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 As 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!   

22 October 2014

Stopping over in Dubai

I’d transited Dubai before – who hasn’t if you’ve flown Emirates? – but never bothered to stop over. I figured the place was worth a look and that a little luxury would be a nice treat after 10 days in much-less-than-4-star accommodation in Tanzania, so I booked in for two two-night stops, one each end of my Tanzania trip. Here’s what I got up to.

When I arrived for my first stopover in mid August 2014, Dubai was looking very hazy after a few recent days of strong winds coming from the desert. You could almost taste the sand and grit in the air and it didn’t make for great photos. I’m no mall monkey (hate the places!), nor do I like lounging by the swimming pool, so I’d booked an afternoon city tour, possibly not my best-ever idea considering the temperatures were in the forties (that’s degrees Celsius) but it seemed the best way to get a look around and the tour agency promised a ‘spectacular city’.

After picking up passengers at various hotels and our very chatty Indian tour guide, we headed round the city’s tourist sights. A lot of the impressive skyscrapers we just whizzed past on the bus so if you weren’t on the right side, you missed them. And the bus’s windows weren’t the cleanest for shooting through glass either. We zoomed past Burj Khalifa but I had a distant view of that from my hotel room. The view wasn’t pretty but I could at least get a snap of the world’s tallest building and tallest man-made structure, a real sky scraper at 829.8m (2722 feet) high. According to our tour guide, the top 30 floors are uninhabitable as the tower sways something like 1.5 metres at the top in high winds. Not my idea of a fun ride!

We stopped briefly at one of the Umm Suqeim beaches though they weren’t looking pretty either, with ‘beach nourishment’ underway, but we were able to grab a photo of a former world leader, Burj Al Arab, now the world’s third tallest building and, supposedly, a seven-star hotel.

On to a very different example of Dubai’s modern architecture, the Jumeira Mosque – this is another building my tour blurb labelled spectacular but, having recently been to the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca,  I can’t be so generous in my praise. It was certainly a fine example of Islamic architecture, and I’m a big fan of those arches, cupolas and minarets.

We whizzed by the beach palaces of various sheiks, including, apparently ‘the ancient, beautifully restored house of Sheikh Saeed, the grandfather of the present Ruler of Dubai’, which ‘is housed in the 180-year-old Al Fahidi Fort’. And we drove through the ‘Bastakia region which has wind towered houses’ that are ‘still standing as a reminder of the graceful and resourceful architecture that predated the arrival of electricity and air-conditioning’.

We stopped for 30 minutes at the Dubai Museum. This was an interesting, if rather small museum, with some fascinating displays and artefacts, in particular highlighting Dubai’s historical links with trading and pearl diving. I could have lingered longer here but we were on a schedule and the best bit of the tour was next, a short ride on an abra, one of the old wooden water taxis that still ferries commuters back and forth across Dubai Creek. The breeze and slight water spray were refreshing and the ride was fun.

The tour finished with a short introduction to the spice souk and a wander round the gold souk. When you’ve seen the souks in cities like Tunis, Marrakech and Istanbul, those in Dubai are, quite frankly, disappointing – while the other tourists shopped, I opted for a cold drink.

The spice souk at left and gold souk on the right
Later that evening, I went on a two-hour dinner cruise on one of the many traditional wooden dhows that now sail back and forth along Dubai Creek each night. My tour blurb promised ‘a truly romantic evening’ but, as I was travelling alone amongst a mixed complement of couples and family groups, I was seated separately at my own table. I didn’t mind that though as the buffet of international dishes was delicious, served downstairs in the air-conditioned cabin, and the slight breeze while sitting on the upstairs deck was very pleasant. The waterfront wasn’t as spectacular as we were promised – the prettiest lights were on the many other brightly illuminated dhows that continuously floated by.

During my second stopover, my only tourist outing was for a so-called ‘desert safari with dune dinner’. This proved to be a stomach-churning roller-coaster 4-wheel-drive ride up and down the sand dunes about an hour outside the city, designed for young thrill-seekers who don’t mind taking their life in their hands while the drivers compete to see who can tackle the steepest-angled slopes. I was not impressed by their dangerous antics and felt so sick that I didn’t eat a bite of the apparently sumptuous Arabian-style barbeque. Nor did I enjoy the dancing that accompanied the dinner, with the rather creepy older-male tourists leering and slobbering over the scantily clad belly dancers gyrating their body parts. I was never more glad to get back to my hotel room.

So, my opinion of Dubai? Well, as you've probably gathered by now, I’m not sure I’d call the city spectacular – a few of the buildings are pretty impressive but the stopovers were bloody expensive for what I got, I think I would get bored with the place fairly quickly and it was just too damn hot. I won’t bother stopping there again but, if you find air-conditioned malls and shopping exciting, you might like to give it a try.

20 October 2014

England: Heavenly history in Alfriston

For a non-religious person I visit a lot of churches. But how could I not visit this one? It was a lovely walk to get there. It sits on an ancient Saxon religious site and has a barrow in the churchyard. The building dates from the 12th century and is a Grade I listed building of national importance, because it’s the only church in the world to have murals by painters from the Bloomsbury set adorning its walls. St Michael and All Angels Church in Berwick is simply gorgeous!  

The barrow in the churchyard
We drove to the little town of Alfriston then walked a footpath, part of the Vanguard Way, to get there – it seemed an appropriate way to reach such an ancient place and it was easy to imagine ancient man walking that same trackway to reach their sacred site on the hilltop.

Inside, the church has some interesting features – the Saxon font may pre-date the church, there are grooves in one wall which are thought to have been made in the 14th century by men sharpening their arrow heads, and the clear glass windows in the north and south aisles are unusual and distinctive. But it’s the 20th-century murals that draw most visitors to this place and they are quite simply outstanding.

Painted during the Second World War by Bloomsbury artists Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell and her son Quentin Bell, the murals continued, or perhaps revived a long tradition of painted interiors in Sussex churches. Inspired by the frescoes of Renaissance Italy and modelled on the painters themselves, their friends and local people, the murals are a refreshing change from the gloom of many small church interiors. Indeed, one Professor Reilly, who visited soon after the paintings were finished, said he felt like he was: ‘stepping out of a foggy England into Italy. I felt such a happy heavenly feeling as I sat there.’ 

With our spirits thus enlightened with happy and heavenly feelings, we walked back to Alfriston via a rather muddy path through the huge rolling farmlands of the South Downs, and sat down to tea and rather delicious cakes at the Badger Café. Refreshed and replete, we explored the town, coming after a short time to the green and the Church of St Andrew.

This is another ancient church, founded around 1360 and built in a massive cruciform shape on a raised mound on the village green known as the Tye. It made me think that this church also sits on an ancient Saxon site but the church’s construction is a bit of a mystery, as there are no records to explain who commissioned and financed such a grand edifice in such a small village. 

Next to the church sits the Chapel House, the first house ever to be taken under the wing of the National Trust, bought from Michelham Priory for £10 in 1896. The oldest parts were built around 1350 and are typical of a timber-framed ‘Wealden Hall’ house. But, like so many old buildings, this one has evolved over time: there’s a parlour dating from the mid-16th century; a hall, built shortly after the Black Death of 1348 by a yeoman farmer; the corridor was added in the 18th century; and the reading room is part of the original house. I was particularly impressed by the long-wheat-straw-thatched roof, as I suppose I should be given it cost £100,000 to be re-thatched back in 2005, and the gardens, laid out in the 1920s by Sir Robert Witt, were delightful.

A wander along Alfriston’s main street revealed more interesting historic buildings. Wingrove House, according to the plaque on the wall, is ‘a colonial style building from 1870, used as accommodation by trainer Harry Batho, racing manager to Horatio Bottomley’ (an interesting character indeed). The house is now a ‘restaurant and rooms’, and looks like rather a nice spot for a weekend treat.  

Left, Wingrove House; centre, right, the Old Farmhouse; right, the Star Inn

The Old Farmhouse is a 17th-century rebuild of the southern wing of a 14th century hall house, one of the oldest ranges of buildings in the village. The Steamer Inn dates from the 15th century and was an inn during the 19th century, though lost its licence in 1920.

Alfriston still has several characterful public houses to chose from, however. The Star Inn is my favourite, if only for its external decoration. It was rebuilt in the early 16th century, possibly on the site of an earlier rest house for pilgrims on their way to the shrine of St Richard in Chichester. The Red Lion figurehead comes from a warship that probably sank at the Battle of Beachy Head in 1690.

The George Inn also has a long history, having first received its liquor licence in 1397, and the Smugglers Inn was the home of Stanton Collins, leader of the Alfriston gang of smugglers in the early 19th century. It boasts 21 rooms, 48 doors and 6 staircases. Its sign tells: ‘The front bay was successfully restored, revealing its late 16th century origins, after near destruction by a car in 2005.’

Obviously, with a very small village and three pubs serving drinks, drunk-driving destruction could well be a problem. But don’t let that put you off a visit. It’s a charming wee place, with history on display, churches to be admired, Downs to be walked and beer to be drunk!