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Water Magic, by award winning photographer Nicky Lewin

Water Magic: Ethiopia. Burka project in West Hararghie district. Thirsty Ethiopians take advantage of the Spring and Water development engineered by CARE International. Total crop failure and drought in the area has made these people totally dependant on aid. Without these projects these people will starve.

The story behind Nicky Lewin’s award winning photograph.

Arrived in Ethiopia in a daze. I had just finished working in D.R. Congo and Rwanda and was beginning to wilt under the strain of some very long days of bumpy driving and various accommodation which varied from the luxurious to finding a scruffy black fury rat/cat type thing in my dung walled bathroom.. [When you?re nude these things are always more alarming].

However, Africa is wonderful. Great people, great rhythm, great scenery. And always a surprise or two. I have been going there on and off for ten years now and my love for the continent is a deep and growing one. At times it makes you want to weep it can be so cruel and sad. Other times it can make you want to weep it can be so obscenely beautiful. Hearing African children sing for instance, is awesome and divine. This is the tale of a recent assignment for CARE International in Ethiopia.

Like much of Africa, AIDS is rife, the pitiful sight of street children living in a dangerous underworld is upsetting, and filthy slum areas force people to fight for their dignity. But the capital has one foot very firmly in the modern world with internet cafes, golf courses, beautiful hotels with good electricity etc. You know you are in an important place.

Farmers Hopelessness: Farmer 42 year old Ahmud Mohammed Yonis in the middle of his failed sorghum crop used for pancake type bread, at Miesso District..

Travelling out of the capital, the field and harvests look remarkably healthy. The trees are green and the stacks of corn are yellow. But as you travel for a day or two to the remote rural areas, the problems become very apparent. In the West Hararghie district [roughly 300km from Addis Ababa], the trouble mainly comes down to failed crops. These have steadily got worse over the last five years due to the rains becoming unpredictable. Without a huge effort by aid agencies such as CARE International these people would starve in the same way that led to the Live Aid concert in the 1980’s. So water irrigation is being worked on and grain is being transported to the remote areas.  As the tarmac road becomes earth, and then track, and then deeply rutted and precariously twisted tyre holes, the struggle to get vital aid by lorry to this region is intense. And this was in the hot dry weather! When the rains fall this must be virtually impossible. The whole question of survival in this area hangs on a knife edge.

As I arrived I was warned by an aid worker to go gently. An Italian photographer had been ‘seen-off’ the week before by a man with a sword! Well, one I always go gently, and two, I convinced myself that this man had been disrespectful in some way, and probably deserved a ticking-off. So, in high spirits, I set about documenting the scene of people and cattle gathering at a water hole.

Ethiopia Running: West Hararghie. Ethiopians in high spirits that is possible thanks to the aid that is keeping them alive.

However, my problems were to be of a much safer variety than my Mediterranean cousin. Some of the local people spotted me looking in the LCD screen of my digital camera. Curious, they came over for a look. It was an "eureka" moment and soon I had a crowd of around fifty people gathered around me. Worse, they all wanted to be photographed AND see their picture. For the next couple of hours we all had a lot of fun, but I didn’t get much work done. [I’ve got about fifty grinning Ethiopian portraits at home if anyone is interested].  That night I settled into a nearby [about four hours drive] hotel. The room was small and clean with a metal door that led to the courtyard. When I say clean, the room was bug ridden, but that wasn’t the fault of the staff, that's just the way of remote Africa. I think it cost me about 60 pence a night and apparently I was ripped off. [What rotten luck as I was on expenses. There wasn’t a Hilton or Savoy in sight. In fact, there wasn’t one for a couple of hundred miles]. The electricity lasted less than an hour that night, so I downloaded the days pictures onto my iBook by candle light.

The next day it was back to the watering hole. On my arrival several Ethiopians ran towards me, ready for a repeat of the day before. However, this time I was ready and I took a picture of the oncoming throng, which made it into the CARE America calendar. Things quietened down when a kind elder explained to them why I was there. It was then that I took the photograph of the water spurting for the first time from a recently installed pipe, straight into the delighted faces of the local people. For these people this clean cool water was winning the lottery. Ethiopians know all there is to know about hardship and struggle. Every day, for many, their fight for life is a real one. The ability of Africans to bounce back from disaster and catastrophe always astounds me.

Ethiopia Walking: Ethiopians returning from the Burka water project in West Hararghie.

As I walked back to my vehicle, I saw an extremely gracious woman walk across a dried river bed with a bag of grain balanced majestically on her head. Not one to miss out on a short cut I stepped down from the bank. As I confidently placed my boot onto the "dried" river bed, it immediately sunk in soft mud up to my knee. This propelled me and my camera equipment forwards and downwards in an undignified tumble. For some strange reason [I know you wouldn’t laugh] the hundred or so people on either side of the "dried" river found this very entertaining. Anyway, after a couple of kind souls helped me back onto solid ground I became aware that I looked a total idiot [nothing new there]. So there was only one thing left to do. I took a bow.

I have very happy memories of the watering hole, even though the subject and situation is razor sharp serious. As I drove back to Addis I passed mile upon mile of failed crops. It was there that I met and photographed despairing farmer Ahmud Mohammed Yonis. This poor man’s struggle to feed his family is ingrained in his face. His small daughter and son played hand in hand in the hard dry earth and sharp dead scrub. They seemed happy as of course they should be. With a great father and dedicated aid workers fighting for their future, lets hope this great country can offer them the life they deserve.

Nicky Lewin.



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