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WOMEN OF THE END OF THE LAND – AN INTERVIEW WITH ALLY ALEGRA

Ally, tell us, what is your life? Why do you do what you do? How did this all start?
I begin exploring the world at the age of 17, not as a photographer or an anthropologist but simply as a curious young woman, determined to go to places, and immerse herself in other cultures. After almost two decades of travelling, I decided to develop a meaningful long term project, which will interweave the art of photography, ethnography, while spending time with indigenous people. In 2011 I conceptualized the Wild Born Project.
I wanted to place women at the center of my work, wanted to meet these women, and listen to their stories. Later, I decided to focus my work more specifically on pregnancies, births and rite of passage traditions across cultures.

The Wild Born Project aims to explore and document traditional knowledge and ancestral wisdom of women members of remote tribal communities during the many phases of motherhood: pregnancy, birth, postpartum and right-of-passage rituals throughout each trimester. I started this project as a way to contribute to the revitalisation of indigenous knowledge in the present day, in order to ensure that their knowledge continues to be valued and can be passed down from grandmothers, to mothers to daughters and to the generations to come. Since the inception of the Wild Born project I’ve worked with more than ten different tribes from around the world, including Himba women in Namibia, Meakambut and Kosua communities in Papua New Guinea, Taut Batu communities in Palawan, Philippines, Changpa nomadic communities in India, and the Nenets of Yamal peninsula, Siberia.

The Wild Born Project is different from other documentaries about tribal women: it places women’s wisdom and traditions at the centre of stage. These ceremonies, rituals, herbal remedies and rites of passage have not yet been explored either because the traditions were too sacred to be shared, certainly not with an expedition of men, or because they were not seen as inherently valuable and transferable to the modern progressive world.
In my research, I aim to share the stories of women, their experience of motherhood within some of the most challenging environments on Earth while also considering traditional and modern techniques of birth and the relation between cultural practices and natural environments.

Why this love and passion for the wild borns? What is it that touches you most of these indigenous people?
I have been travelling for over twenty years now. During that time, I’ve had the good fortune to work and live with indigenous people and share in their wisdom. Throughout my travels I was continually impressed with the diversity and richness of their ways of life, of their art and storytelling. I realised then that there are other ways of living that, while different from that of our western perception, have much to teach us if we are open to listen. It’s important to capture that wisdom, perhaps now more than ever.

Many tribal communities live close to nature and connect through storytelling, stories that are woven around a whole web of cultural beliefs. These stories have traditionally been passed on from generation to generation and are strongly connected to their sense of community, identity and pride. These stories are extremely important. But they’re slowly being lost.

In recent years, I’ve noticed a loss of connection with heritage among indigenous people, especially with younger generations who are losing interest in their history. This disconnect can be attributed to the influence of western society that introduces progress and portrays traditional ways as the “old ways.” The result is a loss of identity, and of pride in their heritage. Of course, culture is dynamic and evolving all of the time, and new identities are a key part of that. But the indigenous people should determine that process themselves, rather than allowing non-native outsiders to do so.

I’ve been especially inspired by the women I’ve met, and this project celebrates women and cultural diversity, particularly the resilience, roles and power of indigenous women and girls from around the world. Over the past five years I have focused on rituals and initiations related to major events in a woman’s life, exploring different cultures’ attitudes and beliefs, particularly on the transformation into womanhood, birth preparations and postpartum. I discovered that some cultures honor and celebrate a girl’s first menstruation, such as the Himba tribes of Namibia who celebrate with a week of dancing, singing, and gifts, culminating in the girl being crowned as a queen.

Within the specific topic of pregnancy and childbirth, I am interested in learning how traditional midwives, mothers and healers utilize their environment in the protection and management of pregnancy and childbirth, as in the case of using native plants for medicinal purposes.

Is there any never known incredible feeling that arises in you when you are with them?
My work has allowed me to live closely with families, who’ve always expressed infinite generosity towards me which is humbling and I am grateful for every moment I share with these people. During an expedition in search for the Meakambut peoples in Papua New Guinea, one of the most memorable moments was waking up in my expedition hammock early one morning to sounds of chanting coming from two tribal chiefs. The chants intertwined with the sounds of the forest and the early bird calls, I felt as if time and space no longer existed.
Wiping away the tears of an elderly kosua chief, after he expressed his gratitude that I have come from far to be with the women in the village. Playing and rolling together on a frozen lake in the Siberian tundra with four years old Christina, and listening to her mischievous laughter. Sharing space in a small savannah mud hat with two traditional midwives witnessing the birth of a Himba baby girl… There are so many special moments – each unique and unforgettable.

Can you explain us as an example in a few words your adventure in the Northwest Siberia?
“Women at the End of the Land” was my most ambitious trip yet; it was an official Explorers Club Flag Expedition. From October to December 2016 i‘ve joined a small group of Nenets herders in the Arctic Circle where temperatures can plummet to -60°C and participated in their annual 1000 km migration on wooden sledges pulled by reindeer. In this frigid environment I accompanied a pregnant Nenets woman and her family during her ninth month of pregnancy. With their collaboration I embedded myself into the entire process of childbirth preparation in the wild and documented all facets of pregnancy, childbirth and postnatal childcare in one of the most hostile settings on Earth. I explored the question of cultural survival and climate change through the study of traditional midwifery knowledge.
For thousands of years, the Nenets people have made their annual winter migration across the Yamal peninsula. The Nenets people have amazingly endured these brutal conditions despite environmental and climate concerns and Nenets women have braced these changes while also giving birth and caring for their newborn babies. Their wisdom, resilience, and heritage are inspirational. As I documented the journey through film, photography, and media engagements, I hope to raise awareness of the imperative issues facing these communities and mothers today.
This documentation of oral histories, myths, taboos, ceremonies, sayings, songs, ritual chants, and more, which relate to pregnancy, birth and childcare, will result in an archive of materials that will contribute to Nenets culture revitalization programs. All the data collected will be provided to local Nenets cultural heritage organisations. Stories, photos and video collected during the course of this expedition will result in a comprehensive photography book with narrative titled Women at the end of the land, which I am creating with writer Kim Frank.

Could you in any possible way imagine to live like them? How do you feel in their company?
I don’t believe many people could live like the Nenets. They live in some of the most hostile environments known to men and lead a very tough life. They love their life but it required generations of adaptation. I aimed to experience what it meant to be a Nenets but I do not think I would want to live this life.

Next of making photos, what is it when you are with them? Are you like one of them?
My goal in my trips is to be a silent observer. Although I try to help with chores which are appropriate such as cutting wood for the fire, I am not part of the family or part of the community. Becoming part of a community requires years and even then, it will never be complete. The more communities I visit, the easier and faster I create a meaningful connection with the families.

How do you communicate if you don’t speak the same language? How do you find these tribes, the pregnant women?
Each year I choose a community representing a different type of environment from a desert, to a rainforest or the Arctic Circle. Planning an expedition requires many months of research, preparation and saving. In some cases the communities that I choose to collaborate with are remote and preparatory research is limited. Then I plan the journey route and travel logistics which can vary from hiring private plans for reaching remote location, to weeks of bushwalking, hiking mountains, crossing rivers and canoeing – whatever will get me there, it always includes an adventure!

Usually the communities I work with live in protected areas therefore working with them require extensive permits. These can take months to approve, and are often accompanied by strict regulations. The journeys always include local guides and interpreters. The challenge is to locate a female translator, which is essential for the kind of close contact that I have with indigenous women. In many cases the communities in which I work have taboos that don’t permit the presence of men. This expedition to Siberia I will be working with a female translator named Zelphira, who will accompany me for 60 days during the Nenets’ winter migration.

Upon arrival in a native community, I will be invited to meet with the tribe leader. This is my opportunity to introduce the project, my intended purpose, and myself. Once I receive approval from the tribe’s leader to work with the women, then I’ll invite the young girls, mothers and grandmothers to meet me, and introduce each other. Typically there’s mutual motivation; their natural curiosity about a woman who comes from afar to meet them triggers excitement. Locating a nine-month pregnant woman is certainly a big challenge. Usually I have no way of knowing in advance if I will meet a nine-month pregnant woman. My objective is to be invited to share her birthing journey, and to be present during her last month of pregnancy and through several weeks after birth. Once the women in the community and in the nearby villages understand the project, I wait for a woman to approach me and invite me into her journey. It has to be initiated by her.

The “Women at the End of the Land” expedition to Yamal Peninsula in Siberia required a slightly different approach. My goal was to travel with Nenets herders during their winter migration, because I wanted to learn how Nenets women adapt and practice pregnancy and birth in one of the harshest environments on our planet, all while migrating 1000 kilometers on wooden sledges pulled by reindeer. Her pregnancy had to align with the exact time that I will be travelling with them, during the migration. This has never been attempted before and for that we had to wait a whole year until we finally located the woman who I will be travelling with.

Is there something that they are missing in their lives?
I don’t think this is really relevant. The Nenets lead a simple life. They live the way their ancestors lived and are content.
Surprisingly, they do have the option of living an “urban” life – the government offers them housing in the cities and most young adults go to university but choose to return to the Tundra afterwards and lead a nomadic lifestyle. The Yamal Peninsula is one of the richest areas in Russia for natural gas and oil and as such, the people who live there have access to a lot of resources. The Nenets utilise some of the resources such as mobile phones and trains but choose to limit their possessions as it makes it easier to migrate.

What is the most incredible story you have lived?
There are many favourite moments. Similarly, special moments, which I had the honour sharing, are moments where there is less separation, and where I don’t feel just an observer rather feeling connectedness. Theses are the moments I cherish the most; they can be listening to sunrise chanting of two Meakambut chiefs to acknowledge and thank the spirits of the forests for giving them food, to sitting around the fire in circle of women, listening to them talk to each other and to their laughter, without knowing how to translate they sayings, or to the profound privilege of witnessing a birth in a small jungle hut.

What is it that make those women so special?
There is something powerful about the moment when a society recognizes a girl who becomes a woman. There is something magical when that happens. And different societies do this in a variety of ways. It’s a celebration of becoming a woman.
Wild Born project open up to people all over the world otherwise inaccessible and forgotten world of tribal women and their traditional knowledge in the most isolated places on Earth. It offers a unique opportunity to step into the environment of indigenous women and learn about their cultural heritage and wisdoms and their preformed rituals of becoming a woman and a mother.
Second, collecting oral history which is past on from mothers to daughters, traditional midwives , elderly women, is archived in order for it to be available for next generations.
Once the organization will be launched there will be available opportunities to participate, support, intern and be involved in a variety of roles within the project.

What is it that our western world can learn from them?
across cultures, women prepare differently to birth, their diet will vary according to what is accessible, or what can be found within their surrounding, whether its the African savannah, the jungle, the frozen tundra, in our gardens or in our supermarkets. Women choose to birth in different places, and develop a great variety of beliefs, taboos or superstitions around pregnancy and birth. I think that the diversity of approaches to birth, has an existential function in any cultural context.
I think that another difference lies with the fact that tribal women do not treat pregnancy and birth as a medical condition.. as we do in the west. Pregnant tribal women keep doing their work until they go into labor and in most location I have visited, the birth was calm and without stress. We have a lot of associated stress and medical intervention in the way we perceive birth.

How do they bring up and educate their children?
Until the age of 7, Nenets Children live with their families in the Tundra and learn the roles of their gender. Boys follow their father to heard the Reindeer and girls stay with their mother and learn her tasks.
At the age of 7 they move to a boarding school in a nearby town, where they stay until they are 17. They visit the family periodically during that time. Some of the children continue to higher education. The boarding schools focus on Nenets culture, teach the language, traditional skills and serve raw meet as this is what the families eat in the Tundra. They also learn general skill such as math.

How do the moms and the children mostly pass their times?
Nenets women play an important role in the household. While boys follow their father and are disciplined in tradition, use of sledges, working with the reindeer and dogs and lassoing, the girls stay with the women. The women is responsible for maintaining the household, cooking, collecting and chopping wood, fetching water, maintaining the chum, repairing clothing, cooking for the dogs, training the dogs and more.

Do most tribes have mobile phones, computers, TVs, radios?
Many of the communities I spent time with have access to mobile phones as in many cases the area is rich in resources and as such has mobile coverage. Some other communities do not have any power and so have no phones or computers. The Nenets I stayed with had phones and a generator which powered the laptop they used.

And now you, Aly, after having assisted so many births you must be so happy to be yourself a mom. 
I have been working on the wild born project for close to a decade now and it has been a learning and empowering experience which helped me prepare for motherhood. I am not a birth assistant or doula and so have not assisted any births. I only witnessed the births.

Are you going to continue your travels with Noah Pelle? With your partner? And from when on?
Absolutely! I am really looking forward to continue spending time with communities and traveling the world through Noah’s eyes. Obviously, we will now travel together with my partner to help take care of Noah while I am with the women of the communities.

How can we support you?
We are now in the process of expanding the wild born project into a non-profit organization. The nonprofit will invite midwives, doulas, students, and women to take part in projects focused on documenting and revitalizing the traditional knowledge of indigenous women, building birthing stations, empowering local women and girls, and exchanging knowledge with traditional midwives. We invite you to explore more about the different roles and collaborative opportunities with the organization on our website. www.wildbornproject.com

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