James Mixon
James Mixon
Africa 2017
I am a junior at Belmont University from Nairobi, Kenya. I will be spending the summer of 2017 on the tallest mountains in Africa, including Mt. Kenya and Mt. Kilimanjaro, filming a documentary about the guides, porters, and rangers who work to explore and conserve these remarkable areas.
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Naromoru

In the last month I’ve taken several trips to the small town of Naromoru to meet porters, guides, and their families and to familiarize myself with the local tourism industry. Naromoru is a dry and dusty trading town stationed on the steppes extending from the western shoulder of Mt. Kenya. To much of the south and east, verdant hills roll away from the protected alpine forest into welcoming farmland fed by glacial rivers, but to the west, Naromoru sits on an arid plateau, buffeted by the long, cold winds channeled in from the northern deserts.

The demeanor of both of the town and its inhabitants is as though they’d both rather be almost anywhere else. There are farmers here, too, but they aren’t the smiling, well-fed faces that populate the far green side of the mountain. These are hard, weather men who wrench maize from unwilling earth and hide their sheep from dust devils spiraling uncontrolled across the plain. The men and women here look wistfully up to the snow-capped mountains and follow its contours down into a foreboding moorland and then a dense forest, a nearly insurmountable wall limiting their existence to the dry plateau.

A view looking south from Mt. Kenya over lush farmland

A view looking south from Mt. Kenya over lush farmland

Mt. Kenya is a commanding peak, emerging unheralded from the African highlands to dominate the landscape, the people, and in many ways the entire country. No physical formation is so central to the national psyche. For years, and in some places still, Mt. Kenya was considered the seat of God, Ngai, to those tribes that lived within eyeshot of its snow-clad buttresses. Its Kikuyu name, Kirinyaga, means ‘the great ostrich,’ a bird whose black and white plumage was the closest analogy the agrarian herders had to the epic white blanket atop the peak.

This sacred mountain, whose religious significance effectively dissuaded any African exploration, immediately captured the attention of white settlers, who were more familiar and less intimidated by mountains of such size. Thus Mt. Kenya became a popular expedition for adventurous colonialists and then expatriates, drawing hundreds of wealthy and well-equipped wazungu to trek up its muddy trails.

Anyone less than an accomplished alpinist, however, required guides and grunt labor to haul their amenities from camp to camp. It quickly became apparent that local youth would bear egregious loads up and down treacherous mountain ridges for a few dollar a day, already more than they could make on the family shamba.

A town like Naromoru, then, became and still is a hotbed of recruitment for mountain workers. Labor is already scarce, the farms unproductive, life generally arduous–it seems an obvious choice to carry bags for rich white tourists if only for the slightest chance of a tip or a hand-me-down jacket. More guiding companies are based out of Naromoru than any other city skirting Mt. Kenya. They don’t really have a better option.

A matatu sits under Mt. Kenya, obscured by cloud cover

A matatu sits under Mt. Kenya, obscured by cloud cover

As you drive through the town, you get the distinct impression that the whole place, not bigger than a few square kilometers, is eagerly waiting to jump up and grab your luggage. Men and boys line the highway that passes through town, lounging around fruit vendors arranging their meager goods on a torn-up tarp or a fundi welding together a long-defunct motorbike. Monstrous safari vans whip up dust on their way to opulent lodges and campsites, and occasionally a rattling flatbed will slow down long enough for a few lucky porters to hop in with their plastic grocery bags of warm clothing. As the dust settles, you see the silhouette of the mountain, hazy but implacable, rising up behind the line of dukas.

Paul, a porter who also works as a boda-boda driver

Paul, a porter who also works as a boda-boda driver

Tucked away into little corners of the town are local companies like KG Mountain Expeditions and Mt. Kenya Guides and Porters club. They might occupy the back room of an agrovet, but they generate more income for the town than every agrovet and feed store combined. Almost every boda-boda driver, mechanic, and farmhand has had a turn carryings bags up the mountain, but there are still never enough jobs to go around.

The only option, again, is to wait–to wait for a chance to freeze their digits off, get mountain sickness, break an ankle, all to earn their family enough for a few sacks of maize. Those left behind watch and wonder what it’s like up on this monolith that fills their skyline, up on its icy slabs and sodden swamps.

On my way out of town on a recent visit, I pulled off the highway to ask some local men resting under a bus-stop, the sole shelter from the furious wind, if they’d ever tried to climb the mountain. A man named Daniel told me with noticeable resentment, “Only the visitors have the capital, and so they are seeing instead of us the great prize of our own country.”

Mt. Kenya is no longer the seat of God to local Kenyans, but it is just as inaccessible.

Men shading themselves  on the Naromoru plains

Men shading themselves on the Naromoru plains

The headquarters of KG Mountain Expeditions, the company hosting me

The headquarters of KG Mountain Expeditions, the company hosting me

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Intimidation and Encouragement

In the last two weeks I’ve been darting around Nairobi interviewing contacts, collecting information, finalizing logistics and more. In less than a week I drive down to Tanzania for the beginning of a whirlwind month: first to Mt. Meru for about a week, then to Kilimanjaro for 10 days, then immediately back up to Mt. Kenya for over two weeks. During these expeditions I’ll do the majority of my filming, fighting cold, exhaustion, and bad weather to find and tell the story I came here for.

Although in many ways I started well over a year ago, it feels like I’m finally going to be able to sink my teeth into this project, finally start making real, tangible progress. The unknowns (and nothing else) have been looming over my head for weeks and have at times quite intimidated me (what have I gotten myself into??). What happens if I neglected some important form? What happens if my equipment fails or the mountain proves too difficult? What happens if I can’t tell an important story?

I’ve made a habit of jumping into the deep end of whatever I pursue, and this project is no different. It’s bigger, more complex, and more significant than anything I’ve ever produced, and here in early throes it feels like an untamed beast. I am afraid of failure, of disappointing everyone who’s helped me put this together.

Thankfully, the last few weeks have shown me that I can do this. After working up the nerve to start cold-calling people, I’ve contacted almost a dozen experienced mountain guides, tour operators, climbers, and other people connected to the mountain of East Africa in addition to the experts working for KG Mountain Expeditions, my sponsor program. I’ve received nothing but positive feedback about the project and excitement to be involved. It seems that many people here share my passion for the African mountain culture and want to raise awareness of its unique benefits and challenges.

Sometimes, it seems, just one person needs to dream a little too big and everyone else will appear as if out of nowhere.

Njenga Mungai, a long-time mountain guide and outdoor instructor

Njenga Mungai, a long-time mountain guide and outdoor instructor

John, one of many friendly Kenyans helping me learn Swahili

John, one of many friendly Kenyans helping me learn Swahili

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On Kenyan Temporal Relativity

In my recent excursions making contacts, I’ve encountered two infamous African stereotypes and found them to be simultaneously very true and also more nuanced than one would expect.

The first is the stereotype that African governments are stagnated by corruption and petty grandstanding. Because I will be filming in several national parks of Kenya and Tanzania, a significant part of the logistical process is acquiring film permits. My contacts at KG Mountain Expeditions were able to smooth over the process with the Kenya Wildlife Service and help get much of the fee waived, but the Tanzania National Park Authority (TANAPA) proved to be more tricky. There’s a lengthy application intended to suck large media companies like National Geographic and the BBC for all their worth (Kilimanjaro is a major revenue source for Tanzania). A tiny student production like mine shouldn’t even register, but I still had to go through the same process, which involved numerous trips deep into downtown Nairobi to visit the Tanzanian High Commission high in a dilapidated skyscraper to try and convince them not to charge me thousands of dollars that I don’t have.

At one point, they rejected my application at a cursory glance because I addressed a cover letter “To whom it may concern” instead of “To the Tanzanian High Commission in Nairobi,” despite having their exact address in the top corner. They wouldn’t even look at the rest of the application; they seemed to think that I was being arrogant and disrespectful. It was such a petty detail that I almost lost my temper before remembering that my whole film depending on not offending this particular secretary, so I humbly retreated and fought my way back through the smog and dust of downtown to change 5 words on a new 15-page form. Considering it takes up to two hours of standstill traffic to get into town, I had plenty of time to stew. After two more infuriating visits and several pleading phone calls, I finally walked out with a single piece of paper bearing their light purple stamp of approval, my ticket to Tanzania. The process depended on groveling to the sort of compensatory grandiosity that plagues African bureaucracy.

The second stereotype: Kenyan time. Somehow being raised in Africa didn’t free me from the impeccable time-keeping of Western culture. I’m always 10 minutes early to any event or meeting, lateness being the most grievous of offenses.

But in Kenya, you arrive when you arrive and you’re done when you’re done. Specific times that you might agree upon are pure formality. My first encounter with this phenomenon was when I visited a contact named John Githae, a long-time rescue ranger on Mt. Kenya who now operated a ropes course on the outskirts of Nairobi. We had agreed via email that I would drive up for a few hours to meet and interview John about his time on the mountain. As I should have expected, this turned into a 10-hour visit punctuated by two two-breaks, a hardy lunch of goat meat, a ropes course experience, lengthy introductions to every employee of the facility, and more than anything, stories. I managed a brief interview 30 minutes before I left at 6 PM.

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Checking out the ropes course with John

The second time I visited John I had agreed to photograph a group event he was hosting in an effort to foster the relationship between us. I foolishly showed up at 10:30 AM for an 11 o’clock group, and stayed until they finally trickled in at 3 PM.

Yet the most impressive implementation of Kenyan temporal relativity occurred a few days ago when I arranged to meet a woman named Connie at her home in a wealthy suburb of Nairobi. Connie’s son had died in a tragic accident on Mt. Kenya from altitude sickness. She had graciously agreed to tell me the story and to discuss how to raise safety standards on the mountain. I arrived at 3 PM and received a call that would be a bit late. No worries, I said, and sat down to practice Swahili with her gardener John until she arrived at her own home three hours later. She was mildly apologetic but generally unbothered by the whole affair. Of course, the light for filming was gone at that point, but she insisted I stay for dinner, tea, and conversation late into the night.

It turns out that in Africa, personality is more important than punctuality, and relationships more important than efficiency. Connie and John were interested in my project, but they were much more interested in me. They wanted to be friends first, associates second. Even at the Tanzanian High Commission, there was an implicit camaraderie necessary to proceed. Any sign of disrespect would grind progress to a halt. Africans are unfailingly gracious and welcoming as long as you reciprocate their openness. In the process of creating this film, I will need to learn, most of all, to slow down a bit and know people.

I returned to Connie’s house this Monday to complete the interview. Ironically, I got dreadfully lost in south Nairobi and arrived an hour late. She didn’t mind.

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nairobi traffic

On Traffic

A quick note on traffic:

I’m not sure how it’s possible, but there are both more vehicles and more pedestrians in Nairobi than anywhere I’ve ever been. You would think that one would ameliorate the other, but instead the wheeled and walking traffics seem to feed off of each other. It’s as though there’s an assumption that the more cars are crammed together, the more people should be hopping in and out of the road, dodging mirrors, slapping windshields, maybe trying to sell you some bootlegged DVDs or a bag of mangoes.

Sometimes the congestion comes from a lorry stopped dead in the middle of the highway, sometimes from a mismanaged roundabout with laughably ineffectual traffic lights, but most of the time is just the inevitable result of too many cars in too little space. The pedestrians might enter a variety of bus-like contraptions, some more derelict than others, stacked 30 feet high with bags of charcoal or leaving a wake of feathers fluttering to the street from hundreds of live chickens strapped to the roofrack. Each bus or matatu has an individualized paint job, proclaiming in diverse and garish colors that “JESUS NEVER FAILS” or “PITTSBURGH STEELERS” (go figure) or my personal favorite, “HITLER” emblazoned above the windshield. The flow of people to and from these vehicles is so fluid and perpetual that many just drive with the sliding door open, a conductor of sorts leaning out the side barking at oblivious Toyotas and tossing one-liners at passersby.

Rather than the alluring current of interstate headlights that evokes a steady rippling stream, Nairobi feels like the thick, muddy trudging of the Ewaso Ngiro river, sucking in all the detritus and dirt that comes anywhere close. But what’s really unique is the bizarre passivity of it all. Unlike New York City or Manila or New Delhi, there’s no frantic honking or simmering desperation in the gridlock. The citizens have surrendered, the commuters capitulated. Against this great and terrible machine, there is no victory.

Instead, as I look around this vision of dancing red lights–skyscrapers to the my right, Uhuru park to my left, I see amiable Kenyans chatting away in their cars, buying sodas from hawkers, gazing blankly into space. There’s no rush here. Haraka haraka, hakuna baraka. Hurry, hurry, and there is no blessing.

This is the great paradox of Nairobi: a deep calm, almost lethargic, that informs everything from traffic patterns to bureaucratic processes to societal practices. What about the van rumbling past me in the rocky ditch that serves as a shoulder to the already potholed road, you ask? What about the terrifying chaos of an ungoverned intersection? These are but little whirlpools fighting desperately to survive before being absorbed once more into the great dull march of the city.

And because we’ve accepted this paradox, one learns to enjoys it. The three lanes that merge into one with no warning, the jovial drunkard knocking on your window, the pikipikis darting in front of you, borrowing some paint–these things become delightful little idiosyncrasies. You can never make sense of the car-to-street-to-person ratio, so you let it go. You can’t turn down the matatu’s blaring reggae, so you sing along.

We all just sing along.

A Second First Time in Africa

Over the past week I’ve been getting to know several Kenyan guides, shadowing them in their work, and laying groundwork for the film. Samson Mwangi is a tall and lanky rock climbing guide working for an adventure company in Nairobi. Tyson, who now works for the same company, used to be a wilderness instructor for the Kenyan military on Mt. Kenya. He’s summited the mountain more than a dozen times. Both are a rare breed, which is why I’m following them around.

Climbing of all kinds (mountaineering, rock, ice, etc.) is typically a sport for the upper classes and has been dominated by wealthy Americans and Europeans for the last century. In my film I’m trying to explore the newer demographics of the sport, particularly the local Kenyans that have made it their lifestyle.

I drove Sam and Tyson out to a small mountain named Lukenya which is a popular destination for rock climbers due to several massive rock walls and a smattering of boulders up and down the slope. I followed and filmed Sam up several long climbs which he danced up with ease. There was something beautifully primordial in watching a man engage with nature so fluidly in this area of the world where mankind as we know it most likely originated. As we pulled up on top of the cliff, several hundred feet above the arid savannah, a cold wind pinned us down for a bit. Only Sam had had the foresight to bring a jacket (after all, we’re in Africa!).

A gorgeous orange cliffline popping up out of the savannah.

A gorgeous orange cliffline popping up out of the savannah.

On the drive back up Mombasa Highway, a two-lane road that accommodates potentially six-lane traffic, I questioned Sam and Tyson on the state of climbing in Kenya. They were optimistic about the future of the sport, but were more interested in why I was interested. This led to an interesting discussion, in broken Swahili, of my complicated identity as an American missionary kid from Kenya. Tyson, particularly astute, pushed me to admit that I was just as privileged as most Westerners that choose to climb and suggested that my African experience had been fundamentally limited. I had to agree with him.

This, of course, is why I came. To reexperience Africa as an adult, as an artist, and as a honest human. All of our childhoods were limited in scope and experience, but I think mine led me to believe I was more worldly than I really was. Sitting in rigid Nairobi traffic, the BBC blaring, matatus honking in futility, I accepted that in many ways, this is my first time to the real Africa.

Setting up base in Nairobi!

I’m in Nairobi! After a brief detour in Switzerland and some truly awful traffic (Nairobi has the second worst in the world!) I made it to my base in Nairobi.

Fortunately for me, this is my parent’s house in an area of town called Gigiri. They’ve lived here for many years and have kindly offered to let me stay here when in Nairobi to A) save some cash and B) have a workspace with some decent internet — ‘decent’ of course being a term relative to Africa. My primary month of filming runs from June 20 to July 23, during which I’ll be climbing Mt. Meru, Mt. Kilimanjaro, and Mt. Kenya back to back to back with little to no respite. In preparation for that rather grueling period, I’ll spend the next month mostly based here in Nairobi doing several things. I’ll be finalizing logistics such as equipment lists and permits; for example, I just finished submitting a film permit to the Kenya Wildlife Service that asked me to submit a final version of the film in VHS format; either their form is out of date, or (more likely) they’ve never felt like upgrading their system. I have already (in the day and half that I’ve been here) touched base with an experience filmmaker who lives here in Nairobi and is helping me arrange interviews and with a local Kenyan climbing guide, Samson, who will be going on several smaller expeditions with me to film and research for my story. Later this week we will be heading out to Lukenya, a small mountain about two hours from Nairobi where Samson guides.

I’m excited to get this show on the road and I’ll keep you updated! In the meantime, here’s my minimalist mountain filmmaker camera rig:

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Getting Ready!

Hello! I’m excited to be writing my first of many posts for my Lumos adventure. I will arrive in Kenya in less than a month, which is frighteningly soon.

I’m looking forward to returning to an area of the world that in some ways I know well, but in many other ways am still a total foreigner. During my time in the mountains, I’ll be completely immersed in the African culture and will have to learn how I fit into it now as an adult. I’m nervous, but I’m also thrilled to be able to expand my comfort zone even further.

A view of Mt. Kenya's twin peaks from the east side of the mountain. I'll be back on the mountain in just over a month!

A view of Mt. Kenya’s twin peaks from the east side of the mountain. I’ll be back on the mountain in just over a month!

In the month before I head off, I have lots of loose ends to tie up with school and work and relationships, but I’m almost completely prepared for Africa. I could (and would happily) throw my gear in a backpack and walk out right now if you asked me to!

I’ve spent the spring gradually accumulating the various pieces of equipment I’ll need for my film this summer, making lists, paring them down, getting worried, adding things back to them, paring down again and eventually just committing to a system. I’m taking two cameras, one Olympus Mirrorless EM-10 and one Canon EOS 6D. I chose to use DSLRs instead of proper video cameras in order to save weight and space in the mountains. I’ll also have two mics, a tripod, and lots of backup batteries and storage. A true minimalist’s set-up.

I’ll post again just before I head out with some neat pictures of all my gear, mountaineering, filmmaking and otherwise! Thanks for reading and I hope you keep with me for my whole adventure.