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African Twilight and the fight against cultural extinction

By | Wednesday, 26th June, 2019

African Twilight Book

I’ve always believed in the multiplying goodness of serendipity. Stay open to possibility – believe, be brave, expect the unexpected – and good things happen, as it did when the Omo Valley’s Lale Biwa visited the UK for the first time.

Kara elder and part owner and chief guide of on-the-ground operator Wild Expeditions, Lale was the first member of his tribe ever to make the trip from southern Ethiopia. However, he arrived with much history, having been guiding in the Omo Valley for nearly 20 years, initially alongside his late mentor Halewijn Schuerman, with whom he helped run Jade Sea Journeys, and then for many a Journeys by Design client, and latterly for Wild Expeditions. It’s a history that lives on today in the friendships, care, and support that are the result of the extraordinary experiences he has helped facilitate.

All of which explains why, when we made it known that Lale was in town, garden designer Sophie Walker and documentary photographers Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher answered the call. They invited friends who know Biwa, know of Carol and Angela’s work, or know of the Kara Community Farm project to an impromptu fundraiser party at photographers’ London-based studio. It was as unexpected as it was successful. With donations from the likes of John Snow and Anish Kapoor, we raised £110,000 in cash and pledged art works, all of which will go to helping complete the farm. Anish’s donation consists of 30 prints, worth an estimated £90,000. I believe that any monies left over will go towards creating two Anish Kapoor engineering scholarships, which will support the farm’s development and maintenance.

Serendipity being serendipity, it just so happens that Carol and Angela’s most recent book African Twilight: The Vanishing Rituals and Ceremonies of the African Continent has received yet another award, this time Gold for the 2018 Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Awards for photography. Possibly the greatest book by two of Africa’s greatest recorders of tribal ceremony, it’s their magnus opus, and appropriately and unapologetically huge. Field work in the truest sense of the word, its ‘breathtakingly beautiful images are rendered,’ says the architect David Adjaye in the book’s Forward, ‘with palpable empathy and respect.’

As Adjaye intimates, African Twilight is both reverential archive and enormous last-gasp appeal. With 40 percent of what we see in the book now gone, Carol and Angela describe the effects of modernity and economic change on tribal communities – on traditional rites of passage, courtship, seasonal rites, political structure, belief systems, and death rituals – as cultural extinction. High on their list of extremely vulnerable cultures are the river communities of the Omo Valley, a place and people they hold ‘close to their hearts’. Having previously visited by foot and vehicle, they ‘decided to penetrate the Omo River by boat. Lale Biwa, our Kara guide, answered our calling’. The result is the extraordinary chapter on the ‘world’s greatest body painters’.

Given this, it will perhaps come as no surprise that as well as help raise money for the Kara Community Farm, Carol and Angela will be working with Journeys by Design and Wild Philanthropy, co-designing and guiding a number of traditional-community special access trips, and that the first of these is scheduled for next February, and will be to the Omo with Wild Expeditions and Lale, with support from Sophie, who is lead traveller. Part of this initial trip will include fly camping with the Mursi in Tama Wildlife Reserve, a world first.

To finish, none of this could have come about without the energy and vision of the likes of Lale, Carol, Angela, Sophie, and everyone who made the fundraiser such a success. Open to all kinds of possibility, they have made yet another good thing happen, and for that I am extremely grateful. Here’s to the Kara Community Farm, to the trips that will help foster change, and to the fight against the extinction of the cultures captured so beautifully in African Twilight.

If you’d like to know more about either the Kara Community Farm or the special access trips guided by Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher, please do get in touch. African Twilight was published last year by Rizzoli.