Last summer I went with my wife to her native Kenya. While we were there we traveled to the Kakamega forest in the Western province to photograph monkeys in this primate-rich rain forest. Kakamega is also home to the Luhya people, a colorful tribe who still practice a number of their ancient customs including music, dance, traditional herbal medicine, and wrestling. As a former wrestler, the last is what caught my attention. Every year on Boxing Day, (the day after Christmas), a wrestling tournament takes place where champions are crowned in several weight classes and cash prizes given to the winners. After a couple of weeks in the area, I became quite well known to the locals and I let it be known that I was interested in meeting some of the Luhya wrestlers. For a laugh, I assumed the identity of Daktari Mzungu Mandazi, which roughly translates to Dr. White-Man-Doughnut. People really seemed to love this moniker and often laughed uncontrollably. As I walked the backroads leading to the forest, greetings of Daktari Mandazi could be heard from the boys tending their cows, (ngombe). One day while visiting a local family on their remote homestead on the edge of the forest, a villager arrived with two “champion” wrestlers in tow. I don’t know how they knew that I was there but, like I said, we and our movements were apparently well known. When the larger of the two wrestlers entered the mud house, he began staring at me with a relentless gaze that was apparently meant to psych me out. You could tell that we were in the boonies because he spoke no English. We had half an hour of conversation in Swahili (which was translated by my wife), with his eyes riveted on me the whole time. We decided to go outside for some wrestling and with a powerful rainstorm brewing, if we were to wrestle, it needed to be done quickly. So we squared off and almost before I realized that we had started, my opponent was on his back with a rather alarmed look on his face. He didn’t want a second round. He told my wife that he had never touched a Mzungu, (white man), before and found the experience terrifying, which could have been a partial explanation for my sudden victory. Also, from the look in my opponent’s eyes one could see that he was no stranger to the local illegal home-brew call chang’aa which is often enriched with embalming fluid, jet fuel and/or battery acid… not the ideal training beverage for wrestling. In any case, I suggested that we put on a wrestling clinic in a few days time for the 30 or so wrestlers who were said to be part of the local wrestling club. On the appointed day we arrived at our arranged meeting place where no-one was to be found! We heard that people hadn’t arrived due to church and other obligations. We later left the area and forgot about the wrestling. Several weeks later we got a call from one of our contacts in Kakamega who sheepishly admitted to my wife that the real reason no-one appeared that day was that they were afraid to wrestle me! That was the end of my Kenyan wrestling career which probably lasted about 5 seconds … but what a 5 seconds it was. I think it now best to retire lest future results not be so favorable. Who knows, I might have to wrestle one of the women that I regularly saw carrying 100+ pound logs on their head for ten miles or so, a feat that I probably could have never done even in the height of my fitness!
I wish the Luyhas a happy boxing day wrestling tournament from the comfort of my American home and wonder if the name of Daktari Mzungu Mandazi will be mentioned this year?
Last summer I was fortunate to go to Kenya with my wife who is a farmer’s daughter from Kapkoi, Uasin Gishu County, in the Rift valley. While walking on the dusty roads near the family farm we came upon four young girls on their way to the nearby Kapkoi Primary School. They were going to pick up their books because they didn’t have enough money to pay the fees to take their end of term exam which would let them move on to the next semester. When I heard this and how little money was involved, I simply paid the fees for them.
The thought occurred to me that these probably aren’t the only kids at this school in need of help so I paid a visit to Kapkoi Primary School with my wife, who attended this school as a young child. Kenyan children are always ready for a laugh, so when I arrived at the school I began chasing them and spontaneous fun erupted as it always does in these situations in rural Kenya. I introduced myself as Dr. Mandazi, which roughly translates to Dr. Doughnut, to the sound of uproarious laughter.
Then things got more serious as we were introduced to different groups of children and we could see the gravity of the situation. We started with the underprivileged , then orphans and finally the students with disabilities. It was this last group that we spent most time with. On one hand you could say that their situation looked bleak, but at the same time their joyful spirit shone through. They loved my Dr. Mandazi joke and they roared with laughter!
My heart went out to them. I vowed to do something to help them and set up a modest donation through the teachers to be shared amongst this class of the most physically, emotionally and financially challenged children in the school.
Giving money is not without risk as far as where the money will end up. However, in this case, we were lucky to work with a group of teachers and a headmistress from a neighboring school who had herself already donated to the school. We received a complete accounting of how these initial funds were used as well as letters of thanks and a video expressing appreciation. We have since enlisted the help of other local overseers. I am asking the school to open an account where any donations can be sent so that they will be the only ones handling any donations that might arise.
While in Kenya my passion for wildlife also came to the fore. Although Kenya has many spectacular national parks, I also witnessed much deforestation. I therefore planted native trees on my wife’s family farm with the idea of one day providing habitat for birds and other wildlife. Then it occurred to me to combine my two passions of helping children and wildlife by having the children help plant the native trees on neighboring farms, while enlisting the aid of local farmers. By getting the children involved in tree-planting they are learning valuable lessons about biology, conservation, responsibility and community cooperation rather than just receiving, thus avoiding the social problems of dependency that can arise from simple handouts.
That is where things now stand and I am seeking advice and any other help that one might be moved to give. That help would not include donations just yet until I establish a mechanism for donating and a system for accounting for possible future donations.
What to name this budding program? Dr.Mandazi’s Kapkoi, Kids, Community and Conservation Program, what else? For more information please contact: John Cancalosi, (A.K.A. Dr. Mandazi), firstname.lastname@example.org
During a visit to Louisiana back in the 90’s I heard about a great place to photograph wildlife. A pristine, privately-owned sanctuary called Pine island. I heard that there was an amazing egret rookery and tons of other critters in a spectacular wetland environment, with some pines growing on the higher patches of ground. I decided that I had to get in there to see this place and do what a wildlife photographer does. There was one problem: the caretaker. He was reputedly a trigger-happy, mafia-connected, curmudgeon who let no one in. That “problem” was Vincent Licata.
As luck would have it, I met one of his friends, Arthur, who said that he needed to make a visit to Pine Island and agreed to take me along. My luck continued when we arrived and Vincent honed right in on my Italian surname, Cancalosi, and decided to give me a chance. Given Vincent’s Italian background, it was strange that he always butchered my name, introducing me to his friends as John “Casiopi”. I would have understood if he called me “Canneloni” since he ran an Italian restaurant for years before retiring to the swamp at the invitation of the former owners. However, “Casiopi” it was and I never bothered to correct him.
Thus began my photography on the refuge. I started by taking a canoe out to a platform that Vincent had built near some of the egret nests. To get to this platform I had to spend hours clearing out the water hyacinths, which Vincent called “lilies”, that clogged the way. Since then I spent untold days over nearly two decades, photographing the birds and other wildlife at Pine Island. It became a refuge, not just for wildlife, but for me and later my son. After a while, my visits became less about photography and more about my friendship with this “swampman”, unlike anyone that I’ve met before or since. Apparently, the Discovery channel had asked Vincent to be part of their “Swamp people” series, but he declined. In any case, it soon became apparent that beneath his gruff exterior, Vincent Licata had a heart of gold.
Vincent’s constant companion was an overweight Chihuahua called “Big Mama”. One of his friends, who owned a used car dealership, babysat “Big Mama” for a week or two. One day, a black couple, the female half of which was shall we say “large” arrived to look at cars. The dog ran off and Vincent’s friend yelled out something like “get over here Big Mama.” When the man heard this he assumed that “Big Mama” referred to his wife and he became irate to the point of physical violence! Fortunately, he realized who Big Mama was before things got ugly!
Vincent had a very exciting and checkered employment history. He was a professional diver on oil rigs in the Gulf and was part of a professional salvage operation in the Caribbean. He ran a large and successful Italian restaurant, “Licatas”. He hunted alligators professionally, having helped the Louisiana Fish and Game successfully bring back the once endangered gators in the State. The most “colorful” of his careers was that of a bookie in New Orleans. I’ll never forget the time when he told me about how he collected his debts. He had a rather large associate named Ernest Thibodeaux. I surmise that Mr.Thibodeaux might have been a failed professional baseball player in his early career and later turned to using the bat on uncooperative debtor’s knees, a skill at which he was apparently quite proficient.
Vincent had many friends which ranged from “redneck good old boys” to dentists, television sports personalities, game wardens and police chiefs to name a few. I suppose you could say the the dentists , sports personalities, game wardens and police chiefs were god old boys as well. Let’s just say that they were not the kind of people that you would expect to see in a trendy coffeeshop in New York City ordering a double laté and a scone… and that is a good thing, if you know what I mean. Vincent was married twice, but he never talked much about that, although he did mention the sadness that he felt when his second wife died. When I recently asked him what he did for female companionship he said that he knew some local “oldies but goodies”. In his trailer-house, he proudly displayed a photo of himself posing with a bevy of scantily clad young women that made a beer commercial some years ago at Pine Island.
Vincent often patrolled the property and helped game wardens nab more than a few poachers. He had a couple of boats befitting a swamp man of his caliber: an airboat and a “mud boat”, both of which somehow ended up on the bottom of the lake. He did a lot of hunting and fishing. The giant, walk-in freezer at his house was always filled with the harvest of the swamp: buckets of crawfish, sac-a-lait, and huge alligator gar, alligator snapping turtles and alligators. As his obituary read, “The alligators of Louisiana are now breathing a collective sigh of relief.”
Vincent was from the old South. He would refer to blacks in a way that “refined” white folks simply don’t do these days in more northerly latitudes. From this I concluded that Vincent was a racist. Then we went to eat at a local restaurant where the cook, Ronnie, was black. When we arrived Ronnie came out and showered Vincent with free food as if they were brothers. Apparently Vincent bailed Ronnie out of jail on many occasions and it was extremely appreciated. Every time we went back to that restaurant the fraternal scene was repeated. So much for racist Vincent.
For a couple of years Vincent took in a troubled, homeless housemate named Mike. He was the kind of person whose problems had problems, not someone that I would want as a housemate, yet Vincent took him in. He also played host to one of his best friends, Ronnie Walker, while he was ill with cancer. He eventually died and Vincent constructed a cross to mark his final resting place. I assume that he buried him where the cross is tacked to a cypress tree. However, upon reflection, I wonder if the alligators were well fed the day Ronnie died.
One family member that he often spoke of was his son, Nick. He was immensely proud of his university soccer career , his education and his family, complete with Vincent’s grand children. He was also fond of my own son Nick. One of the more memorable times that the three of us shared was when we went into the cypress trees in the middle of the lake and bedecked 10 year old Nick with Spanish moss, had him pose in a tree, and photographed the “swamp monster”. My Nick learned to drive, starting at the ripe old age of 7 on the dirt road that circled the lake. When my son became a teenager Vincent counseled him. He let him know that teenage years are for eating, sleeping and what I shall politely translate as “pleasuring oneself”.
Vincent was very fond of his brother and sister and was deeply saddened by their recent passing. He helped his brother through a long bout with cancer and it took a lot out of him. Very unlike him, he recently described himself as “depressed” by these events. He hung a picture of the three of them taken many years ago. It struck me how handsome Vincent was as a young man. I kind of had a feeling when we talked about his brother and sister that he thought that he might join them soon. I think that he said as much. His health had been giving out for years; diabetes, car accident, broken foot… I tried to get him to quit smoking but it was a lost cause. I gave him a bike to ride around the lake for exercise but it was stolen.
The last time I saw him was the summer of 2014. I was having some problems of my own at the time and Vincent knew it. He also knew the healing effect that the refuge had on me so we spent around a week together and braved the deer flies and mosquitos in the swamp. My son also joined us for part of the time. I paddled Vincent’s hydro bike though the cypress trees while he patiently waited on the shore. When I last left Louisiana he called to check up on me and spoke with my African fiancé in the most tender tone possible and invited her to visit when we came down next.
Then he had major heart surgery and stayed in the ICU for over four months. There were medical explanations for his passing but I think that it was more about the passing of his brother and sister, plus being cut off from his beloved outdoors and stuck in a hospital room for months. He passed away peacefully the other day in the arms of his beloved son Nick.
I don’t think that the loss will fully hit me until I return to Pine Island. There simply aren’t many people like Vincent Licata and he will be sorely missed. Louisiana won’t be the same without him. If there are alligators in heaven, they better watch out!
Maybe its none of my BISMUTH, but I think its BASIC, we in the modern world take MINERALS and the ELEMENTS they contain for GRANITE, which I don’t think is very GNEISS. If you think that MINERALS are a BOR, AX yourself if you could survive without them. Although its not your FAULT, every guy or GAL EN A typical classroom has been LEAD by modern society into a life dependent on technology, all of which couldn’t exist without using MINERALS. However, the things that we know about how we use MINERALS and ELEMENTS AR GON and because of this we SULPHUR. Of QUARTZ its TUFF but I will do AS BEST OS I can to show why I like ELEMENTS AND MINERALS so much. I have such a great APATITE for learning about them my SULF, I’DE say they really ROCK! Its ELEMENTary, when you see how beautiful minerals are and AD IT to how much we depend on them, you will METAMORPHOSE into a MINERAL fanatic like me. If you FLUO RITE into the study of MINERALS, UL EXCITE your senses, I AZURE ITE! Before I get any BOULDER, AL BITE my TUNGSTEN, ORE I BRECCIA I’ll start to sound a little WACKE as I RON on without letting your thoughts CRYSTALIZE. So check out these MINERAL photos if you WILLE. MITE I get a little BOULDER and ask you to read about them and your APATITE for learning about them will be as great as MINE. MINERALS ROCK! FAC ET, they are the original ROCK STARS!
By far the most well known cactus in the Sonoran Desert is the saguaro. These desert giants are especially important to the Tohono O’odham, one of the Native American tribes that have inhabited the Sonoran Desert for thousands of years. Saguaros feature prominently in their beliefs and legends and they treat them with great respect. I also view these remarkable plants with great reverence. They never cease to amaze me. No two mature saguaros are the same. Like people, each has its own personality. I never met a saguaro I didn’t like.
Saguaros provide housing for many animal “guests”. Many birds, like Harris’ and red-tailed hawks, great-horned owls make their nests on saguaros, where the arms meet the trunk. The saguaro’s great arms shade the nests, and, being off the ground, they are protected from ground-dwelling predators.
Besides the birds that nest outside saguaros, there are also those that nest inside its protective trunk and arms. Safe inside, they are shielded from the hot sun and most predators. Gila woodpeckers and gilded flickers are hard-working woodpeckers that chisel out nesting cavities in saguaros where they raise their young. These cavities are then used for nesting in later years by other birds like elf owls, western screech owls, kestrels, purple martins and others.
My favorite Sonoran Desert lizard is the psychedelically colored collared lizard. Collared lizards often perch on large boulders on the lookout for a meal. They prey on other lizards but also eat insects and other invertebrates. I once spent two weeks photographing collared lizards in an isolated canyon. They moved so little from their boulder perches that I might have imagined they were statues. Suddenly, one rocketed off on its hind legs! Skidding to a halt, it grabbed a darkling beetle and quickly gobbled it down. It then went back into statue mode until the next unfortunate creature wandered by. Good things come to those who wait – both collared lizards and photographers.
I spent an eventful week photographing a nest of gilded flickers in a saguaro deep in the desert. When I first knew these birds, they were considered their own species. Later, they were lumped with the Northern flicker and demoted to a mere subspecies. Recently, their status as a full species has been reinstated. I own three different bird guides of various vintages, which reflect the flicker’s changing fortune. If the flickers weren’t oblivious to the ornithologist’s debate, they would be the most confused birds in the desert. I found my flicker nest by mistake when following a friend’s directions to a great horned owl nest. The situation was ideal: the nest hole was low and there were two 7 foot yuccas positioned perfectly behind which I could hide myself so as not to disturb the birds. More importantly, the location was remote enough that I was sure I would never be disturbed. I spent the first few days in blissful tranquility. On the third day, a bright red helicopter passed overhead. It went back and forth over me, which I thought was rather strange. To avoid detection I wedged myself between my protective yuccas. Then it flew so close over my head I felt I could almost touch it. Suddenly it stopped, turned in my direction and hovered, facing me from a stone’s throw away. Having a helicopter hovering right over you in the remote desert is not a very relaxing situation. Were they looking for illegal immigrants? Drug dealers? Flicker photographers? In any case, it appeared to me that I had certainly attracted their attention. Finally, the helicopter flew off, as did my birds, and I decided to return to my car and meet whatever fate awaited me. On the road out to the highway I saw a cowboy on his horse on top of a hill, a scene right out of a western movie. I stopped and asked him what was going on with the chopper and he told me that they were rounding up cattle for branding. It was just as well I asked, because when I returned to my house, about ten miles away, the same helicopter hovered nearby. Had I not known about the roundup, I’m sure I would have suspected that it had followed me. I wonder what the pilot thought when he saw some lost soul wedged in between two yuccas out in the middle of nowhere.
The smell of the desert after rain, especially in areas with creosote bush, is one of the nature’s most pleasant aromas. However, my personal exposure to desert smells is balanced by the odors which arose from a javelina carcass I placed near my house one summer to attract turkey vultures. It didn’t bring in many vultures but produced a mountain of maggots and was an unforgettable olfactory experience.