Field Notes: Up Into The Andes

Field Notes: Up Into The Andes

Not only is Taylor Glenn an incredibly talented photographer, he’s also a genuinely good person who cares deeply about giving back. You get a sense of his ability to connect with people and places throughout his wide-ranging work. Last year, Taylor reached out to us about an organization called TOMA (Tribal Outreach Medical Assistance). On a recent expedition we sent TOMA as many Luci lights as they could carry. Below Taylor shares details of the trip to rural Colombia, and talks about how gratifying his partnership with TOMA has been. 



Our journey began at dawn this past February, on the 18th. After loading our equipment into a beat-up Toyota 4x4 we set out for the trailhead deep in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. After a 6-hour drive, we are met by several men and their mules, from the Arhuaco village of Umake. It is quite a sight to see the team loading mules with batteries, solar panels, concrete, and all the other things that go into installing this technology in such remote environments.

Fortunately, on this day the weather is fair and the temperatures had not yet reached the sweltering conditions typical for the region. Umake is around 4 hours from this point, so with little time to waste, we set off in order to make the village before sunset. Walking in this lush tropical mountain region is quite special. It is extremely remote and much of it still intact as old growth forest with pristine watersheds funneling water out of the Colombian Andes. You get a sense of what the world may have felt like prior to the mass manipulation of the landscape we humans have created. As we navigate mule-rutted, muddy trails it's hard not to stop in wonderment of the lush foliage, massive trees and the occasional dwelling we encounter as we make our way down into the valley.

The Umake villagers, like many of the tribes to which TOMA provides aid, are aware of the outside world, yet remain fiercely protective of their culture. They are subsistence farmers; they grow cocoa, coffee, and tubers to both trade and sustain themselves. Women and children do most of the cooking and sewing; their mochillas, intricate and beautiful wool bags they spend hours making, are an important cornerstone of the village’s business. It is a simple and challenging way of life.

As we arrive on the outskirts of Umake we begin to come across some of the local people along the trail. Because outsiders are essentially forbidden in this region, including Colombians, we cause quite a scene as we amble along with our mule train. Many of the children have never seen foreigners and I think they may have been more fascinated by the sight of us than the other way around. We finally enter the village to a lot of curious stares and with a friendly ‘Buenos Dias!’ (the Arhuaco people use Spanish to communicate with the outside world) everyone smiles and our new friends graciously welcome us.

TOMA has a long history of working with remote villages in Colombia and beyond. The organization aims to improve the quality of life for these communities by installing solar systems that provide power for healthcare related needs such as vaccine refrigeration, dental equipment, and other medical devices. In some villages, power circuits are connected to schoolrooms and community shelters for lighting. Our goal for this trip was to install two solar systems for the Arhuaco villages of Umake and Seynurwa. We also visit the arid Guajira region to meet the Wayuu tribe because we heard news of their struggle for access to water. The region is suffering through long-term drought conditions, and after seeing the dire situation they are facing, the TOMA team decided it would dedicate future expeditions to assisting this community.

After two long days of work, Umake’s solar array stands ready to begin capturing energy from the sun. Appropriately the entire community gathers as the team finalized details of the system. The villagers are thrilled with the idea of having power, even though they have little understanding of all that it will offer for them in the future. It is quite a thought experiment to consider how profoundly this simple technology can improve life. To commemorate the occasion, we all gather around the solar array for a group picture. Dusk was setting in quickly and this presented the perfect opportunity to give out the additional gifts we had. Thanks to MPOWERD, I am able to carry a large quantity of Luci lights. The solar systems TOMA installs are primarily for health care needs and classrooms, so individuals don’t typically have access to use that power source.

This is where Luci comes in. It is hard for us living in places like the US to perceive how dark it is when there is actually no light. The people of Umake and all the communities here live by the sun. Even in daytime, it is very dark inside their dwellings. We begin to hand out the lights and demonstrate how to operate them. They accept them eagerly, gesturing excitedly amongst themselves in their native Arhuaco language. The lights will help them carry out their daily tasks, and be productive once the sun is down.

TOMA is a truly unique group in the NGO community. Because they are such a small organization, all donations, whether funding or equipment, go directly to the field work. Essentially every dollar that comes in goes right to the projects and the people who benefit from them. TOMA is grateful to MPOWERD and all their partners who support this work.

In March of 2018, the team will return to the Guajira region in Northeast Colombia for two health and sustainability projects. The first phase is a solar installation to power a school and health post, and the second phase will benefit 6 villages and approximately 1200 people. The team will then travel to a desert area near the border with Venezuela, where a five-year drought has caused significant suffering and loss of life among the Wayuu tribe. Much of their livestock has perished and agricultural production has all but disappeared. TOMA‘s plan is to drill a well for one needy Wayuu community near Riohacha using simple but well-engineered reusable equipment. There are over a hundred villages that need clean water, and with continued support TOMA hopes to establish several wells per year and vastly improve the lives for the Wayuu people. Stay tuned for updates from the field in April.

Click here to learn more and support TOMA.