Gorm. El Cerrito, CA/ ©Stella Kalaw

It was scorching hot in Saint Louis, Senegal when my travel partner Allyson and I met Gorm in July of 1996. He was sitting with Mauve at one of the tables in the veranda overlooking Point Faidherbe Bridge at Hotel dela Poste. We were wandering aimlessly that afternoon and happened to walk inside the hotel, probably looking lost and confused. He invited us over for a beer. He just finished working with a local organization as part of his masters degree program in health services. We told him we were students photographing in the area for a school documentary project. During our conversation, we asked if he could share a few tips since we were staying for a month and half in the city.

"You know, there is this American who comes by every day around 6:00pm and uses the phone in the lobby. I don't know her at all but you might want to come by tomorrow and see if she's there. She may be able to show you around," he replied.

He left for the States the next day. We took his advice and met and became friends with Lisa F, a peace corps volunteer stationed in Saint Louis for two years. She spoke the local language and was able to help us with translations. She gave us tips on how to navigate around the city and dished out common sense advice on handling various situations. We also hung out together when she was available.

After I got back to Santa Barbara, I sent Gorm a thank you note and included two matted polaroid transfer prints that I took in Saint Louis. He was thrilled to receive the photographs. I thought that was the last time I would hear from him but he sent an email four years later in 2000. By this time, I had settled in the Bay Area. He told me he had relocated to Sydney with his partner and he was in town visiting his parents who lived in the East Bay. He brought along his mom and briefly stopped by the office I used to rent at a photo studio in SOMA. 

Fast forward to June 2011. I received an email from him via my website and he commissioned me to take portraits of his family. As I drove to his parents' home on the day of the shoot, I thought how amazing it was that we met in such a remote part of the world and he had stayed in touch all these years.

"You must come and visit me in Australia!" he said. A cousin of mine moved to Sydney several years ago and it has been on my list of places to visit. I hope to take him up on his offer in the near future.



©Stella Kalaw

Everywhere we traveled in Mali and Senegal, the locals invited us for tea or attaya- a concentrated infusion of Chinese gunpowder green tea leaves and sugar. We gathered around a portable charcoal burning stove situated in front of the person concocting the drink. The boiling brew was contained in a petite blue enamel kettle that rested on top of the hot coals . Right beside the stove was a tray with two shot glasses. The tea is poured back and forth between the glasses to create the froth on the beverage. The process was an art form. In fact, we had witnessed a village chief from Dogon pour from at least a foot high from the glass, looking straight at us without spilling. The heavy textured tea was overwhelmingly sweet. As it lingered in my mouth, the bitter flavor from the tea leaves left a quaint after taste.

There were three stages to this ritual and this was apparently the weakest brew. The locals drank them like water while I could only manage to take a few small sips at a time. Nonetheless, we did it in the spirit of camaraderie and to experience a slice of the West African way of life.