Why So Long?
By Nessim Stevenson
The following blog-post has been put together using the transcripts of a WhatsApp voice-note Sebastian recorded at the airport in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, and a recorded interview with Alicia at the wrap-up party of a 10-day shoot in Jordan.
The story starts around the time of Obama’s first inauguration, back in 2008. Sebastian was in LA doing an internship at a denim factory, learning how to make jeans. One sunny day, he and his friend Lina were driving to the beach, when she looks over to Seb and says "What took you so long?". And it just hit him, What Took You So Long! He didn’t know what the phrase would be used for but he knew that it had struck a chord in his heart. The question had triggered something in him, a will to do more, to question things more, to travel and feel things that he hadn’t felt before. "What Took You So Long, it’s just a beautiful invitation to engage." Right then and there, on his iPhone generation 1, Sebastian went to GoDaddy.com and bought the domain of whattookyousolong.org - "I couldn’t buy the .com at the time because Emma Bunton owned it, the Spice Girl chick". Soon after, the What Took You So Long Foundation was born! An initiative intended to bring people together, and link up NGO communities worldwide.
Meanwhile, after having been kicked out of the American peace corps for buying a motorcycle, Alicia was running a small home-based production company in Northern Ghana making films about all sorts of things. One fateful evening, she found herself in ‘the Boonies’, on the outskirts of Tamale, filming a deaf dance and drumming group perform on stage. Intrigued by her wooden tripod and old-school camera, Sebastian walked up to her and introduced himself. Alicia was not impressed at first, ‘I was annoyed, mostly because I had a broken audio cable, but also because he was invading my space, and acted like he knew everything. But then I realised that he was genuine and funny, so I relaxed and we had a good time.’ Sebastian told her about an idea for a trip that had been fermenting, a journey from Morocco to South Africa by public transportation, searching for untold stories and unsung heroes. He was convinced that Alicia ought to come along with him and make a film about the whole thing. After many messages and calls over the following weeks, Alicia gave in and decided to join.
That is how they ended up spending two-and-a-half months crossing the African continent. From coal trains across the Sahara, to mini-buses through dense jungles. Even though Alicia was the only traveler in the group with filming experience, everyone became part of the crew. Once the filming was finished, the team stayed in South Africa for a month editing the film. Alicia then joined Seb in Hong Kong, where he was going to university at the time; and spent 3 months living illegally in a studio while managing a team of 9 interns until they finished the edit of the film.
It wasn’t until about a year and seven months later that the camel lumbered its way into their lives. Sebastian and Alicia used to joke about who likes everything more, always competing about whatever it is that they love, and which of them loves it more. One of the things they both loved was cheese, and so they decided to make a film about unsung cheese. They began researching cheeses around the world, and after meeting Philippa in Hong Kong, worked with her to produce a research document which included Yak cheese in Tibet, blind Chinese monks making cheese, to a camel cheese factory in the desert of Mauritania. They were making lists, developing a crew and bringing in people from Alicia’s cheese club (because she started an award-winning cheese club in university). The unsung cheese project bubbled away in the background as Alicia, Sebastian, and new intern Philippa went on their own travels.
Alicia was working on a video project in Kenya with her father: 'I made the video and my dad was like ‘See you later, I’m going to Hargeisa!’. And I was like ‘There’s no way that I’m not going too!’. Sebastian happened to be at a conference in Ethiopia, and so after Alicia asked him to join her in Somaliland, telling him that she had fallen in love with the place, he jumped on a khat truck heading West.
Somalis love camels more than any other people in the world, "and so the meaning of the camel was coming so strong to us, just from hearing and being and seeing". Philippa had been travelling in Mauritania and had visited the fabled camel cheese factory. Her research on other unique cheeses stayed in paragraph form while the research on camel cheese grew and grew pages long. As each one of the team had their own individual camel milk experience, they realised, almost simultaneously, that the story wasn’t about unsung cheese, it was about camel cheese.
They started the kickstarter campaign (while on a project in Papua New Guinea - of all places) and the filming began. They traveled by land, from Hong Kong to China, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, India and then to Africa.
Perhaps Alicia ought to take it from here: