In the September of 2018 I led a team of six African women with albinism up Mt. Kilimanjaro. The highest point in Africa was the platform we used to shine a spotlight on this rare genetic disorder, the challenges people with albinism face and their strength and courage to overcome those challenges.
Maah Koudia Keita
I can’t even begin to wrap my head around all that transpired the last 8 days on Mt. Kilimanjaro. All six female climbers with albinism went beyond what they thought was possible and in the end Nodumo Ncomanzi summited Uhuru Peak, representing the team at Africa’s highest point.
What should have been a straight forward expedition quickly morphed into an emotional, dramatic, inspirational and beautiful expedition. The depth of the emotions experienced on this expedition has left me a changed human being forever. It’s been an honour and privilege to have lived the journey with some of my favourite people on Earth.
The climb was a significant struggle, symbolic of the challenges persons with albinism face in their everyday lives. The mountain threw just about everything at us and in the end, the Climb for Albinism flag was raised on the roof of Africa. I’m so incredibly proud of the team and all they accomplished. This is a tremendous victory for the team and for all persons with albinism.
We’re off to Kilimanjaro!
Today is the official launch of the expedition! We're driving from Kenya to Tanzania and our sights are set on the highest point on the continent.
Climb for Albinism Press Conference
We officially launched the Climb for Albinism in Nairobi, Kenya. Kilimanjaro awaits!
Hanging out with the camels on the beach in Mombasa. 36-hr recharge and the adventure begins! - Spherical Image - RICOH THETA
Camels on the beach in Mombasa
Making friends with the camels on the beach in Mombasa. 36-hr recharge after 24 days of travel across the continent. The team arrives in 48 hours and the adventure begins!
Hanging with the crew on top of Nairobi - Spherical Image - RICOH THETA
The crew from Nairobi
Behind everything I do, is always an amazing support crew. In this case, Charles and Gerald, my Kenyan brothers who have been supporting me throughout my stay in Nairobi. They've both gone above and beyond to help make all of this possible.
Meet Jane Waithera
Meet Jane Waithera - advocate and activist for people with albinism. Despite having been abandoned by her mother at birth due to having albinism, Jane has gone on to become one of the strongest and most inspiring women I’ve ever met. She’s a leader and a true source of inspiration. She’s also my partner on this special project. Looking forward to sharing more of Jane’s inspiring story and message.
Essilor – Our Eyewear Partners
Today we visited the Essilor offices in Nairobi to pick up a new pair of specially treated glasses for Nodumo, one of our Climb for Albinism team members from Zimbabwe. Essilor has generously sponsored the eyewear for our team.
Landed in Nairobi
20 days on the road and I've finally landed in Nairobi, Kenya. Two days in production with Nodumo, our climber from Zimbabwe, hopefully a little weekend at the beach then the Climb for Albinism team flies in from across Africa and the adventure begins!
I shadowed her for two days and was floored by her level of independence. She rides on the back of a motorcycle to shop for groceries, is a master sweater maker, she’s an entrepreneur that looks after an entire household of people, trains in the hills, climbs stairs, markets her business and updates her social media channels. She’s got a unique voice and laugh that makes you smile every time you hear it. She’ll be flying in to Nairobi to meet the @climbforalbinism team on September 25th.
What blows me away is that when we offered this spot on the team to her, she accepted without knowing a thing about climbing. @ijanewaithera, @justdumo and I flew out to Tanzania in March to break it down for her and to introduce her to Eva, one of our guides from @adventurealternative, her caretaker and friend. Mariam jumped on board and announced it to the press without really knowing what altitude even was. One expedition later with 6 months training behind her - here she is - ready to climb! The countdown is on to the Climb for Albinism.
Can you update your @instagram with your tongue? Every time I see Mariam do this, my jaw drops and hits the floor. She’s adapted to life without arms and has refused to be a victim of the crimes committed against her.
She works, she raises farm animals, she makes sweaters, she cleans the house, takes care of her family, she’s an activist and she also updates her social media here on Instagram. She’s also climbing Kilimanjaro in two weeks! I have infinite respect and admiration for her strength and resilience. And to top it off: she’s the sweetest woman I’ve ever met and has a laugh that brings a smile to your face every time you hear it. You’ve got this, Mariam! And we’ve got you. The countdown is on to the Climb for Albinism.
Elia and Mariam in Tanzania - Spherical Image - RICOH THETA
Mariam and Elia
Mariam made it to 4300M on Mt. Kenya last May, she's been climbing metaphorical mountains her entire life and she's now ready to take on Africa's highest peak for persons with albinism. She's been training hard, climbing stair and hiking 3-6 hours, 5 times a week. She's ready.
Mariam Staford making sweaters in her home in Tanzania - Spherical Image - RICOH THETA
Mariam – The entrepreneur
Mariam runs her own business in her home in Tanzania where she makes sweaters and scarves for schools and other clients. She learned this vocation, through the support of Under the Same Sun, and is now able to support herself and her loved ones as an independent woman. Mariam refuses to be a victim and is in her full independent power.
Meet Mariam Staford: Climb for Albinism team member from Tanzania. Mariam survived a vicious attack in her home when two men entered while she was asleep with her son and hacked her arms off with machetes. She was left to die as they fled with her limbs. Why? Because of witchcraft and the supernatural belief that persons with albinism’s body parts yield ‘magical powers’. Miraculously, Mariam survived, although she did lose the baby she was carrying at the time.
Mariam is the ultimate symbol of resilience and strength. She is seen here in her home in Tanzania where she is making sweaters to support herself and her family and son. She’s an independent woman and a shining star that I hand-picked to be a part of this climb and initiative. In many ways, meeting Mariam back in 2016 solidified my commitment to making this project happen. I just couldn’t do nothing. On October 7th, Mariam will stand on the roof of Africa and make a powerful statement to the world and her fellow Africans. I can’t wait to see her make history.
I'm on my way to Mariam's home and the views of the mountains are simply majestic! She got Kilimanjaro to the East and Mt. Meru to the West. Lucky her! Looking forward to seeing her and telling more of her story.
Meet Eva from Adventure Alternative
Not only is Eva a Kenyan guide, expedition leader and logistics support and manager, she's also Mariam's caretaker. Eva is one of the unsung heroes of this expedition, wearing many hats while taking good care of Mariam who lost her arms in an attack over a decade ago. Eva is too humble to say it, but she truly is extraordinary. We're grateful to have her on the team. She traveled to Kenya to assist me and meet up with Mariam as we document her preparation for Mt. Kilimanjaro.
The first time I climbed Kilimanjaro was a month after my first summit of Mt. Everest back in 2010. I regretted it and wished I had shared the journey with people I loved and cared for - it’s that kind of adventure. So here I am, 8 years later, but this time I’ve chosen to live it as meaningfully as possible, with many of my African family members and friends, the best in the business, who also happen to be the people I care for the most on this continent. We’ve got a cause we are fighting for, warriors and champions representing and a film crew that I’m excited to collaborate with. Friends from Peru, Dubai, Canada, Australia and every region in Africa are a part of this upcoming adventure.
Today, the climber in me paused for a moment to take in this beautiful mountain standing tall, solo, towering above all else and appreciated the beauty of Mother Earth’s wonder of the world. She may not be the highest in the world, but she certainly is Africa’s jewel in the sky. Looking forward to witnessing everyone else’s first time experience and co-creating with those standing by us to the summit.
Meet the Tanzania Guides
Meet the team from Adventure Alternative. These guys are simply - AWESOME! We brought them in from Tanzania on our Mt. Kenya climb and they became family. Strong, kids, caring, generous and compassionate. They are the backbone of the Climb for Albinism team, standing with us all the way to the summit for persons with albinism.
We visited Regina's studio downtown Johannesburg where she recorded the song she wrote called: Kilimanjaro. She recounts her life story, the obstacles she's overcome and the grand challenge that lies ahead.
The Climb for Albinism
I’ve always been drawn to stories of resilience. Stories of perseverance. Stories of the unlikeliest of heroes who are destined to become. I see the light, I see the beauty, I see the potential and these days, I take all that I know and I create adventures that enable those transformations. Where I was once an artist with a lens, I now try to be an artist with life.
Two years ago I discovered an ugly truth that unfolds in the shadows on this continent and decided to do something about it. The journey has not been easy. Few supported us and few wanted to get involved to make this happen as it was too ‘risky’. The more promises I made the deeper committed I became the more relentless I was in pulling this all together. Because these women have voices that need to be amplified for persons with albinism. And they’ve all climbed mountains far more difficult than Mt. Kilimanjaro. This is a symbolic ascent and a statement to the world and I’m truly grateful to be a part of it.
Most who learn about the discrimination, abuse and attacks turn a blind eye. I simply could not. For these women, for all they’ve endured and for all those they will impact with their achievement. No one expects them to climb and that’s why we must. I am grateful for all of those who believed in this project.
Stepping back and witnessing the team live this incredible journey is the true summit for me.
Upwards we climb!
Boxing training and prep for Kilimanjaro
I have to say, I was quite impressed with Regina's training schedule today. The guides and I had to turn her back on Mt. Kenya in May because she was suffering from the altitude and was going to put herself at risk, as a result she did not make it to 4300m with the rest of the team. It's always a hard call to make, but safety is always the number one priority. Since then, she's really taken control of her destiny and is well on her way to having a real shot at reaching the summit of Africa's highest mountain.
Meet Regina Mary
I've landed in South Africa and met up with Regina Mary: Actress, activist and climber. We spent day one going over our schedule for the next few days which includes training, her theatre, visiting her old neighbourhoods, motivational talks, her studio, downtown JoBurg and much more.
Dr. Edi training with the local kids in Lagos, Nigeria. #climbforalbinism - Spherical Image - RICOH THETA
Thank you, Nigeria
Dr. Edi training with the local kids in Lagos, Nigeria. #climbforalbinism - Spherical Image - RICOH THETAI've been inspired by Dr. Edi's story and accomplishments. She truly is a self-made woman and I am grateful she is on the Climb for Albinism Team. As we filmed her training in the streets, these kids decided to train along with her. What a wonderful way to wrap up the journey.
A self made woman
According to Dr. Edi, one of the most rewarding parts of her work is when a young person with albinism comes in for an assessment and walks away filled with pride knowing a person with albinism not only is an optometrist, but successful entrepreneur. It teaches them that 'anything is possible'.
The Unlikely Optometrist
Meet Dr. Edi, the unlikely Nigerian optometrist.
Dr. Edi is an entrepreneur, activist and global citizen. She initially won us over with her charming Facebook audition video and then later showed up rather unprepared for our training expedition to Mt. Kenya back in May. She was was very unfit and lacked the mental toughness at the time to hike at altitude and succeed in reaching our 4300m destination. We had no choice but to turn her back partway for her own safety.
I’ve just spent the last 3 days with her, visiting her family in eastern Nigeria, traveling the Nigerian roads, attending albinism awareness events, touring her clinic, meeting her friends and neighbors and telling her unlikely story of being a person with albinism turned optometrist. Few drive, all fave challenges with their low vision and even Dr. Edi herself said that initially it seemed ‘ridiculous’, yet here she is, thriving, running her own successful clinic and treating patients regularly while inspiring young persons with albinism along the way.
My Kenyan guides and I made the call back in May to turn her around. That life lesson has shaped a very different person. An athlete. One that has been training seriously, running in the streets, a woman who bought a treadmill and who spends hours walking with a backpack, simulating stair climbing and who has taken full control of her own success story on Mt. Kilimanjaro this fall.
I’m very proud of her and incredibly honored to have her on our team, not only as a role model for persons with albinism, but for all of us who dream and aspire to be the best version of ourselves.
Another successful shoot and piece of the storytelling puzzle collected for our feature length documentary.
Classy Vision Opticals - Lagos, Nigeria - Spherical Image - RICOH THETA
Classy Vision Opticals
Classy Vision Opticals - Lagos, Nigeria - Spherical Image - RICOH THETATake a tour of Dr. Edi's clinic. She describes her business as: 'An eye clinic that provides overall visual care (diagnostics and treatment) and provides fashionable eyewear at affordable prices. We cater to the optical/visual needs of people who want to project whatever image they desire through eyewear and at an affordable price.
Albinism Awareness Event in Lagos
Today we attended an Albinism awareness event in Lagos where there was a fashion show filled with the cutest kids you’ve ever seen, a dance off, various performances, free eye care, inspiring speeches and there was even a fair share of twerking and hip hop dance! When I wasn’t shooting video, I was teaching people to shoot with my stills camera and giving filmmaking advice to anyone who asked. Another amazing day here in Africa.
Dr Edi and Elia in Nigeria #ClimbforAlbinism - Spherical Image - RICOH THETA
Landed in Nigeria
With some assistance from our partners at OSIWA, I've landed in Nigeria with the lovely Dr. Edi who is one of our climb for albinism team members. Looking forward to telling her story, meeting her family and documenting the important work she does as an optometrist.
4 Days in Senegal
Maah Keita opened up her beautiful world to me and the Climb for Albinism documentary. She’s an incredibly talented bass player in a Senegalese Afro Rock band, a humanitarian, artist, activist and star made of pure light. She was born with albinism and has not been limited by it in any sense. She’s respected. She’s a trailblazer. And she downright crushes it on the bass!
Maah, her friends and family humbled me this evening by telling me how special they thought I was. They thanked me for being an example of a human being who sees the beauty and magic in all. Who treats all with love and respect, which is part of my DNA. Who is always playing and smiling and doing all I can to make others happy. They invited me into their home for a traditional meal, to meet their friends, visit remote villages where young children and persons with albinism live and are at great risk due to exposure and just fully embraced my presence and pure intention. They also embraced my cameras and gear! As did 50 kids, two who I taught to fly my drone.
Thank you Maah and all of your wonderful friends and family. It’s been a blast! Can’t wait to assemble what we’ve created these last 3 days.
The Dakar Coastline
Dakar sunsets and the West African coastline are two unexpected perks of being in Senegal that I’m truly going to miss. It’s been a wild little run. I’ve barely had a moment to breathe with the non-stop production of Maah’s story, running around Dakar and some remote areas with cameras, living the condensed experience, strengthening relationships with new friends and colleagues while gearing up to head to Nigeria tomorrow to continue the storytelling journey.
Maah Keita – The Interview
For three days, we crammed in as much as we could to support Maah's back story. We interviewed her mother, her sister, an friend who is an artist, we visited a few iconic locations, shot in the city, at viewpoints, at sunset, in a remote village where she supports others with her humanitarian work. I even managed to film a little scene with her playing the bass for the camera. All in French, of course. Looking forward to putting it all together.
Maah Keita – Day 1: Production Begins
Day one in Senegal was fully charged in the best of ways. First in-person meeting with our NGO partners from Open Society Initiative West Africa followed by a classic Elia Saikaly ‘chasing light’ shoot with our lovely talent, artist, bass player, climber and humanitarian @ladymaahkeita. I’m in Senegal to tell Maah’s story as part of the @climbforalbinism initiative. Almost two years of work coming together with a culminating climb that begins October 1st.
Senegal – The Adventure Begins
It's great to be back in Africa, my home for the next 6 weeks. I'll be traveling from Senegal to Nigeria, South Africa to Tanzania, Kenya overland back to Tanzania and then up Kilimanjaro for an incredible cause with a beautiful group of inspirational and powerful women. The documentary shoot of all of the women's back stories begins.
They made it! 4300M
To my dearest Climb for Albinism team. I wanted to take a moment to say how I proud I am of your incredible accomplishment. . What you accomplished was no simple challenge. In less than three days you hiked to 4100m through tough conditions. You began in the rain, slept in the cold, negotiated the vertical bog in muddy terrain, pushed through an 11 hr hike (some in the dark!) endured a sleepless night because of the altitude then turned around and descended like champions. For those that had to turn back for your own safety, you still succeeded as the goal was not to summit, but to get a feel for the thin air and to experience what it is to be on an expedition. I am blown away by your strength, resilience and commitment. Please take the time to celebrate your accomplishment. You achieved the extraordinary and you are extraordinary.
Two turn back
It broke my heart to have to make the call to turn Regina back. She just wasn't strong enough to carry on. Half way to McKinders camp on Mt Kenya I was forced to make a very difficult decision with regards to her safety. I knew she hadn’t trained enough and saw her struggle. She was slow and in pain. Her mind had the will to carry on, but her body just wasn’t fit enough to deal with the elements. Knowing we had another 5km+ to ascend, the lead guides and I decided to turn her around and send her down. I could relate having turned around on Everest twice, I knew it would break her temporarily, and yet knew it was the only decision to be made. After fighting to carry on with everything she had, this brave warrior and survivor turned around with grace and power, tears flowing with unbreakable will. It was impossible to make the call, but it was the only call to make. She’s a rising star who is going to inspire the masses with her beautiful, chaotic and inspirational approach to all that she does. I’ll go to the ends of the Earth to support her to ensure that this coming September she takes her rightful place on the roof of Africa.
This one. Mariam. Warrior. Unbreakable will. Shining light. Always positive. I can't wait for the world to meet her.
Essilor generously provided the protective eyewear for the entire team. Each woman is outfitted with advanced lens technology that darkens as needed.
Our Climb for Albinism team
Our team: 6 women with albinsim and the support crew including Bohdana and Dr Becky Kammer. We made it half way up the vertical bog on Mt. Kenya with 6 hours left to go to camp.
My partner and co-creator, @ijanewaithera making her way through the vertical bog on Mt. Kenya. Jane and I met in 2016 and she shared her story of being abandoned by her mother at birth and being cared for and raised by her grandmother. She recently met her mother and I had the privilege of documenting the reconnection after decades of separation. Upon learning more about the challenges that her community faces, I immediately connected the dots between Kili and the once epicenter of attacks in Tanzania against persons with albinism and pitched her on this idea. Together we gave birth to all you see today
Meet @reginamary_myvoice Actress. Artist. Inspirational Speaker. Survivor. Warrior. Our @climbforalbinism wild card. The second I saw her audition video I knew we needed her on the team. She brings radical openness, raw human emotion, vulnerability and a theatrical approach to all that she does. She openly speaks about her two rapes and multiple suicide attempts. When she tells her story, you listen and are often shocked that someone born with albinism has somehow found the courage and strength to use the trauma to uplift, empower and inspire so many others.
Mariam and Jane
It all began with these two. First my co-creator Jane and then the loverly Mariam. In essence, they are the reason we are here today. Jane for her beauty, character and limitless potential and Mariam for her beautiful spirit and unbreakable will. I can't wait to stand on the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro with both of them.
The adventure begins!
The Climb for Albinism adventure begins! My co-creator @ijanewaithera and I along with @justdumo cast this team of women via an online Facebook contest less than two months ago and today the team met for the first time, boarded the @adventurealternative adventure mobile and are venturing into unchartered territory in the morning on Mt. Kenya. This image sums up the spirit of the team and the energy and personality each team member brings. It’s beautiful to watch a dream unfold and become reality. Here we go!
Pickups and Arrivals
Meet Mariam and Regina - 2 of our 6 Climb for Albinism team members. Mariam is the ultimate symbol of resilience. Her story moved me to tears when I met her in 2016 and she inspired me to want to do something about what I saw. She was violently attacked in the middle of the night while in bed with her son and both her arms were chopped off with a machete. She was left to die and waited over 8 hours before receiving medical attention. They may have taken her arms, but they didn’t come close to breaking her spirit. She survived and remains the sweetest, most optimistic and one most resilient human beings I’ve ever met.
Landed in Nairobi!
Landed in Nairobi and the adventure is about to begin! 6 women with albinism from 6 different countries are coming together for the first time to live out a wild dream. Somehow this crazy Canadian managed to bring them all together to create what I believe will be a life changing experience