I wanted to start by describing what Masai women look like: their colorful beads, their blankets, the elaborately pierced ears, the dignity they all walk with, their beauty. But I don’t think words do them justice so here’s a few pictures:
These pictures were taken by Kole Purdy, Just One Africa’s photographer during their previous trip, before a water filter distribution in Amboseli on June 25th. I wrote about the moment they were captured in an assignment for my online class. Here’s a revised excerpt from the assignment. The end is kind of strange and philosophical. I was trying to say: though these pictures communicate some truths about the women, they leave a lot out. We should be careful about thinking of other human beings as “foreign” or generalizing about an entire culture from a small piece of true info we know about it. Anyways, that’s enough explanation, here’s what I wrote:
Sidai, Very Sidai
Our group’s photographer, Kole Purdy, set up his equipment in the woods, attracting a lot of attention from the Masai women. Kole, who’s in his early twenties, has blonde hair that’s shaved on both sides but long, almost 5 inches or so, in the middle, like a very wide, very hipster mohawk. He held his camera in his right hand easily even though the lens alone, about a foot long with the sun hood on, weighed more than five pounds.
Under the cover of acacia trees, Kole had placed a tripod that stood over six-feet-tall and supported what looked like a four-foot wide umbrella, which was tilted so that it would open up towards a person’s torso. The umbrella-like contraption was black on the outside and metallic and reflective on the inside. It had a device at the center of the concave that could flash against the parabolic mirror to uniformly lighten a person’s face just as Kole’s shutter opened. The result: portable studio-quality lighting. Of course, the Masai women were unaware of the large, strange, metal thing’s function, and they stared at Kole as if wondering why he brought his spaceship.
Masai families in Amboseli live in manyatta, small homes constructed with sticks, cow dung, and mud. These homes have no electricity, so they build tiny “windows”, about the size and shape of a hand with its fingers together, to let in light. Despite this innovation, it’s nearly impossible to see anything in a manyatta during the day without a candle burning. Kole’s massive, blinding flash, which was more expensive than their homes and was only useful for photography, easily earned their attention.
“Can I take your picture?” The woman didn’t understand Kole’s English, but seeing his camera, she nodded and walked towards him. Kole positioned her in front of his spaceship and then started snapping photos. “Wow wow, these are incredible. How do you say beautiful? I want to tell her that she looks beautiful.”
“You can say ‘sidai’,” responded Andrew, one of our Kenyan partners who was standing beside me. “Sidai” is a Masai word that translates roughly to “good” or “beautiful”.
“Sidai, very sidai.” Kole said smiling after a click and flash. The woman laughed at the compliment, just as Kole wanted, and his shutter opened again to catch the light reflecting from her grin. Then, he stepped out from behind his spaceship, turning the camera screen towards her. She put her hand over her mouth and smiled with a little embarrassment as she saw the photo. By that time, 5 or 6 other women had gathered around the makeshift photography studio and were leaning in to see Kole’s pictures. A different woman stepped in front of Kole’s spaceship, ready for her turn. The rest formed a line.
As Kole took pictures, I stood a little behind him, positioned so that I could see the photos appear on his camera screen immediately after each flash. He was capturing an aged woman who stood still in the sight of his lens. In the pictures, she was always in the very center of the screen. He took some close shots of her face and some that displayed her bead necklaces and blankets as well. In every photo, she was perfectly in focus while the woods, church, and landscape in the background were indistinguishably blurry. The pictures portrayed her slight smile, a natural curve at the lips and glisten of the eyes, a smile void of even a hint of wryness, flippancy, or plasticity, a smile that communicated quiet strength and self-assurance. She wasn’t very generous about showing her teeth until Kole was able to get her to laugh. Oblivious to American norms of big toothy smiles in every photo, she was more comfortable standing straight up, looking into the camera, and letting the lines on her face tell her story.
While watching Kole take pictures, I thought about how only women were present to receive water filters. Just One gives one filter to each family, and it didn’t matter who from the house, husband or wife, obtained it as long as they went through the training. And yet, none of the women were even accompanied by their husbands. Where were the men?
Later I would learn that some of the women, like Agnus who had six children, were widows. Others, like Martha, were one of multiple wives to the same husband. The protestant church the women attended believed polygamy was immoral but taught that a polygamous family should remain intact if its members converted to Christianity. When working with these families, Just One Africa gives a water filter to each of the wives because asking them to share could create a source of conflict. In the cases of sister wives and widows, it makes sense that the woman of the household would come to the distribution. However, even for a monogamous family unit, I expect that only the wife would come because Masai women carry their households. They construct the manyatta, usually without any help from men, and on a daily basis, they cook meals, clean the home, clean the clothes, care for the children, milk the animals, fetch water, gather firewood, make jewelry for income, and bear any other burden necessary to keep everything in order.
The scene at the distribution was one of utter contradiction. Kole’s photos had a Protestant church blurred out in the background, and women with sister wives in focus. His portraits displayed women who were illiterate and impoverished and covered in lavish jewelry. They were about to be given clean water for the first time, but their clothes were neat and pristine. With a flash, Kole finished the photoshoot and began to disassemble his professional photography equipment while some kids ran around nearby without shoes. Finally, we gathered the women and began the sanitation training, teaching them the importance of washing your hands with soap and water and showing them how to use the new filter. Unbelievably, one of their cell phones went off early in the presentation. She hurried to turn it on silent.
Amy Churchill, one of the founders of Just One Africa, told the women that their photos would be used to tell their stories. She spoke of a story of change, of families becoming stronger and healthier, of kids being able to go to school, all because of the water filters. The pictures would portray an element of humanity to Just One’s donors, giving a face to the NGO’s beneficiaries. Part of the women’s culture and personality truly were communicated through the portraits. Nevertheless, the images betray them. American audiences might see the women in the photos as foreign and exotic, as representatives of “tradition”. The photos fail to capture the complex mixing of cultures, the global interactions between the Masai women and the rest of the world which have influenced the individuals in each picture. They were not their beads and ear piercings. Nor were their stories merely poverty and water filters. Like a collage composed of snippets of images, the women were made up of snippets of interactions, only one of which was a photo taken in front of a spaceship by an alien artist.