Images from Another World: The Samburu Women’s Photography Workshop

Some of my Samburu workshop women practice photographing after our first training session.
Some of my Samburu workshop women practice photographing after their first training session. The women are members  of a women’s empowerment group–the On’gan Women’s Cooperative–which was formed in 2008 and brings women together in collaboration to start they own initiatives and is generally a community resource to build self-determination and autonomy.

 

On the first day of the Samburu Women’s Photography Workshop in Kenya a few weeks ago, I was greeted by the wonderful sight of my workshop attendees singing and clapping their hands as they slowly processed into Sabache Camp—a community owned and run camp—where the workshop was to be held. Adorned in their colorful clothing and intricately crafted beadwork, their beautiful voices rose up and mingled with the sounds of birds, cicadas and other small wildlife in the bush around us. It was a joyful moment for me and was somehow a fitting start to this unusual adventure for us all.

I’d come to this wildlife-rich and remote part of Kenya to teach a photography workshop to a women’s empowerment group–The On’gan Women’s Cooperative–made up of tribal Samburu women. The group was formed in 2008 and brings women together in collaboration to start their own initiatives or businesses and includes micro finance programs, vocational training programs and is generally a community resource to build self-determination and autonomy. While I’ve taught photography to children in Rwanda over the last two winters and have spent quite a bit of time in East Africa, I knew little about the Samburu tribe or how these women might respond to the workshop.

The photo workshop was a collaboration between myself and a local college professor/lead lion researcher at the Lion Conservation Fund, who has been working closely with the Samburu community for years. She had told me about the women’s empowerment group and together we’d come up with the idea of the workshop which she then presented to the community, the cooperative and the tribal elders.

After their approval and with the help of a local Cape Cod photography shop, Orleans Camera, who donated nine point and shoot digital cameras, as well as funds from the sale of prints and calendars at my recent “Uncommon Journeys” photography show and a few other private camera donations, I arrived in Kenya ready to share my enthusiasm for photography with women who had never even seen a television before. I had also brought with me a small printer so that we could make prints of the women’s work for them to take home with them and for a community board where others could see the prints.

Having worked with children in Rwanda at the Through the Eyes of Hope Project, I had first hand knowledge of how empowering and joyful photography could be. There was also the thought that the photography workshop could help document the Samburu women’s lives and stories and elevate their voices. As ancient cultures change and rapidly disappear across the globe due to globalization and development, these stories and images could be instrumental in helping them document and record their culture and traditions from their own perspective before they are lost forever.  Most importantly, I hoped this would be a fun, empowering and useful experience for the women.

The Samburus, who live in the Rift Valley Province of Northern Kenya, are closely related to the Masai tribe and are semi-nomadic pastoralists which is one of the reasons they’ve been targeted. They live in small clusters of homes called “bomas” made of mud, hides and grass mats strung over poles. Cattle, sheep, goats and camels are central to their way of life and their diet is made up primarily of milk as well as roots, vegetables, tubers and some blood from livestock. Since the Samburu tribe has been relatively isolated from western culture, despite the pressure to settle into more permanent settlements, their culture remains quite intact and they live very much as they have for generations—another reason they’ve been targeted by external groups who see them as “culturally backward”.

Over the days that followed my arrival, the women learned to use the cameras, looked at many images on my computer as I presented ideas about composition, light, creating portraits, capturing “moments” etc. and had a great time photographing everything in their path. Women’s empowerment group coordinator and translator, Naomi, translated our back and forth communications and I was immediately struck by the women’s sense of humor, their openness and their connection to each other.

I knew that many of the women had had the experience of being photographed by tourists but had never had the opportunity to capture their own lives.  Now they joked over and over how they were “Mzungus” (white people) and a few even hatched a plan to whip out their cameras next time a safari vehicle pulled up beside them with a bunch of tourists eager to photograph them.

When they returned to their villages, I asked them to photograph the things that were important in their lives and a few days later when they came back, I was enthralled with the worlds I saw unfolding as I edited their images. Their homes, their children, goats, camels, beautiful Mount Ololokwe—it was clear to me that they had fully embraced their assignment and had lovingly captured the world that was so familiar and meaningful to them.

I was touched by the fact that some of the women had even made special pouches in their skirts to hold their cameras so they would have them close at hand.  After editing images, each woman chose a few to take with her and I posted many others on the community board. I relished watching as not just the women but the men and others who had not been part of the workshop, joyfully looked at the photos together.

When it was time for me to leave, my only regret was that I didn’t have enough cameras to leave behind for all the women who had come to participate in the workshop. I promised myself that I would be back with cameras for those I didn’t have enough for this time around. Below is just a small selection of images from the workshop.   Thanks so much to all the people who helped make this workshop happen and enjoy the photos!

Me with some of the Samburu elders who participated in the workshop. The Samburu culture reveres its elders and I noticed how it was the elders who spoke first and most confidently, who got first dibs on the cameras and had their work edited and printed before the younger women.
Me with some of the Samburu elders who participated in the workshop. The Samburu culture reveres its elders and I noticed how it was the elders who spoke first and most confidently, who got first dibs on the cameras and had their work edited and printed before the younger women.

 

A couple of the younger women show share their work with each other after taking their first few photos.
A couple of the younger women share their work with each other after taking their first few photos.

 

Maria Letiwe, one of the most enthusiastic of the elder women, proudly dons her camera during the workshop.
Maria, one of the most enthusiastic of the elder women, proudly dons her camera during the workshop.

 

Karini Agirumbwa poses for a portrait during the workshop.
Karini poses for a portrait during the workshop.

 

Mampayun Lemartili practices using her camera.
Mampayun practices using her camera. I knew that many of the women had had the experience of being photographed by tourists but had never had the opportunity to capture their own lives from their perspective. Now they joked over and over how they were “Mzungus (white people) and a few even hatched a plan to whip out their cameras next time a safari vehicle pulled up beside them with a bunch of tourists eager to photograph them.

 

I really love this portrait of Samburu warrior, Lawrence, which was shot by workshop attendee, Siyale Lemarle. Just a beautiful portrait with beautiful composition and light.
I really love this portrait of Samburu warrior, Lawrence, which was shot by workshop attendee, Siyale. Just a beautiful portrait with good composition and lovely light.

 

I thought this image, shot by Mampayun Lemartili, beautifully captured a slice of village life and the centrality of livestock in Samburu culture.
I thought this image, shot by Mampayun, beautifully captured a slice of village life and the centrality of livestock in Samburu culture. In the background, one can see Mount Ololokwe, a mountain considered sacred by the community.

 

A portrait Mampayun Lemartili made of her daughter in their village. This image not only shows the beads that all young Samburu girls but also how central camels are in the culture--something probably might know.
A portrait Mampayun made of her niece in their village. This image not only shows the beads that all young Samburu girls but also how central camels are in the culture–something few people might know.  One of my hopes for this workshop was that it would allow the women to capture their culture and traditions from their own perspective before they disappear and images like this I thought really did that effectively.

 

A portrait taken at the entrance of her "boma"--a traditional Samburu home made out of mud, hides and grass mats strung over pole-- by Generica Lesuper.
A portrait taken at the entrance of her “boma”–a traditional Samburu home made out of mud, hides and grass mats strung over pole– by Generica.

 

Another of Generica Lesuper's images captures the quiet morning route of watering camels in her village.
Another of Generica’s images captures the quiet morning route of watering camels in her village.

 

I loved how this image, shot by Karini Agirumbwa, captured the sense of connection and closeness between the workshop women. Just a sweet, candid moment.
I thought this image, shot by Karini, captured the sense of connection and closeness between the workshop women. Just a sweet, candid moment.

 

This is one of my favorite candid moments workshop student, Maria Letiwa, shot during the first day of our workshop. So rare that I'm on that side of the lens and she definitely captured the joy I felt learning how to dance Samburu style!
This is one of my favorite candid moments Maria shot during the first day of our workshop. So rare that I’m on that side of the lens and she definitely captured the joy I felt learning how to dance Samburu style!

 

During the editing process, we looked at each of the women's images and the women got to choose which images they wanted prints of to take home with them. This photograph was shot by Sabache visitor, Christine Forster.
During the editing process, we looked at each of the women’s images and the women got to choose which images they wanted prints of to take home with them. Bottom far right is empowerment group coordinator and translator extraordinaire, Naomi, who really made communication with the women so easy. This photograph was shot by Sabache visitor, Christine Forster.

 

Elder workshop attendees, Joice Lampate and Maria Letiwe, look at one of their prints from the workshop.
Elder workshop attendees, Joice and Maria, enjoy looking at one of their prints from the workshop.

 

On the last day of the workshop, the women delighted in the prints posted for the community to see. So wonderful to see their joyful reaction to the prints of their work!
On the last day of the workshop, the women delighted in the prints posted for the community to see. So wonderful to see their joyful reaction to the prints of their work!

 

If anyone has a used point and shoot digital camera they no longer use, please send me an email at juliacumesphoto@gmail.com. Thank you!

 

This blog strives to be an interesting place of discovery–a place to share beautiful photos, discover new places and people and lose oneself in this extraordinary medium. If you or someone you know would like to receive new blog posts directly through your email, please sign up directly on my blog site–Apertures and Anecdotes (in the right hand column)–or email me at juliacumesphoto@gmail.com. Thank you!

ps. comments are closed due to an overabundance of spam but please feel free to respond to this blog post directly if you have any questions or comments.

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