I still remember a headline in one of Kenya's daily newspapers from 2002: "Climate Change Threatens the Snow and Ice Caps of Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya." Mount Kilimanjaro, next door in Tanzania, is Africa's tallest mountain, followed in height by Mount Kenya, my country's pride and glory.
Even the word "Kenya" is said to have come about when a German explorer, Johann Ludwig Krapf, asked local Chief Kivoi about a mountain he'd seen. Kivoi described the mountain as "kiinya," in reference to it looking like an ostrich – with the snow resembling the white patches of the flightless bird. So, my country's name is linked to snow and ice, yet we were in danger of losing it.
From our village in eastern Kenya, in the bright early morning you could look in one direction and see Mount Kilimanjaro and in the other see Mount Kenya. I had often wondered what snow felt like and how lucky we were to be able to wake up and see it. When we sang Jingle Bells at church over Christmas, I would think of the snow on those mountains – the only glimpse I had of what snow looked like — while holding the hem of my mum's skirt in the pew. As I grew older, I heard that people would ski on snow in Europe. I dreamed of skiing on Mount Kenya one day, and at one point even asked my pops for skis.
Those thoughts all came rushing back to me when I saw the newspaper article. Now I was an adult and understood what climate change meant.
In 2002, I had just returned to Kenya after finishing a radio and television arts degree course at a university in Toronto. I was not sure what I wanted to do with my life. My parents thought I was taking too much time to think about it. "You are spending too much time in the house, Michael," my dad would say.
While studying in Canada, I had seen some ethereal and majestic ice and snow carvings at the Quebec Winter Carnival. This world-famous festival had even been dubbed the "Ice and Snow Carving Olympics." The teams taking part in event were from North America, Europe and Asia. There were no carvers from Africa. While still a student in Canada, I worked for a travel agency, which gave me a trip back to the Carnival as a parting gift when I left for Kenya.
So when I read the article about our mountains' disappearing snow, I thought, "Now is the time to do something, Michael. You need to show the effects of climate change in East Africa." I decided Africa should be represented at the Quebec Winter Carnival and that I would form an ice and snow carving team. I had never done any carving before, but I could always learn.
So I set out to find some teammates.
I spoke to my buddy, television producer Robert Bresson, about what I was thinking of doing. He agreed to ask around. "Everyone I have spoken to thinks you are crazy, Michael," was his report. But we didn't give up.
Robert took me to the Nairobi National Museum. At that time, there were some sculptors who worked on the museum grounds. I approached the first one I saw, introduced myself and asked, "Would you want to form an ice-carving team?"
"Ice?" he said.
"Yes, ice," I said.
"Sure, why not? By the way, my name is Peter Walala."
I now had one team member. The teams I'd seen in Quebec had three or four members. So I needed to find at least one more.
I approached the "Miss Tourism Kenya" pageant holders and told them about my idea. I felt having a title holder on the team would make it more visible. Winnie Omwakwe, who was "Miss Earth Kenya," was glad to join in. So we had three team members and one with carving skills. However, Peter had never worked with ice before, only wood and stone.
First, we needed to gel as a team. After all, we were total strangers. So we met for a couple of teas and coffees and decided that we were all OK to work with each other.
Now we needed somewhere to practice. As we deemed it impossible to get to the top of Mount Kiliminjaro or Mount Kenya, we decided try to find a big hotel freezer. I requested to meet with a director of one of the country's premier hotel chains, and he agreed. I told him about our team and our plan to take part in one of the world's top ice and snow carving events. He looked shocked at first, but seemed to warm up to the idea.
About a week later, he asked to see me. "A chef at one of our hotels is really thrilled about the plan you have and he would be glad to help you," he said. The chef gave us a place that fit about six people and left us to it. For weeks, we spent most of our days in a cold room at one of the city's top hotels, learning to carve. We froze water in the hotel's big urns and Peter would try to figure out the best way to carve it. Then he would teach us what to do. Winnie felt that sitting in 39 degrees was a bit cold and she also had a lot of pageant obligations to attend to. So most of the time it was just me and Peter carving away.
Then there was the matter of applying for the 2003 Quebec Winter Carnival. I found the details online. "It is just like carving ice shavings," I remember telling Peter and Winnie. "We will figure it out as we go along."
I sent in our application. At the back of my mind, I thought it was a crazy, uncalculated move. This was like applying to run the 100-meter race at the Summer Olympics, but never having run 100 meters before. But, it was worth a try. After all, there was a first time for Carl Lewis, too.
After several weeks, I received a response from the Carnival. We had been accepted! I showed Peter and Winnie the document – we could not believe it! We were going to take part in a major global event!
But there were more hurdles: getting flight tickets and visas. Visas turned out to be no problem. We sent in our applications and were approved. It seemed the Canadians were giving us a chance to prove ourselves to the world!
But what about flight tickets? At that time, Peter was a member of a local arts trust. They offered him a ticket under one of their grants. He left for Canada, while Winnie and I tried to figure out what to do. I had done some freelance video work for a local production company and they owed me a bit of money. It wasn't enough, but I would try to figure out where to get more. While waiting at the production company to pick up my check, the company's owner, Moses Nderitu, happened to see me.
"Michael, you had told me about wanting to start an ice-carving team. Whatever happened to that idea?" he asked. I told him I had started the team and had been accepted into the Quebec Winter Carnival, but did not have enough money for a flight. "Let me take care of the rest of the money for a ticket," he said.
I could not believe it! Here was someone who believed in me! My parents and many of my friends had thought what I was trying to do was absurd. Moses arranged for me to get my ticket, and we decided that Winnie would see what she could do to get a ticket. Sadly, she never made it to the event.
Arriving in Quebec was like arriving for the premier of a Hollywood movie, starring Peter and me. The Canadian press had heard about us and had decided that our story was something their audience would be interested in.
When I got to our working area of the Carnival, Peter had already started on the snow sculpture we'd decided on: a mother rhino shielding her baby. Before his arrival at the Carnival, Peter had never touched snow. We had practiced in the cold room using ice, now here we were facing a large mound of snow. We had a few days to work on it. We did the best we could, learning also by watching other snow sculptors use their carving tools, many which we had never seen before.
In the meantime, during our press interviews, we talked about the impact climate change was having on Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya. On the last day of carving, we finally saw that we had done, well, an amazing job. To our delight, we were informed that the Kenyan government was sending a team from the embassy in Ottawa to attend the final day of the event. We felt like VIPs!
On that final day, it was announced that we had won a prize. "The Volunteers Award" went to Team Kenya! As we walked across the snow field to receive our prize while members from the Kenyan embassy shouted in jubilation, I looked across at Peter and saw that tears were freely flowing down his face. We had done what many thought was unachievable. The first Kenyan ice and snow carving team had been recognized by the world on their very first try – and we were also getting our message out about our beloved East African mountains.
In the years that followed, Peter and I participated in a number of other international ice and snow carving events. After a few years, Peter took a hiatus. I decided to try my luck for a bit longer with the goal of winning a major global event before taking a break. In 2011, I teamed up with Finnish sculptor Timo Koivisto at that year's Helsinki Zoo International Ice Carving Festival. Our team won first prize. I then decided to take a break. Kenya was finally on the ice and snow carving global scene, and the message about the impact of climate change in East Africa had been passed on.
Michael Kaloki lives in Nairobi, Kenya. He is a freelance reporter with a keen interest in matters related to community development and climate change.