Working as an NGO Photographer in Africa [and How to Not Contract Ebola]

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There are few things I love more than traveling, photographing remote areas of the world, helping others, and not contracting Ebola. Luckily I was able to fulfill all four of those dreams on my recent work trip as a travel photographer to Africa.

I was able to spend my time getting sunburned in a couple of African countries, but my work was all done in The Gambia. It’s a small sliver of a country that’s smaller than the state of Connecticut. The Gambia is sandwiched smack in the middle of Senegal and rhymes with Zambia, but has a pretentious official article in front.

I worked for Penny Appeal, a UK-based nonprofit operating in more than 30 countries around the world. They provide emergency relief, house and educate orphans, build wells, and more. They have dozens of locals working in their own villages. They’re awesome people. They also happen to be a British Muslim organization.

While many I know have issues with this religion and way of life, I felt fine 99% of the time. Seeing little kids memorize the Qur’an doesn’t really make sense to me, but then again, I’m no Muslim. Yes, I am a pretty devout Christian—or spiritual, as might be more appropriate—but I saw no reason not to work with these folks. While I find many of their practices odd and limiting—and oftentimes sexist—I’m quite sure they feel similarly confused about me. Given this particular group’s comments on my clothing (I wore proper attire while working in the field, of course, but shorts when at the “resort”—like the men and holiday-goers), they likely think that females wearing shorts are a sign of physical and moral indecency. But we talked about these issues quite a bit, and I did my best to learn as much as I could. Besides, I’m friends with Muslims in several different countries around the world, and know that just like Jews, Catholics, Christians, and virtually every other religion, interpretations of religion and practices vary widely.

But why does any of this matter? It doesn’t, unless you’re stuck in times of the past or choose to group everyone of a religion into one category. What matters is that these were the nicest, most delightful folks I’ve worked with, and if I can participate in helping orphans, villagers, and needy people, why shouldn’t I—whether I agree with the religion or not? The group does wonderful work, and they’re great people, so I was delighted to work with them for the first of what I hope is many times. I now consider many of them my good friends–they were that awesome.

While photographing the poverty, well projects, orphans, school systems, and more in West Africa, I heard about quite a few ways to not contract Ebola. Tips include:

– Don’t shake hands, as this spreads germs. || In certain villages—or when meeting entire orphanages, we’d shake hands with 40 different kids and adults in the span of just a few minutes.

– Don’t make out with the locals or foreigners while in West Africa. || Though many tried getting me to stay (I was married off over half a dozen times, but I don’t think any of the marriages stuck), I avoided official wedlock—and therefore did not kiss anyone while there.

– Resist making out with any water buffalo. || I already made this mistake somewhere in Asia*, hence why I came back sick years ago.   *This is not actually true.

– Don’t go to West Africa. || Whoops.

– Avoid contacts with bats and nonhuman primates, as well as their raw meat. || I really wish someone had told me this before I ate all that ape. But seriously, they eat rat in The Gambia (huge, HUGE rats), because it apparently helps lower blood pressure. No, that’s not really related.

– Don’t be a doctor treating patients in West Africa. || Shirley you can’t be serious.

Now that you know how to stay Ebola free, I’ve included some non-Ebola photos from my trip. Check back soon for another update, where I’ll be ranting about husbands in Gambia, Moroccan tea, and so much more.

 

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