On Safari

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Reticulated giraffe, Samburu National Reserve

I’ve just returned this past week from an overland safari to northern Kenya. It was inspirational, as well as sobering. The amount of wildlife we saw was fantastic, but also troubling as we know that many of these large mammals (e.g. cheetah, giraffes, elephants, rhinos, etc) are endangered and probably won’t outlast the century.

A solitary runner – Diani Beach

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It may seem odd to some that I speak of “zen” in the context of Africa, but why not? To me it’s not a place, but a mood, a flow and a recognition of that “is-ness” – a moment by moment happening within the eternal flux of creation. A photograph can be a tool to capture that moment with an understanding that the moment has passed and is no more or less real than when it was made. This photo was made at Diani Beach, today, on this long, languorous weekend holiday in Kenya.

Elsa’s Kopje

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Meru National Park in Kenya is about an eight hour hard drive north of Nairobi. It’s at the end of a roller coaster ribbon of tarmac that dribbles out into a ragged length of potholes at the entrance to this magnificent park. Needless to say, not a lot of people drive there – they tend to fly in. Home to the Born Free legend it’s breathtaking in its vastness, which unrolls northward into wild savannahal plains.

At this particular site called, Elsa’s Kopje, George Adamson and his famous lion pride would survey the panorama and dream in the mid-day heat.

Peter Gabriel and Carl Jung

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“The rhythm is below me, the rhythm of the heat. The rhythm is around me, the rhythm has control. The rhythm is inside me, the rhythm has my soul.”

In this day of mutable virtual realities, the idea that a mid-twentieth century psychologist, Carl Jung, has anything to say of lasting relevance in our distractible times seems laughable. Yet, Peter Gabriel wrote a song called, “The Rhythm of the Heat”,  about Jung’s visit to Africa and its profound impact on him when confronted with unconscious forces beyond his control. Here’s what Gabriel had to say about the song:

“With the track ‘Rhythm of the Heat’ which was based on the story of Carl Jung going to Africa and becoming so mesmerized by some drums that he felt he’d lost himself and became part of this dancing mass; of a really important Western mind losing himself really in something more primitive and more instinctive. So that was quite an interesting relationship, and in the music we tried to do that as well, and it ends up in this big African drum explosion at the end with Ekome who’s a wonderful master drummer.”

You can read the backstory here and see the music video here.

When Carl Jung visited Kenya

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“From Nairobi we used a small Ford to visit the Athi Plains, a great game preserve. From a low hill in this broad savanna a magnificent prospect opened out to us. To the very brink of the horizon we saw gigantic herds of animals: gazelle, antelope, gnu, zebra, warthog, and so on. Grazing, heads nodding, the herds moved forward like slow rivers. There was scarcely any sound save the melancholy cry of a bird of prey. This was the stillness of the eternal beginning, the world as it had always been, in the state of non-being; for until then no one had been present to know that it was this world. I walked away from my companions until I had put them out of sight, and savored the feeling of being entirely alone. There I was now, the first human being to recognize that this was the world, but who did not know that in this moment he had first really created it.

“There the cosmic meaning of consciousness became overwhelmingly clear to me. “What nature leaves imperfect, the art perfects,” say the alchemists. Man, I, in an invisible act of creation put the stamp of perfection on the world by giving it objective existence. This act we usually ascribe to the Creator alone, without considering that in so doing we view life as a machine calculated down to the last detail, which, along with the human psyche, runs on senselessly, obeying foreknown and predetermined rules. In such a cheerless clockwork fantasy there is no drama of man, world, and God; there is no “new day” leading to “new shores” but only the dreariness of calculated processes.”

Carl Jung, “Memories, Dreams and Reflections”

Blah Airlines – an airline

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If you’ve ever been on a long haul flight in cattle class then you’ve felt the existential despair of this guy in the middle seat. This clever ad by Virgin America is a 5 hour and 46 minute absurdist commentary on contemporary travel in sub-par airlines. It’s full of excruciating ennui, quiet desperation and moments of understated hilarity. If you make it through the entire video, then you deserve an immediate upgrade to another airline. If you don’t have the time for the full video, then go here. Enjoy!

I’m back!

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After a 17 month hiatus (how time flies!), I’m back blogging. In the last post, I had relocated back to Nairobi and then I went silent. During that time, I found work with a medical aid agency, which took me around the region to some interesting places. Now, I’m finished with that contract and am enjoying the lotus-eating life of indefinite holiday (thanks working wife!). So, here is a photo of one of my favorite places in the world: Lamu. A Swahili island off the sultry, tropical coast of Kenya where one goes to shed one’s cares and to slip into an alternate universe where life is warm and friendly and 5 degrees off-center.

Downtown Nairobi under a full moon

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It’s been a while since I last posted, but I was busy packing up, selling off and re-locating from Dakar, Senegal back to Nairobi, Kenya. It’s been some years since I’ve lived here, and it’s barely recognizable to me. The city has been transformed into a fizzing, high rise boom town with new roads, upscale apartments, a burgeoning middle class and tangled traffic jams. I made this photo with my iPhone 6 Plus the night after our arrival. Although, I miss the laid back, idiosyncratic atmosphere of Dakar, I look forward to this new chapter in our lives in this most lovely (and also troubled) East African country.

African Honky-Tonk

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Every year St. Louis, Senegal hosts an international jazz festival, which is appropriate for a town that seems like an African counterpart to New Orleans. Even the slang terms used by long ago American jazz hipsters may have had its roots in the Wolof language of Senegal.

For example, the word “hip”, as, “Are you hip, man?” or “He’s a hep cat!” may have come from the Wolof word, “xipkat” meaning “one whose eyes are open”. Or the term, “dig”, as in “Can you dig it?, may have its antecedent in the Wolof word, “degg”, meaning “understand”.

The above St. Louis street scene tries to capture some of that honky-tonk swing flowing between Africa and America. Can you dig it, man?

The Hidden “Dark Matter” of Development

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A circle of chairs that I came across in a Jola village last week in the Casamance region of Senegal is evocative of what I call the hidden “dark matter” of sustainable development. And, I would argue, it is the most fundamental building block of “development” often missing in our discourse on helping.

Having worked for some years in the so-called “aid sector”, I’ve seen many failed aid programs or “white elephants” as they are called.

“Why? Why? Why?”, chorus the aid technocrats and foreign donors. It all looked so good on paper.” (I am being hyperbolic, here.) Having once been a village based Peace Corps Volunteer in Senegal for several years, I was privy to what villagers discussed outside the hearing of development tourists as they drove away in their 4×4 vehicles. I can tell you it was much different than what was discussed in the meetings with the authorities and aid agencies.

It’s in the communal nature of villagers everywhere to sit in a social space and debate the relative merits of anything that affects their lives, including aid projects. Often, the missing ingredient in these palavers is the presence of aid outsiders authentically engaged with them – unmediated by jargon, timetables and clipboard surveys. In other words, just plain old talking, building trust and hanging out to find out what people really think, and what will or will not work.

As in cosmology, the pull of unseen forces – in this case, human psychology and culture – will skew the most elegant theories (and log frames). Real development begins beneath a tree, and there’s no substitute for being there.

Les Demoiselles du Cap Skirring

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A visit to the Casamance this last week was a rich buffet for my senses, which were starved for color and fragrance in the dry northern regions of Senegal. While walking on the beaches of Cap Skirring, I was approached by these bathing belles who spotted my iPhone 6 Plus and asked whether I would take their photo. Delighted, I snapped off this one pic, and they fled before I could get their names.

Bob Marley in the Casamance, Senegal

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I just returned from a wonderful tour of the Casamance region of southern Senegal. It’s a beautiful and lush area, and the people we met were universally friendly. One of them was El Hajj Tamba, the proprietor of the “Da Felice Della Vita” juice bar on the beach at Cap Skirring. The downturn in tourism in Senegal affects many businesses, but El Hajj has a 1000 watt smile that attracts tourists like moths. Positivity radiates from him like an aura, and I think it shows in this portrait.

Another Moment of Zen on the Sine Saloum River Delta

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Sine Saloum National River Delta, Senegal

Sine Saloum National River Delta, Senegal

In these days of too much information and too little wisdom, it’s sometimes necessary to go that island (figuratively or literally) to watch the fishermen needle their way up and down the river.

A Moment of Zen – Senegalese style

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A man looks on meditatively as the Atlantic Ocean breaks on a beach near Palmarin, Senegal.

Lights! Camera! Sheep!

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The rich color palette of the streets of St. Louis, Senegal. The communal nature of this small, densely packed fishing community lays out it’s laundry for everyone to see, including sheep and goats.

In front of the back of the beyond

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Mandera, Kenya

Anyone who has ever lived or traveled in the drylands of Africa will recognize elements of this scene: orange light filtered through fine dust and a shimmering late afternoon heat. The town of Mandera, Kenya is where the country joins Ethiopia and Somalia in a volatile mix of ethnic, nationalist and Islamist aspirations. This particular visit was especially memorable for me because I got heat stroke. Despite it’s physical remoteness, I never felt alone. I traveled with a team of water technicians who were rehabilitating boreholes servicing largely Somali communities. We traveled widely and slept in tents close to camels and other livestock, so I always felt close to the lifeblood of these tough and resourceful people.

Zen and the art of fishing

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Warang fisherman Senegal

Over the course of several days last week, I watched this Senegalese fisherman push his canoe out into the ocean to try his luck with his fishing net. He must have made dozens of casts each morning resulting in only a handful of small fish. I admired his calm, zen-like perseverance despite it all.

For years, giant Asian and European factory fishing trawlers plundered Senegal’s coastline. This had a devastating effect on the coastal fisheries, which is still being felt today. Unfortunately, it’s because of exploitation like this in the “developing world” that the little guys suffers.

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Dak’Art 2014

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Exhibition of photos by Fabrice Monteiro at a Dakar Biennale site.

Exhibition of photos by Fabrice Monteiro at a Dakar Biennale site.

This was the last week of the Dak’Art 11th African Contemporary Art Biennial in Dakar, Senegal. It was a fabulous showcase of artists from all over Africa and African artists in Europe. With over 280 sites around the city, we were kept busy for two weeks running from venue to venue. Dakar is truly cosmopolitan when it comes to the visual, fashion and musical arts.