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!
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