As travelers taking pictures, we are more than just observers. We hold a tool of discovery that give us the ability to create visual understanding of a place, transferring the unseen into something concrete.

But sometimes through photography and travel, one might only witness the world from a single lens, acting as an eyewitness as opposed to a participant.

This is how I was feeling as I planned my second trip to the African continent. I strived to see deeper and create greater meaning with my pictures, and as I began to research how I might do this, I decided the best opportunity to engage with the local community would be to volunteer.

After a lot of research, I came into contact with a marine conservation non-profit and they accepted my offer to join them as a volunteer photographer. I flew from New York to Johannesburg, then to the capital of Mozambique, Maputo. I crossed Mozambique by bus to reach the coast where the organization was located. I passed village after village — one selling cashews with plastic bags tied in the trees; another selling only peri-peri hot sauce, their excited hands shoving the bottles through the window as we drove past.

Twelve hours later I finally arrived in Tofo. A small fishing village popular for scuba diving and snorkeling in the balmy blue waters of the Indian Ocean, Tofo is located on a peninsula between the ocean’s white sandy beaches and a shallow inland estuary. Palms reach into the sky during abundantly starry nights, and a marketplace of handcrafted goods and local produce gives way to a nightclub after the sun goes down.

I was dropped off on the edge of town. As the rain poured down, my bags were soaked, body exhausted, cell service gone, and I couldn’t  understand anyone around me speaking Portuguese. I stood, confounded, wondering where I was, how I had gotten there, and why I had chosen to come at all.

Soon, a guy rolled up in a pick-up and after some wordless exchanges he motioned for me to jump in the back. The rain whipped across my face as we spun out, driving over sand dunes. When he stopped the car and said, “Aqui”. I looked out to the vast, calming ocean and knew everything that had brought me there was destiny.

I arrived safely to a straw-thatch beach-shack, perched atop a sandy dune where fellow non-profit volunteers and I shared the stories of why we had chosen to dive into this unknown adventure. Despite being days away from anything familiar, I realized how similar these strangers were. They were passionate people, hoping to make an impact greater than themselves.

The nonprofit I worked with, Marine Megafauna Foundation, is dedicated to preserving the mega-species of the ocean, focusing on some of its greatest and least known occupants — whale sharks and manta rays. Unfortunately, over the last 13 years of collecting data, sightings of these animals have decreased by 90%. The greatest threats to these animals are overfishing, poaching (due to demand for usage in Chinese medicines), coastline development, and ocean warming due to climate change.

One of the initiatives the foundation created promotes implementing curriculum into local classrooms to teach children the importance of marine conservation. Preschool students would go around the room saying aloud the Portuguese name for different marine animals and middle school students were tasked with examining how their families and local economy benefit from fishing or tourism because of the ocean. Their teachers then encouraged them to think about what would happen if the ocean wasn’t available as such an important resource to their community anymore.

Gabriel, the leader of the education program and a Tofo resident his whole life, showed us his organic farm that could enable local communities to provide sustainable agriculture. His farm operates on a closed-loop cycle, with all the organic material recycled back into the soil. The chickens feed the fish, which feed the soil, providing food for people and food for the earth.

We met with community fishermen and spoke of how to balance setting aside no fishing zones while also allowing the fishermen to provide for their families. It’s not only important to allow the fish populations to grow, but also to find opportunities for these fishermen to still make a living. We took single-sail dhow boats into the estuary and monitored populations of sea creatures and the quality of coral reefs.

On weekends, over 20 students from the foundation’s swimming program would clear the beach free of trash, walking the mile-long stretch of public beach and removing each tiny piece of trash that could harm sea life. They would then build sand castles of whale sharks to bring the animal to life and represent its magnitude and structure. Hand-in-hand, we would run into the ocean. Most people in the town don’t know how to swim, and the students were some of the very few who dove into the ocean without fear. As they swam confidently, the sheer joy on our faces expressed the collective union we share through our love of the sea.

I learned to scuba dive, descending to the sea floor and observing an entirely different world of community living. The balance of cooperative life was suspended in the sea. As I swayed in the underwater swell to huge pulsing waves, back and forth like a metronome melodically acknowledging a steady beat, I realized everything exists in harmony.

A stingray outstretched its pectoral fins and sailed through the reef. An eel bobbed in and out of its hole in the coral, it’s mouth opened and shut as it took breaths in and out. Clownfish danced with anemone, lobster sheltered in coral, a flat flounder camouflaged itself in with the sand. A barracuda chased after a school of snapper — one unlucky, one to feed the other, and the other to feed the next.

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Seeing deeper, I understood that every living thing exists as part of a relationship to something else. Everything we need to thrive on this planet is provided for us. From it, we take only as much as we need. Giving to it, we offer the greatest gift we can.

In Mozambique, I was exposed to a way of life and an intelligent new way of thinking that otherwise would have gone unseen. Before then, I only took pictures. But, by making these pictures and giving them to the community, I was able to, in turn, share the beauty the world had given me. My experience in Mozambique taught me that the most fulfilling gift is one you give.

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