed occasional vehicles and once stopped to take pictures of a bus that had overturned in a massive water-filled ditch by the side of the road. Manal, our Sudanese colleague and soon to be American citizen wanted her picture taken with the overturned bus. We also passed a steady stream of people walking for miles between the nearest towns – women carrying vast burdens on their heads, young children herding cattle and scores of men on bicycles. Now that I think about it, I never saw a single woman on a bicycle and I wonder why that was. Nearly everyone here walks, even the police. In nearby Wanjoyk we asked the police what they do about cattle theft incidents near the border, and we were told that they only have one vehicle. Otherwise they have to walk three days or bike one day to the border. After rains the road is a red, gooey mess.

The Warawar peace committee

Warawar is a market town. Dirt roads lined with stalls spread out like ribs from the raised red road that runs through town, and we drove by brightly colored goods spread out onto tarps, open buckets of grain and racks of clothes. After a quick lunch of fresh pita bread, grilled goat in sauce, a dal-like lentil dish and beans (see last post) we met our hosts on the far edge of town going towards the border at the Warawar Peace Center, recently built with aid from USAID. I traveled to S. Sudan with a delegation from the US Institute of Peace led by Jacki Wilson that had come to talk about the implementation of a peace settlement they had helped negotiate between the Dinka communities of the south and the Misseriya communities of the north. Before we arrived, Jacki’s local partner had gathered together members of the Warawar peace committee who came from both sides of the border to spend two days giving Jacki and her colleagues their stories about the history and reasons behind the conflicts in the region, and as they settled into their talks a man who worked for the city administrator offered to take me around to meet and photograph the traders in town. Warawar was filled with police, and I was told without hesitation that I should not raise a camera around the police, so unfortunately I didn’t get any pictures of the streets of Warawar.

Dinka / Misseriya merchant partners in Warawar

But, you may ask, why did I care about photographing the traders in Warawar?  Years ago when Sudan was still embroiled in civil war the government in the north had locked down the roads to the south. Nobody was allowed in or out, and gangs of Misseriya militia regularly attacked anyone on the road who tried to travel back and forth between the north and south. The Misseriya and Dinka have centuries of conflict and mistrust behind them, but they also have relied on each other for trade, and the blockades were hurting Misseriya traders as much as they were the Dinka people of the south. Eventually a group of traders from the north braved the militia and crossed the border to set up a market in Warawar, and they called it the “Peace Market”. This was the seed of today’s peace efforts in the area, peace efforts that grew from the ground up rather than being imposed from the government.

Today the Warawar market is filled with both Misseriya and Dinka stalls, and a number of shops are run jointly by Misseriya-Dinka partners.  These three men are just one example.  They have been working together for several years now. The two men on the left were the first partners – the Misseriya partner makes trips north to buy goods while the Dinka partner stays to mind the shop. This is a typical pattern  This market is a living story of people who have overcome extremely serious grievances that stretch from the forgotten past into recent months. The conflict here has foundations in ethnic, racial and religious differences as well as land ownership, economics and even national politics. It is a conflict that has been filled with horrors that include ethnic cleansing, abduction and property theft. These are not easy to move beyond, and yet these people are trying to put the conflict aside to make their lives work. Are they friends?  Ignore the lack of smiles, smiling for a camera is not part of the culture here.  Many of them clearly are friends.

Five Warawar merchants

On my second day in Warawar I walked around the shops myself. The atmosphere was so completely different than Kenya.  Almost every shop that I stopped in the people would smile and seemed happy for me to take their picture (and generally totally entertained to see the pictures afterward).  One group of five merchants insisted that I sit down for tea.  They were overwhelmingly friendly even though we had absolutely no shared language.  They were three Misseriya and two Dinka, and they ran a clothing store. Right now these guys and all the merchants I talked with are suffering because of the actions of N. Sudan. North Sudan recently blocked the road and isn’t allowing any merchants through again.  So instead of making trips by car they have to take motorbikes and travel at night often on small trails through the bush. If they are caught they can be jailed, but this is their only way to make a living.

The other problem is currency. After South Sudan created its own currency, north Sudan said that it would only take the old Sudanese currency for a grace period of a few days. That happened while I was there.  Several of the merchants were trying to figure out what they could do with the cash they had in the old currency. By the time I’m writing this it might be useless already.

At the end of the day I met the group from USIP at the Warawar Peace Center and after a few photographs and much hand-shaking we climbed back into our Land Rover and headed out of town.  I felt good.  I’d had tea with three different people in Warawar and had spent a half hour chatting with a man who spoke english under a fig trea. I was leaving with a good feeling for the future of South Sudan.

As we drove out of town, a kid I didn’t see shouted at our car.  Jacki turned to me.  “Did you here that?”  She asked.

I had.  He had shouted  “I want to kill you!”

We agreed that it was probably just something that he heard in a pirated American movie.  Still, it left a funny taste in my mouth.  As we bumped back along the road toward Wanjyok I thought back on the five men I shared tea with.  They had tried hard to give me a second cup of tea.  I focused on their smiles and laughs as we looked at the photographs I had taken of them.

Parting shots… a handful of currency that was going to be obsolete in three days; an ancient english reader that a young Dinka boy showed me – I sat and read with him while drinking sweet tea.

Old currency


Ancient English reader for Africa

ENEMIES: South Sudan, bovine currency and cross border cows

October 7th, 2011

Cows in Wanjyok, S. Sudan

This post is from the first trip for my ENEMIES Project.  Read more about it here:

Cows are everything in South Sudan.  At least if you want to get married they are.  Here, as in much of Africa, men pay a dowry to their future wife’s family in livestock, and in S. Sudan this means cows.  The thing that makes this part of the continent a bit different is that the people here don’t use their cows for anything else. They don’t milk them and they don’t eat them. They do eat beef, but the type of cows people raise here are not considered very good to eat. So here cows are simply currency, a sort of bovine bank account that has to be herded around the countryside until you, your son or a male relative needs to get married.

I’ve talked to dozens of people about dowry.  Even men living in Nairobi, Kenya, one of Africa’s most modern cities, pay dowry.  One local television actor who I met told me about the negotiations he had with his wife’s family and how many goats and cattle he had to buy to pay the dowry. One morning I was walked around Wanjyok by a young Dinka man named Justin, and at the end of our he took me to the market to sit and have tea. As we drank our mouth-puckeringly sweet tea I asked him about his life and if he planned to marry soon. Justin was fairly well educated having the equivalent of a secondary school degree and a moderately good command of english. He told me that he needed twenty cows to marry and that he would probably get them from the dowry his two sisters had received when they married. When I told Justin that we don’t pay dowry in the U.S. he simply could not understand. “Why would a father give his daughter away if he doesn’t get anything?” he asked.  I tried to explain that women’s lives were independent, and he seemed to grasp the point I was trying to make.

Warawar peace leaders

Cows are also the reason for many of the conflicts in the border areas where I traveled with the US Institute of Peace.  This photograph is of the two heads of the Warawar Peace Committee (one Dinka and one Misseriya), which was formed to deal with conflicts in the border area around Warawar, a trading town near the border of north and South Sudan. Warawar has a really interesting history in peace-building that I’ll write about next time, but the main issues that came up in the peace conference on this trip were related to cattle theft between the Dinka of the south and the Misseriya from the north.  Cattle aren’t the only conflict, but they are central.  The Misseriya are nomadic, and for centuries they have been moving their cattle down from the more arid north to graze in the south during the dry season.  Their need to find better pasture for their cattle has also become increasingly severe with an increase in desertification that is likely related to climate change.  There is a sensitive and difficult history between these communities including abductions, cattle raids, and violence during the war.  It is a complex problem.  On a visit to the governor before going to Warawar, the governor talked about his efforts to return a large herd of cattle that had recently been stolen from Misseriya herdsman.

Dinka cows?

Before I go on, here is a big callout to Jacki Wilson of the US Institute of Peace who started this grazing corridor peace building initiative.  I had heard her stories, and it was wonderful to see her work in real life.  So during the talks on this trip, Jacki asked how they go about finding and returning stolen cows.  This is a huge area and there are cows everywhere. We were told that the Dinka cows are all black and white while the Misseriya cows are red.  Okay, fine – so we started paying attention to the cows we saw from the road when we were driving, and we thought “hmmmm…”. Take a look at the herd of cows in this picture to the right being herded by a Dinka boy.

Cows, cows, cows, cows…

It was interesting talking with the Samburu about cows also.  The Samburu and Turkana will basically never sell their cows.  They have a massive traditional biases against the idea of selling cows, even in a drought when they know their cattle will likely die.  One Samburu man who worked for the Grevy’s trust told me a story about his own cows.  He had decided to sell most of his cows when this recent drought began several years back.  His family nearly disowned him – they could not understand at all why he would want to sell them, because you never, ever do that.  He sold them and made a fairly decent amount of money for them. Six months later his family’s cows were all dying, and by then the price of cows had plummeted to less than half what it had been before.


Lunch in Warawar, S. Sudan

Parting image… Lunch in Warawar

ENEMIES: The newest country in the world – South Sudan

October 5th, 2011

The airport in Aweil, South Sudan

This post is from the first trip for my ENEMIES Project.  Read more about it here:

I love the airport in Aweil, South Sudan. A thatched grass hut, with a giant hanging fish scale to weigh the luggage. Wouldn’t it be great if our airports could be so simple?

South Sudan was nothing at all like I imagined. Maybe because of it’s proximity to the arid north Kenya, I had imagined South Sudan as infinite stretch of arid semi-desert. So as the airplane was descending towards Aweil, the third largest city in S. Sudan, I was surprised to see a sea of lush green surrounding the airport.  Hundreds of acres of flat and flooded land that sparkled like the new green of freshly planted rice paddies. But after leaving the luxurious Aweil airport waiting area, we stopped by the local Ministry of Agriculture on our way to the hotel, where we found out that none of the land we had flown over is cultivated.  In fact, very little land in South Sudan is cultivated.  Now that South Sudan has gained independence after decades of civil war, the people of South Sudan are coming back from the north or other places in the region where they had been hiding. But they have largely forgotten how to do agriculture. The UN Food Programe is predicting a serious potential for famine in this newest nation for the next year. So the sparkling green of these vast fields seem like a cruel irony.

I went to South Sudan with a peace-building mission from the US Institute of Peace (USIP) to get images for my ENEMIES project.  The USIP group, led by Jacki Wilson, was there to follow up on a peace-building project in a grazing corridor on the border of South and North Sudan east of the contested Abyei region. Jacki has been trying to help negotiate a peace settlement here for nearly five years.

In this part of South Sudan / Sudan, the main conflict is between the Dinka people who are black Africans related to the Luo tribe of Kenya and the Misseriya, who are Arabic Africans more closely related to tribes further north.  The Dinka and Misseriya have been in conflict for generations – as long as anyone can remember.  The Misseriya are nomadic and historically they have moved in and out of Dinka territory with the wet and dry seasons. Unfortunately the Misseriya also have a long history of abducting Dinka children as slaves and Dinka women as wives.  The most recent abduction of children happened two years ago. The Dinka and Misseriya also have a long history of stealing each other’s cattle and reprisal raids for cattle theft. This year a few dozen Misseriya cattle were stolen, and we heard that the Governor is in the process of trying to have them returned.

Nhial Deng and Fatima Ali Ahmed

Aweil was only a stopover, we were actually going to a town on the border called Warawar. I dont think you could have invented a more ominous sounding name for a city in a country that has recently come out of twenty plus years of civil war and genocide. On the way to Warawar we passed through the village of Wanjyok, a town almost entirely comprised of people who have moved back to South Sudan from Khartoum after fleeing from the decades of civil war in the south. In Wanjyok I photographed Nhial Deng and Fatima Ali Ahmed, a mixed Misseriya/Dinka couple in which the wife was Misseriya and the husband Dinka. Normally Misseriya never allow their women to marry Dinka, even though they regularly take Dinka wives for themselves. This couple met when they were living in Khartoum, and Fatima’s family was happy for them to marry. Soon after marrying they moved back to S. Sudan and settled in Wanjyok where Nhial’s family had been from.   Both the Dinka and the Misseriya pay dowries in cattle (more on this later), but Fatima’s family accepted a dowry of cash.

I talked with many people about the conflict between the Dinka and Misseriya and what they think of it.  Most of the people I talked to said that they don’t trust the other group, but they do have friends who are different.  They trust their friends. This was particularly true among the traders I talked with and photographed in Warawar.

Handstand in rural S. Sudan

I’ll write more about the other people I photographed later, but in the meantime… of course the kids in the villages went crazy over my camera.  It’s fun to be able to be so hugely entertaining to people.  🙂   This guy just had to have me take his photograph doing a handstand – he was great!  This was in a little village near Wanjyok where we were staying in a hotel owned by the governor.  The governor of Bar El Gazah state is reputedly one of the most powerful men in South Sudan.  He’s got 70 wives and according what we heard people who oppose him don’t stay around for long. The hotel had good food, but the rooms were totally filled with dirt and in fact, some of the food had sand grains in it as well.

One of the evenings when we were then I went out into the village with Manal, a Sudanese woman from the U.S. who is contracting for USIP. Manal wanted to show me a small place next door that was making a local alcoholic drink made from sorghum. I took a few pics of them pounding the roasted sorghum, and then a drunk policeman came in and started hassling us.  I don’t know what he was saying, but his tone was aggressive and he was waving an ak-47 around.  Manal hustled us out of there, and he followed.  Finally Manal gave him one S. Sudanese pound, and he went away.  As we were walking back to the hotel, Manal told me what happened.  Apparently she told him we knew the governor (which was true), and then he was said we should give him a pound for a drink.

A few more tidbits…

S. Sudan typical Dinka dwelling

Me with a woman in Wanjyok

A little business in Aweil where you can charge your cellphone. Just a shack - my wide angle lens makes it look bigger than it is.

Paintings on the side of a pharmacy in Aweil

Moving Elephants

September 23rd, 2011

Yesterday I got to go and photograph an elephant translocation for the Kenya Wildlife Service.  So cool.  I wasn’t the only photographer there.  In fact there were a lot.  This was the beginning of a huge project to move two hundred (yes, 200) elephants.  The elephants are being moved from a heavily populated area near Narok to the Masai Mara National Park, and they are being relocated because they are causing severe conflicts with the local communities.  This relatively small population of elephants is also completely separated from the much larger population to the south in Masai Mara, which has a population of over three thousand elephants.  Here is the KWS description of the project with more detail.

I wanted to photograph the elephant relocation, because it is related to another story that I will go to photograph when I return from Sudan in a little over a week.  It is a story about the conflicts between elephants and the Masai communities near the park.  Here are just a few pics from the elephant relocation.  Unfortunately I wasn’t able to see the elephants being released in the Mara, because of a miscommunication.  Bummer.  I was really hoping to see them set free in a new place.

Still, it was an amazing experience. The local Masai village also poured out for the event.  Of course they had seen elephants, but never so close (unless they were in a life-threatening situation.

Sedated elephant being loaded onto a flatbed trailer (click to see larger)

Largish male in the transport carrier

This guy was pretty big and when he woke up he was groggy and mad.  He banged around the container for a minute or so before he calmed down.  I happened to be on top of the container at the moment, and it almost threw me over the side.  That was exciting.  🙂

elephants in transport container (click to view larger)

These are the three smaller elephants after they moved them into one container.  Eventually they got all four elephants into one container.  KWS can move eight elephants in a day.  Here is a short montage of video I shot of some of the translocation.

After the elephant move I went with KWS to a Masai school where they were inaugurating the project, which also includes several water projects for the Masai community.  This area has been affected by drought and relies entirely on groundwater.  At the school i was totally mobbed by the students, which was fun.  A group of the older students led by one named James insisted on showing me their new school, which was just built this year.  The were *so* happy and proud of it.  They were also a bunch of complete goofballs.  Totally fun.  I want to go back.

The younger kids also totally swarmed me.  This time I asked if they wanted to touch my hair and I was almost completely bowled over – kinda like being in the middle of a rubgy scrum I’m guessing.  🙂

awesomely crazy masai students

awesomely crazy masai students and me (self portrait 🙂