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Africa's second Ice Age

By Sylvia Smith for CNN

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Walala and Kaloki at work on Samson destroying the temple.

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BARDONECCHIA, Italy -- The Inuit may have countless words that express precisely the myriad types of snow found in their frozen lands, but in the national language of Kenya, Ki Swahili, there is just one -- "theluji."

That word had never even passed the lips of sculptor Peter Walala when he was asked at the tender age of 26 to abandon his traditional carvings in stone and wood and start working in deep-frozen ice.

The extraordinary request was the start of Kenya's two-man, national snow sculpture team that appeared in a competition on the sidelines of the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin.

Although it has meant lots of personal sacrifice and almost frostbitten fingers, the team of Walala and Michael Kaloki has overcome countless obstacles on the road to entering international competitions.

The word "challenge" often crops up in conversations with them. "It was a challenge right from the start, trying to get tools to use on the small blocks of ice that we made in our home freezers," Kaloki said.

It was Kaloki, as a young journalism student in Canada, who happened to see the winter carnival in Toronto. He was captivated by the images created out of cold, white powder, an alien material. Yet he determined to bring his own country into snow and ice sculpting competitions.

After his studies he returned to Kenya and persuaded Walala, who usually worked to commission, to get his hands freezing cold fashioning ice, a medium about which he knew nothing.

Although they rapidly learned the skills needed to shape ice into recognizable forms, the two men were hampered by the size of the ice blocks available from domestic freezers.

With the tenacity that comes from aiming high but without the necessary financial backing, the pair eventually persuaded the New Stanley Hotel in Nairobi to allow them to practise on larger blocks of ice in the kitchen's cold room.

"We only had one thick coat between us," recalls Walala. "So we took it in turns to work on buckets of ice."

That gave the men the experience required and a chance to enter the Winter Festival in Quebec in February 2003. But that, in turn, led to another obstacle.

"Then there was the challenge of persuading an airline to fly us to Canada," Kaloki explains. "Not many people really considered us worth sponsoring as we were complete unknowns."

'Like foam'

But in Quebec they won a prize for a sculpture called The Struggle. It depicted a white mother rhino looking after a black baby rhino. The message was that global warming was beginning to melt the ice caps on Mt Kilimanjaro.

Their joy at the prize was highlighted as they were competing against teams such as Finland, where there is snow for many moths each year. Moreover it was the first time that Kaloki had actually touched real snow. He had imagined it as light and fluffy "like shaving foam."

That success whetted their appetite for more, but people in Kenya were incredulous. "Cold is something people in African culture are afraid of," says Walala. "But we enjoy ourselves despite not having the proper gear."

Not having thermal wear has resulted in almost frostbitten fingers, but Walala seems to rather like working without gloves. That is because he is passionate about what he does, according to Ruth Evans, a radio journalist who has made a documentary about the two men and their love affair with snow and ice.

"When I fly with them to competitions Peter's eyes light up when we fly over snow," she explains. "They are completely dedicated and very eloquent about their chosen medium."

They talk about the translucence of the snow when light hits. They relish the special quality of ice when the sun shines down.

Peter also feels that the transient nature of sculptures in snow and ice is a plus. "With most art forms, people keep the results for ages. But snow's advantage is that is that you only see it for a few hours - so you appreciate it more." He also likes the fact that they can recycle and reuse the same snow.

The two are so full of energy and enthusiasm that on occasion they have gone without food in order to scrape together a couple of airfares.

"Their passion and commitment against all odds makes this something more than just a funny story about Africans and snow," says Ruth Evans. "Just think that as Europeans are flying south to Kenya for warm sunny weather and a beach holiday, Peter and Michael are itching to get somewhere cold."

For the snow competition in Bardonecchia near Turin, the pair came up with an ambitious project: a massive and powerful image of Samson pulling down the pillars in the temple.

Peter and Michael may not have won a prize this time, but they are already gearing up for the Vancouver Olympics in 2010. And as Ruth Evans points out, they were winners simply by being there.

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