When most Westerners think of East Africa, the initial images that come to mind may be of civil war-torn Somalia, starving families in Ethiopia, and exotic safaris in Kenya. These representations can be traced to various elements in our information and communication streams -- such as the last time you looked at a map of the region and saw a mysterious dotted line between Ethiopia and Somalia instead of a typical solid border. Or perhaps you recall the extensive media coverage from a couple of decades ago of Ethiopia's tragic famine during the 1980s. You may even have a positive impression of East Africa thanks to the 1985 adventure drama, Out of Africa, starring Robert Redford and Meryl Streep (the film gathered seven Academy Awards and did wonders for Kenya's tourism industry). Add the more recent developments of domestic rebellions in Africa's interior (largely ignored by Western media, as they choose to solely focus on Libya and Egypt) and the spectacle of Somali pirates taking hostages at sea, and we have quite a dramatic impression that only partially conveys the reality of the region.
Africa is an utterly gigantic continent -- much, much larger than most maps depict (surely something to think about). I recently had the opportunity to travel to Tanzania conducting cultural and humanitarian research and investigations. Given the vast and sprawling nature of the country, I had to compartmentalize highly divergent subject matters based on my locations. During my stay in Zanzibar, a small and developing island just off the Tanzanian coastline, access to water was an especially compelling issue to examine.
Despite the undeniable indigenous beauty of this Indian Ocean-bordering Muslim nation, Tanzania's issue with fresh water access is an increasingly dangerous problem for the local population. Regional droughts during the past several years have undeniably caught up to the land. Even worse, on an island as compact as Zanzibar, tourist resort development has skyrocketed. This means that the limited amount of fresh water flowing through the island's underground system is being steadily prioritized away from the local villages, instead to the resorts that support the island's important tourism industry. With few resources of its own, as is the norm for most islands in general, tourism is a vital sector for Zanzibar's growth ... and also one of its biggest challenges. With industry statistics for the next decade looking like an explosion of numbers that the island's small infrastructure is clearly not yet ready to handle, the issue of water will hopefully be pushed to the forefront for the sake of sustainability.
Both the droughts and booming tourism sector of Zanzibar and mainland Tanzania contribute to the reality of what the local people are challenged with in terms of their survival. While in Zanzibar I met with Hannah Wood of British Council Tanzania, who played an integral role in the concept and execution of the organization's photojournalism book, Changing Climate, Changing Lands. This book meticulously documents and explains the harsh daily ritual of Tanzanian villagers due to climate change.
Most all of the water holes and ponds that female villagers have traditionally obtained their daily water from (for drinking, cooking and washing) have dried up due to scant and unpredictable rainfalls throughout the region. With no other options for themselves, a desperate exploration of an underground cave network (which were utilized by rebels during the Maji Maji War in 1905) yielded a promising -- yet very dangerous -- alternative.
Wood explained to me how "every morning, the village women walk to the cave openings and descend practically one hundred feet underground on uncertain homemade bamboo ladders." The precariousness of these ladders is evident in that they need to be replaced every 10-12 weeks due to structural damage from the intense humidity and dampness. And, unsurprisingly, the water quality and quantity is "meager" at best.
But the influence of Changing Climate, Changing Lands goes beyond the typical book lifespan that simply ends on the last page of the publication. In order to actually have a progressive impact on the local villages during the process of disseminating this information, the British Council Tanzania opted to develop a photojournalism training program for the book.
Instead of hiring professional photographers, local villagers were trained on how to use a camera and then assigned to their respective locations throughout Tanzania to document the water-retrieving process. What you see in the book is not only what the villagers actually go through in order to get their fresh water, but the information is also presented to the reader via an authentic perspective. According to Wood, one photographer's sister had actually been killed by a poisonous snakebite she suffered while down in one of the caves, so he understandably had an even more intense and personal investment in the project. And, in the longer term, the skills that all the participants achieved will surely be useful as their environment develops around them.
Access to fresh water is just one challenge that Tanzanians face (a widespread lack of electricity is another) -- but it is a formidable one that looms over them despite the fact that climate change is a condition created almost exclusively by citizens of first-world states. While no book or photojournalism project will certainly solve all of the water-related problems in Tanzania (and nobody would ever claim this to be the case), it undoubtedly enhances the vast and dynamic educational efforts of the British Council Tanzania's body of work in the region. This is precisely how such complex and dichotomous issues like those in East Africa -- and Africa as an entirety -- need to be addressed: with plans that incorporate not just thinking but doing, and wellsprings of action that benefit the individual not only where he or she stands today, but also in future investments and inspiration for their own horizons.
For a sample of images from the book, visit Balance of Culture.