By Laurance Price
These days I spend a lot of time facing a computer screen, reacting to emails, checking my very risky investments, and setting up an online study program. In my monthly dark moon phase, I would say these are all time drains requiring no special skills and adding no particular value to my life or anyone else’s.
In my fuller moon days, I get excited about new ways of making a living with passions of my youth leading the way: a mushroom farm on a substrate of coffee grounds; a marijuana and mixed herb greenhouse ready to launch when the legislation finally breaks through; a tahina and hummus kitchen; an adventure guide for fathers and sons; a doorstep milk and bagel delivery business; videos capturing family histories. The list gets longer every day. And although they don’t all connect with my teenage desire to be a game ranger, they skirt around the same sort of lifestyle.
There are days when I explore great plans that pay no rent at all. Setting up a local time bank, a hub for service exchanges and community building. Not the kind of community I am currently entrenched with, all of us connecting through our electronic portals, but more of the community I really need: sitting by my side over coffee, drumming together, sharing parenting skills, holding the ladder while I get the cat down.
There is some irony in that community calling I feel today. During my teens I felt like an alien and believed the job of wildlife guardian in a remote reserve would shelter me from those overbearing peer pressures and connect me to a greater reality. But those were also the last years of apartheid and the South African army was waiting for me if I ever broke free of my schooling. So I left the country of my birth and only returned 25 years later. My professional path had taken many interesting back roads by then but none of them remotely close to becoming a game warden.
The closest I ever got to taking care of wild places was when I settled in Tanzania. One of the first jobs I talked my way into was filming gorillas in the Virunga Hills in Uganda. As with almost all my film jobs of the past two decades, I harbored a lingering anxiety that I would be found out. I was pushing my way through thick nettles in the lush undergrowth, grappling with a heavy camera in search of a newborn gorilla, the hero of our show. But she was being protected by the troop and when I finally got a glimpse of her, the angle was wrong, the camera was shaking from my exhaustion, and there was no doubt once again that I was merely posturing as a filmmaker.
When my friend from the Dar es Salaam Yacht Club asked if I knew anyone who could do commercials for the new mobile operator he was managing, I nevertheless nominated myself, and I suddenly became a commercials director. This was in the early days of TV in East Africa and anything vaguely shiny with a good beat would impress. And so my career moved rapidly, from one purported success to another. Another friend introduced me to a gold miner who decided that an AIDS awareness project would butter over his industry’s exploitative image. I started climbing Kilimanjaro with camera in hand to tell a heroic story. I had never climbed before nor did I know whose story to tell and to whom, but the result was a high-end home movie for the climbers and they commissioned me for the same job every year until I got bored and handed it over to a friend.
I then met this guy working with the World Wildlife Foundation who was as sick of his office job as I was of the editing room. He decided to check out the suitability of the habitat for black rhinos in the Selous Game Reserve. Of course this required a three-week expedition with 20 porters carrying our gear from one side of the Selous to the other. Great hiking and survival fun. A few interesting hippo charges. But very little wildlife footage as we were a noisy bunch, and animals are not stupid. But the film documented, with the help of some really great stand-ups, what was important research. I think 12 people have ever seen it.
The biggest scoop in my career as a dubious professional was the result of a chance meeting after playing touch rugby with the husband of a very powerful woman in an international development organisation. She liked movies and thought I probably did too. And this led to her commissioning a wonderful, six-year series of films on the impact of international aid and development strategies on remote villages in Tanzania. After she signed the contract with me, she left to work for the World Bank, leaving me to get on with it for the next five years, as best I could. It was a dream job in some respects, combining my interests in anthropology, rural poverty, travel, and even a smattering of wildlife (especially when visiting one of the communities where hunting and gathering is a way of life). And it paid the bills for almost a decade. In fact, as I sit here figuring out my next move, I am still drawing on her generosity.
The thing is: I have made a fine living out of making films no one wants to see. I might not care if these were silly social marketing clips or nonsense instructional films, but the Village Voices series chronicled groundbreaking longitudinal studies of rural Africans and the poverty trap from which they cannot break free. The stories they tell should be informing progressive poverty alleviation policies today. Yet I would estimate that about 300 people have ever seen this series that cost almost a million dollars.
This is due in large part to the political climate in East Africa; in a fine example of how the fear of being politically incorrect secures the status quo, the politicians there have essentially shelved the poverty series. The good news, I suppose, is that I am free to take these stories from the poverty experts themselves (the rural poor) and bring them to a wider audience. That’s the online study program—for students of global issues and international development—that more or less anchors me amid stray thoughts of mushroom farms and hummus kitchens.
Photo provided by Laurance Price.