There are so many aspects of travel that astound me, both negatively and positively, but it’s human nature that truly makes the strongest impression. From ignorance, stupidity, and hatred to wisdom, joy, love, and overwhelming resilience. Sadly, there seems to be an uncanny correlation between money and the negative aspects of human nature.
Having driven through a semi-arid landscape for two or three hours, passing giraffes and antelopes grazing along the roadside, we reach the remote part-time clinic. Here the organisation I was working alongside had a weekly service to help feed the most vulnerable, children under five years old. Eastern Garissa in 2011 was in the midst of a drought to which the odd desiccated carcass of a cow attested. The acacia trees showed little of their meagre green, normal for that time of year, and animals wandered listlessly looking for food, bones protruding from their shoulders.
I’d come to observe the activities of the organisation’s employees and the inner workings of the project to see how well everything was being conducted, as well as looking for areas of improvement. Part of that was really just taking time to watch, both inside the clinic (a thatched shelter walled with long thin branches collected from the surrounding scrubby bushes) and outside, where the local people gathered to bring their children or just watch the weekly event.
The people in this area of Kenya are predominately Kenya Somalis and have the distinct Somali features, proud of their heritage. Mainly pastoralists, the drought had had a brutal effect on their herds, with a knock on affect of lowering income and food supply. In short, these people have little or nothing and are some of the poorest (monetarily) people in the world. I have to say that I have a soft spot for Somalis. They are friendly towards strangers, welcoming, and are quite verbose when they have a point to make (although there is still some interesting logic to decipher). Sadly my Somali and Swahili is either non-existent or practically so. But the universal smile and even just hanging out with people is often enough to be appreciated. With some arm waving and pointing, and plenty of grins, information can be conveyed, even at some basic level. I find that by listening, even without understanding, and being attentive can really allow people to relax. After twenty or thirty minutes I brought out may camera and “asked” if it was okay to take some photos. Of course there were a few shy faces, some epic power poses, along with some 100yard stares. Taking only the occasional photo, and only when it was clear that people were comfortable with me doing so, I managed to get some really nice portraits.
Even though I wasn’t able to understand all their stories, it’s not difficult to see the struggle of everyday life in their eyes. Despite that, the sense that you’re welcome is ever present. The kids reactions to seeing their face on the rear screen of the camera were, of course, hilarious. This obligatory viewing helps to ease the mystery of the camera, although not everyone is happy to have their photos taken. Most, if not all of the shots were taken at the person’s eye level or lower using a 50mm prime lens. I’ve found that in East Africa (to generalise) people don’t really like having their photo taken. At least not in the same why as you can snap away in Asia as a random stranger. And so spending some time to hang out creates some trust. The feature image of this post, in my opinion, is one of the strongest portraits I’ve taken and I’m quite sure I wouldn’t have managed if I hand’t spent half an hour just listening and taking time with them.
Over the years I’ve been very fortunate for my work to take me to places where I can meet incredibly resilient people. I think that my one hope is that I can somehow convey dignity, even in poverty and hardship, and show the beauty of the people that I meet around the world.
You can check out all of the images in Pixieset – they’re also for sale (with a donation to Save the Children included).