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The strange but true story of how a Kenyan youth became a world-class snow carver

After winning a prize in Quebec, Michael Kaloki went on to sculpt ice at other competitions, such as the Helsinki Zoo International Ice Carving Festival.
Michael Kaloki
After winning a prize in Quebec, Michael Kaloki went on to sculpt ice at other competitions, such as the Helsinki Zoo International Ice Carving Festival.

Updated December 9, 2022 at 12:00 PM ET

This story was updated on December 9, 2022.

We were a newly formed, hotel-freezer-trained African ice-carving team, applying to compete in the world-famous 2003 Quebec Winter Carnival. This was like applying to run the 100-meter race at the Summer Olympics, but never having tried on a pair of running shoes. But, it was worth a try. After all, there was a first time for Carl Lewis, too.

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I found the details online. "We will figure it out as we go along," I remember telling my intrepid teammates. At the back of my mind, I thought it was a crazy, uncalculated move.

But after several weeks, I received a response from the Carnival. Team Kenya had been accepted! We could not believe it! We were going to take part in a major global event!

Reaching this milestone was a combination of inspiration, generosity, perseverance and insanity. It's not that I hadn't seen snow before – I had. From our village in eastern Kenya, in the bright early morning you could look in one direction and see Mount Kilimanjaro, in Tanzania, and in the other see Mount Kenya, my country's pride and glory. I had often wondered what snow felt like and how lucky we were to be able to wake up and see it.

The year before the Carnival, I had just returned to Kenya after finishing a radio and television arts degree course at a university in Toronto, where there was plenty of snow. I was not sure what I wanted to do with my life. "You are spending too much time in the house, Michael," my dad would say.

I also remember a headline from one of Kenya's daily newspapers that year: "Climate Change Threatens the Snow and Ice Caps of Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya." I was an adult now and understood what climate change meant.

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My country's name is even linked to snow and ice. The word "Kenya" is said to have come about when a German explorer, Johann Ludwig Krapf, asked local Chief Kivoi about a mountain he'd seen. Kivoi described the mountain as "kiinya," in reference to it looking like an ostrich – with the snow resembling the white patches of the flightless bird. Now we were in danger of losing it.

While studying in Canada, I had seen some ethereal and majestic carvings at the Quebec Winter Carnival, which had even been dubbed the "Ice and Snow Carving Olympics." The teams taking part were from North America, Europe and Asia. There were no carvers from Africa. While still a student in Canada, I worked for a travel agency, which gave me a trip back to the Carnival as a parting gift when I left for Kenya.

So when I read the article about our mountains' disappearing snow, I thought, "Now is the time to do something, Michael. You need to show the effects of climate change in East Africa."

I decided that Africa should be represented at Carnival. I would form an ice and snow-carving team. I had never done any carving before, but I could always learn.

Team Kenya made a snow carving called "Samson in the Temple" at the 2006 Olympic Ice Arts Festival in Bardonecchia, Italy.
/ Michael Kaloki
Michael Kaloki
Team Kenya made a snow carving called "Samson in the Temple" at the 2006 Olympic Ice Arts Festival in Bardonecchia, Italy.

So I set out to find some teammates.

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I spoke to my buddy, television producer Robert Bresson, about my idea. He agreed to ask around. "Everyone I have spoken to thinks you are crazy, Michael," was his report. But we didn't give up.

Robert took me to the Nairobi National Museum. At that time, there were some sculptors who worked on the museum grounds. I introduced myself to the first one I saw and asked, "Would you want to form an ice-carving team?"

"Ice?" he said.

"Yes, ice," I said.

"Sure, why not? By the way, my name is Peter Walala."

I now had one team member. The teams I'd seen in Quebec had three or four members. So I needed to find at least one more.

I approached the "Miss Tourism Kenya" pageant holders and told them about my plans. I felt having a title holder on the team would make it more visible. Winnie Omwakwe, who was "Miss Earth Kenya," was glad to join in. Now we had three team members and one with carving skills. However, Peter had never worked with ice before, only wood and stone.

First, we needed to gel as a team. After all, we were total strangers. So we met for a couple of teas and coffees and decided that we were all OK to work with each other.

But we needed somewhere to practice. As we deemed it impossible to get to the top of Mount Kiliminjaro or Mount Kenya, we decided to try to find a big hotel freezer. I requested to meet with a director of one of the country's premier hotel chains, and he agreed. I told him about our plan to take part in one of the world's top ice and snow-carving events. He looked shocked at first, but seemed to warm up to the idea.

About a week later, he asked to see me. "A chef at one of our hotels is really thrilled about the plan you have and he would be glad to help you," he said. The chef gave us a cold room that fit about six people and left us to it.

For weeks, we spent most of our days at one of the city's top hotels. We froze water in the hotel's big urns and Peter would try to figure out the best way to carve it. Then he would teach us what to do. Winnie felt that sitting in 39 degrees was a bit cold and she also had a lot of pageant obligations to attend to. So most of the time it was just me and Peter carving away.

Even after we were accepted into the Carnival, there were more hurdles, such as getting flights and visas. Visas turned out to be no problem. We sent in our applications and were approved. It seemed the Canadians were giving us a chance to prove ourselves to the world!

Kenyan ice-carving team of Michael Kaloki (left) and Peter Walala, seen here working the ice in Toronto, represented Africa at Quebec's 2003 Winter Carnival and spread their message about climate change.
/ Ron Bull/Toronto Star via Getty Images
Ron Bull/Toronto Star via Getty Images
Kenyan ice-carving team of Michael Kaloki (left) and Peter Walala, seen here working the ice in Toronto, represented Africa at Quebec's 2003 Winter Carnival and spread their message about climate change.

Getting flights was harder. Peter was a member of a local arts trust, and they offered him a ticket under one of their grants. He left for Canada, while Winnie and I tried to figure out what to do. I had done some freelance video work for a local production company and they owed me a bit of money. It wasn't enough, but I would try to figure out where to get more. While waiting to pick up my check, the company's owner, Moses Nderitu, happened to see me.

"Michael, you had told me about wanting to start an ice-carving team. Whatever happened to that idea?" he asked. I told him I had formed the team and we'd been accepted into the Quebec Winter Carnival, but I did not have enough money for a flight. "Let me take care of the rest of the money for a ticket," he said.

I could not believe it! Here was someone who believed in me! My parents and many of my friends had thought what I was trying to do was absurd. Moses arranged for me to get my ticket, and we decided that Winnie would see what she could do to get to Canada. Sadly, she never made it to the event.

Arriving in Quebec was like arriving for the premier of a Hollywood movie starring Peter and me. The Canadian press had heard about us and had decided that our story was something their audience would be interested in.

When I got to our working area of the Carnival, Peter had already started on the snow sculpture we'd decided on: a mother rhino shielding her baby. Before his arrival, Peter had never touched snow. We had practiced at the hotel using ice, now here we were facing a large mound of snow. We had a few days to work on it. We did the best we could, learning by watching other snow sculptors use their carving tools, many of which we'd never seen.

In the meantime, during our press interviews, we talked about the impact climate change was having on Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya. On the last day of carving, we finally saw that we had done, well, an amazing job. To our delight, we were informed that the Kenyan government was sending a team from the embassy in Ottawa to attend the final day of the event. We felt like VIPs!

On the final day, it was announced that we had won a prize. "The Volunteers Award" went to Team Kenya! As we walked across the snow field to receive it, members from the Kenyan embassy shouted in jubilation. I looked across at Peter and saw that tears were freely flowing down his face. We had done what many thought was unachievable. The first Kenyan ice and snow-carving team had been recognized by the world on their very first try – and we were also getting our message out about our beloved East African mountains.

In the years that followed, Peter and I participated in a number of other international ice and snow-carving events. After a few years, Peter took a hiatus. I decided to try my luck for a bit longer to try to win a major global event. In 2011, I teamed up with Finnish sculptor Timo Koivisto at that year's Helsinki Zoo International Ice Carving Festival. Our team won first prize. I then decided to take a break. Kenya was finally on the ice and snow-carving global scene, and the message about the impact of climate change in East Africa had been passed on.

Michael Kaloki lives in Nairobi, Kenya. He is a freelance reporter with a keen interest in matters related to community development and climate change.

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Michael Kaloki