Only human

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In 2011, I went back to Kenya to shoot video footage for WV Australia. This journey began with hopeful anticipation. I lived in East Africa for few wonderful and meaningful years, filming the beauty and the wildlife of the Masai Mara and the Rift Valley. As I prepared for a return trip, part of me dreaded knowing I would encounter a different Kenya this time – one affected by drought, famine and despair.

A team of communicators from WV Australia spent two days in the South Wajir region and the Dadaab area. Dadaab is the biggest refugee camp in the world with more than 500,000 people mainly from Somalia. Thousands of new refugees arrive constantly. We witnessed the UN and the main non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working hard to build and maintain proper emergency infrastructures like water tanks, towers and tents as well as provide food distribution and health services.

In Wajir, WV Kenya is the main NGO providing water and food; I will never forget the loss of livestock. About 40 per cent of all livestock perished in Wajir. The loss of cattle has devastated this mainly pastoralist population. World Vision staff are still working closely with the population to ease the pain.

While filming, we met a single woman with seven children who were barely surviving. As we prepared to leave, we asked her what she would cook for dinner, but she didn’t have any food yet because the World Vision trucks were still on the road with the supplies for her area. I was shattered knowing I would leave this woman and her family with nothing but the hot wind across the desert to dry our tears. I have never felt so powerless.

Encountering so much poverty overwhelmed me. I still cannot stop asking myself, “Why do they suffer? Can we possibly overcome this much need?” Despite my reflections, I managed to laugh with so many children who still had the resilience to play a game of hide and seek or tell jokes. I looked at so many faces, shook so many hands and saw so many smiles. I promised myself to always remember their faces and to hope for a better future for these courageous people.

I came back to Australia and pledged to tell my family, my friends and my colleagues about my experience, but the reality was different. I could not share my experiences or at least not the way I should have. I realised how emotionally and physically exhausted I was. Nothing made sense anymore. An experienced and kind colleague convinced me to seek counselling. I felt reticent, even defensive, about the idea at first, but I knew speaking to someone could help. My first counselling session led to liberation. I cried and laughed and opened myself up to a stranger in confidence and trust. The two-hour session helped me tremendously, and I thank WV Australia for supporting me in such a way. Our humanity is always challenged in the field and during emergencies. I have learned that we cannot carry the difficulties of our work on our own. We have to discuss, engage and most of all seek help. I believe that in order to be effective and collaborative in our work, we have to recognise our own weaknesses.

After all, we are only human.

Sankalai

Sankalai

“A memory is a beautiful thing, it’s almost a desire that you miss.”
Gustave Flaubert

Since 1992, I have never lived a week of my life without thinking of Africa…

My memories of Africa are linked to my years as a Wildlife Producer and my time spent in the Masai Mara National Park in Kenya. My first TV production as an Executive Producer was titled Untamed Africa. The vision behind the documentary was to film wildlife behaviors in the Mara over a year period. We followed the same pride of lions, the two cheetahs brothers of Talek, the giraffe with a damaged skin, the great migration and so on… It was a year of intense filming in the heart of the Rift Valley and it provided me with a unique perspective on life, nature and human impact on a rare ecosystem.

After six months, living and waiting under the sun (patience is the main virtue of the wildlife photographer and filmmaker), I started to feel unconcerned of the daily beauty that was offered to me and tired of all this noisy and unpredictable wildlife…

One afternoon, we decided to scout for our pride of lions, to locate them for the next day and avoid losing too much time in the first hours of the morning.
I am not sure how and why we took the decision to leave our base without our video camera or still camera, but we did. We were just blasé…
I imagine you, dear reader, laughing, mocking and shaking your head in disbelief at our carelessness. It took exactly 5 minutes of driving for us to witness what is one of the most significant moment of my life.

African skies are the most beautiful in the world. The stormy blackness of the sky was beyond anything I have seen before. The soft end of the day light was clashing with the approaching darkness and we were immersed in the flowing movement of the long golden grass. Time stopped and we surrendered ourselves, silently, to the blissfulness of the instant. The Sankalai was entering our lives.
The Swahili word Sankalai is the expression often used to define the old and lonely male African elephant. He was enormous and majestic and I have never seen such an imposing animal in our discovery of the African bush. Twenty years later, my heart is still beating to the movement of this elephant. He walked towards our Land Cruiser from afar in a straight line and looking beyond us. Not a word, not a movement in the car. The Masai driver and the two French filmmakers were silenced by the ceremonial elegance and existence of the bull.

The intensity of the landscape, the commanding presence of the animal, the absence of technology and our realisation that we were experiencing definitive beauty were the ingredients which engraved this instant into my soul. I was looking at this event without the distraction of a viewfinder and the encounter with the Sankalai became the ultimate reward of our daily patience and effort. We were enraptured again.
In the absence of photos or footage, we never talked about it and we never tried to look for him again. We moved our vehicle to let him pursue his march, he did not allow himself to be distracted by us. We were insignificant.

The Sankalai is the symbol of my Africa. He is my hope for Africa: Keeping the course with determination, authority and dignity.

This post is dedicated to Frederic Lepage with my sincere apologies for not capturing this moment. For many years, you have given me your trust and support to work on rich and valuable wildlife TV series and documentaries. I owe you so much and never took the time to acknowledge it. Thank you Frederic.