Africa’s Beautiful Bag Lady: One Woman Making a Difference

Photo of Lori Robinson in AfricaWhen my friend, and fellow writer, Lori Robinson, was seven years old and living in Miami, Florida, she told her mom she wanted to go live in Africa.

Little did she know her childhood dream would turn into a lifelong passion, and culminate several decades later in a simple, yet exhilarating project: The Bag Project.

Lori was twenty-four when she finally made her way to Africa. She’d originally planned to work in wildlife conservation, but her good looks launched her into the world of modeling and television. For three and a half years she dazzled the camera during photo shoots and also hosted South Africa’s most popular live entertainment television show, Prime Time.

It may have been Lori’s modeling career that first opened the doors of Africa for her, but it was her heart that took her back again and again.

Lori Robinson in AfricaOver the past thirty years Lori has traveled extensively throughout the continent and has been deeply involved in the Jane Goodall Institute (JGI). Currently she travels twice each year from her home in Santa Barbara, California to East Africa where she leads tours and also participates in volunteer work with JGI.

For part of her stay, she resides in the small town of Tenguru, Tanzania. It’s here that Lori has made an impact on the lives of thousands of Tanzanians with her Bag Project.

Watch this short video to see Lori’s project in action.

“The simplicity of it, is what makes it work,” she says as she flashes a quick smile.

“It began six years ago when I was in Tenguru and noticed a problem plaguing the beautiful landscape; plastic bags were everywhere. They were blowing in the wind, tangled in the trees and fences, stuck in rivers. They were strangling the environment.

“Not only that, but grazing goats and cows were also eating the bags, and frequently dying as a result—a devastating loss for a family who relied on the animal for its daily milk. It was a really big problem.

“Another issue is that stagnant water collects in the folds of discarded bags and is known to breed mosquitoes carrying malaria,”

Lori estimates that nearly every person in rural Tanzania uses and tosses out one plastic bag each day. That may not sound like a lot, but when you understand that most villages do not have trash pick-up or recycling, that means all these bags are drifting in the environment.

Her solution? Simple. Canvas tote bags.

Lori Robinson's bag projectLori has collected tens of hundreds of tote bags in the U.S. and taken them to Tenguru, where until now they had been virtually non-existent. In 2005 she brought over her first shipment and set up a stand at a local marketplace where she distributed them. Her only requirement? Each person had to collect at least twenty-five plastic bags and bring them to her in order to receive a free canvas tote bag.

Lori was astounded by the response. She was literally mobbed. During her latest trip in February, she distributed 1,100 canvas bags in two hours–all to members of the community who had proudly helped cleaned it up. Some had even walked ten miles to receive one. It’s a win-win for everybody. “Totes that might otherwise end up in our garbage dumps in U.S. are replacing plastic bags that would otherwise end up on the roadsides of Africa,” Lori says.

Photo of plastic bags in AfricaLori has personally received and transported over 33,000 plastic bags to the Arusha, Tanzania dump. Even more exciting is that now well over a thousand people are equipped with canvas bags, which means these shoppers will no longer be adding plastic bags to the environment. She estimates that in the next year they will save the region more than 400,000 plastic bags.

I asked Lori to tell me what surprised her most about her bag project, and this is what she said:

“The most wonderful and surprising thing is how easily everything fell into place. The inspiration of giving totes in exchange for litter, getting the thousands of totes through customs, getting the message spread in the village that I was doing this project—there were so many pieces to the project that seemed like potential obstacles, yet nothing got in the way. I am also wonderfully surprised by all the people here who have taken this project on to collect totes, give money, and spread the word. It has been so great to watch the project touch others to be called to act. I often say it was divinely inspired because I was completely in line with what I was supposed to do. When that is the case, things happen effortlessly.”

Lori believes Tenguru could become a model of progressive, sustainable living for rural Africa. She will be going back in January and August 2012 with more totes.

When I asked her how somebody could help or get involved, she said:

The best way to help right now is to:

• Share the video so others can see how damaging plastic is to the environment.

• Travel with Lori to Africa on one of her Trips with a Cause (www.africainside.org).

• Donate money for extra luggage fees, garbage dump fees (for all the litter collected), and for paying people on the ground in Tanzania who help make this project so successful.

Click on this link to make a donation: http://www.crowdrise.com/africaInside/fundraiser/africabagproject

Or donations can be made to the Tribal Trust (a non profit accepting donations on behalf of this project) and sent to Lori Robinson at PO Box 31199, Santa Barbara, CA 93130.

If you ever doubted that one person could make a difference, Lori is living proof. I hope you will help support her project in whatever way you can.

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Thursday’s Picture of the Week: A Day in the Life of Africa

Photo of the Grand Mosque in Djenne, Mali

Behind the Scenes: It’s February 28, 2002 and Jeffrey is working on A Day in the Life of Africa, a book project in which nearly 100 photographers from around the world are participating in a historic, one-day documentary of Africa.

Photographers are spread out across 50 nations, from Cairo to the Cape of Good Hope, all trying to capture what is unique about the people, geography, and customs of this continent.

Jeffrey has chosen the West African nation of Mali—specifically, Mali’s medieval city, Djénné. He is intrigued by its massive Grand Mosquée, which is not only the largest mud-brick building in the world, but also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Built in 1905, it was modeled on a mosque first erected on the site in the 11th century. Every year, after the rainy season, much of the population helps repair and resurface the mud walls.

Book cover photo of A Day in the Life of AfricaOn the day of the shoot, Jeffrey and his interpreter Musa (Moses), drive all the way from the capital of Bamako, about 250 miles away, then immediately seek out the Imam, the leader of the Djénné Islamic community. They know they’ll need his permission to enter the mosque.

The two venture down narrow dirt alleyways, passing modest mud-pressed houses, eventually ending on the steps of the Imam. When the leader welcomes them inside, Jeffrey can’t help but notice an exquisite Swiss-made grandfather clock as well as a large-screen television.

As is customary, the three men have tea, then Jeffrey finally asks the Imam (through Musa) if it’s possible to photograph inside the mosque. The Imam rubs his chin, then promptly says, “No, it is not possible.”

Jeffrey, who has flown half way around the world to photograph this landmark, tries to keep his cool. “Why?” he simply asks.

The Imam replies, “No non-believers are allowed inside the mosque.”

Then he begins a long, convoluted story about how an Italian fashion photographer had recently been allowed in, deceiving them with his project, and bringing shame to their community. “He asked my permission, which I granted,” the Imam fumes, “then he took a woman there and had her remove her proper clothing to be photographed in a swimming suit. That is against our beliefs. We can no longer allow non-Muslims or non-believers inside.”

Jeffrey can feel the weight of his response pressing on his optimism. Not to be dissuaded though, he continues his appeal. “I will only be going in with Musa, and I will abide by all your rules. My only objective is to show the world what a magnificent place of worship you have here in Djénné.”

The Imam does not budge in his response. Jeffrey continues, “All the money raised from this book will go toward AIDS awareness in Africa. I only want to do something that is good for your people.

The Imam listens to Jeffrey’s plea, then suddenly begins hinting at a bribe. “See this fine grandfather clock. A very important person donated this to me when he wanted to see the mosque. And see this television? That was another donation by another important person.”

Jeffrey is immediately disgusted. “I’m sorry, but my only donation will be making a photograph that will show the beauty and magnificence of your mosque. And that donation will contribute to the book, which will raise money for the African AIDS Education Fund–yet another donation. If that is not enough, then I will not be able to photograph inside.”

As Jeffrey and Musa leave, Jeffrey starts thinking of Plan B. He tells Musa, “We are going to walk around this entire mosque—all 360 degrees—until we find a place that will be even better than if I had photographed inside.”

It doesn’t take long because as they’re walking down a narrow alley, Jeffrey notices a man praying on top of a nearby house. Musa talks to the man and explains what Jeffrey would like to do. In no time, they are up on the roof creating the photograph you see above. It not only captures the grandeur of the mosque, also but gives a broader glimpse into the culture of Mali.

Jeffrey had several other photographs of Mali published in the book as well.

Photo of Jeffrey Aaronson at the Day in the Life of Africa opening in Grand Central Station

Jeffrey Aaronson in Grand Central Station during the opening for A Day in the Life of Africa. Here he's standing in front of another of his images published in the book.

You can see the tapestry of images from this project and a list of the participating photographers by clicking on the links below:

Washington Post slideshow of images from A Day in the Life of Africa.

Photographer profiles and the countries in which they photographed.

Photo of photographers Paul Chesley, Jeffrey Aaronson, Michael Lewis

Photographers Paul Chesley, Jeffrey Aaronson, Michael Lewis in Grand Central Station at the opening for A Day in the Life of Africa

Photo of photographers Jeffrey Aaronson, Larry Price and Michael Lewis at a book signing for A Day in the Life of Africa

Photographers Jeffrey Aaronson, Larry Price and Michael Lewis at a book signing for A Day in the Life of Africa

Photo of Jeffrey and Becky Aaronson at the Grand Central Station opening for A Day in the Life of Africa

Jeffrey and Becky Aaronson at the Grand Central Station opening for A Day in the Life of Africa

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