Karen’s Blog

Thoughts on a changing profession and life

Posts Tagged ‘Africa

Ecological Sin: Musings on the Pope’s Most Recent Encyclical

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At the height of the dry season in Mali, lakes evaporate.  A village nurse  lifts slabs of mud to look for moisture as the reminants of a sand storm whip across the lake bed.

At the height of the dry season in Mali, lakes evaporate. A village nurse lifts slabs of mud to look for moisture as the reminants of a sand storm whip across the lake bed.

When I first heard about Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si”—the long form translation seen in many media sources—“Praise Be to You: On the Care of Our Common Home” my first reaction was “Huh?” That was followed by confusion, then excitement. “You go Pope Francis!” I thought.

The document has been interpreted in several ways. Many see it as a treatise on global warming concerns. We need to shape up or Mother Earth will ship us out. If predictions about global warming prove accurate, then coastlines will alter, cities will flood, and storms will increase in strength and number. Food supplies may be threatened, straining the planet’s ability to handle the ever-growing human population.

(So, okay I’ll say it. Why isn’t the Pope also talking about limiting population? I suppose he is taking things one at a time, given the conservative elements of the Church.)

I am thankful for Pope Francis’ encyclical. Will it be effective? Who knows? A Washington Post columnist pointed out that the Pope is talking not only about global warming but also about the consumption culture that treats our Earth like an open credit card where overspending has no consequences.

People living and working on a garbage dump outside of Danang. Hundreds of people depend on finding stuff thrown away by others to recycle or sell.

People living and working on a garbage dump outside of Danang. Hundreds of people depend on finding stuff thrown away by others to recycle or sell.

Too many of our political leaders push growth and consumption as the savior of our democracy. The consequences are rarely discussed with the same enthusiasm. I’m as guilty as the next person, writing this on a computer with parts made from toxic materials mined by underpaid developing world workers. When my computer is replaced I recycle it, but I really don’t know if the parts are just dumped in another developing world country. Fossilized plants and animals power all my car, home and professional gear.

So, having now confessed my sins, I’m going to ignore them and return to global warming. This is something we can’t ignore. During my National Geographic career I saw examples of weather patterns changing in major ways

Mali farmer walks across  the devastated soil that use to be his garden during  the height of a drought.

Mali farmer walks across the devastated soil that use to be his garden during the height of a drought.

Viruses, my first Geographic health story, took me to areas where epidemics were raging. I wondered why each place I visited was also stressed environmentally or socially. I began to realize how environment contributed to disease—that epidemics didn’t just appear out of nowhere.

I don’t pretend to be a scientist, but I’ve seen a lot of changes over the past two decades, especially with weather. In the 1990’s I worked in remote areas of Africa and was often stranded by heavy rains and flooding during the so-called dry season. Yet in other locations, rains didn’t come for years. Crops failed, soil eroded and people went hungry.

A young boy walks atop a brick wall surrounding a health clinic in Niger.  Due to continually shifting sands and other environmental factors, the clinic has never been able to officially open.

A young boy walks atop a brick wall surrounding a health clinic in Niger. Due to continually shifting sands and other environmental factors, the clinic has never been able to officially open.

In Niger I photographed a partially built health clinic in a once fertile area. It sat unfinished because weather changes brought severe drought to the region. Sand swept through millet fields and water sources dried up, leaving a wasteland of cracked mud.

Once, in eastern Kenya, I came upon a town. From the distance it looked like pale flowers covered the fences lining the road, but drawing closer, I was stunned to see they were thousands upon thousands of plastic bags, blowing about, trapped in fences or caught in tree branches. My first thought was why didn’t anyone pick them up? My second thought was how did they get here and why here? Why were they drifting on this particular road? Since they’re made from petroleum, it was like watching precious oil flying in the wind.

I began looking at ways environments were stressed, from overusing agricultural chemicals and polluting water to political corruption and changing weather. As I gathered threads from my observations I began thinking about a project I called “Ecology of Disease.” It looked at the connections between the rise of disease with environment and poverty. Eventually that became a National Geographic story and later formed the foundation of my first book “IMPACT: From the Front Lines of Global Health.”

I didn’t consider the role of religion in that project, but perhaps faith can persuade in ways that books and videos and websites can’t. We don’t have a lot of time left and I can’t visualize a world where safe water is no longer easy to find, where the ice caps have melted and useable land is as rare as gold. The Pope has called on us to stop the destruction of ecosystems or else face terrible consequences. Those may not affect us older folks, but they will affect our children and all the children that follow. What sort of legacy are we leaving them?

Mali boy in shallow lake in the Tessit area takes water to drink at twilight. This lake is shrinking due to drought.

Mali boy in shallow lake in the Tessit area takes water to drink at twilight. This lake is shrinking due to drought.

Pope Frances writes (I am quoting from other media articles who have summarized the encyclical): “Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, and political. It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day.”

He adds: Clearly, the Bible has no place for a tyrannical anthropocentrism unconcerned for other creatures…the proper relationship between humanity and earth has been broken by the fall, both outwardly and within us. This rupture constitutes what we call sin…the church must introduce in its teaching the sin against the environment. The ecological sin.”

I can’t say it any clearer.

Written by kasmauski

June 29, 2015 at 3:44 am

Complexities of a Simple Weapon

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I was arrested in Zaire moments after taking this picture of a woman helping her grandson. Both were refugees, returning to their home country of Zaire after fleeing to Tanzania.

I was arrested in Zaire moments after taking this picture of a woman helping her grandson. Both were refugees, returning to their home country of Zaire after fleeing to Tanzania.

The death this week of Mikhail Kalashnikov, creator of the AK-47, which the Washington Post calls “the world’s most omnipresent weapon, used by national armies, terrorists, drug gangs, bank robbers, revolutionaries and Jihadists” made me think about my own three encounters with this gun.

The last time I saw an AK-47 it was pointed at me.

It was the late 1990s. I was in Zaire for National Geographic and I was getting arrested. I was accompanying a group of Zairian refugees who were being repatriated to their homeland (Zaire is now called Congo). The writer, his wife and I were on a UN ship traveling from Tanzania. We carried papers signed by the proper authorities. But as white journalists we stood out like sore thumbs. The ship docked, we walked ashore and Zairian soldiers, all carrying AK-47s, surrounded us.

The soldier performing the arrest was not a large person. But he suffered from what I call the “small man with big gun” syndrome. I see that affliction not only in Africa but also here in the United States. It affects people who feel insecure. They use guns to show the world how big they are. In some situations this behavior might seem pitiful or even ridiculous. This wasn’t that kind of situation—I was facing a small and agitated man who was yelling at me in a language I didn’t understand and waving what looked like a well-used automatic weapon in my face.

Actually, that was the second time I’d had an AK-47 pointed at me. A few years earlier, in 1993, I was working in Sierra Leone on a story about Lassa Fever. I was traveling with a medical team when our vehicle reached a checkpoint. This one happened to be in a beautiful location offering an incredible view of nearby mountains. One of the staffers suggested that I take a picture. I’m not sure why I agreed. At checkpoints, it’s always a bad idea to take pictures. But moving in a kind of idiotic trance I raised my camera. Within seconds, I had the barrel of a gun in my face and I was arrested, along with the two medical staffers. We drove to police headquarters with the solider arresting us—another small man—sitting in the back seat. I stole occasional glances behind me and could see him alternately pointing his AK-47 at the back of my head or the back of the driver’s head. Thankfully as we bounced along the rough dirt road he kept his finger off the trigger. At the police station he marched us before his commander, eager to show off his prize. Luckily for my two African colleagues and me his commander was not interested in us. As in Zaire, we were eventually released, grateful that we had literally dodged the bullet.

In Vietnam I fired one shot from an AK-47 at a tourist attraction operated by the Vietnamese Army.

In Vietnam I fired one shot from an AK-47 at a tourist attraction operated by the Vietnamese Army.

My third AK-47 encounter fell between the two frightening African episodes. In 1994 I was in Saigon, photographing a story on the Vietnamese economy, which at the time was just opening up to foreign investment. The Vietnamese Army held a fundraiser. For $1.00 per bullet, foreigners could fire an AK-47. I bought one bullet. Under the watchful of a soldier I shouldered the weapon aiming at the target. I lightly squeezed the trigger. There was a loud bang and a slight kick to my shoulder. I missed the target.

Of course, most AK-47s aren’t used for fundraisers. More that 100 million of these automatic weapons have been built in countries around the world since Mikhail Kalashnikov first developed it in the 1940s for the Russian Army.  With only eight moving parts, the Kalashnikov earned a reputation for simplicity and effectiveness, offering the fully automatic fire of a machine gun and requiring minimal care. The North Vietnamese used AK-47s like the one I fired when they fought US troops in the Vietnam War. It was considered a more reliable weapon than the M-16s issued to Americans.

Yet while it is an impressive feat of military engineering, I have to believe that easy access to cheap, reliable and extremely deadly weapons like the AK-47 is a big contributor to the decades-long conflicts plaguing the developing world.  It’s ironic that Mr. Kalashnikov made a sturdy easy to use weapon to help the soldiers of his Russian homeland, but in the end, that became the weapon of choice for warring parties in underdeveloped countries. Would post-Cold War conflicts scattered around the globe continue as long, with casualties as high if efficient killing devices like the AK-47 were complex, unreliable and expensive?

In the South Sudan village of Palotaka, Jonas James who is a nurse, hopes for peace, so that a priest might return to the village church.

In the South Sudan village of Palotaka, Mr. Jade, the church caretaker, hopes for peace, so that a priest might return to the village church.

Sadly, another developing world conflict is unfolding right now in South Sudan. Almost three years ago, shortly before the vote that established South Sudan as a country, Catholic Relief Services sent me there to photograph peace. The assignment was both simple and complicated. Could I show “What does peace look like in South Sudan?”

Kindergardeners happily greet visitors to their school in Magwi, a village in South Sudan.

Kindergardeners happily greet visitors to their school in Magwi, a village in South Sudan.

It was one of the best assignments I ever had, not because it produced award-winning photos (though several did win awards), but because I had the opportunity to capture the lives of people who hoped they could finally live in peace once the new country of South Sudan was created. It was a wonderful and exciting time to be there. People felt that fear of conflict was finally behind them. Refugees were returning to reclaim their lands and restart their lives. I met some of the nicest people I have ever photographed, warm and open to my camera. Being there seemed like a gift from God. I felt transformed.

So during this holiday season of peace and good will, to hear that South Sudan is again falling into conflict and bloodshed is highly distressing. What will happen to the many wonderful people I met?  The young boy helping his mother wash clothes in a roadside ditch. Little Sandy whose mother is learning how to sew so she can support the family. The female community leader helping her village recover from the last conflict. The laughing girls getting water from the village pump without fear of being brutalized. The kindergarten children who warmly greet visitors while drinking their morning tea.

Sandy and her mother at day care in Avumadrici village.  Sandy's mother had hoped that peace would allow her to continue classes at a technical school where she was learning to sew.

Sandy and her mother at day care in Avumadrici village. Sandy’s mother had hoped that peace would allow her to continue classes at a technical school where she was learning to sew.

Of course, the causes of conflicts are complex and rooted in many issues, but again I can’t help but think that if Mr. Kalashnikov had not invented that sturdy, cheap and reliable weapon of choice of poor armies and rogue groups, these types of conflicts would be slower to start and harder to carry out. Mr. Kalashnikov once said if there had not been a war at the time he invented his legendary gun, he might have gone on to improve farm equipment. I wonder how the world might be different had he done that. At the end of the Washington Post article he says, “I created a weapon…it’s not my fault that it was sometimes used where it should have not have been. That is the fault of politicians.” That same tired old line that “guns don’t kill—people do.” Humans have always found ways to kill each other. But can you imagine how the dynamics of warfare in places like South Sudan would be if people only had hoes or clubs rather than a weapon that reliably fires and kills multiple times within seconds.

Written by kasmauski

December 27, 2013 at 5:51 pm

Faith

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Looking towards the West Bank from East Jerusalem.

Looking towards the West Bank from East Jerusalem.

       I just got back from a trip to Palestine

       I visited the West Bank once before in the late 1990’s while covering a story about genetics. I worked with both Israelis and Palestinians, photographing a school for the deaf. Of course I knew of the conflicts between the two groups, but the school was a rare example of cooperation and I wasn’t there long enough to absorb the complexity of the issues.

           This trip was different.

           I am still trying to comprehend the politics driving tensions between two groups of people with long histories who believe in God.

The border wall that separates Bethlehem from  Israel.

The border wall that separates Bethlehem from Israel.

        The main expression of this tension that I encountered was the restrictions on movement. As an American I take freedom of movement in our huge country for granted, knowing that I can drive thousands of miles without visas or border checks.

           But in the close confined space of the West Bank and Gaza, movement is another story. I spent a full week going in and out of the multiple checkpoints strung around the area. Standing in what seemed like never-ending lines and undergoing scrutiny at each crossing, I began to see how stressful the situation is for many of the people living in the area.

Pilgrims visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where Christians believe Christ was crucified, died and rose from the dead.

Pilgrims visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where Christians believe Christ was crucified, died and rose from the dead.

Yet within those restrictions, the signs of faith were everywhere.  In the old city of Jerusalem, I walked through streets jammed with churches, mosques and synagogues, each of them holy to believers of the three major faiths that are expressed in this remarkable city. The beauty of the ancient buildings and the sincerity of the faithful who visited shrines, lit candles and offered prayers was moving. Even a non-believer would have been touched by these many examples of faith.

            Still, there is perhaps no other place on earth where tensions between different religious groups are more strongly encountered, whether as restrictions on movement, like those I encountered, or in a host of other ways.

             I returned home wondering about this contrast between tension and faith.

             As a journalist I’ve been privileged to visit many societies and witness a wide range of cultural behaviors. Most peoples have a belief in something larger than themselves—a spiritual being or god, with those beliefs often expressed as a religion. Yet nearly every religious group has had its ugly moment, persecuting people who don’t believe as they do.

            I’m troubled by the idea of people being oppressed, hurt or even killed because of their beliefs might not agree with the beliefs of another group.  So what is the point in being faithful, if too often, the result leads to tensions like those I encountered on my trip—or worse?  However despite these doubts, I try to remain faithful.

             I blame it on the nuns.

In the early 1990's, an Irish Catholic nun gives care in a rural Ugandan hospital.

In the early 1990’s, an Irish Catholic nun gives care in a rural Ugandan hospital.

          Back in the 1990’s while working in south western Uganda, I came across small communities of European nuns helping people who were not of their cultural, racial or religious background. They were providing the best care they could for the sick and afflicted.  The AIDS epidemic was building steam, with death rates rising into the millions. Women and children were especially susceptible. At the time there were no drugs. All the nuns could do was keep their patients comfortable, letting them die with dignity. Despite having no money, the nuns provided a comfortable cot and clean white sheets for each patient. The nuns were sustained by their faith that all human beings were loved by their god and should be treated with dignity in life as well as death.

             On that same trip, I met another group of nuns working in rural Sierra Leone. They were nurses at a hospital treating victims of Lasso Fever, a close cousin to Ebola.

            In addition to the health risks these women faced in dealing with such a deadly disease, Sierra Leone was about to explode. Just over the border in Liberia, five nuns had been murdered. The nuns I had met in Sierra Leone only had a short wave radio with which to contact the outside world. If trouble came, help would be a long time coming. Despite living under this cloud of potential violence, they kept the hospital immaculate. Their guesthouse where we stayed was one of the cleanest I’ve ever encountered while traveling through Africa.

            The nuns could sense the violence that was coming closer and closer to their hospital. One evening during dinner I asked a sister if she was afraid. Her only response was “We cannot live our lives in fear. We must do the work that God would want us to do.” I will never forget the way she said it with patience and conviction.

            Several months later rebels overtook the hospital, killing a priest, a visiting doctor from the Netherlands, his wife and their two-year old daughter. A volunteer traveling in the doctor’s vehicle was captured and brutalized until she was rescued.

             Miraculously, the nuns escaped. Their vehicle was shot up but not a single nun was hit.

             These women lived their lives faithfully and courageously.

            And because of these nuns, I try as a journalist to live up to their convictions and report the best I can about the injustices of the world. It’s becoming harder to cover these sorts of stories. It’s expensive to travel to devastated areas. Many media companies don’t see the point especially if the issue is in a region that most Americans know little about. They want to quantify results; yet attaching metrics to images isn’t a nice tidy process. Does one specific image change anything?  Perhaps not, but over time, it’s much more likely that a continual flow of images may eventually create connections and foster understanding. With understanding, change can begin.

            In that, I do have faith.

Dome of the Rock , a holy site in East Jerusalem.

Dome of the Rock , a holy site in East Jerusalem.

Written by kasmauski

October 11, 2013 at 4:16 am

Service is Something We all Need to Do

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My father, Steve, (center) mugging with buddies during WWII. Family Photo

My father, Steve, (center) mugging with buddies during WWII.
Family Photo

This Labor Day weekend I’m thinking a lot about the meaning of labor—and by extension, the meaning of service. The events in Syria and a phone call with my son have focused my attention on the way that we honor some kinds of service in this country, but not others.

When I travel and walk behind those in military uniform, I often hear people thanking them for their service. I want to offer my thanks as well. I come from a long line of military people.  My father served in WWII, Korea and Vietnam. My younger brother served in the first Gulf War. My niece served in Bosnia as an army medic. Some of my cousins or their children serve in the present day conflicts. I’m grateful for what each of them has done.

Yet despite my family history, I feel bothered by our recent show of military deification, constantly thanking soldiers and sailors for their service.

Following in my father’s footsteps, my brother, Stan, enters military service. Like my father he was a teenager at the time. As a child. Stan, decorated his Cub Scout uniform with my father’s medals. Family Photos

In my cynical moments I imagine some of this constant thanking is overcompensation for the horrible way that troops returning from Vietnam were treated. It may also be guilt, since so few people actually serve in the military these days. Or could people think that by thanking soldiers for their service, they are somehow contributing to the security of the country?

The fact is that making our nation a better and safer place for everyone requires service in countless ways. Its everything from paying taxes honestly to making sure our homes and streets are cleaned, our water systems work, our government runs smoothly (sometimes), our cars are repaired and we and our children are fed, educated and healthy.

Yet how often is a police officer thanked for his or her service? In our heavily armed nation, they risk their safety every time they pull a car over for a traffic offense.  What about public health nurses who work long hours and days to combat disease outbreaks? Who thanks the teachers who try to pass on knowledge and skills, often without enough resources or funding? How about the people who maintain electrical lines and water pipes or collect trash? All those who provide the services that makes our country safe, relatively efficient and a place of opportunity and hope.   How often are those people thanked for their service?

It is true that we value service that can be quantified—how many fires were put out? How many battles were fought? How many students made it to college?

My son giving a talk during the swearing in ceremony of new Peace Corps volunteers in Uganda.

My son giving a talk during the swearing in ceremony of new Peace Corps volunteers in Uganda. Family Photo

But often service is something that cannot be quantified.  The results can’t be put into a spreadsheet. For example, my son is in a very remote area of Uganda serving in the Peace Corps. There is no electricity in his village. Water has to be hauled some distance from a well and boiled before drinking. The program conducted by the non-profit to which he was assigned turns out not to exist—he’s had to rethink the purpose of his role in the small community where he will live for the next couple of years.

Most of what he does is teach the non-profit he works with how to quantify—how to keep records of their finances and program spending, how to write better grant applications, or improve the website publicizing their efforts.

My son, far left, receiving a turkey as a gift during a site visit. Family Photo

My son, far left, receiving a turkey as a gift during a site visit. Family Photo

Perhaps ironically those efforts and his presence are hard to quantify. His friendly and flexible personality makes him a good role model of an American citizen to the villagers. He is teaching the young people how to be computer literate.  If one of them eventually becomes a leader in their village or even their country, they will have pleasant memories of that kind and funny American who helped them understand how to work a laptop, build a spreadsheet and connect to the internet. They may not remember his name, but they will remember he was an American. That cannot be quantified.

What he does is without the resources or prestige of other kinds of government service like the military or the Foreign Service. Peace Corps volunteers don’t get paid, receive discounted travel or shopping privileges at government commissaries.  They serve alone in highly stressed areas, often without clean water, electricity or the other comforts we take for granted.  Its anonymous—no one besides his parents will thank him for his service.

My son will return a better man having lived and worked in this village. He will learn as much about living and perseverance from the villagers as they will learn about computers and quantifying data from him.

So on this day honoring labor and service, I can’t help but think how if more Americans took up service, and, whether at home or in another country, shared experiences like the ones he is having—how to cope with strange conditions, how to solve problems without resources, how to stand in the shoes of a stranger, then we might have a world with more connections and fewer conflicts.

But I can’t quantify that.

Written by kasmauski

September 2, 2013 at 10:12 pm

It’s All Relative

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The Ladies Trekking Club starts their journey at the Morum Barrier Gate, 12,362 feet.

The Ladies Trekking Club starts their journey at the Morum Barrier Gate, 12,362 feet.

Several weeks ago, when I was climbing laboriously up the trails of Mt Kilimanjaro, each step bringing intense pain and dizziness, I told my fellow trekking companion that if we were at sea level in Virginia, it would just be a hike through the park.

Last week, on a cool and sunny spring day, I took that hike through the park. My husband and I took on the two-mile-long Billy Goat Trail, which winds along the Potomac River, in Great Falls National Park.

The trail led over rough and rocky terrain, including a steep climb up a cliff face. We scrambled over and around huge boulders, finishing in 75 minutes. While the trail was technically more challenging than the path on Kilimanjaro, I wasn’t a bit tired at the end.

The difference was 14,000 feet.

It’s all relative. I find that the older I become the more I let the relative happen. I can’t judge myself against my younger self or even my peers. It took me a while to come to that conclusion. As photographers we always compare ourselves to each other. Who won what award?  How did they get that job? Why was their work selected for that exhibition?

It’s exhausting and with social media the need to brag about our lives and accomplishments seems to have intensified.

Mt. Kilimanjaro bathed in moonlight at 2:30 am.

Mt. Kilimanjaro bathed in moonlight at 2:30 am.

Being on top of Mt. Kilimanjaro took me away from all that. There is something wonderful about being able to say “I won’t have email for a few weeks.”

I decided to join the climb because the organizers, The Ladies Trekking Virtual Club, had an admirable mission. They were raising money for books to be distributed in schools near the base of the mountain and to pay education fees for ten Maasai high school girls. The project was called Dreamers and Doers. My assignment was to create photographs of the climb and the schoolbook distribution.

School children at the Maroroni Elementary school look over the text books donated to them by the trekking group.

School children at the Maroroni Elementary school look over the text books donated to them by the trekking group.

The climbers were a diverse group and each had their own reason to participate. For some it was something to cross off their bucket list. For others it climbing this mountain was fulfilling a dream. A few wanted to change their lives and this climb was their first step in that direction.   For Janika Vaikjarv, who organized the climb, it was a way to give back to the community. She invited a Maasai woman named Theresia to join us. Her daughters’ secondary school fees were being paid for by this trek. Theresia may have been the first Maasai woman to climb Kilimanjaro. When Theresia later visited her daughters’ school and the principal announced her accomplishment to the students, she was greeted like a rock star.

Theresia in a pensive mood as the school books were distributed to the students at the Maroroni Elementary.

Theresia in a pensive mood as the school books were distributed to the students at the Maroroni Elementary.

For me the climb was a job—but one of the better ones I’ve had in a long time. I made it to 14,000 feet and stayed there for two days before realizing that for an inexperienced climber like myself, trying to work and trek at the same time was not possible. The lack of oxygen was making me sick.

I had a decision to make. Should I try to continue working? I might be able to, but I was also risking getting sick enough that I would have to be hauled down the mountain. Reaching the summit wasn’t an important goal for me—I was there to take pictures. But sick as I was, photographing was no longer possible. I decided to descend on my own power.

Once off the mountain, I spoke with an experienced climber who told me that working like a photographer—using short intense bursts of energy—was absolutely the wrong thing to do, especially when mountain sickness began to set in. No wonder I was getting sicker the harder I tried to work!

Each time I maneuvered to take a picture, I would feel dizzy and nauseated. Normally I can ignore physical discomfort by focusing on taking pictures. In the past I have photographed while seasick and vomiting.  But this seemed different.

At this point I’m experienced enough to know that sticking through something like this is not always wise. I rarely come back with a memorable picture when I try to work through a painful situation.

Hoof print of a water buffalo that wandered up to 13,000 feet on the mountain looking for salt.

Hoof print of a water buffalo that wandered up to 13,000 feet on the mountain looking for salt.

To my delight, the journey down Kilimanjaro was wonderful. The weather was clear and since we were not holding to a schedule I could travel at a relaxed pace. Deogratus, my guide, took his time explaining the geology, flora and fauna found on the mountain.

A friend of mine who lives in Hawaii and believes in the spirit of the land said the mountain had given me a gift. Often in my life I get so focused on reaching a goal that I overlook the beauty along the way. Our slow descent brought Kilimanjaro’s stark scenery into sharp focus. I was happy to be there. With the fog of my painful ascent clearing away, I realized how fortunate I was to be standing in the middle of this high altitude moonscape. Deogratus took great pleasure in sharing his encyclopedic knowledge of the mountain. I was amazed at the everlasting flowers that grew under all conditions. I photographed the hoof print of a water buffalo looking for salt. We stopped to absorb the view of   “Ol Doinyo Lengai, ” or “Mountain of God” in the Maasai language. It last erupted in 2008 and is one of those rare volcanoes producing nitrocarbonatite lava. This downward trek became the highlight of my four days on the mountain. The closer I got to the bottom, the better I felt.

Did I make it to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro? No. But again, it’s all relative. I didn’t need to reach the summit. Over time, I’ve learned that knowing when to change direction can often open doors to new and better experiences and opportunities.

A trekker looks off Kilimanjaro at sunrise.

A trekker looks off Kilimanjaro at sunrise.

 

The Journey is What Matters

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An African animal park near Japan’s Mt. Fuji. The owner said he built the park because Fuji reminded him of Mt. Kilimanjaro

I’m leaving to join a group of women in Tanzania and climb Mt. Kilimanjaro for a book project called “Dreamers and Doers.” The sponsoring group, Ladies Trekking Virtual Club, will use proceeds from sale of this book to supply textbooks and other educational materials for school children living around the base of the mountain.

It took me a while to agree to photograph this project. I’m not a devoted athlete. I walk when I have the time, but the last thing I climbed with any height was Mt. Fuji over 11 years ago. Back then I was in a different place, both physically and emotionally. I was working regularly and in good shape from hauling my gear in what seemed like at the time like nonstop travel. When I watched the sunrise from the top of Fuji in August 2001, the world seemed wide open and full of hope for a peaceful future.

This is the traditional view of Fuji--pristine and spiritual.

This is the traditional view of Fuji–pristine and spiritual.

Of course, our perceptions are based on where we stand.  You don't see all the industry surrounding the mountain as often

Of course, our perceptions are based on where we stand. Usually you don’t see all the industry surrounding the mountain.

Twelve days later, two planes hit the twin towers in New York, one hit the Pentagon near Washington, D.C and another plunged a group of Americans to their deaths in Pennsylvania. I watched this horrible destruction play over and over on TV.  I held my eight-year-old daughter tight and told her that the world would never be the same again.

In so many ways that has been true for my peers and me. Technology and market changes caused many newspapers and magazines to shrink or disappear. Hundreds of my fellow photographers became unemployed, leaving those of us in the free-lance world with less and less work to count on. My day rate hasn’t changed since the 1990s. Few editorial jobs—once my mainstay—now pay for assistants. Business class, once a given for international travel, is a thing of the past. What once was fun is now an exercise in non-stop stress.

In response, I started moving away from my first love—journalism—and towards my avocation—non-profits. Working for groups like Catholic Relief, the Ladies Trekking Virtual Club or many others has become my main focus.

Like all of us, I’m aging. So when the offer to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro came up, I hesitated, thinking “how can I do something like that?” I would be the oldest person on the group by over a decade. But as the saying goes, “you’re not getting any younger.”  So why not?  And if not now, when? (Luckily the writer I suggested to them accepted the job, so now I’m merely the second oldest person on the climb.)

All sorts of strange things occur on the journey up Fuji, like these drummers who hiked to the top, played furiously for 15 minutes, then headed back down the mountain

All sorts of strange things occur on the journey up Fuji, like these drummers who hiked to the top, played furiously for 15 minutes, then headed back down the mountain

Hearing about this newest adventure, my friends looked at me with expressions ranging from shock to curiosity. No one said, “Wow I’d love to do that!” Most comments were “I really admire you for that.” In other words “You’re a fool—I’d never do that in a million years!!”

As the world changes, I hope that I’m maturing along the way. I’ve learned to grab opportunities that come my way–like climbing Kilimanjaro. I don’t want to regret that I passed up a chance to experience something different.  “Just do it,” a phase that Nike has run into the ground, is actually how I try to live my life.

If I had listened to my mother I’d probably be an unhappy housewife trying to carve out a living while selling cosmetics at the Little Creek Naval Base Exchange in Norfolk, Virginia. My parents had no aspirations for me. All they wanted me to do was get married, have a family and not commit any crimes. They never thought of college as an option for me. So I plowed ahead without their support, earning money for college application fees with summer jobs. I worked at a fish and chip joint, a self-serve gas station (I was held up. It was the first time I had a gun pointed at me) and finally that Naval Base cosmetic counter.

Luckily I got a full academic scholarship from the University of Michigan, so I went there. I paid the rest by working three jobs. One of them, photographing for the “Michigan Daily” student paper, laid the foundation for my professional career.

Atop Mt. Fuji in 2001 with my son Will and husband Bill.  We were proud of Will for making the climb to the top when he was only 10 years old.  It was much harder and colder than he'd expected, but he didn't give up.

Atop Mt. Fuji in 2001 with my son Will and husband Bill. We were proud of Will for making the climb to the top when he was only 10 years old. It was much harder and colder than he’d expected, but he didn’t give up.

I won’t accept words like “no” or “can’t.” I’ve always risen to the occasion even if what I do ends in failure. I cannot complain unless I’ve tried. Life is too short and wonderful not to try new experiences even if I can’t complete them. So that is why I decided in the end to accept the challenge to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. If I complete the climb, I’ll be ecstatic with bragging rights. If I don’t, at least I tried and trying is all I ask of my children and myself.

Written by kasmauski

February 23, 2013 at 8:13 pm

Sudan Work in Communication Arts

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Sudan pictures published in Communication Arts Photography Annual

Last year I had a wonderful assignment to photograph life in Southern Sudan. I spent several weeks in that country, working to capture the warm spirit of the people.  So I felt honored when I learned that Communication Arts magazine would feature some of my Sudan pictures in their Photography Annual.  The pictures are in the July/August issue.  You can seem more of the Sudan pictures on my website.

Written by kasmauski

July 7, 2011 at 2:56 am