Jengana, Nairobi, Kenya – documentary photography (DAY 1)
Blog , January 13, 2017
Early Starts, long flights and familiar airports, documentary photography.
I haven’t been much of a traveller. Its expected though as a documentary photographer. Up until I was 10 I thought everyone went to the North Coast for their holidays. Believe me it wasn’t as go to as it is now. The Ramore wasn’t even a twinkle in someone’s eye. However you go on one trip, survive, and then next thing you think you are a jet setter.
Last summer it was out to Nairobi, to see the work that the charity Jengana were doing. They have been working in Nairobi for nearly 8 years. Their work has built up gradually to the point where they now have land to develop. I have known Fransuer and Rachel for a few years, they have also been coming to my church for some time. Fransuer lived in the slums of Nairobi as a child, surviving on whatever he could. He was then taken in and educated, went to university and ended up here in Northern Ireland marrying a girl from Ballinamallard, Rachel – there is a joke there but i’ll skip it this time. They talk about the land and some of the other things they were involved with but it really was a shock to see all that they are involved in and accomplish.
Having spoken with Fransuer for a while and listening to all the things he has spoken about I thought it was time to get out with them and I managed to get on one of the teams heading out. It was all last minute and I had to squeeze it in around my work here – right in the middle of wedding season and so it ended up that I was coming back early on my own. We had talked a little about some documentary work around what they were doing.
Travelling away from Home.
We were heading to Addis airport first and most flights id been on where overnights. This was a day flight and it started early at Dublin Airport. The kids were away in London (i was missing my daughters birthday to go!) and so my wife kindly dropped my down with us leaving the house just before 5am. There is always some sort of detachment when you leave your family and its certainly a sacrifice not to see them for a week. However at that time of the year even that early the sun is up. However i didn’t manage any documentary photos at that time or even the first stage of the journey.
Its a 7.5 hour flight with Ethiopian Airlines (but they have bought some new planes and so its a little more comfortable now than the first time I went out. It comes from LA and refuels in Dublin. We arrived in Addis in the middle of the day but had to wait for the connecting flight to Nairobi. Addis Airport can get a little crazy, sometimes I wonder how they manage to get everyone where they need to be. As we moved towards the gate there was just a wall of people trying to get through to the line for security. Davy Mairs , our experienced traveller, pushed a way through and we followed. Only to join another queue for security. It was not moving quickly and I think the flight was a little late departing.
The start of a bad joke.
You think its a quick hop from Addis to Nairobi but its not. The flight was 2.5 hours and I was sandwiched (i’m a big guy) between a muslim lady with with burka and a little nun travelling from Nigeria. It was the oddest three people in a row I think ever. Almost like the start of a joke. By the time we landed and got our bags it was almost 1.30am. This was starting to be a long day.
For some though signal and WIFI appeared.
And we see that screen glow yet again! Certainly that first photo is one of our elders, the well travelled David Mairs. The place we stayed was a little away from the airport and it took another 45 mins to get there. Bed was welcomed at 3am. But we had to be up again at 9am which doesn’t really work for me.
The first Morning.
After a whole day travelling and arriving in the darkness it was great to see where we arrived.
It was beautiful, peaceful and tranquil. The trees were huge probably hundreds of years old. Some reached maybe 5 floors high on a building. Its just mind blowing when you put even something like that into perspective, how long they have been there. Sitting under at night – under the peace of African Skies (Paul Simon ref- yes) there was something majestic about it. I wondered if there were animals out that that I might not want to see face to face and judging from the strange noises at night, it would have been wise not to stray too far.
An early start considering our late arrival and the first of the chocolate drinks with hot milk in a large water boiler – it kept me going! It was off to church first thing on the Sunday morning. It was like most new churches these days and was running out a school. The main congregation was in what seemed to be a marquee with the sides pinned back to let a little wind breeze through but it didn’t stop many of us nodding off a little every though it was lively and interesting.
We headed to out for a picnic lunch in a local park, which included a local photographer taking some engagement photos, some lizards and the largest and strangest fruit I had seen for some time.
Its really important to give the correct picture of a place like Kibera. Documentary doesn’t always do that. What you see however could consume your mind quickly. Its not what we are used to. Life is rich and community is more real than here in home though. While people might call it sad, there is also a sense of beauty and hope. It falls into that phrase coined a few years ago by a friend Sad but beautiful places.
Kibera falls into what seems like a small valley. In between new roads and motorways, surrounded by golf courses and official looking buildings in the distance. Even our road in seemed to suddenly move from appartments and relatively decent housing to huts in the space of a few hundred metres. It seemed to be a piece of land that was convenient to live in. I’m not even sure how close it was to the centre of Nairobi. It exists, but it is not recognised by the government essentially an illegal development which over time has gotten bigger and more sophisticated to a limited extent. There is no sewerage that is for sure. It was the most striking utility missing. A black and thick stream in many directions of raw sewage. It defied belief until you learned a little about the place. We walked around the slums for a few hours taking in what life is in the middle of this place. A culture shock. As far removed from what I have known all my life. Rubbish heaps, railway lines in the middle of dense shelters. Illegal electric supplies running throughout the place.
We had initially stopped in the administration buildings for the area. They were illegal yet there was an element of government close by. We parked in this area and brought two policemen with us. Its strange I never felt under any threat at any time, in fact most people where quite friendly and smiled or waved but these guys moved with us in Kibera for the few days we were there.
We walked to a local church that Jengana engaged with. Listening to the work they were involved with in this community was truly inspiring. It wasn’t just a charity it was more of a co-operative. As we stopped just outside the actual church (which seemed to be through a gated area in the middle of the slum) I noticed a lot of kids hanging around and I used the opportunity to take photos and show them what I had taken.
My experience generally of Africa is that this relaxes people especially kids and it usually raises a few smile. There were several older children that did not react in any way. Almost dulled to all life’s experiences, no intrigue or curiosity. One photo of a young guy looking away haunted me for a few days. It was the first time that this had happened to me. Again it stands out because I remember taking it at the time. Instantly something did not seem right and over the course of the next few days I kept going back to it. It is the last one in the series below coming out of the slums. You’ll know which one.
We walked for about 2 hours and about 10km in and out through the different paths we could find. We then headed back to the administrative buildings trying to take in what we saw. Heading to the next place was a complete contrast. It was further out in the countryside. Jengana’s home for abandoned kids. It was a proper house with well kept gardens and spacious too. The kids there seemed to be cherished but as with all visitors wanted a little entertaining. We got stuck in helping with some of the smaller kids and babies. The house had a sense of hope about it. Something immensely positive, at its beginnings. It brought us to the end of our journey and documentary for day 1
Time to Think.
While i had seen poverty like this before, the thought of such a dense population in such a small area was hard to grasp. That this was life. That this was the best way to try to live or get by. I was overwhelmed that first night by the sense of how unfair this was. It can be hard to take in. You cant unsee compacted poverty, kids living in these places, your nose takes an hour or two to get rid of the smell that is so strong you almost taste it. I look back on the few notes I made capturing the rawest of my emotions and the photo documentary draws me back to the moments i saw through my eyepiece.
‘What do you do once you have seen such poverty and injustice? You do what you can, small steps,making a change and a difference however slowly with the worry that you will never truly capture what you saw in its entirety and be able to convey of their necessity to get involved’.
So far it had been a relaxed introduction to Kenyan culture. With our schedule we always knew what we were doing next. Words cannot always prepare you for real life. We headed into Kibera slum for the first time for a quick walk to see what would be involved with for the week. So many things crowded in on the senses that it difficult to fully articulate. Generally a couple of lines of text are all you have to draw people in to a rambling post about third world poverty. This is sight, sound and smell and so words with a few pictures will never get you there in its entirety. I wish it was easier but only going to these places gives you the full effect. Even with my trip to rural Ethiopia I was still unprepared for what I saw.
Kibera Slum is a difficult place to put a size to, both in terms of land area and population. The figures given where approx. 4 sq miles and 1 million people. However at the point which we got to look over the area it was hard to put that into perspective in your head.