My name tells my story: Ariane Alzhara Kirtley. Like Ariane in Greek mythology, I endeavor to help lead others to safety. Like Alzhara flowers, I blossomed in the wondrous Saharan wastelands. And in the footsteps of my family Kirtley — “over those hills” in Old Gaelic – I am driven by a compulsion to walk, seeking new adventures, discoveries and meaning.
At six months old, I crossed the Sahara Desert for the first time, lying in a baby basket secured to the back seat of my parents’ Land Cruiser. From those earliest moments forward, I enjoyed the most unconventional lifestyle imaginable, thanks to my parents Aubine and Michael Kirtley who were photo-journalists for National Geographic and GEO magazines at the time. My older brother Tercelin and I were “home schooled” while floating down the Niger River, trekking in African rain forests, and camping throughout the vast reaches of the Sahel. My fondest memories are of playing with my “best friend” Julia, a baby gorilla in Gambia’s Abuko Nature Reserve.
Soon after graduating from Yale University with a B.A. in Anthropology and a Master’s in International Public Health, I returned to the Sahara in 2005 as a Fulbright scholar. I spent several months living alongside Tuareg and Fulani herders in Niger’s Azawak Valley. There I witnessed children dying from dehydration: young boys and girls who walked up to 30 kilometers a day in searing 45° heat — not for pleasure, but out of desperation to find water. In 2006 I founded the international NGO Amman Imman: Water is Life, to address the needs of minorities in Africa, beginning with constructing deep borehole wells in the Azawak.
I am also the mother of three children: Fassely, Soriya, and Indima. Similarly to how my parents raised me, we have made the world their classroom, while we travel the globe as a family. Their most important lessons are learned, for instance, by carving soapstone with our Tuareg friends in Niger, while gathering paioux nut in the forests of the Central African Republic with the BaAka pygmies, or while riding through the streets of Niamey on our donkey, Zorro, and conversing with passers-by and neighborhood friends.
Along with being a humanitarian and mother, I am also a photographer and short story writer. I use my stories and photos to share the beauty and incredible social wealth, as well as the challenges of the children and people I meet during my travels. In fact, I began using social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram last spring to, through my photos and stories, help build bridges between worlds that would otherwise never have the chance to meet. I also wanted to tell the fascinating stories of the people I work with thanks to Amman Imman, and those of my children and their friends across the world. By raising awareness and telling the stories of the voiceless, I aim to, in my small way, help spread compassion, love and hope.