Kenya was a country I never imagined myself visiting on a continent that seemed light years away. On my traveler “to do” list I had not paid much attention to the idea of traveling to Africa; it just seemed far to big and I knew far too little about it. However, often has been the case that working as a documentary filmmaker I do not get to pick my travels. They pick me.
Having recently returned from a two week documentary shoot in Kenya, it’s difficult to put into words what this assignment was like. It was a non-stop schedule mixed with moments of adventure, emotionally heart wrenching scenes and glimpses of hope. The places we went, the people we met and the stories we captured are by far some of the most important I have ever had the opportunity to shoot.
I was traveling with non-profit organization Think Kindness and founder Brian Williams who has been visiting the Tumaini orphanage for the past 6 years. Beyond educational programs and charity driven trips, their main mission has been to collect gently used shoes from the US and donate them to orphans who cannot afford their own pair; a necessary uniform requirement to be accepted into school. It was my objective to shoot final documentary footage and interviews to complete a film curently in production focusing on Tumaini orphanage. Along with our team was Bonnie and Alex Lee from Learn for Life Kenya, working to help build a vocational school at Tumaini. Also along was my wonderful, soon to be wife, photographer Shannon Balazs.
Nairobi, Welcome to America
We landed at Nairobi airport a day before President Obama was to make his first ever trip to Kenya as president. For Kenyans this was a pretty big deal. It was a strange sight to be greeted by so many American flags as we arrived. Security was high throughout the country with multiple roadside checkpoints and armed guards at banks, grocery stores, malls and major street corners. Kenya has taken a serious stance against terror threats. During our stay I honestly felt very safe most places we visited.
The streets were full of people walking. Well dressed business types mixed in with many others looking worse for wear. It seemed like everyone had some place to go and it was most likely miles away. Heavy smog and random piles of burning trash clogged up the air. Kenya does not have a good waste management service in place so many burn their trash. Whizzing by the burning trash piles would give you a temporary inhale of toxic smoke now and again. Small, makeshift structures made of scrap metal and wood were everywhere with a few modern buildings mixed in. Everything looked either run down or was being built up new by Chinese developers.
We settled into a comfortable, camping style lodge and would be in Nairobi for just one night before departing for the orphanage the next morning.
Road to Nyeri
Leaving Nairobi for Nyeri, the central province of Kenya ,the landscape changes from bustling city to a much more tropical feel. The plants, trees and vegetation are a lush green. The air is moist and cool. This was Kenya’s cold season and it felt lovely.
Everywhere we traveled small kiosks made of wood and sticks lined the road. Most of them selling fruit or produce. Some in very small quantities. These people wait all day hoping to make just a few dollars. The average Kenyan income is about $1200 a year, about $3 US dollars a day. Remember that is average. Many more live on far less or next to nothing.
From the window of our transport van, scenes of daily Kenyan life played out. A few people would catch our face and stare, intrigued by us, the foreign visitors. Yelling a friendly “Jambo!” (hello) would usually get a big smile and a thumbs up.
After a three hour drive through the tropical landscape we arrived at the faded, baby blue gates of Tumaini Orphanage.
Our Home away from Home
For the next 9 days we would be living at Tumaini, right between the girls and boys dorms. On the bottom floor where two apartment like rooms. Our team split up the rooms and made camp. The accommodations were adequate. We had a kitchen with fridge and a stove connected to propane, a working toilet, a shower with a hot water electrical adapter and three bedrooms with single wide beds. On the third floor was a computer lab and if you sit outside it at night you can hope for a faint wireless signal. Not to bad.
Food was prepared for us three times a day by the orphanage kitchen. Our hosts insisted that we be fed well. Breakfast was bread with jam, some fruit and maybe eggs or sausages. Lunch and dinner consisted mainly of starch based meals; rice, potatoes and lentils were mixed with vegetables. Boiled chicken would be on the table sometimes along with Chapati, a soft tortilla like bread that is found everywhere. Tea was always present. Kenyans love their tea.
During the day the kids are at school and the building is quiet. Around sunset the kids return and the courtyard, the mess hall, the hallways, rooms and chambers begin to echo with the laughter of children.
The Kids are the Best
The kids were very excited to meet us as we were them. Every where we walked we gave smiles, high fives, fist bumps, hugs and took photos of them. They love the camera. Let me repeat that. They LOVE the camera.
Over the next week we got a small glimpse of what it was like to live at the orphanage and some of the stories living within it’s walls. I have too many stories to talk about, most of which are reserved for the documentary I’m working to complete very soon. All I can say is that by far the most inspiring thing about this whole trip was these children. Despite being faced with impossible odds and coming from traumatic pasts, these kids have more joy, laughter and more love in their hearts than many. All of them valued education, seeing it as the best way to get ahead in life. Most were happy that they had found the orphanage as a refuge. Without it many children simply would have no where to go.
While we were there Think Kindness arranged two shoe donations, gave out t-shirts and did the first ever school photography portrait session for over 500 students. The photos where taken to town the next day, printed and then given to the children. It was the first time many of the kids had ever had a photo of themselves. In this diluted digital age of instagram, likes and selfi- sticks this really put things into perspective of how powerful a simple, printed photograph can still be.
Our stay at the orphanage went by far too fast and before we knew it we were saying our good byes. In a very small amount of time we had gotten to know some of the children of Tumaini and Huruma children’s homes closely and developed a connection with them. They were so grateful and thankful for us making the long travel to see them and it made it all the reason to want to go back and visit them again soon.
Road to Maasai Mara
After our stay we headed west towards the Maasai Mara nature reserve where the great migration takes place every year. We had booked a two day safari and would be hunting (with our cameras) the stunning animals of the African plains.
It was about an 8 hour drive from the orphanage, back past Nairobi, in the great Rift Valley. In the valley was Maasai head quarters. The Maasai are the ancient tribal people of the region who have been living there for thousands of years. You can spot them against the stark landscape easily, appearing as bright colored dots scattered throughout the vista.
The final 3 hours of the drive is on an unforgiving dirt road or as our driver called it a “Kenyan massage”. Deeper and deeper we drove until we arrived at the fancy Sopa lodge full of tourists and photographers from around the world.
Maasai Mara, the 8th Wonder of the World
I had no idea how amazing it would be to actually go on safari through the African plains surrounded by some of the most beautiful creatures on Earth. On our first day we saw a lion with baby cubs, a cheetah with its kill, baby elephants with family, zebras, wildebeests, giraffes and so many more. It was a bucket list kind of day. San Diego Wild Animal Park was great as a kid but THIS, was other worldly.
A New Perspective
Traveling to Kenya gave me a new perspective on life and how good we truly have it here in the U.S. Despite our major issues we have clean water, roofs over our head and access to education which is much more than a lot of people in the world. Some of the little things that used to stress me out became so obsolete when I returned when compared to true poverty. It’s difficult to think that we can make any change in the face of such huge world problems. Doing something like sponsoring a child’s education can be a good start. It is by far one of the best ways to make a change in someones life who otherwise might not have the opportunity that we do.
I hope that the documentary I’m working on with Think Kindness and Learn for Life Kenya will help to make a change, spread awareness and help people to get involved on a global scale. We are all on this blue marble together. Despite all our global problems it is possible to create a lasting change. First and foremost that change needs to start with you.
If you want to learn more or get involved with the organization I traveled with visit ThinkKindness.org. They take groups every year to Kenya. The Kenyan people are amazing and I highly recommend considering traveling their.