As my Artist-In-residency nears its end, I am reflecting on what the past weeks have taught me. For me, Kenya has been marked by contrasts. It has been inspiring and beautiful, but challenging at the same time.
The realities of what I have seen in Nairobi, have helped me to better appreciate where I come from. Kenyans are hard workers. The streets are constantly buzzing and awash with people going to and fro at all hours. Traffic is gridlocked. People are relentlessly in pursuit of money. It is a survival game and money is the currency that speaks.
I have been asked on so many occasions why I would not expect to be paid for the work I am doing here. The concept of working for free is alien here, but I hope that in some small way, I can be an example to the women I have been working with and that I can help them to think about the place of generosity and sharing. I think it is working.
The women have grown and developed so much during the course of the workshops. Their confidence levels have reached a point I could never have imagined when we first met.
Although it has been a tough couple of weeks trying to break through their shell and get them to open up, they have responded so well in the last few days. Some of them come up to me now without shyness, with confidence and boldness. They have done my hair and shown me around the neighbourhood and reciprocated the love I have given them.
The sessions this week have adopted a sombre air. The reality of my departure is dawning on them and they are struggling to get used to the idea that soon, they will no longer have these sessions. I see them wanting to spend more time with me while I’m here. Some have taken the initiative and follow me everywhere as I prepare for the exhibition this coming Saturday.
Their behaviour and words have helped me to realize the true value of the workshops. The learning and advice that the women have received in the workshops has been really important to them. The sessions have also offered them an escape from the challenges they face on a daily basis, even if for just a short time. They have found a sanctuary here beyond the worries of their steel sheet homes.
I have tried to explain to them that although I am leaving, the images they have taken and the experiences they have had, will remain. And if someone out there sees the impact of the work I have done in the workshops, my dearest hope is that they help to continue what I have started. I feel it has been the best thing i have ever done.
These last few days have really been hard on them and also on me.
I have been into their homes and visited the slums they live in. Someone here has said to me that i am working with people who believe they have been dumped here to die. That they are the forgotten people. My response is that I have not met those people. The women I have met are dignified and positive. The images they have produced highlight that the environment in which they live, does not deter them from living as best they can.
As the exhibition day draws closer, it is wonderful to see the final images in print. The most striking thing for me is the sharing that these images create. Each young woman has photographed her own life and made herself vulnerable by doing so. They are sharing, where they live and who they interact on a daily basis. They have created a powerful testimony of life in Mukuru. And they have demonstrated courage. I am thrilled.
But as the exhibition approaches, I can sense their nervousness. They don't know what to expect. The more I explain, , the more nervous they become. I can’t help but laugh.
Everything has been a surprise to them. From the way I speak, to reconsidering their daily environments and photographing them as places of beauty, to printing their pictures and publically displaying them at an exhibition.
I dont blame them for being nervous. Everything has been a first. And I think their fear is, that it will also be a last.
But there have been surprises for me too this week. I explained to the women that they should dress for the exhibition in their best clothes as they will be the stars of the show. I could see the worry in their eyes and realised that fancy clothes are a luxury many do not have. They asked instead if they could wear jeans and in homage to me, if they could have t-shirts printed with the words “Analogue girl in a digital world”, my personal strapline on social media. I was so touched and it dawned on me that giving them this “uniform” was not only much more comforting for them, but also, that the request was being made to honour what I have given them through the workshops. I knew in that moment that I had to get those t-shirts printed. And I did.